At the Chester Beatty Library, Idiots and Chancers

Rakugo is all about idiots and chancers.

So says Till Weingärtner, professor of Asian Studies at University College Cork and avid rakugo performer, who took to the stage at the Chester Beatty Library on Saturday afternoon dressed in a kimono, with only a fan and a cloth napkin as props.

The performance that followed was the first of several events – musical acts, food demos, talks, and performance art – that will run until 23 April as part of the Experience Japan festival in the city.

The Noodle Stand

Rakugo is a Japanese art form, a sort of storytelling with a comedic twist. It demands flights of imagination from the audience and improvisation from the performer.

After mounting a makeshift stage, Weingärtner settles atop a large pillow to begin his performance. He sets some ground rules for the audience: don’t react if the performer looks at you, and make sure to laugh louder than the person sitting next to you.

As Weingärtner struggles with his tight kimono, an audience member asks for the blinding light behind the performer to be switched off. After several attempts, the room calms and we settle in.

Once Weingärtner sets the scene as the narrator, the shape-shifting begins.

First up is the noodle man.

One day, a gentleman passing a noodle stand decides to stop and eat. Slurping and burping, Weingärtner acts out the man’s mastication of the delicious noodles he’s just been served.

Congratulating the noodle man, the gentleman asks how much he owes. It’s 16 mon. The man counts out in small change the payment: one, two, three . . .

He stops at six and asks the time. The noodle man replies that it’s seven, and the man moves rapidly onto eight, thus duping the humble noodle man out of his full payment.

With a gleeful face, Weingärtner draws the audience in by acting both roles – and he even has room for a third.

Watching from the corner, an opportunist sees the trick and decides to try it. He returns the following afternoon and has some noodles, which he finds taste awful.

Counting out his payment (one, two, three . . . ) he stops at six, asks the time, and is told that it’s four. The fool counts again from four, thus duping himself out of money.

Weingärtner moves little from his perch, but rather relies on his two props and hand gestures to convey the tale, as well as slight alterations in his accent.

Such is a typical Rakugo performance. It’s sharp, short and playful.

The test for the performer is not just the telling but the acting. Props are important, and sound effects and body movements all add to the comedy of the story being told.

Weingärtner says he’s only an amateur when it comes to this performance art, which has entertained Japanese audiences for centuries.

An Apprenticeship in Amusement

Weingärtner first visited Japan when he was 19, to study Japanese. He went on to become a researcher and still relishes the lighter side of cultural study.

“Maybe one of the reasons I became a university academic was because I always felt it’s one way to introduce culture,” he says. “So I have my daytime job, I enjoy doing research but it’s a very nice break doing something else.”

While the modern version of rakugo is heavily influenced by performers of the late nineteenth century, it first become popular in the late seventeenth century and stretches back even before that.

“Many of these stories are very old and the standards we have are probably the stories – of several thousand stories – that actually survived,” Weingärtner.

In other words, the oral tradition has been passed down for centuries and been adapted to suit the comedy stylings of the rakugo performer, who takes the storytelling process a step further with movement, improv and comedy.

Weingärtner’s second performance at the Chester Beatty Saturday tells the tale of the laziest man in the world, who takes a €10-an-hour job in the local zoo, replacing the tiger that has suddenly died.

Dressed in the animal’s skin, his job involves very little other than walking on all fours, lying around and keeping schtum. The comedy lies, once again, in the performer’s movements, as the man attempts to reconfigure his body to resemble that of a large apex predator.

The audience seem to enjoy it, for the most part. Some seem somewhat bemused by the performance, others laugh uproariously. With slapstick and dark humour, a Dublin audience is a decent litmus test for the rakugo amateur.

After the show, Weingärtner tells me that rakugo, which means “fallen words”, is found mainly in Tokyo and Osaka. From 2006 to 2008, he tried his luck on the stand-up comedy circuit in Osaka, and also hosted a radio show.

He then started training with his rakugo master. Together, they toured his native Germany, organising events around Berlin, Hamburg, Heidelberg, and Leipzig.

Weingärtner estimates that in Japan, with a population of 127 million, there are probably only 650 rakugo performers.

Still, he’s pleased that the performance art, which was expected to die out by the 1950s continues to draw crowds. With the advent of television a new generation became interested and rakugo was saved.

Taking Off

Shortly after Weingärtner has finished, I meet Akagi Kobayashi, who says she enjoyed his performance, but that it was a little amateurish for her liking.

“I once heard a Japanese rakugo artist doing it in English, and what he [Weingärtner] lacked was characterisation,” she says. “If it was a real rakugo master, you’d be watching a comedian or a dramatist so the two characters would be completely separate in the way they speak, etc.”

Kobayashi says that in Japanese there’s a rich difference of accents that a rakugo performer can use, so in English a performer should be able to do the same. Still, it sounded as if she would come again.

“I would, yes, I would,” she says. “In Ireland, there’s the storytelling thing isn’t there? That’s very much of an art.”

Weingärtner would like to perform more rakugo in Dublin and around the country. He’s even hoping to invite his master over from Osaka, the one he toured Germany with.

In the meantime, he’s organised several performances at Farmleigh House, which will host the main event day of the Experience Japan festival on Sunday 17 April.

The laziest man in the world skit ends with the newly employed tiger being forced to fight the zoo’s resident lion. But it turns out the lion is a like-minded fellow, who has also nabbed an effortless €10-an-hour job.

As Weingärtner says, rakugo is all about idiots and chancers.

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