Ideal Environment to Perform Rakugo

Now many of the Covid restrictions are gone here in NZ, it is finally time for me to get back to stage!

However, I have unfortunately had to turned down a few rakugo performances because the stages offered were not suitable to perform rakugo.

This inspired me to write this article about an ideal environment for performing rakugo. I am not too fussy about the appearance or size of the stage, but there are some important requirements that need to be met.

Please read this first if you are planning to invite me or the rakugo club to an event 😊

The most important thing I need to emphasise is that rakugo is a form of theatre.

It is an art that attempts to paint pictures in the audience’s minds with only words and very few props without any elaborate sets or costumes. It is only possible when both the performers and audience can concentrate on the stories without interruptions. It is, in fact, the audience members who depict pictures in their own heads. Rakugo can only exist in partnership between the performers and audience members.

This means that rakugo performers need:

  • A quiet, enclosed space where both performers and audience can focus only on rakugo. This means a stage near stalls or people walking around isn’t suitable. Outdoor performances should generally be avoided unless it’s a purpose-built space like an amphitheatre.
  • A space where performer’s voice can easily travel such as a theatre, a school classroom, a lecture hall, etc. If the space is large, you might need a microphone as rakugo simply does not work if the performer’s voice can not be heard clearly…

You might have noticed by now, but this is just like any other theatre performance.

But the beauty of rakugo is that it requires very little as long as the conditions above are met.

All you need is a zabuton (Japanese cushion, which I will bring), a red cloth (which I will bring), and perhaps a place to hang up a mekuri (a calligraphy with the performer’s name; I often hang it off a music stand).

Looking forward to hearing from you! My schedule is very empty as of today 😁

Photo Attribution

vera46, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Is This a Miracle? Superstitious Japanese!

We Japanese are superstitious people.

Regardless of our everyday high tech life, many of us still follow our traditional ways and beliefs, which I guess is one of the reasons why many people are still drawn to my country of birth.

One of the superstitions that we have is that it is good luck when a tea stem stands up in your green tea.

Deep down, we know that it is not scientifically sound to assume that a piece of stem would affect our future, but many do get overly excited whenever this phenomenon occurs to us.

If you live in Japan long enough, you will eventually hear the following phrase:

見てみて!茶柱が立ってる!(みてみて!ちゃばしらがたってる!)

“Look, look! A tea stem is standing up! (literally means “a pillar of tea is standing up”)

With this in mind, I just witnessed a miracle.

I like to burn incense when I work to get into the zone, and, lo and behold, the following sight interrupted my work!

I screamed with joy.

うおっ!線香立ってる!(せんこうたってる!)

OMG, incense is standing up!

This, my wise readers, is a phrase that you will probably never hear or use for the rest of your life.

This is not a well-timed picture. It kept standing up like this for good few minutes!

A miraculous day is waiting for me and hopefully for you, too!

Old-Time Radio (OTR) and Rakugo

As some of you may know, New Zealand has just gone into another lockdown as of today.

As I was searching for something to do during this time of isolation, I remembered about the Old-Time Radio (OTR) that my friend and author, Kristine Ohkubo, had introduced me to a while ago.

One of her recommendations was The Great Gildersleeve, a radio sitcom that was originally broadcast from 1941 to 1958.

The entire series is available for free on Spotify, and I am currently listening to one of the episodes as I write this.

It is amazing how this series reminds me of rakugo so much.

Its humour is derived from the dialogues and situations as opposed to stand-up comedy that is often a compilation of random jokes.

Rather stereotypical and caricature-like, wholesome characters.

The same nostalgic place where your dreamy self can belong and go back to.

I can relate to the OTR almost exactly in the same way as I connect with rakugo.

By the way, Ohkubo is an Old-Time Radio enthusiast who turned a rakugo enthusiast herself.

She even went so far as publishing a book about rakugo and becoming a fellow member of the English Rakugo Association.

As I listen to Gildersleeve giggle, I can now clearly see why she became so passionate about rakugo.

Are you an OTR enthusiast? Please give me more recommendations in the comment section below!

Who Invented the Legless Japanese Ghosts?

One of the rakugo stories that I’ve always wanted to listen to is called “The Ghost of Ōkyo” (応挙の幽霊).

In this story, an antique art dealer came across a picture scroll by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795), a famous realist painter from the Edo period (1603-1867), and sold it to one of his clients for 10 Ryo.

The client left 1 Ryo for the bond and went home to pay the remaining amount the following morning.

That night a beautiful ghost came out of the scroll, and she thanked the dealer for offering her sake and chanting a Buddhist sutra for her.

They enjoyed sake together, and the ghost even sang some dodoitsu poetry for him.

The morning arrived, but the ghost was still asleep, being exhausted from the previous night.

The client wondered why the scroll wasn’t delivered and asked the dealer.

The dealer answered, “I’d like to let her sleep a bit longer, sir.”

Now…

This is one of those stories that I probably wouldn’t perform myself as a lot could get lost in translation.

But what really fascinates me is that it is said Ōkyo invented the legless Japanese ghosts.

As you may know, it is traditionally believed in Japan that ghosts do not have legs.

That is why ghost characters in Japanese manga and anime are usually legless.

It is a widely accepted theory that Ōkyo was the one who was responsible for inventing the convention of legless ghosts.

If this is true, it is relatively a modern invention that is less than 300 years old.

On the left is The Ghost of Oyuki by Ōkyo.

Picture Attributions

The Ghost of Oyuki: Maruyama Ōkyo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yuurei: Brigham Young University, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What is a “Pillow” in Rakugo?

Can you spot his pillow? And… I wonder who the creepy man under the vase stand is…

Today I learned that the Māori word for a pillow is urunga, which also means “act of entering”, according to Te Aka dictionary.

I don’t know about you, but I found this extremely fascinating!

As some of you may know, the prologue for a rakugo story is called a makura (まくら, 枕), which also means a pillow.

Delivering a good makura is an art form.

You are allowed to talk about literally anything in it.

Some use it to explain some words or old customs that are now hard to understand.

Others use it to warm up themselves and the audience.

You can talk about what happened to you on your way to the performance.

You can make a political statement or even tell some dirty jokes if you wish (though you may lose your fans).

Some performers are so good at makura that they sometimes only do their makura without performing rakugo stories.

This is just my personal interpretation, but I’ve always thought it is called a “pillow” because it acts as the portal to guide the audience members to the dreamlike world of rakugo.

Just like a pillow is the portal to the dream world.

Like the Māori word urunga, makura is the entrance to the world of rakugo.

Weird Professions of Edo No.2: Ear Wax Remover

I have a confession.

I once was an ear cleaning addict until my specialist ear nurse rather strongly told me to stop using the traditional Japanese ear pick.

It is usually made of bamboo, and it often has a “fluff” made of bird feather on one end.

Traditional Japanese Ear Pick

If you are into Japanese film, manga, and anime, you might have seen that a couple cleaning each other’s ears (usually a man laying his head on a woman’s lap, getting his ears cleaned by the woman).

Somehow ear cleaning is considered an intimate act, even romantic, in Japanese culture.

By the way, my western wife doesn’t think it’s romantic and just tells me to stop using it, but this is another story.

Ear-cleaning being such an important part of Japanese life (slightly exaggerated), some people even made a full-time living from cleaning people’s ears during the Edo period (1603-1867).

In fact, the profession of Ear Wax Remover (耳垢取) is recorded in Kotto Shu (骨董集) by Samuru Iwai (岩瀬醒), which was published in 1814/ 1815.

Japanese life in Edo seems to have been much more laidback than how it is now.

What are some of the strange professions from your country? Please let me know in the comment section below. I am very keen to learn about them!!!

Photo Attributions

Ear Pick: Mochi, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Kotto Shu: National Diet Library Digital Collection