Rakugo: Animated Storytelling in the Japan Center

Elementary school Japanese teachers recently coordinated an authentic rakugo experience through the Japan Center. Mariko Yokosuka and Kyoko Takano (Japan Center directors) write on the elementary school Japanese foreign-track classes’ exploration into Edo-period culture and a visit by rakugo master Kokontei-Komaji.

Naoko Machidori and Machiko Romaine’s fifth-grade Japanese foreign-track classes recently began exploring different ways to read, listen to, observe or perform the more expressive aspects of Japanese culture–literary, visual and performing arts. They have also been studying about the various rich culture developed during the Edo period. As a result, students dove into a type of storytelling called rakugo. Dating back to the Edo period (1603–1868), rakugo is an often comic monologue that relies on the skill of the teller, rather than scenery or complex props. It remains popular as a performance art today.

On May 10th, the Japan Center helped to arrange a special visit by Kokontei-Komaji, a rakugo storyteller known best for his “Railway Rakugo” repertoire.

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Dressed in a kimono, the rakugo storyteller remains seated on a zabuton cushion throughout the performance, playing the parts of several characters and acting out different scenes with only a sensu fan and a tenugui hand towel as props. Unable to fall back on costumes and scenery, it is the job of the storyteller to inspire the imagination of audiences through the skill employed in portraying the world of the story. The punchline is known as the ochi (literally, the “drop”) and a good delivery is essential to a successful performance. An alternative pronunciation of ochi is raku, the source of the art’s name.

Kokontei-Komaji provided two live performances on our very own and very first Japan Center koza stage, with an instructional and hands-on workshop on how to properly use the fan and towel as props. Students learned quickly that imagination plays a integral role in understanding rakugo. For instance, if the storyteller is talking in a downward angle he may be ‘speaking’ to a child, and if he is looking upwards, to an adult. He prompted the students: “How might you act out a scene of eating hot soba noodles with just your sensu fan and hands?”

It is worth noting that this presentation was held entirely in Japanese. Daunting as it may have seemed, all students were completely captivated with rakugo’s quaint sense of humor, taking them to a time and place that has long since passed, since the majority of these stories are set in the Edo Period!

With this authentic learning experience under their belt, students are currently practicing their lines and performance techniques in class as they will have their own upcoming yose performance on May 31st. They will be performing to Toki-soba. Come by to see how students will apply their learning and ‘slurp’ their hot soba noodles! See you in the Japan Center!