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.