Written by: Daniel Penso
As an avid rakugo fan, I enjoyed Kristine Ohkubo’s Talking About RAKUGO 1: The Japanese Art of Storytelling, a wonderful source for learning about the history of the art and those who have and currently participate in rakugo. In this interview, we talk with Kristine Ohkubo about that book and her thoughts about rakugo and what makes it such an interesting comedy form.
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Kristine Ohkubo. I’m an author based in Los Angeles, CA. I officially began writing over a decade ago. I’ve published eight books to date. I’m currently working on the manuscript for my nineth book which will probably be released later this year (2024). I’ve also edited two books on rakugo for Kanariya Eiraku. He’s an English rakugo performer based in Tokyo.
He’s one of the founding members of the English Rakugo Association. I am a member of the English Rakugo Association, which was founded in Tokyo in 2020. Typically, my work consists of non-fiction pieces. However, I published a collection titled “Fallen Words” in February of last year, comprising five original tales written in English. In doing so, I utilized my expertise in rakugo, performances, and traditional characters to generate five new narratives. This affirms my deep affection for rakugo.
It’s an interesting artform compared to stand-up comedy in the states.
It’s very different. I really get troubled when people call rakugo “sit-down comedy” because in essence it really isn’t. They are unquestionably two separate entities with virtually no overlap. In essence, stand-up comedy consists of a single comic on stage delivering a series of jokes. Conversely, rakugo features a multitude of characters that are depicted by a single storyteller. While rakugo stories typically lean towards comedy, there are other narratives that delve into horror and explore themes of human nature. Despite the presence of a punchline at the end of these stories, known as “ochi,” which typically generates laughter, they also stimulate contemplation. One of my favorite narratives, titled “Shinigami” or “God of Death,” may be categorized as both a tale exploring human nature and a horror story. It prompts deep reflection on the nature of existence. It encompasses more than just humor. I perceive it as being multi-faceted.
When was your first encounter with the Japanese language and culture?
To be frank, I cannot pinpoint the exact source of my inspiration. However, as a young child, I often found myself drawing pictures of women clothed in traditional Japanese kimono, accompanied by the elegant wagasa, or parasol umbrella. During my elementary school years and beyond, I was lucky to establish friendships with numerous Japanese students. Through these ties, I had the opportunity to directly experience the culture and language of Japan, which sparked a growing interest in me over time.
What triggered your interest in rakugo since people start to gain an interest in Japan through anime or martial arts or cars, such as Toyota or Nissan?
The predominate means to introduce Japan and its culture to the West is through anime and manga. We have a lot of cosplay shows and festivals here. Honestly, that never piqued my interest.
I’ve always been more interested in learning about Japanese history and culture simply because it fascinated me. Rakugo is an enduring traditional art form that gained popularity during the Edo period and has continued to thrive for centuries. The narratives encompass a diverse array of individuals in Japanese society, including courtesans, commoners, samurai, and even supernatural entities that delve into the religious facets of Japanese culture. Given that the fundamental nature of rakugo hasn’t changed over the years, I thought that it was a good way to become familiar with Japan and its culture. If I were to sum it up, rakugo is like a time capsule. It comprehensively reflects the cultural and societal dynamics of the Edo period through its stories. Occasionally, the storytellers would integrate noteworthy events into their makura (prologue) and stories. During that period, a significant portion of the population was unable to read. Consequently, they relied on kodan and rakugo as sources of information. Through these storytelling mediums, individuals could connect with current events. Personally, I perceive rakugo as a window into Japanese culture, where time appears to have frozen. Furthermore, as a writer, I’ve always had a deep passion for storytelling. I really enjoy rakugo storytelling as a result.
Do you have a favorite story?
Shinigami is my all-time favorite. There are numerous tales that I find enjoyable, including “Momotaro” (“Peach Boy”), “Natsu doro” (“Summer Burglar”), “Matsuyama Kagami” (“Matsuyama Mirror”), and “Shibahama” (“Shiba Beach”). These narratives are captivating due to the fact that they explore unique aspects of Japanese society and the human condition.
In the manga “Descending Stories” (“Rakugo Shinju”), Haruko Kumota, the writer and illustrator, introduced Shinigami to his readers. Many individuals who were not acquainted with rakugo were reading the manga, which served as their initial exposure to the art form. I appreciate the story because it was written by Sanyutei Encho. He was a legendary performer in the late Edo, early Meiji periods. He was working with Australian-born rakugo storyteller Kairakutei Black (Henry Black), Japan’s first foreign rakugo storyteller. Together, they introduced many foreign tales as rakugo stories to the Japanese audiences at the time. Shinigami was probably adapted from the Grimms Brothers tales (Godfather Death) along with other stories. Due to its historical significance and intriguing narrative, this story holds a prominent place as my favorite of all time.
Do you have a favorite Japanese or foreign rakugoka (rakugo performer)?
Indeed, I do. I first became acquainted with rakugo through Katsura Sunshine, a Canadian rakugo raconteur. He is well renowned and he introduced the art of rakugo to the United States. He performs in English. As I further explored the subject, I came upon Tatekawa Shinoharu. He attended Yale University. He possesses exceptional proficiency in the English language and demonstrates remarkable skill when he performs in English and Japanese. His ability to speak two languages fluently enables him to narrate a story in its original form in Japanese and also in English. This allows the audience to experience the story as it was originally intended, as well as to compare the English translation and make their own assessments. I interviewed him for my first rakugo book. He’s one of my favorite contemporary rakugo performers.
Shinoharu shisho’s master, Tatekawa Shinosuke, was a student of Tatekawa Danshi. Danshi possessed a remarkable talent for storytelling and exhibited a highly distinctive personality. He was liked by some and despised by others. He exhibited exceptional proficiency in rakugo. Initially, Shinoharu shisho held little interest in rakugo, until he by chance witnessed a live performance by Tatekawa Shinosuke. He was so captivated that he requested to become his apprentice. Naturally, Shinosuke shisho declined and advised him to pursue his career with the esteemed trading corporation Mitsui Bussan. However, Shinoharu shisho exhibited unwavering determination, and it was only after he resigned from the company that Shinosuke shisho relented and consented to mentor him. The majority of individuals who pursue a career as rakugo artists often commence their training during their college or high school years. They are members of rakugo clubs and subsequently pursue a professional career in the field. They seek established rakugo masters to mentor them.
What would you like to tell people aspiring to be rakugo performers?
Currently, there is a significant number of individuals who are either established rakugo artists or have ambitions to become one, with a notable presence of female performers. Only a few female storytellers have recently attained the prestigious rank of shinuchi, which represents the highest level of achievement for a rakugo performer. In order to achieve success in rakugo, a high level of diligence and effort is required. Success in the field of rakugo can be achieved by aspiring rakugoka who maintain authenticity and refrain from imitating other performers. Frequently, this presents a challenge, as becoming a disciple of an accomplished rakugo storyteller entails assimilating his narrative style without the ability to modify it thereafter. You must also pay attention to the guidance provided by your senior brother or sister storytellers who will coach you during your early years. However, I believe that once you attain the level of an independent storyteller, you should tell the tale from your own point of view. Your audience will perceive your authenticity.
Rakugo has been pretty consistent for the last 400 years but it’s not as static as you might think. Slowly, it’s changing and evolving and reflecting the world that is around us. Younger rakugo storytellers, who may adapt more new tales and perhaps cater to foreign audiences, are likely to represent the future, in my opinion. There are rakugo storytellers who consistently generate original narratives, deviating from the conventional canon. English rakugo is also a viable option, given that it allows you to travel outside of Japan; therefore, maintain an open mind and be yourself. That would be my most valuable piece of advice for an aspiring rakugoka.
What would be one thing you would like readers to learn from Talking About RAKUGO 1: The Japanese Art of Storytelling?
One thing I would like to get across to people is that laughter is universal. While acknowledging potential dissenting opinions, I believe that the elements that elicit laughter from Japanese individuals are likely to have a similar effect on foreign audiences, provided they possess a sufficient level of understanding. When I wrote my rakugo books, my aim was to introduce audiences to the artform. Initially, I had foreign audiences in mind. But, as soon as the book was released, I realized that it was useful for Japanese people as well. Many saw it as a valuable compendium of information about rakugo, covering previously unfamiliar aspects of the art form. I know there are purists out there who say that rakugo can only be understood by Japanese people. It doesn’t make sense to foreign audiences. That’s not necessarily true. It depends on how the story is translated. For example, when there is word play in rakugo stories that is peculiar to Japanese culture, it can be challenging for Westerners to understand. However, by selecting narratives that steer clear of such elements, the audience is able to comprehend the story and therefore derive amusement from it. In my perspective, the book serves as a tool to establish a solid foundation for rakugo, which may then be followed by seeing a live rakugo performance. Subsequently, you will have the opportunity to derive greater satisfaction and pleasure from it. Rakugo is not intimidating; it’s a lot of fun.
Besides the language aspect, what kind of support would you give to aspiring rakugoka who want to perform overseas?
I have encountered numerous rakugoka who have traveled to the United States to showcase their talents, and I have had the opportunity to host an online rakugo performance alongside a distinguished rakugoka residing in New York. He featured other Japanese rakugo artists on the show, including Shinoharu shisho. What I have noticed is that it is crucial to possess an in-depth understanding of your audience. In my opinion, American audiences are less forgiving compared to other Western audiences. Therefore, it is imperative to possess a proficient grasp of the English language, otherwise, your audience would become disinterested. And if you keep doing the same stories over and over again, they lose interest. Just like in Japan, often times they don’t tell you ahead of time what stories they will be performing. Storytellers typically glance at the audience to determine who is present, they make decisions regarding the narrative they will present and the manner in which they will deliver it. You have to apply a similar method here in the United States. Given that the vast majority of individuals have never heard of rakugo, it is imperative that you execute it in a manner that doesn’t turn them off. Furthermore, I find that subtitles are largely ineffective due to the limited duration of the movements and gestures used in rakugo narration. Audiences are missing out on subtle details if you perform in Japanese and expect your audience to read the subtitles, especially if they are unfamiliar with the plot. Understand your audience and tailor your story accordingly; avoid relying on things like subtitles. That is the best recommendation I could offer a Japanese performer who is considering a tour of this country.
Definitely investigate the English Rakugo Association located in Tokyo. Their purpose is to aid performers who desire to perform internationally. Indeed, they have assembled an English rakugo troupe that performs solely in that language. They assess your English proficiency to determine if you are prepared to perform internationally, or if you could begin by entertaining English-speaking audiences in Japan. They’re an incredible resource and I think it would be a good starting point for many Japanese performers.
I am aware that the well-established rakugo associations for professional rakugo performers may impede their efforts to venture outside the conventional domain of rakugo. However, they must recognize that English rakugo does not exist to rival traditional Japanese rakugo. It is a self-contained entity. Performers must make every effort to preserve the art form in the twenty-first century and beyond. If that means taking rakugo outside the borders of Japan, then so be it. You have to expand your audience. Many people wish to acquaint foreigners with Japanese culture, and I cannot think of a more suitable method to do so than through rakugo, which offers such variety and provides a wonderful glimpse into Japan and Japanese culture; therefore, they should give it a try.
What does rakugo mean to you?
Rakugo is a way to look at all the silly things that happen in life and laugh about it. Rakugo stories, as opposed to kodan stories, which are inspired by historical events and the like, are grounded in commonplace life and ordinary individuals. They are based on scenarios from everyday existence. Tatekawa Danshi had a saying, “rakugo to wa go no koteidearu.” It basically meant that rakugo is both the acceptance of human nature and an illusion. I likewise hold this view of rakugo. Although it is not a serious view on life, it provokes thought and laughter and embraces human nature. That is the appeal of rakugo for me and why I’ve become such a fan of it over the years. It approaches life in a humorous manner. Yotaro and similar characters exemplify the archetypal fools of the human species. The stories are humorous and captivating. They offer a humorous viewpoint on the topic of existence. No matter how terrible your day was, you get up and keep moving forward after listening to a rakugo story.
World War II was a time when rakugo was less common. Not only did many rakugoka travel to rural areas of Japan, but others even performed outside of Japan in places like Manchuria. After the war ended, the storytellers began to return one by one. They found a house and placed a wooden board outside with the words “Free rakugo performance tonight, come in.” Among those present was Sanyutei Enraku. Afterwards, he remarked, “It’s amazing how rakugo can make even the people with somber faces who were robbed of everything during the war laugh.” In fact, it was that experience that convinced him to become a rakugo performer.
In a long about way, that’s what it means to me.
Lived in Tokyo from 1999 – 2009 and calls it his second home. Currently he resides in Oregon and is a Japanese-English translator. He enjoys traveling, learning languages and cuisine. When visiting Japan, he enjoys watching rakugo shows.
*J-E/E-J Translation: www.proz.com/profile/1644484
*His columns: www.myeyestokyo.com/tag/daniel-penso/