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Top>Opinion>The Magic of the Narrative Art of Rakugo: Story World Expanded by Imagination


Masataka Umeda

Masataka Umeda [profile]

The Magic of the Narrative Art of Rakugo:
Story World Expanded by Imagination

Masataka Umeda
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: French language, French literature

Read in Japanese

A Vast World that Contains Everything in Nature

The world encompassed by the term “rakugo” is surprisingly vast, diverse, and profound. The total number of rakugo stories throughout history is thought to be well over 1,000, including those that are rarely performed any more. Indeed, the Zoho Rakugo Jiten [Expanded Rakugo Encyclopedia] (1994) compiled by Todai Rakugokai contains “summaries and explanations of around 1,260 rakugo stories.” Since some of them have the same content but different titles, the actual number of stories is less than the number of entries in the encyclopedia but no less than 700 to 800. This vast world of rakugo is nothing less than a microcosm packed with every conceivable element. You can get a sense of the variety it contains through a simple perusal of all the social positions and occupations of the characters that appear in the stories. You’ll find everything from emperors and feudal lords down to samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants, doctors, monks, retirees, errand boys, maids, gamblers and beggars. Men and women of all ages from literally all the major classes (samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants) appear in rakugo in some form or other. And that’s not all. It is by no means uncommon for a story to boldly cast a sennin (immortal), shinigami (god of death), hitotsume (one-eyed being), animal, or insect in a leading role, depending on the situation. The variety found within the world of rakugo is not limited to characters; stories unfold in various locations and times of year, and the tales performers act out include comedy, tragedy, laughter, and tears. It would be no exaggeration to say that the world of rakugo is a magnificent universe containing literally everything in nature, from men and women of all ages and social classes to all seasons, emotions, and everything else, tangible or intangible.

Diverse Sources and Simple Tools

When we examine the original stories and other sources on which rakugo stories are based, we find that rakugo’s origins are very complex and varied. The Seisuisho [Laughs to Banish Sleep] by Anrakuan Sakuden, said to be the “founder of rakugo,” is thought to contain a considerable number of these original stories, while other rakugo stories can be traced to various folk tales and collections of anecdotes and comical stories written during the Edo period, a Chinese collection of comical stories from the Ming dynasty called the Xiaofu [Treasury of Jokes], and even to Italian operettas and a short story (A Parricide) by the French novelist and short story writer Guy de Maupassant.

As everyone knows, rakugo is a narrative art performed by just one person. The performance style is extremely simple compared to other forms of classical theater like joruri and kabuki. The props generally consist of just a folding fan and small cloth, the performer’s stage is confined to the extremely limited space of a zabuton (sitting cushion) measuring about 91 cm2, and the performance is restricted to upper body gestures and facial expressions. How does the art of rakugo produce an intricate story world that is so profound and true to the subtleties of human nature with such simple tools? The answer lies in the fact that rakugo is completely based on “narration” and the compelling way the “invisible” make-believe world conveyed by the performer with minimal actions appeals to the imagination of audience members.

Collaboration between Narrative Skill and Imagination

There is a well-known rakugo story called Toki Soba [Time Soba]. The performer’s gesture of slurping soba noodles from a “bowl” he or she pretends to hold in the left hand with “chopsticks” represented by a folded fan expands the image far more in the minds of audience members than when an actual bowl and chopsticks are used. While a real bowl and chopsticks on the stage could attract our line of vision, they would inhibit our imagination rather than stimulating it. In addition, the expressions the performer uses—such as “Ooh! You have nice bowls here!” or “What good dashi (soup stock)—you’ve treated me to katsubushi (pieces of dried bonito)!”—vividly flesh out the soba inside the nonexistent bowl and even the delicious smell of the katsuobushi-flavored soup in the minds of the audience. The collaboration between the performer’s narrative skill and the spectators’ imagination constructs a truly masterful fictional world.

A narrative style in which the single performer acts out the roles of multiple characters is another major feature of rakugo. The storyteller performs a “double role” in situations where two characters are conversing with each other. For example, in the story Yuyaban [Public Bathhouse Attendant], there is a passage in which a playboy called the “young master” fantasizes about “situations in which he could get intimate with a geisha” while working at the attendant’s booth of the bathhouse. At this point, the character of the young master acts out a dialogue, alternating between the two roles of “himself” and the “geisha.” The rakugo storyteller first performs the two roles of the “young master” and the “bathhouse visitor.” Then, while playing the “young master,” the storyteller splits once more into the roles of the “young master” and the “geisha.” Strangely enough, despite this complex “double narrative” structure, we spectators are able to follow the developments in the story without missing a beat, as long as the performer has excellent narrative skills. This amazingly flexible ability to appreciate the story is sustained entirely by our imagination.

In closing, I’d like to touch on the rakugo story Moto Inu [The Dog that Wanted to be Human]. In this rather light-hearted story, a pure white dog hears that white dogs are close to human beings and he will be reincarnated as a human being in the next life. He then prays to the god Hachiman worshipped in Kuramae, asking to “become human in this life, not the next.” Fortunately, his wish is granted on the final day of his supplication, and he becomes human. Unfortunately, however, his dog-like habits remain, leading to humorous fuss at his place of employment. According to the Rakugo Kotoba Jiten [A Dictionary of Rakugo Words] by Shigetami Enomoto, there is an authentic real-life story connected to the dog’s reincarnation. There was a white dog that was very attached to the chief priest of a Buddhist temple, the story goes. After its death, it was supposedly reincarnated as a human in the belly of the gatekeeper’s wife and grew into a very intelligent boy. Incidentally, I wonder if the decision to cast the father of the White family in Japan’s Softbank commercials as a white dog was based on this intriguing account and rakugo story…?

Masataka Umeda
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: French language, French literature
Born in 1946. Comes from Tokyo.
1970: Received a BA in French Literature from the Department of Literature, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
1972: Received an MA in French Literature from the Graduate School of Letters, Chuo University
1974: Withdrew from the Doctoral Program for French Literature at the Graduate School of Letters, Chuo University
Professor Umeda assumed his current position in 1977 after serving as a full-time lecturer and assistant professor on the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University. His research is focused on the novels of the 19th century French novelist Gustave Flaubert. (He is interested in the descriptive techniques and narrative structure in the novels.)
Major articles he has published include “Theories on Madame Bovary [Bovari Fujin Ron]” (Journal of the Faculty of Literature, Chuo University, 1987), “Theories on Sentimental Education [Kanjo Kyoiku Ron]” (Journal of the Faculty of Literature, Chuo University, 1991), “Theories on ‘Saint Julian the Hospitalier’ [“Sei Jurian Den” Ron]” (Journal of the Faculty of Literature, Chuo University, 1994), and “Flaubert’s Descriptive Techniques in Madame Bovary [Bovari Fujin ni okeru Furoberu no Byosha Giho]” (Studies on French Language and Literature [Futsugo Futsubungaku Kenkyu], 2001).