Will Fee, for JAPAN Forward

The Japanese traditional comedic art form called rakugo has only grown in popularity in the 21st Century. Are there stylistic factors behind this success, or is it just because people like to laugh?

Oxford University’s Marco Di Francesco | © JAPAN Forward

The success of JAPAN Forward’s holiday series of online performances is but one hint of the 21st Century surge in the popularity of rakugo, the Japanese art of comedic storytelling.

In particular, growing numbers of young people are showing an interest in the traditional art form. To find out why, JAPAN Forward sat down with Oxford University’s Marco Di Francesco (25), a PhD-level researcher fluent in Japanese whose specialization is in rakugo. We asked him just what it is about this particular performing art that continues to attract new generations of fans, and what its revival can tell us about today’s Japan.

The Art of Rakugo

(L) Hayashiya Taihei (R) Ryutei Ichiba | © JAPAN Forward

Rakugo (literally, falling words) is a mode of storytelling in which a comedian recounts a humorous tale leading toward an ochi (the drop) or punchline.

Armed with only a small cloth (tenugui) and paper fan (sensu), the kneeling kimono-clad comedian, called a rakugo-ka, must act out a narrative. These tales often involve various different characters. And the rakugo-ka uses intonation, gesture, head movements, and mime to play each part and elicit laughter from the audience.

“Performances involve a really diverse and detailed form of storytelling,” Di Francesco says. “For example, there are some longer stories that are particularly moving – the ninjou-banashi (sentimental discourses). There are also scary stories – the kaidan-banashi (ghost discourses). They really are a kind of art.”

By - grape Japan editorial staff.