A Deep Talk on Rakugo 落語の深い話

Today after Somemaru’s day of shamisen lessons, he and I went to Umeda for dinner and dessert. We spent most of our time talking about rakugo, and what he said shined some much needed light on my research. Below are some notes I took after we went our separate ways for the evening.

Three-Lesson Rakugo (Sanben keiko) and Memorization

I was under the impression, and previously wrote, that rakugo is an art in which students are often expected to learn stories within the space of three lesson sessions. I talked to Somemaru about this and he said that this is more of a Tokyo thing, though the system could be used easily enough in Osaka. In this, sanben keiko was an approach used before audio recording devices came about. These days, it is really up to the master–a student may get ten chances before a master says, “okay.” A master may call it off after just two lessons. In some rare cases, pupils come to the first or second lesson having memorized a story, and they get permission right away to go public with it.

Somemaru noted that young hanashika don’t seem to have the memory that they used to. There are a number of reasons that might be attributed to this. It may be the way students are taught in schools these days–less assignments requiring rote memorization; it may be the new ways in which people receive news and other information; it may have something to do with contemporary methods of organization; it may have to do with the fact that there are more and more script-like publications on rakugo. Somemaru recalls that when he was a younger, he and other hanashika were not concerned with memorizing every little detail of stories like young hanashika seem to be today. What was important were these three things: storyline (suji), jokes (gyagu), and punch line (ochi). Everything else could be (should be) filled in. Somemaru said that there were even times when he heard a story performed one night then was doing it the next himself. Pupils today, however, seem to think that they need to memorize every single “line” and detail of stories, and this gets in the way of students making stories their own, not to mention making progress in general. Instead of memorizing points 1 through 10, students should only be going after points 1 and 10, and maybe a couple of those in between.

Just Let Rakugo be Rakugo!

It was the mass media, scholars, and other non-hanashika groups who put rakugo, and its components, into stiff categories. This, Somemaru thinks, did more harm than good. Categorizing stories and rakugo techniques such as ochi complicated things, taking the fun out of rakugo. Indeed, after reading scholarly books by well-known rakugo reserachers, one is bound to think, “How could I ever understand something so complex as rakugo?!” People should not be intimidated by rakugo. After all, it is a comical narrative art. It is an art for the masses by people from the same group. It is neither an art for nor by scholars. General people have gone to the yose for generations for the purpose of being entertained. When listening to rakugo stories it is doubtful that people are concerned with things like, “now was that a ‘make-you-think’ (kangae) ochi or a ‘gesture’ (shigusa) ochi?” What they are most likely concerned with are, “is this guy funny or not?” and “did I get my money’s worth tonight?”

I have read books that lay out more than twenty kinds of ochi. As far as Somemaru is concerned, all this categorization is nonsense. In his mind there are two: the ochi that make you respond with “na aho na!” (That’s ridiculous!) or “Aanaruhodo…” (Ohh… I get it.)

All this goes to say that rakugo should be allowed to exist on its own terms, and not on the terms, or categories, of non-hanashika and their regular audiences.

Special Words from a Fan

On night an older woman showed up at the restaurant where Somemaru was having an after-show dinner party. She asked to see Somemaru for just a moment. He thought it somewhat strange at first, but granted her request just the same. What she had to say reminded him of exactly why he originally decided to become a storyteller. “I was simply walking by,” she said. “it looked like something was going on at the yose, so I decided to stop in to see if rakugo was anything it used to be. To my surprise and pleasure, it was just as fun as I remember it being.” With that, she thanked Somemaru and was on her way. Since that first brief meeting, Somemaru has seen her any number of times at shows. To him this is the true meaning of the yose; it is a place where people can feel comfortable to drop in at any time. It is a place where they should feel at home; a place where they would want to return to with their family and friends. The simple words that the woman gave Somemaru confirmed in his mind that rakugo, and the yose, were still serving their originally intended purpose, and that his job as a hanashika was as meaningful as ever.

Trust and Playing Catch in the Yose

If a person enjoys rakugo once, they are bound to invite their family and friends along the next time they go. Somemaru referred to this phenomenon as “kaeri ga aru” (lit. there is a return, or, if one is satisfied they’ll come back for more). Making one-time visitors into regulars should be the goal of every hanashika. Of course this means that they have to put everything they have into every stage appearance, into every story they tell.

Trust (shinrai), Somemaru says, is a very important part of rakugo. Neither the hanashika nor the audience can fully relax until they have each other’s trust. Trust for what? Trust that the audience will be attentive and laugh when something is funny, that they will give the hanashika a fair chance to succeed on stage. Trust that the hanashika is coming to the stage fully prepared and that all humor will be enjoyable, if not worth the price paid at the door. This trust is almost always established during the makura, the prelude to the story proper. This is really the only time when hanashika and audiences are allowed an extended period of time (typically five minutes or so) for “one-on-one” communication, or at least something close to it. After the makura hanashika enter the hondai (featured story) and the dialogue becomes that between characters therein. Truly, the makura is the best time for building trust. It is a time for playing catch–a back and forth exchange of sorts. It is a time for making friends with the audience, which ultimately ties back into what I mentioned above, ensuring that audiences feel at home and want to keep coming back (kaeri ga aru) for more.

Patience (shinbô) During Apprenticeship

Today the period of apprenticeship is one of shinbô: patience, perseverance, endurance, if not simply grinning and bearing it–for the shishô that is.

Somemaru spent some time tonight talking about his experiences with various deshi. He offered a number of anecdotes, most of which were entertaining, some surprising. Keeping confidentiality in mind, I won’t repeat any of them here. One thing I will repeat is that, as I wrote above, deshi seem to be much different in the twenty-first century than in the past. Years ago (most) deshi looked out for their shishô‘s every need, and seemed to be able to read his very mind and heart. Deshi seemed to have much more discipline in the past. These days, Somemaru says half-jokingly, it seems to be the job of the shishô to read his deshi, in hopes of keeping them in a good mood and helping everything going smoothly day in and day out during apprenticeship. In some ways, for better or worse, the roles have been reversed.

日本語の訳を大変お待たせしております。申し訳ございません。

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