There is a popular art in Japan, simple, limpid, where everyone can find themselves, bringing together all ages and all social backgrounds, which however remains unknown in France: Rakugo.
Art of the word, that “which has a fall”, the Rakugo brings together to make people laugh above all, sometimes also to shudder. It is part of the world storytelling tradition but with a very personal identity.
All the energy of the storyteller is concentrated in the upper body, radiates and reveals to the public treasures of the imagination.
The Japanese do not hesitate, with a smile on their lips, to talk about “sit-up stand-ups” (“Stories fallen from a fan”, traditional Japanese humorous tales, Rakugo repertoire, Sandrine Garbuglia, “Miroirs du Réel” collection, L’Harmattan, October 2019).
You who are reading these lines, sit down.
Because you are going to discover a secret that the Japanese keep jealously.
A secret that the guides on the land of the rising sun will never tell you.
A secret that I am proud to share with you.
The Japanese laugh. Incredible, right?
Brief history of Rakugo
At the beginning, there were the otogishû. This population of storytellers worked from the end of theMuromachi period (1336-1573) at the beginning of theEdo period (1603-1868).
They worked for the generals (shogun) or the lords of the great fiefdoms (daimyo). Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the three unifiers of Japan, had more than 800 otogishu in his pay.
If he had to prepare for a battle, he would bring in a specialist in war stories to give him inspiration. When he came back from a battle and wanted to relax, then it was a funny storyteller who came on the scene.
If he needed sound advice, a Buddhist monk would come running. One of the best orators who followed him was Anraku Sakuden (1554-1642), a monk attached to the Seigan-ji temple in Kyoto.
Anraku not only knew how to tell well but his stories were often imbued with humor, a major asset for better conveying the messages he wanted to deliver.
It is to him that we owe the Seisuishô (Stories so funny that we forget to sleep – 1623), a collection that inspired a large part of the Rakugo repertoire during the time. Edo and that we continue to perform on stage today.
If Anraku is considered the founder of Rakugo, one wonders where and at what precise moment this popular art was born in the form we know it today.
For a long time, the storytellers of Edo (Tokyo) and those from the Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto) have each pulled cover on this question but it seems that the answer is very simple: the Rakugo would have been born at the same time in Kyoto, Edo and Osaka.
In Kyoto, the Rakugo was born on the initiative of the monk Tsuyu No Gorobei (1643-1703), in the street, on the main arteries, where he told tsuji-banashi (crossroads, crossroads stories).
To attract the attention of passers-by, a small table (kendai) on which he bangs with a piece of wood.
Two elements that we find nowadays in the Kamigata Rakugo style (explanation below) but with another meaning: to give rhythm to the story we are telling and to indicate the changes of scene.
In the neighboring city of Osaka, Yonezawa Hikohachi (???? – 1714), him, told karukuchi-banashi (light stories) in the shinto Ikukunitama shrine where all the Rakugo-ka of the country still salute his memory all the first September weekend during Hikohachi Matsuri (Feast of Hikohachi).
Hikohachi also needed a kendai and a stick to get the public’s attention, before dragging him into his stories.
But that was not the case with Shikano buzaemon (1649-1699), craftsman working lacquer, born in Osaka, gone to try his luck in Edo and gifted at telling zashiki-banashi (tatami-mat stories).
In other words, he narrated in a closed environment which could only contain a few “happy-few” and which did not require the same efforts that the Kyoto or Osaka storytellers showed to attract the crowds.
Today, there are two main streams of Rakugo: Edo Rakugo (Rakugo from Tokyo) and Kamigata Rakugo (Rakugo from Osaka which is a fusion of Rakugo from Osaka and Kyoto).
You will notice that the Kamigata Rakugo storytellers are much more extroverted – on stage anyway – and more excessive in their gestures or the modulations of their voices than the Edo Rakugo storytellers.
Perhaps precisely because each of these styles was born in a completely different sound environment. It seems that being “loud” is in the DNA of Kamigata storytellers.
So much for the substance. Regarding the form, any Rakugo-ka, whether it is part of the Edo or Kamigata tradition, never moves without its fan (sensu) and its square of fabric (tenugui).
Thanks to these accessories, he will be able to give emphasis to the situations he mimics on stage (become a samurai who draws his fan-saber; eat a bowl of noodles with your chopstick fan; take money out of his tenugui-wallet…), sitting on his knees (seiza position) on his big cushion (zabuton).
But as an example is better than a long speech, I invite you to (re) discover this very codified gesture during a performance: one day I will end up passing near you.
A little parenthesis on zashiki-banashi: they are the ones who gave birth to Yose, these cabarets where you can listen to Rakugo (but not only) all year round (morning sessions from 12 p.m. to 4.30 p.m. and evening from 5 p.m. at 9:00 p.m.) in Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya.
The Rakugo seen and interpreted by a French
I discovered Rakugo almost 25 years ago. I was preparing my master’s thesis for theINALCO (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations, better known as Languages’O) on the author Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909).
Shimei was obsessed with the idea of creating a new genre of novel by unifying written and spoken language (genbun itchi undô).
In his research, he often cited Kaidan Botan Dôrô (The Phantom with the Lantern in the Shape of a Peony) the first Rakugo story of the great master. Sanyûtei Enchô (1839-1900) to have become a literary classic thanks to the technique of shorthand, then freshly “imported” to Japan.
But you imagine that in the early 90s, without the Internet and virtually no documentation in French on the Rakugo, it was difficult to get a clear idea of what it was.
I had to wait until 2001, the year I moved to Tokyo, to finally see Rakugo on stage (at the Suzumoto Engei-jô, in the district ofUeno) and decide to learn this art.
But I quickly became disillusioned.
As a good Frenchman that I am, I started looking for a school where, for a fee, I could take lessons once or twice a week with a sensei.
When I understood that to learn Rakugo, you had to enter the service of a master (in the literal sense), become his disciple, undergo training for nearly 15 years before being recognized, I immediately Drop it.
In 2009, I met a master from Osaka, Hayashiya Someta, who told me: “This training is something from Tokyo. In Osaka, we are less weird… If you’re funny, you can go on stage ”.
Aah… Osaka… The Marseillais of Japan.
I take the master at his word: “OK. I’ve got plenty of time. I will come to Osaka once a month (2h30 from shinkansen go from Tokyo) for a year. You will teach me the basics of Rakugo and a story ”.
The same year, we met Stéphane Ferrandez and Sandrine Garbuglia from Compagnie Balabolka, in residence at Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto, with whom we have since been working to promote Rakugo in France and beyond, then everything goes on.
2010, apprenticeship. 2011, first scene in Tokyo with Someta. At the same time, meeting with a master from Tokyo, Sanyûtei Ryûraku who asks me to organize a tour for him in France.
In 2020, I am starting my ninth year as a Rakugo performer (I am not entitled to have Rakugo-ka status because this term is reserved for those who have followed the training).
See as well
I am very careful with the choice of the term – after all, Rakugo is also the art of speaking so finding the right word is important – because we can very quickly show off and take ourselves for the most beautiful and the most strong.
Fortunately, Japan has a knack for teaching you humility very quickly.
And even without having received training from a master, common sense immediately gets you on track when you are faced with a spawn of the kind.
After some tours in France with Someta and Ryûraku (and at the Avignon Festival with both in 2014), a constant development of Rakugo outside of Japan solo (regular tours in France, Belgium, Switzerland but also in Canada and New Caledonia) or with the Balabolka Company (four tours in Japan since 2009); a written transmission of this art in the French-speaking world (translator of the manga on the subject “Le disciple de Doraku” – Doraku musuko, Isan Manga and part of “Histoires tombées d’un fan”, L’Harmattan), the great Japanese masters are starting to take me seriously.
But the most important thing is the reception of the public. Of course, there are always some purists who consider that, even if you do it in Japanese, “to make Rakugo, you have to be Japanese”.
This is a question that deserves to be raised in the case of an interpretation in another language because indeed Rakugo obviously has a very strong link with Japanese, but that’s another story.
Overall, the Japanese audience are very receptive and laugh a lot. Just like the non-Japanese audience for whom the Rakugo is 95% of the time a total discovery.
Even though the most common question is “how do you manage to sit on your knees for so long”?
Answer: “I am suffering but I do not show it”.
Why the Rakugo?
People often ask me why I do Rakugo.
Besides the desire to make this discipline known as a real performing art and not just as “a Japanese art”, there is also a motivation linked to my life course.
I started learning Japanese when I was 15, in a high school in Nice, my hometown. Quiet. 3 hours per week. But that was enough for me to fall into it.
Then, advanced studies at Languages’O, scholarship to Shinshû University, in Matsumoto, from 1995 to 1996 – scholarship that I shamefully squandered in karaoke and izakaya but at least I learned to speak – then back in 1997 as a national service cooperant, to Fukuoka.
Since then, I have not left this country. I work in Japanese, I eat Japanese, I live Japanese, I sleep Japanese, I… Okay, you get it.
And one day arrives (midlife crisis) when I say to myself, hold on if you resume your literature studies, if you plunge back into Futabatei Shimei’s genbun itchi undô.
But by the way … Is being alone in a library for hours on end studying the life of a guy who died 200 years ago going to be exciting?
Oh but… The Rakugo.
But yes, that’s it to continue studying Japanese, it’s alive, it’s dynamic. Yes, Rakugo is for me a way to continue learning this language that you never finish learning.
New words of course but also new ways of expressing oneself, of turning one’s sentences, of presenting one’s ideas.
And then, like when I was asked why I was studying Japanese and had no answer, I think I can say today that I like the idea of not doing like the others. .
A Japanese friend once said to me: “Cyril, before you already spoke well but since you do Rakugo, you express yourself even better in Japanese”.
It is for me the most beautiful of compliments.