Since its purported founding in 1954, the Keio Rakugo Society has had a long history among student organizations, originally inviting professional rakugo storytellers to come perform. Soon after, students also began performing on stage. Some of them, such as alumni Dankei Tatekawa, have even gone onto professional careers in this minimalistic narrative art. In addition to annual appearances at Keio school festivals at Mita and Yagami, the Keio Rakugo Society also performs at elementary schools, retirement homes, and local events across the country. Performing close to 100 shows a year, the society’s 30 members have plenty of opportunities to hone their craft and develop their comic sensibility.
Rakugo has its roots in the Muromachi period (1336–1573), when feudal daimyō lords employed storytellers to entertain them. It is said that this tradition became a form of entertainment during the Edo period and has since evolved into the rakugo performances we know today. Performers employ body and hand gestures as well as clever turns of phrase to act out multiple characters in tales of comedy and drama, which are often characterized by their concluding punch lines.
Performers act alone on stage, relying on speech and gesture to evoke imagery in the audience’s mind. That wordplay is where the real joy of rakugo lies, claims Keio Rakugo Society representative Shogo Matsui, who is better known by his stage name, Doraku XX, the twentieth in a line of rakugo performers to take this name at the Keio Rakugo Society.
“I’ve always loved the storytelling in films, novels, and manga. I joined the Keio Rakugo Society because I thought it was a medium that would allow me to single-handedly express every element of a story.” In a skit or play, once you set the scene, you often have to commit to it. But in rakugo, you can change the mise en scène on a moment’s notice. For example, you could go from earth to outer space in seconds by saying something like, ‘I may be here on earth right now, but I’ve spent some time traveling around the universe.’ The most absurd and outrageous twists are possible in rakugo, many of which would be impossible to pull off in a movie. That, to me, is the art form’s greatest strength and its most fascinating aspect,” Matsui says.
The basic structure of a story in rakugo is much like a joke: the setup, the story, and the punch line. The makura, Japanese for pillow, is the prelude or setup and comes before the story proper. It is the performer’s chance to feel out the audience and set the tone with small talk and background information related to the story. The content of the makura is unique to each performer and is a key part of the performance. Some say that you can tell the quality of a performer by their makura.
“I am proud to say that I’m particularly meticulous about my makura. It’s important that people don’t only hear but listen to what you have to say. In the makura, I create a fictional world full of characters and details, but it's not until the audience takes an interest in what I'm saying that the story finally comes to life. In the four years I have been performing, my biggest challenge has been envisioning information as a film-like narrative in my mind's eye. In order to overcome this challenge, I’ve read books on rakugo, I’ve researched my favorite performers and tried to emulate their strategies in my own ways. There’s been a lot of trial and error,” Matsui says.
First-year student Yurika Yamaguchi can relate to both the difficulty and importance of the makura. At last year’s Mita Festival, she debuted her stage name Fuko V with the popular story Kannin’bukuro, which depicts a lovers’ quarrel in an old row house. During the six weeks of training leading up to her performance, she searched for her voice even as her older peers guided her through rakugo’s many intricacies—the delivery and tempo of certain lines, the effective use of pauses, acting out mannerisms, character development, and more. Yamaguchi says that she repeatedly failed to choose the right makura and ended up taking a huge risk by completely reworking it just days before the performance.
“When you first get up on stage and start to perform, you feel a certain distance with the audience. It’s really difficult to know how to build rapport and get them laughing. In my makura at the Mita Festival, I thought about ways to bring myself closer to the audience and decided to abandon a story about family that I had originally considered. Instead, I replaced it with an autobiographical episode about how I was a kid from the countryside with a weak disposition. I said I’d caught a cold and lost my voice and croaked my way through my makura, only to begin the main story with a loud shout. The twist surprised and delighted the audience. It was the first time that I ever received an ovation for my makura,” she laughs.
Yamaguchi’s first successful performance showed off her bright, energetic disposition and a confidence that belies her years. Such talent may make it hard to believe that before entering the Keio Rakugo Society, she had never heard rakugo before, begging the question—what was it that made her choose to join the club? She says that it was the individuality of its members.
“The first time I visited, I was immediately attracted to the unique world of rakugo and the enjoyment it brings. It was something I had never experienced before. At the same time, I was naturally drawn to everyone’s eccentricity and authenticity, the likes I’d never seen,” she says. Matsui agrees that it was his quirky peers that initially made him want to join.
“We all think about the society like an entertainment laboratory. The privilege of student rakugo is that we are allowed to experiment with ideas and taboos outside the bounds of professional and televised rakugo. I have tried all sorts of things to entertain an audience. In my second year, I even stuck a freestyle rap in the middle of my set. At last year’s Mita Festival, one performer explained the proper manners for slurping soba noodles and then simply proceeded to eat an actual bowl of soba on stage—complete with slurping,” Matsui laughs.
The Keio Rakugo Society has produced plenty of funny people over the years, many of whom are still involved in the club, some now well into their eighties. Alumni stay involved through the Rakurakukai (落楽会), an association that organizes popular events like newcomer welcome parties and going to watch the Keio-Waseda Baseball Games. At the Mita Festival, when first-year students announce their succession to a stage name inherited from a former member, it is tradition for alumni who share that name to come and deliver a speech. When Yamaguchi was given the title Fuko V last year, Fuko III, an alumna six years her senior, came to congratulate her.
“I have seen video of Fuko III’s rakugo countless times, and it’s really fascinating how her manner of speech complements her unique personality. I hope I can learn to captivate an audience like she did,” Yamaguchi says.
“At the Keio Rakugo Society, we have plenty of opportunities to interact with former members who are much older than ourselves. My interactions with alumni have taught me to always give and take a joke in good spirit, which can help open up avenues for authentic communication and provide opportunities to learn from older peers,” says Matsui.
Students here are able to pursue the art of comedy in a way that professionals simply cannot. More than fifty years since its founding, the Keio Rakugo Society upholds an enduring spirit of determination to put a smile on the face of every person in their audience.