From Academic Kids

Rakugo (落語 literally "fallen words") is a Japanese entertainment form based on comical monologues. It was originally known as karukuchi (jokes). The oldest appearance of the kanji which can be read as rakugo and refer to this form of show date back to 1787 (but at the time were normally read as otoshibanashi - fallen discourses).

In the middle of the Meiji period (1867-1912) the expression rakugo first started being used, but it came into common usage only in the Shōwa period (1926-89).



The presence of an audience is essential to rakugo. The stand-up artist is in the middle of the audience, and his purpose is to stimulate the general hilarity with sharp speaking and body gestures, creating a relationship with the audience which is at the core of the show itself. The monologue always ends with a cunning narrative stunt known as ochi (fall) or sage (lowering), consisting in a sudden interruption of the wordplay flow. Twelve kinds of ochi are codified and recognized, with more complex variations having evolved through time from the more basic forms.

From the earlier artistic speech have followed other styles, including the shibaibanashi (theatre discourses), the ongyokubanashi (musical discourses), the kaidanbanashi (ghost discourses), the ninj˘banashi (sentimental discourses) and many others, in which speech pattern and gestuality are aimed at a specific situation. In many of these forms the ochi, which is absolutely necessary in the original rakugo, is absent.


The origin of this art form can be traced back in time to the story collection Ujishűi monogatari (1213-1218). Gradually the form turned from humorous narrative into monologue, probably upon therequest of the daimyo, feudal lords, seeking people skilled enough to entertain them with various kinds of storytelling, including comic routines. In the earlier phases of development of the art, it is almost certain that only the upper classes were able to enjoy the show. During the Edo era (1603-1867), thanks to the emergence of the merchant class of the Chonin, the rakugo spread among the lower classes. Many circles and associations of estimators arose, and collections of texts were printed. During the 17th century the actors were known as hanashika (lit. ôstorytellerö), corresponding to the modern term, rakugoka (lit. ôperson of the falling wordö).

Before the advent of modern rakugo there were the kobanashi (small stories), short comical vignettes ending with an ochi, popular between the 17th and the 19th century, told and enacted in small public venues, or in the streets, and printed and sold as pamphlets. The origin of kobanashi is to be found in the Kin˘ wa ky˘ no monogatari (Yesterday stories told today, circa 1620), the work of an unknown author collecting about 230 humorous stories jokingly describing the common people.

Important Contributors

Many artists contributed to the development of rakugo. Some were simply performers, but many also composed original works, even if in more recent times performance and writing have been assigned to two separate persons. Among the more famous rokugoka of the Tokugawa era, we can remember Anrakuan Sakuden (1554-1642), monk, poet and tea ceremony expert, author of the Seisuish˘ (Laughter to chase away sleep, 1628), collecting more than 1000 comical stories.

In Edo (today's Tokyo) there lived Shikano Buzaemon (1649-99) who wrote the Shikano Buzaemon kudenbanashi (Oral instruction discourses of Shikano Buzaemon) and the Shika no makifude (The deer's brush, 1686), a work containing 39 stories, eleven of which are about the kabuki milieu.

Tatekawa Enba (1743-1822) was author of the Rakugo rokugi (The six meanings of rakugo).

Ky˘to was the home of Tsuyu no Gorobei (1643-1703), whose works are included in the Karakuchi tsuyu ga hanashi (One-liners: morning dew stories, date of composition unknown), containing many word games, episodes from the lives of famous literary authors and plays on the different dialects from the Kanto, Osaka and Kyoto.

Of a similar structure, but containing more characters, is the Karakuchi gozen otoko (One liners: an important storyteller, date of publication unknown) in which are collected the stories of Yonezawa Hikohachi, who lived in ďsaka towards the end of the 17th century.

An example from Yonezawa Hikohachithe's collection:

A man faints in a bathing tub. In the great confusion following a doctor arrives who takes his pulse and calmly says: "Pull the plug and let the water out." Once the water has flown completely out of the tub he says: "Fine. Now put a lid on it and carry the guy to the cemetery."

The joke becomes clearer when one remembers that a Japanese traditional bathing tub is shaped like a coffin.


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