Review by Win Wiacek
After half a century of virtual obscurity, crafting brilliantly incisive and powerfully personal tales of modern humanity on the margins and on the edge, Yoshihiro Tatsumi found “overnight success” with his glorious autobiographical work A Drifting Life in 2009. Fallen Words was his final graphic novel.
Tatsumi’s tales have, in a never-ending progression, detailed the minutiae and moment of Japanese popular culture and, with his star assured in the manga firmament, he turns to a far older aspect of his country’s artistic heritage for this project.
As with all Japanese art-forms and disciplines, Rakugo is highly structured, strictured and codified, but basically it’s a one-man show where a storyteller (Rakugoka or Hanashika) relates a broad and widely embellished tale of Old Japan, acting all the parts from a sitting position, with only a paper fan (Sensu) and hand-cloth (Tenegui). The traditional performance is formed of elements British observers would recognise. It reverentially combines familiar tales told many times over, such as morality or mystery plays, with instructive fables and especially shaggy dog stories. Just like Christmas pantomimes, the art derives from how the story is revamped, retold and expressed – but the ending is sacrosanct and must always be delivered in its purest, untrammelled form.
Equal parts humorous monologue, sitcom and stand-up act, or more accurately “kneel-down comedy”, since the Rakugoka never rises from the formal Seiza position, the crucial element is always the delivery of the traditional ochi or punch-line; inviolate, eagerly anticipated and already deeply ingrained in all audience members.
‘The Innkeeper’s Fortune’ relates the salutary events following the arrival of an immensely rich man at a lowly hostel, and what happens after, against his express desires, he wins a paltry 1000 ryo in a lottery whilst the ‘New Year Festival’ only serves to remind one reluctant father what a noisome burden his rowdy ungrateful son is. An itinerant young artist can’t pay his inn bill and, as a promissory note, paints a screen with birds so lifelike they fly off the paper every morning. The populace are willing to pay good money to see the daily ‘Escape of the Sparrows’, more than the bill ever came to. And then one day another far more experienced artist wishes to see the screen.
When a dutiful merchant succumbs to the temptations of his trade and engages a mistress she soon consumes all his attention, leading to his neglected wife trying to kill the home-wrecker with sorcery. Soon both women are dead and the merchant is plagued by their ‘Fiery Spirits’, whilst ‘Making the Rounds’ details one night in a brothel where four clients are becoming increasingly impatient and incensed by the non-appearance of the woman they’ve already paid for.
‘The Rooster Crows’ details the fate of a proud and puritanical young man tricked into visiting a brothel by his friends whilst a poor and untrained man becomes an infallible doctor after entering into a bargain with ‘The God of Death’. This superb book of fables concludes with the sorry story of a lazy fishmonger who loves to drink, but whose life changes when he found a wallet full of money whilst fishing on ‘Shibahama’ beach – or was it just a dream?
With these “Eight Moral Comedies” Tatsumi succeeds in translating a phenomenon where the plot is so familiar as to be an inconvenience, but where an individual performance on the night is paramount in a beguiling, charming and yes, funny paean to a uniquely egalitarian entertainment. It cements him as a true and responsible guardian of Japanese culture, ancient or modern.