The Definition of Rakugo?

“Rakugo is the acceptance of human nature.”

— Tatekawa Danshi

Excuse my language, but…

everybody is screwed up.

At least a little bit.

The world of rakugo is full of imperfections. Something is almost always wrong with those lovable characters.  Perhaps with a few exceptions of the female characters, which, in my humble opinion, is an accurate reflection of the reality.

Rakugo is full of half-witted thieves, smart arse kids, and self-proclaimed wise men to name a few.  They are full of quirks and usually “off” unlike those extraordinary heroes in kabuki plays.  Sure, I enjoy watching kabuki, but I can only truly relate to the residents of the rakugo world.

The quote at the top is the rakugo legend Tatekawa Danshi’s definition of rakugo.  It has always given me a sense of hope that it is OK to be me: a misfit, a rebel, and an antihero.

The original Japanese text is “落語とは業の肯定である。” (Rakugo towa gou no koutei dearu).  “Gou” literally means “karma”, but I translated it as “human nature” as I think it captures the essence of this maxim.

If we are to be 100% honest about ourselves, most of us have flaws.  I am not sure about you, but I do.  Taking the seven deadly sins as examples (for the sake of the western audience), I experience at least one of them daily.

I don’t think I am greedy, but I can be vain i.e. proud.  I am definitely a glutton. 

Just last Sunday, I had a huge Vietnamese lunch followed by a Chinese bun and a Japanese cream puff for afternoon tea… then Afghan kebabs for dinner and Kit Kat chocolate bars (plural) for dessert… all on the same day.

Sloth.  Yes.  I am perfectly happy being a couch potato and watching Netflix all evening.  Lust?  Yes… 😳

Of course, rakugo doesn’t encourage us to indulge ourselves in human desires, but it simply reveals who we REALLY are behind the masks.

However, the true beauty of rakugo is that it teaches us there is always a place for everybody in this world.  Every single person is indispensable, no matter how insignificant we may feel about ourselves at times.

I perform rakugo to share this message with the world.

The Art of Gift-Giving: The Best Gift I Have Ever Received

The following is an article that I had posted on another blog I used to run. I have decided to repost it as I am holding the very gift in my hands right now 🙂

As I type this, I wrap my hands off and on around the most precious gift I have ever received.

It is a bone carving that a local Maori carver made especially for me.

To respect their tikanga i.e. Maori cultural protocols, I will not post the image of the carving, but the process of its creation was unimaginably warm and beautiful. In fact, I actually got teary when he finally gifted it to me.

The carver is one of my favourite customers at work. We have become good friends over two years or so. One day he dropped by my work and asked:

“Can I get your permission to carve something for you?”

“What do you mean? You don’t need MY permission”, I replied.

His answer was, “Yes, I do. I cannot carve without YOUR permission”.

The way he thinks was eye-opening and made me appreciate the great Maori tradition even more.

Of course, I said “YES, PLEASE!”, and the long journey began.

Every other week or so, he came in and told me about the progress. He said he was struggling a little because it was hard to encapsulate my life in the carving. Borrowing his own words, “your life is… so big” (thank you!).

He consulted me about every single detail of the work and each time asked me if I felt right about… everything.

There was more.

One morning he asked me how to draw an authentic samurai sword… I was baffled as it was such a random question. He then revealed me that he was considering making it a part of the design, honouring my family’s samurai warrior background. He said it would be the first time ever to include a non-Maori design in his art.

This touched me deeply and made me happy for the rest of the day. Even before receiving the gift!

When it was nearly done, he explained to me the meanings of each symbol used: the guardians, waves, and sword to symbolise my journey from Japan to New Zealand.

After half a year or so, the day arrived. He presented the carving to me and said, “It’s done”.

Both of us got teary. He is a kind of person who doesn’t like receiving too much appreciation, so he simply said, “It is all yours now.” and left.

I am half teary right now, just by imagining how much thought, effort, and love must have gone into this carving.

Being a selfish person by nature, I don’t think I can display the kind of love and generosity he has shown me. But this Art will be a constant reminder of how deeply a genuine gift can move a person for the rest of his/ her life and the generations to come.

Rakugoka (落語家) vs. Hanashika (噺家)

In Japanese, Rakugo (落語) means a story with a punchline, and Rakugo storytellers are called Rakugoka (落語家).

Another common way to call them is Hanashika (噺家), which simply means a storyteller. In my personal opinion, this expression captures what Rakugo performers do more accurately.

Even though Rakugo is almost always accepted as a form of comedy in Japan and also introduced overseas as such, Rakugo is not always funny. If you have ever listened to stories like “Shinkei Kasanegahuchi” (真景累ヶ淵), “Bunshichi Mottoi” (文七元結 ), or “Tachikiri” (立切り), you would understand this.

“Shinkei Kasanegahuchi” is a pure tragedy, a horror story with very little humour. “Bunshichi Mottoi” is a human drama that would make you cry (I cry every time I listen to it!). “Tachikiri” is a heartbreaking love story, which also brings you tears.

I do not think Rakugo would have received the same kind of popularity if it was just comedy.

It is an all inclusive storytelling art.

I really appreciate that the manga/ anime/ TV drama
“Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju” (昭和元禄落語心中) has captured this multifaceted nature of Rakugo rather well.

The beauty of the expression Hanashika (噺家) is that the kanji “噺” is used instead of “話”, which is the most common character to mean a story.

The character “噺” can be broken into “口” (mouth) and “新” (new), so as a whole it means uttering something new.

As a traditional art, the Rakugo World has faced two missions: one being to protect the tradition and the other being progressing it so that it will remain relevant for generations to come.

To me personally, the act of “uttering something new” captures what they do as performers of this traditional art.

My Rakugo Journey 2018

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As I am going camping to an area without internet/4G connection straight after Christmas, I have decided to post this article a little bit early.

For people outside of New Zealand, yep, it is actually possible to go nearly completely unplugged in some parts of the country.

The video at the very bottom summarises what Year 2018 was like to me, so I will just list the highlights and discoveries/ learning in bullet points.

HIGHLIGHTS OF MY RAKUGO JOURNEY 2018

  • After a very long hibernation period, I am fully back to Rakugo.  My skills are coming back!  Though this was my third year back, it was the first year to REALLY commit to it as my LIFEWORK!!!
  • Collaboration with Auckland Tsugaru Shamisen 音緒 -Neo- developed into an AMAZING friendship/ partnership (you can watch a little bit of our first collaboration project in the video below— I just realised I didn’t mention them in the shout-outs!!! Typically my kind of thing to do… My very sincere apology!!!)
  • My major-ish back injury!  It’s a highlight, all right?  You can read why here.
  • I had an exciting (& slightly awkward) encounter with one of my Rakugo rockstars, Tatekawa Koshira Shisho!
  • I have finally understood the why of what I do!  (Sorry about being a bit vague…)

WHAT I LEARNED THIS YEAR

  • Rakugo DEFINITELY IS my lifework!!!
  • My dream is to eventually create “New Zealand English Rakugo” that is uniquely Kiwi, inspired by my Japanese heart.  Something no one else can copy!!!
  • Humans are fundamentally good regardless of our flaws, mistakes, and weaknesses.
  • Every cloud has a silver lining!!!

That’s enough, isn’t it?  If you have read this far, you are qualified to join my fan club, which doesn’t exist just yet.  But you are qualified.  Aren’t you lucky?

Thank you so much for your AMAZING support this year!!!  You are all sincerely appreciated from the bottom of my heart!!!

Happy holidays, everybody!!!

Special thank you to Auckland Council, Creative New Zealand, The Spreading Tree, Auckland Libraries, Auckland Playback Theatre, Auckland Tsugaru Shamisen Neo, Canary English Rakugo School, New Zealand Japan Society, Julia & Tessa Clement, Kristine Ohkubo, Shinya-san, Togashi-san and all my friends and family members who are always there for me 🙂

My Once in a Lifetime Encounter with a Rakugo Master

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I am a skeptic.

I am not fully convinced if the Law of Attraction or Murphy’s Law would deliver what they promise to.

But at the same time, I am a hopeless romantic.

I know there are things that our eyes cannot see.

Fairies and dragons?  They are totally real.

It all started in a conversation with my math teacher friend.

“Have you heard of a Rakugo performer called Tatekawa Koshira (立川こしら)?  He is involved in promoting green living through his Rakugo”.

I was very excited to hear this because one of my goals as a Rakugo performer is to promote causes like peace, conservation, and equality through my Rakugo.

That was a few months ago.

I started listening to his Rakugo, and soon he became my Rakugo superhero.

For those who do not know him, he is an apprentice of the multi-talented celebrity Tatekawa Shiraku, a student of late Rakugo Legend Tatekawa Danshi VII.

Koshira is Danshi’s “grand apprentice”, a true thoroughbred.

Then, about a month ago, not-so-random-obviously-algorithm-generated-targeted-advertisement popped up on my Facebook.

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“Tatekawa Koshira…IN NEW ZEALAND?????”

I couldn’t believe my eyes because we rarely get visits from Rakugo performers from Japan.

I recall Katsura Zakoba Shisho came here nearly 15 years ago, and that was it.

What is the chance of this specific performer visiting New Zealand?  Only a few months after I became his big fan?

The Law of Attraction might be true.

I had a Pavlovian response of a drooling dog and snapped up the ticket as I do whenever someone dangles anything Rakugo-related in my face.

I arrived early.

In fact, I was actually the first person to get to the venue.

Two super friendly organisers welcomed me with smiles.

More people arrived, and one of them recognised my face from an interview I’d done a few months ago.

“So you do English Rakugo?”

With my shy-ish off-stage persona, I admitted: “Yes, I do.”

This converstion spread like a wild fire.  Now EVERYONE in the audience knew that I was a Rakugo performer.

I had been planning to just enjoy and learn from this amazing gig and go home… that was my plan.

I was too embarrassed and reluctant to share about my Rakugo journey with this Shin’uchi, a Rakugo performer in the highest status…

His performance was immaculate.

His razor-sharp focus and ability to read the audience were pure genius.  His obviously improvised “makura” (combination of banters and one-liners) was 20 or even 30 minutes long.  The audience was completely engrossed by this talented raconteur.

The 2 1/2 hr long show flew by.

Koshira gave us a chance to take photos with him, and I blatantly asked him to act out a samurai warrior who is duped to drink pee, believing it was sake, from a story called “Kinshu Banya” (禁酒番屋).

Here’s the photo of him drinking pee…

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Then, an unexpected thing happened.  One of the organisers told Kashira Shisho that I did English Rakugo.

So, I DID end up talking about what I do here in New Zealand after all.

I felt like a love crazed teenager all over again.

I had a dry mouth and even stuttered when I talked.

He also asked me what stories I would be doing in my performance planned the following week.

“‘Praising a Child’ (子ほめ) and ‘Okiku’s Dishes’ (お菊の皿)”

“Are you coming to the evening show as well?  If so, I can do those two stories for you.”

He offered me to do these stories very casually.

This.

Almost NEVER EVER happens.

Of course, I was very, very tempted and really wanted to come to this once in a life time event, but I had to look after my wife who had just injured her neck.

I didn’t go back.

That evening I received a message from one of the organisers.

“Koshira Shisho actually did those stories for you!”

I missed this once in a life time opportunity.

But I was unimaginably moved by his “iki na hakarai”, his extraordinarily generous action for a nobody like myself.

This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is something a real Rakugo performer does.

Rakugo performers do something like this very casually as if it’s something trivial.

This is the beauty of Rakugo.

I wept that night.