Rakugo and Me, Me and Rakugo

Tsuruga Wakasanojo

The first time I heard rakugo was on the radio, when I was in the fifth grade of elementary school. It was Kokontei Shinsho V performing Awabinoshi. I remember clearly that I was so impressed that I told the story to my mother. Then, my mother asked me to tell the story to my father, too. After my father (Tsuruga Isedayu I) came home, I proudly told him the story. My father was happy to hear it, and said, “It’s funny, isn’t it.” I thought that my parents hadn’t known the story, but I found out later that my father was a rakugo fan and had been going to rakugo performances since his middle-school days.
I think that rakugo is in my DNA.
Since that time, I’ve been a rakugo fan. I often went with my parents to hear rakugo.
Although my first experience with rakugo was from a radio program, my mother had known Kokontei Shinsho since before World War II. In 1928, in the place where I’m now living, my mother opened a small Japanese-style restaurant called Kikuya. At the time, there weren’t many drinking places and my mother was quite a beauty, so the restaurant was popular
Before WWII, there were several rakugo theaters in Kagurazaka. Many rakugo storytellers came to Kikuya and drank a lot. One of those was Shinsho.
As the times got worse, sake became unavailable because of price controls, and Kikuya had to be closed. However, there was always plenty of sake at our house. Shinsho loved drinking sake, and often came to our house to drink.
My mother told me that one day, Shinsho came to say farewell. “I’m going to Manchuria now,” he said. My mother felt that he’d come to say farewell because he believed that he might not be able to return alive. Actually, however, he came home safely.
After WWII, Shinsho often came to the Honmokutei Theater in Ueno to hear my father’s shinnai performances. When he was in the mood, he went up on stage and performed shinnai in his distinctive style.
I still have a tape of him performing Akegarasu Nochi no Masayume. I treasure that tape. In the recording, he stops performing shinnai halfway and then sings two dodoitsu works. I have some photos of him, too. I also have some of his business cards, which he handwrote, some of his writing on shikishi (paper used for calligraphy), and other things. I’ve been thinking about having them published.
After WWII, Shinsho’s son, Basho, held class reunions several times on the second floor of Kikuya.
Shincho and I were almost the same age and had our stage debuts at almost the same time. We were friends for a long time. Late in his life, he built a gorgeous house near my home, and I often ran into him. If he’d lived longer, he too would probably have been designated as a Living National Treasure.
Rakugo is difficult. Just telling a story well is not enough, just being funny is not enough, and just having a funny story is also not enough. Nowadays, there are many rakugo performers who tell the stories well, but there are only a few who are really funny.
Incidentally, there are only four rakugo performers whom I’ve really enjoyed: Katsura Bunraku, Kokontei Shinsho, Shunputei Ryuko III, and Kokontei Shincho. All of them are deceased…

From “Tokyo Kawaraban”
(a magazine covering rakugo performances in Tokyo)
September 2015 (issue #503)

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