Despite our many differences, one aspect above all others unites us – storytelling. From the sequential stick figures on cave walls, to the percussive rhythms of tribal music and later the oral tradition. Although the latter has waned, certainly in western cultures, there remain whispers and glimpses in our penchant for anecdotes and telling a half remembered joke. But more than that, the oral tradition is the story of our selves, passed down through generations, who refine and make greater sense of the utterances. Like a creation myth, every culture is steeped in its own storytelling traditions, and one of the most fascinating is the Japanese art of rakugo.
Rakugo is one of the oldest and most revered of the Japanese arts and infused with the country’s traditions and history. The single storyteller sits in the seiza position in the middle of a stage (called a Kōza) equipped only with painstakingly rehearsed stories, and a paper fan and small cloth which double as almost any prop needed. The stories are complex, some full of comedy, others awash in tragedy. The subtlety of the performance sees the storyteller change their voice or otherwise assume different characters with just a shift in their posture. It comes as no surprise that the art form was originally conceived by Buddhist monks in a bid to spruce up their sermons.
One of the highlights of the Winter 2016 season has been the historical series Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju. Based on the manga penned and illustrated by Haruko Kumota and set in the Showa era, it tells tale of Yotaro, a recently released prisoner with a penchant for spinning the yarn. Obsessed with the rakugo artist Kikuhiko, in prison he’d listen to the stories coming over the radio, inspired and amazed, and knew he wanted to become a storyteller in his own right. He’s eventually released and enters into Kikuhiko’s service with no shortage of grovelling and resolve. But the series itself is focussed on Kikuhiko’s backstory, and the fragile fate of rakugo in a post-war Japan with the growing imports of American entertainment. The conflict at the heart of the show is the old guard’s will to maintain rakugo’s tradition and history, even if it means it fades into complete obscurity, while some young blood determines to change it, to pull in an overexposed modern audience.
Kumota chose manga as the vehicle to tell her story, and the subsequent anime adaptation has introduced its emotional complexity and historical accuracy to a wider audience. It’s stories like this that remind us that anime is connected to a storytelling tradition, and that by consuming it so voraciously, we too become part of the tradition’s lifeline. As within Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, certain oldies would keep the art form stuck in time, while others hail its mainstream crossover appeal, but there are still so many stories yet to be told in the anime arena and, in many ways, we’re only now just beginning to unravel its potential. Whether it’s Kids on the Slope or The Wind Rises, anime is making sense of Japan’s recent history while others re-imagine its present or pontificate its future.