What is Rakugo?

Rakugo, Japanese comic storytelling, originated in the late 17th century in the Kamigata region(Kyoto and Osaka) and Edo (present day Tokyo.) Entertainers performing solo, clad in kimono and armed only with a fan and a hand towel as props, regaled townsfolk on the street, in banquet rooms and salons, and in little theaters called yose. Their tales were about everyday lives of Edo-period Japan (1603-1868) when samurai warriors, merchants, priests, farmers, and laborers populated the cities in a relative harmony.
Today the two traditions of Kamigata Rakugo and Edo Rakugo both continue to thrive, with hundreds of storytellers performing nation-wide. Their repertoires range from comical to dramatic, even absurd at times. They act as a narrator and also play multiple characters, differentiating them with subtle changes in voice, gestures, body positions, and speech patterns. Most Rakugo tales end with ochi, a verbal or physical gag that brings the audience back to reality in satisfied laughter.

Motoko is an award-winning storyteller and mime, whose featured appearances include the National Storytelling Festival (Jonesborough TN), PBS’s Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and the CarnegieKids in Miyazaki sponsored by Carnegie Hall. She grew up in Osaka, listening to Kamigata Rakugo of Katsura Beicho (1925--) and Katsura Shijaku (1939-1999). After immigrating to the US and becoming a bilingual performer, she turned to classical Rakugo repertoire for material and inspiration. Motoko skillfully translates Japanese comedy and adapts it to fit American sense of humor. She puts a unique spin on the classical tales by incorporating pantomime and audience participation. Many of her stories have never been told in English, and will bring a fresh pleasure to an American audience.

Read Motoko’s essay, “Japanese Humor for Americans”

Rakugo, throughout its history, has been closely associated with shamisen, a banjo-like three-stringed instrument that dates back to the 16th century. A shamisen player often accompanies a Rakugo performance, signaling the performer’s entrance and providing background music.
Internationally-acclaimed Masayo Ishigure of the Sawai Koto Academy is best known for her koto performance on the Grammy Award-Winning soundtrack for the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” by John Williams. Masayo will play jiuta shamisen and sing traditional Japanese melodies, her rich, sonorous music a perfect complement to Motoko’s hilarious tales.

Diminutive yet powerful, Motoko and Masayo transport the American audience to the enchanting world of popular entertainment in Old Japan.