Osaka and Tokyo rakugo
This month, I would like to explore the differences between Osaka and Tokyo rakugo.
The two traditions of Japanese comic storytelling share many of the same stories, and the appearance and format of the performance is almost exactly the same.
The most obvious difference is the dialect. Traditional stories in Osaka use the Osaka dialect, or Osaka-ben, whereas in Tokyo, they use the Edo dialect or Edo-ben.
But the differences do not stop there. Osaka storytellers will often use a small table (ken-dai) with a standing board in front of it (hiza-kakushi). Two small wooden blocks called ko-byoshi are used to bang on the table to signify the beginning of a story or scene changes within the story. Osaka rakugo also often features shamisen and taiko drum music at specified points in many of the stories. These special features help to give Osaka rakugo its colorful and exciting flavor.
There is another, more subtle difference in the two traditions that I find particularly fascinating. In the Tokyo tradition, you will very rarely see the titles of the stories that the storytellers are going to tell in the advertising posters or pamphlets. This is because the storyteller traditionally doesn't decide which story he or she is going to tell until he is already onstage and addressing the audience.
In Osaka, however, it is very common to advertise the stories in advance. The storytellers have to decide often weeks before which stories they are going to do on a given night.
Why this strange difference?
The answer lies in the history of the two cities themselves. Edo was traditionally a samurai city. The favorite stories of the common people were the stories that made fun of the samurai, but a storyteller couldn't make fun of samurai if there were samurai in the audience. So the Edo storyteller used to come out and test the waters, so to speak, feeling out the audience before deciding which story to tell. This is obviously not necessary today, but this way of telling stories has remained as part of the Edo ethos of iki, or Edo "sophistication" (for lack of a better English equivalent.)
Osaka, on the other hand, was historically a merchant city. Rakugo in Osaka began outside, where the storyteller had to attract his audience with a loud and colorful preamble. This might include telling people what a funny and entertaining story he was about to tell. This tradition is manifested today in the posters and pamphlets advertising an Osaka rakugo performance. If you add the name of the story, you may attract a few more customers who happen to want to hear that story.
I am training in the Osaka tradition of rakugo, but I love both traditions and the fact that these historical differences remain today is part of what makes the world of Japanese rakugo so fascinating. Someday, if you are lucky enough to see a Tokyo storyteller performing on the same bill as an Osaka storyteller, see if you can sense the difference yourself!
Shukan ST: January 7, 2011
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