The notion of tradition plays a major role in both the public image projected within the performing art of rakugo and in the self-image of its performers. But is it really appropriate to label this genre of Japanese verbal entertainment as a classical performing art (koten geinou) and is it appropriate that this form of comedy be aligned with dramatic genres such as noh or kabuki?
The famous rakugo performer Tatekawa Danshi (1936-2011), who himself cherished many of the traditional aspects of rakugo, voiced a very critical opinion of the idea that performers should primarily be concerned with tradition when he compared the development of his genre with the current state of the noh theater. He warned his colleagues that due to their performances, rakugo was emerging as a frozen, stylized art that was failing to adapt to its audience or to the uniqueness of the individual performer.
In recent years, as a result of the rediscovery of rakugo by a wider audience, this form of entertainment has seen increasing popularity at the beginning of the 21st century, a time that is often referred to as the “rakugo boom.” This, together with Danshi’s words, brings us to question what the mere essence of rakugo is supposed to be for its performers and its audience: A classical performing art that is studied and perfected over a long period of time from an experienced master, or a living and ever-changing form of popular entertainment in which the audience enjoys the individual peculiarities of the performers.
Till Weingaertner is research associate and lecturer at Freie Universitaet Berlin. His recently finished PhD-thesis analyses contemporary Japanese television comedy. His research interests include Japanese popular culture and film.