Friday, 23 December 2011

Rakugo Heaven

I was excited about a lot of things, coming to Japan, but finding out more about Rakugo - traditional Japanese storytelling - was probably top of the list.

I saw my first Tokyo Rakugo - the famous Japanese ghost story Banchou Sarashiki - by lantern light in the middle of Aoyama Cemetery. Okiku, a beautiful servant girl, is in charge of a samurai family's priceless collection of ten plates. But, in revenge for her refusal of his advances, the evil Son hides one of the plates, knowing that its loss will mean Okiku's death. Sadistically, he makes her count them one by one...the tenth is of course nowhere to be found. She counts again. And again. And again. Even after her death, you can still hear Okiku's ghost constantly counting up to nine, never finding the tenth plate.

The way Rakugo tellers bring old stories to life seems like magic to me. No costume changes, hardly any movement, just two props (always a fan and a hanky) but maximum effect. A slight downward glance and a sigh, and the teller became Okiku; a moment later, shifting her eyes front and squaring her shoulders, she became the Father. I was completely transfixed. I had to see more Rakugo.

Lucky for me, I immediately found that the brilliant Diane Orrett, who trained in Japan as a Rakugo teller, was on for one night only in Asakusa, telling stories in Japanese and English.

So, armed with another three brilliant stories and some notes about how Rakugo works, I set out to find even more. I started with the Japanese TV series Tiger and Dragon, which apparently re-popularised classical Rakugo for young Japanese audiences. The performance of Neko no Sara (the cat's plate) was hilarious even without the subtitles


Now I realise I've barely even begun: Sue Hiro Tei, one of the last Yose (400-year old theatres especially built for storytelling) in Japan, is my next target.

It's hugely famous. It shows Rakugo all day, almost every day of the year. And, best of all, its a 10 minute train ride from where I live. There are no subtitles...but with stories this funny, who really needs them?

What am I waiting for!

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