A look on Rakugo「落語」in Japan and Narrative theater (Teatro di narrazione) in Italy

In Japan there are different forms of traditional theater, as for example 「能」, Kyōgen「 狂言」, Kabuki「歌舞伎」, Bunraku「文楽」and Yose「寄席」. During my studies in Japan I decided to learn more about rakugo「落語」which is an example of yose, a popular form of spoken theater and its similarities with an italian form of theater called Teatro di narrazione” (Narrative theater) and with this article I am going to present you some examples of the differences and the common features that they share.

Rakugo is a form of verbal entertainment which was born in Japan during the Edo period「江戸時代」(Edo jidai, 1603-1867) and is the art of storytelling that has the role to entertain the spectators. Since the birth of rakugo the rakugoka「落語家」(rakugo performer) plays different characters by himself.

A similar art of storytelling called “Teatro di narrazione” (Narrative theater) was born in Italy at the end of the ‘60s. From the beginning of a narrative theater play, there is only one “narratore” (narrator-actor) on the stage that plays different characters while telling a story. Despite being a recent form of theater, in Italy there is a long tradition of storytelling, in fact, since the middle age, people called story-singer (cantastorie) used to tell stories while singing a song to the people who were not able to read.

Rakugo 「落語」

Rakugo is a traditional Japanese narrative art that aims to entertain the audience. There are various theories about the beginning of rakugo and some researchers, like Maeda「前田」, say that inside the Buddhist temples people used to tell interesting setsuwa「説話」(anecdotal literature) and stories about famous people of the Warring States period 「戦国時代」(Sengoku jidai, 1467-1615). Others like Matsumoto Naohisa「松本尚久」in his book says that rakugo is a comical talk with some jokes and Japanese researchers decided to call it “rakugo” only at the end of the Meiji period「明治時代」(Meiji jidai, 1868-1912).

Rakugo has various distinctive traits. In the entertainment hall the rakugoka have the role to tell a story and, at the same time, to involve the audience. When the rakugo performers appear on the stage there is a music called debayashi「出囃子」that is played. Before starting the performance they sit on a zabuton「座布団」(traditional square floor cushion) which is placed in the center of the stage, bow in front of the spectators and before starting the story they use the expression「えー」(ē), which means ”um”, in order to catch the audience’s attention. At the end of the story, they always finish with a punch line, which is a narrative stunt called ochi「落ち」(fall), turn the cushion and change the name on the mekuri「メクリ」(paper cards stitched together and stood up on stage), where the name of the storytellers are written on each card, as a sign of respect for the next rakugoka.

In rakugo not only the words, but also the gestures and the facial expressions of the rakugo performer are very important as they help the audience to easily understand all of the story contents. Their main goal is to tell a story, give the audience the possibility to laugh and get involved. Thanks to the Japanese language’s structure they can easily play various characters, as for example: children, boys, women and old people. They change the tone of their voice and perform while changing the direction of their face.

On the stage, the rakugo performers wear a Kimono「 着物」(Japanese traditional clothing) and make use of only two objects: a sensu「扇子」(fan) and a tenugui「手ぬぐい」(hand towel) which help them to play different roles. The fan can become various tools as for example: a pipe, chopsticks, a writing brush, a sword and so on. While the towel can be used as a wallet, a tobacco container, a notebook, a letter and so on.

Furthermore, when they are on the stage, they use words and expressions of the life of everyday that help them to better communicate with the spectators. In addition, since in rakugo there is no script the way of telling the same story may differ. For this reason, according to the rakugoka, they could use different words to tell the same story. Inside the rakugo repertory there are several topics, for example sad stories, ghost stories, stories where the main character had success in life, samurai「侍」stories and so on. At the moment in Japan there are around 600 rakugoka. They can tell a story not only in Japanese, but also in foreign languages, for example, in English, Italian, French, German and Spanish. Inside the rakugoka group there are men and women not only from Japan but from all over the world.

Everyone can become a rakugo performer; in order to become good rakugoka, it is very important to choose their favorite rakugoka as shishō「師匠」(master), talk with him and show him their personal passion for rakugo. When the teacher accepts a person as his deshi「弟子」(disciple), as a father, he symbolically adopts the disciples, who start living with him, gives them a new name and from that moment on the disciples have to show him their respect on any occasions.

In rakugo there are four levels to reach before becoming a master: zenzaminarai「前座見習い」(apprentice for the opening act performer), zenza「前座」(opening act performer), futatsume「二つ目」(second rakugoka) and shinuchi「真打」(full-fledged master of storytelling). When the disciples are a zenzaminarai, they start their rakugo training, learn how to wear and fold the kimono, study the music, and so on. When they become a zenza, they do the houseworks, answer the phone, listen to their master’s stories, study how to tell a story at the theater and have the duty to prepare the dressing room for the performance of their teacher. The zenza period can go from three to five years. When they become futatsume, the disciple have the responsibility to look for a stage where they can perform and after around ten years they can become a shinuchi.

Nowadays there is the possibility to enjoy rakugo not only at the yose, but also on the radio, through the manga「漫画」and on TV, where there are different programs that talk about it, as for example the Chiritotechin series「ちりとてちん」broadcast on NHK, the Japan’s public broadcaster.

The Narrative theater (Teatro di narrazione)

The Narrative theater is an example of a modern theater for the masses. It was born in Italy in 1969, when Dario Fo decided to tell a story called “Mistero Buffo” (Comical Mystery) being alone on the stage of a theater.

The narrator-actors, in Italian “narratori”, have the role to involve and make the audience laugh; without following a script, they play several characters by themselves and can talk about different topics, such as current news or events in history, books, human-interest articles, stories heard during childhood, and so on.

In the same way as in rakugo, in narrative theater the gesture and the facial expressions of the narrator-actor are very important elements. When narrator-actors tell a story, they arrange the structure of the speech, for example, before telling the story, they say hello, they explain the topic of their speech and at the end and they show their gratitude to the spectators. They can choose to speak in Italian or in their own dialect, according to the story that they are telling.

Several elements characterize a narrative theater play. During the play, the actors can tell a story while standing up or sitting on a chair, which has now become one of the symbols of the narrative theater. They can use several tools such as a musical background, audio recordings and objects on the stage. There is no dressing code for the narrator-actor but some can decide to wear in a specific way; for example, one of the famous narrator-actors, named Ascanio Celestini, choses to wear a black suit during his performances.

In Italy, at the moment, there are around thirty narrator-actors. Inside the narrative theater group there are not only men, but also women. In general, before becoming a narrator-actor, the future “narratore takes part in the classical theater school, theatrical company, juvenile play and seminar room for the theater.

To enjoy narrative theater it is possible to watch it at the theater, however, it is also found on radio, movies, and TV, where there are different programs that talk about it, as for example Rai, the national broadcasting network of Italy. Sometimes the narrator-actors can also decide to perform on scenic or historic places in order to connect the audience to the story and the place where the event happened; in 1997 Marco Paolini, for example, decided to tell a story called “Il racconto del Vajont” (The Vajont story) near the the Vajont Dam where in 1963 a landslide caused a flood that destroyed the towns in the valley below.

Differences between Rakugo and Narrative theater

As one would expect, just as there are differences between Japanese and Italian culture, there are also differences between rakugo and narrative theater.

For example, rakugo is an historical and traditional art of storytelling with specific rules and experience levels while, on the other hand, narrative theater is a modern art and it does not abide to strict rules nor present the figure of a disciple and a master.

When the rakugoka are telling a story, thanks to the structure, vocabulary and rules of the Japanese language they can easily play the role of a man, a woman and a child; the stage is always set with the cushion and during the performance they use their facial expressions, hands, arms and upper body, and few tools such as the kimono for the costume, a fan and a towel. Instead, in the narrative theater, when the narrator-actors are telling a story, on the stage they are sitting on a chair or standing up and they wear a suit or particular clothes which remind the topic of the story; in order to play different characters they only changes their voice and use their entire body from their hands to their feet.

Compared to rakugo, topics in narrative theater are easier to understand because it does not follow an ancient tradition or specific rules. In addition, even the story duration differs; at the yose everyday there are several rakugoka that perform the duration of one play goes from ten to twenty minutes, while in narrative theater there is only one narrator-actor who is present on stage and the performance may last from one hour and half to two hours and half. Furthermore, in narrative theater the element of ochi (punch line) is not present and there are no tv series that talk about it.

Common features between Rakugo and Narrative theater

Besides the differences we mentioned above there are also many points in common between rakugo and the narrative theater.

For example, the rakugoka and the narrator-actor use gestures, facial expressions and a musical background while they are telling a story, and their common role is to ridicule society, involve, amuse and make the audience laugh.

In both, it is very important that, before telling a story, the rakugo performer and the narrator-actor had an experience related to the topic of the stories that they decide to tell. Sometimes, if, for example, in the theater there is a cellphone that rings they both use this event to improvise a story.

In addition, there is the possibility to watch their performances not only at the theater but also during special events, on radio and television; every year many rakugo performers and narrator-actors make provincial tours. Both rakugoka and narrator-actor groups are open to men and women.

Furthermore, comparing them with the traditional theater of Italy and Japan they are both less expensive.

A tour inside the storytelling world

In two different moments of time, two forms of entertainment were created in Japan and in Italy that, even if they present some differences and some common features, they give the audience the possibility to laugh and get involved just by sitting and listening to a story at the theater.

Making a tour inside rakugo and the narrative theater, you can discover not only two different cultures but also different ways of telling a story. Every person, being the rakugoka or the narrator-actor, uses specific words and tools to create a bond with the spectators, amuse and help them to easily follow the story and the message that they want to communicate.


前田・山田 (2009) 『上方演芸大全』株式会社創元社 (Kamigata Entertainment Encyclopedia, Maeda, Yamada , Public Company Sōgensha, 2009)

松本尚久 (2010) 『落語の聴き方楽しみ方』株式会社筑摩書房 (The way of listening and enjoying Rakugo , Matsumoto Naohisa, Public Company Chikuma Shobō, 2010)

野村雅昭 (1994)『落語の言語学』株式会社平凡社 (The linguistics of Rakugo, Masaaki Nomura, Public Company Heibonsha, 1994)

Rakugo. Performing Comedy and Cultural Heritage in Contemporary Tokyo, Brau, L. , Oxford:Lexington Books, 2008

La «storia» senza storia. Racconti del passato tra letteratura, cinema e televisione, Fioravanti A. , Morlacchi Editore, 2006 (The “story” without the story. Tales of the past through the literature, cinema and television, Fiorvanti A. , Morlacchi Editore, 2006)

La bottega dei narratori. Storie, laboratori e metodi di: Marco Baliani, Ascanio Celestini, Laura Curino, Marco Paolini, Gabriele Vacis. Guccini G. , Audino Editore, 2005 (The narrators’ shop. Stories, workshops and methods of Marco Baliani, Ascanio Celestini, Laura Curino, Marco Paolini, Gabriele Vacis. , Guccini G. , Audino Editore, 2005)

Sulla scena del racconto. A colloquio con Marco Baliani, Laura Curino, Marco Paolini, Ascanio Celestini, Davide Enia, Mario Perrotta, Soriani, S. , Zona Editore, 2009 (On the story scene. A conversation with Marco Baliani, Laura Curino, Marco Paolini, Ascanio Celestini, Davide Enia, Mario Perrotta, Soriani, S. , Zona Editore, 2009)







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