The Traditional Japanese Storytelling Art of Rakugo, Explained

Kabukicho Rakugo Screenshot
Kabukicho Rakugo Screenshot

By Jonna Miller

With a main character named Sherlock Holmes and an opening arc about Jack the Ripper, Case File n°221: Kabukicho might seem like an anime based on Western writing. But it has a fascinating twist!

Methods of traditional Japanese storytelling are blended into the show, like the style that Sherlock uses for his dramatic deductions: rakugo. That’s why we’re diving into the world of rakugo, explaining its history and even going to see a real rakugo performance here in the U.S.!

So what is rakugo?

Rakugo is storytelling that uses one actor or actress (a rakugoka) to play all the roles in a story.

sherlock rakugo screenshot 2

Seated center-stage before a live audience, the rakugoka creates an entire cast of characters and tells complicated stories using little more than a fan for a prop. (In certain styles, the actor is behind a stand and uses a block to make sound effects.)

As you can imagine, this is extremely hard to do! Rakugoka spend long hours practicing changes in their expression and variations in their voice, memorizing tons of stories, and even writing their own tales.

Meet Tozaburo Yanagiya

Rakugo Performer Dallas

The Dallas Japanese Association gave Funimation special permission to record a live performance by Tozaburo Yanagiya, a storyteller who specializes in rakugo. It was an absolute honor, to say the least, and you can see his incredible talent right here in our video. Take a look!

Tozaburo visited Dallas, Texas, to perform at the annual Shinnenkai New Year’s Celebration, telling stories in both English and Japanese. Born in Japan, he came to the U.S. on a mission to spread awareness about the art of rakugo. He holds the title of shin-uchi, which is the highest ranking of rakugoka. Currently, he lives in New York.

Stories in rakugo

The types of stories told are usually comical and aimed at adults. But many of the stories are made for children, too. For example, one called Jugemu Jugemu tells the story of a boy with an absurdly long name, and listeners are entertained by how fast the rakugoka can say the name without messing up.

Give it a shot! The boy’s full name is:

Jugemu Jugemu Gokō-no surikire Kaijarisuigyo-no Suigyōmatsu Unraimatsu Fūraimatsu Kuunerutokoro-ni Sumutokoro Yaburakōji-no burakōji Paipopaipo Paipo-no-shūringan Shūringan-no Gūrindai Gūrindai-no Ponpokopī-no Ponpokonā-no Chōkyūmei-no Chōsuke

Keep trying; You’ll be a master in no time.

Sherlock Rakugo Screenshot 3

Besides comedy, rakugo also includes dramas, cautionary tales, and even scary stories, and most of them build up to a final punchline or a play on words. That’s why it works perfectly for the whodunit reveals in Case File n°221: Kabukicho.

Rakugo in anime

This form of storytelling shows up more often than you may have realized. The tongue-twister story we mentioned before, Jugemu Jugemu, was referenced in Case File n°221: Kabukicho, as well as several other anime and manga. There’s a chibi 4-koma in Fullmetal Alchemist where Scar bites his tongue while trying to say the whole name.

Some anime center entirely on rakugo, like Joshiraku, which follows a group of female rakugoka as they tell comedic stories. This one happens to feature Jugemu Jugemu in its ending song!

Another beautiful anime that dives deeper into rakugo’s history and the changes it endured during World War II is Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju. The story follows three generations of rakugoka and the intricate relationships woven around their lives as performers.

The history of rakugo

Speaking of rakugo’s history, it’s been around for hundreds of years, growing popular in the Edo period. Many of its stories were written and passed along from generation to generation, or master to pupil, and a ranking system was used to differentiate actors by experience level.

Zenza is the lowest rank. Those with this title typically perform opening acts. Then there’s the futatsume, who are given more freedom to hold their own rakugo showings. Finally, there is shin’uchi, which is reserved for storytelling masters.

The world of rakugo saw some of its most dramatic ups and downs during the Showa period (1926–1989). The invention of radio had given people a new way to experience storytelling, boosting its popularity. Then, like many things in that era, World War II put a halt to its production. Luckily, the rise of TV and other postwar improvements helped to restore it to its glory days.

Now, it has found its place in the modern era thanks to talented rakugoka of the last century. Many changes were made that helped make it more accessible, such as allowing women to be professional rakugoka in the ’90s.

Case File n°221: Kabukicho

Kabukicho Detective's Row Screenshot

Tucked behind the neon lights on the east side of Shinjuku, a little underground bar named Pipecat draws a certain crowd—mainly the best detectives in the city. There, Watson seeks help on a tough case when he stumbles across Sherlock Holmes, a brilliant detective with a peculiar flare for storytelling.

If you love good mysteries with clever clues and a pinch of eccentricity, Case File n°221: Kabukicho is perfect for you. Catch up before the season finale!

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