Kabuki is one of Japan’s most well-known arts around the world, but rakugo, the traditional Japanese performing art of comic storytelling, is probably the least known outside Japan. Inevitably so, because humor is so challenging to translate into other cultures and languages, and I know this firsthand because I have often attempted to bridge this gap myself. Which is why I’m very pleased to introduce a new tenugui design by Harada Fumiko that allows me to give you a small glimpse into the world of Edo-rakugo.
In rakugo, the performer sits on a cushion on stage and tells a funny story to the audience by using minimal props, namely a fan and a tenugui. The origins of this art form can be traced to the mid-Edo period (1603-1868), and by the end of 1700s, there were regular rakugo performances attended by ordinary people at venues in Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto.
Only Edo (Tokyo) and Kamigata (Osaka) styles of rakugo currently remain, and while some performers specialize in telling classic stories that were first recited during the Edo period, others create new comic stories and perform them on stage. Classic Edo-rakugo is told in sharp downtown Tokyo dialect called beranme (pronounced like bay-run-may), the language of the working class, which is similar in connotation to the Cockney accent of East London. You can also find examples of Tokyo dialect spoken on screen by the famous Tora-san, and more recently by ‘Master’, the popular chef protagonist in Midnight Diner on Netflix.
And if you have traveled to Japan, you may have noticed that Japanese people love puns and often tell the same jokes. This is because puns and repetition are important Japanese humor traditions and therefore they are prominent in rakugo. The punchline is called ochi, which means “the drop”, and this is why it is called raku (drop) go (words). People enjoy great rakugo performers telling the same story even if they all know the punchline because how well the story is told is the most important part of a rakugo performance. Even young Japanese children know the classic rakugo tales like “manju kowai (I’m scared of manju).”
You can watch an English version of “manju kowai” performed by Matthew Barbee in this YouTube video.
Harada-san designed the rakugo tenugui to commemorate the promotion of a Edo-rakugo storyteller, Daidokoro Osan, to the master level called shin’uchi. Rakugo performers have strange names and his means “Kitchen Osan.”
Appropriately, the storyteller depicted in the tenugui is an iron-pot yokai monster performing in front of other familiar kitchen utensil monsters. The yokai is reciting the well-known classic tale of “tokisoba,” which can be literally translated as “time soba,” about a man taking advantage of a soba hawker who flourished during the Edo-period. The highlight of this story is the spectacular soba slurping using a fan as chopsticks.
You can watch an English version of “tokisoba” told by Kimie Oshima in this YouTube video.
The art of soba eating is also worth a brief digression because soba is Tokyo’s original and quintessential fast food. It also has a special place in my heart and stomach because my grandparents used to have a soba shop in Tokyo. San Diego has many good Japanese restaurants, but I have yet to find a good soba shop here. If you know one, please Email me.
Soba makes me very nostalgic about Tokyo. I often think back to the times when many of my uncles and aunts were still alive and we all gathered to have soba. They inhaled soba with spectacular slurping sounds like in the rakugo, because they said that soba had to be enjoyed “as it passes the throat,” and it was “unappetizing” to eat soba quietly.
In recent years, with an increasing number of tourists visiting Japan, there has been abundant coverage in the Japanese media about whether the slurping sound of noodles being consumed was offensive to foreign ears. But I will tell you that when I hear a great rakugo performer like Yanagiya Kosan V (1915-2002) slurp soba and tell the story of Tokisoba in his rhythmic and down-to-earth Tokyo dialect, I sure crave a good bowl of soba and miss Tokyo very much.
If you understand even a little Japanese, I highly recommend listening to Tokisoba performed by Yanagiya Kosan V, the Japanese Living National Treasure. You can hear it on YouTube by clicking here.