Rakugo (punch line talk) is a form of comic oral storytelling. During the Tokugawa period, itinerant oral storytellers would gather crowds and recite war narratives, romances, humorous stories, and other tales for profit. By the Meiji period, oral performance theaters (yose) were found in nearly every urban neighborhood, and professional storytellers would make their nightly rounds reciting the latest installment of a long human drama or delivering a brief comic monologue with a punch line at the end. San’yutei Encho, one of the most famous storytellers of the 19th century, incorporated adaptations of Western stories into his repertoire and became the model for stenographers employing the newly invented Japanese shorthand system who published his oral stories as printed texts. Writers used these examples of written colloquial style in their experiments to unite spoken and written Japanese (see GENBUN ITCHI). By the turn of the 19th century, yose were losing customers to the cinema, and some professional storytellers became benshi (silent film narrators). The remaining storytellers focused primarily on humorous tales, or rakugo, and today professional storytellers are almost exclusively raconteurs of these comic monologues. Storytellers limit their use of props to a hand towel and a fan and dress in formal kimono as they tell their stories, sitting on a cushion before the audience. Each story is concluded with a pun (ochi). In the later part of the 20th century, rakugo witnessed something of a revival in popularity, and Katsura Shijaku (1939–99) performed many rakugo shows abroad, using English.

Historical dictionary of modern Japanese literature and theater. . 2009.

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