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Sitting down to laugh, Japanese style

ROMESH CHANDER

Take a look at the first-ever Japanese sit-down comedy Rakugo held in New Delhi this past week.



A FINE SHOW Two Japanese sit-dowm comedy Rakugo artistes during a performance organised by Japan Foundation sin New Delhi

Thanks to the Japan Foundation this past week, theatregoers in Delhi had an opportunity to see for the first time, a Japanese sit-down comedy, Rakugo (in English) at Abhimanch.

But first, a brief introduction to Rakugo. Just as there is stand-up comedy in the Western countries, there is sit-down comedy in Japan, but with a difference.

Here, the performer sits on his knees on a cushion while performing and wears the traditional Japanese attire, the kimono. The performer usually carries a Japanese fan and a hand towel that helps the performer to express and act out the story.

For example, the fan can be chopsticks, scissors, cigarettes, pipe, or a pen at times. The towel could be a book, currency notes or an actual towel, depending on the story.

In Rakugo, only the conversations between characters appear in the story and the lone performer must play all the characters in a show.

The voice, facial expressions, mannerisms, speech, etc. are the most important ingredients of the actor's training.

What is more, each character represents qualities that are very much a part of the human personality. Each character in the story emphasises one human trait.

Roots of Rakugo

The roots of Rakugo can be traced to the end of the 17th Century. It was developed from the tales that were familiar among common people and its style of presentation was developed, one is told, in the late 18th Century and has not changed much since then. Historically, there are no female Rakugo performers, and even today, there are not many.

Learning of the form follows the guru-shisya parampara. If the master performer accepts a student, he becomes a part of the guru's family and takes on some of the household responsibilities as was the practice followed by the ustads in India.

During the training period, the teacher is primarily responsible for looking after the pupil's financial needs and also to provide opportunities for the pupil to perform.

Usually, Rakugo pupils complete their training in two to four years and it is only with the master's permission that a student becomes a Rakugo performer.


One learns that there are about 300 stories, which are still performed as classic Rakugo in addition to many new stories created by current Rakugo artistes.

Even the new stories follow the structure of the traditional form so that the essence of Rakugo remains intact. Each Rakugo story begins with what is called Pillow, or Makura. It leads the audience into the story. The symbolic meaning of the Makura is, one places his or her head on a pillow before going to sleep and then goes into a dream state of consciousness. Makura is the preparatory stage for the imagery of the Rakugo story comparable to a dream.

Japanese instruments

The past week's show opened with a brief introduction to Rakugo by the producer Kimie Oshima followed by a short and musical interlude to introduce the Japanese instruments used in the presentation. The opening item "Mathematical Trick" was played by the producer herself. The short presentation, apart from underlining that women now were very much a part of the Rakugo scene in Japan, brought home to us some of the essential elements of the form that she had talked about earlier. What is more, the short performance had the house roaring with laughter.

It is almost impossible for a person not that familiar with the acting techniques of Rakugo to go into the details of artistic achievements of the performers, all of whom, particularly Katsura Asakichi and Kastura Kaishi, two senior Rakugo actors, have marvellous voice control and used it to great advantage. What is more, in the last seven years or so they have been playing in English, which is most creditable.

The producer also included in the evening's presentation a magic show by Pearl Flash that had nothing to do with Rakugo but greatly pleased the children in the auditorium.

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