I think I might be getting into rakugo? Maybe? I don’t know. I keep getting involved in it not on purpose. It’s like rakugo is really going out of its way to make me love it. First, it was my friend/former student inviting me to come see him perform rakugo. (He is very good and cracked me up even when I could only understand half of what he was saying.) Then it was the Beguiling asking me to read this new Tatsumi book, a collection of manga adaptations of rakugo stories. And they were pretty great. And I ended up translating them into English, so I had to do a lot of studying about rakugo. I even got lessons from my friend and went to see more performances to get a better feel for the tempo of the whole thing, so that I could do Tatsumi’s work justice.
And now Haruko Kumota has taken a break from the world of BL to draw a very nioi-kei series about rakugo. I feel like by the time the series is finished, she will have convinced me to go hang out in a rakugo hall for the day. She is really showing off the charms of this traditional storytelling, a kind of behind-the-scenes feel, even including little lessons on how rakugo performances work and how to get tickets in a couple books in the series (up to number four with volume five currently serialized in ITAN). She is bringing rakugo to the BL generation.
Because the first time I encountered Kumota was in the Dame BL anthology, with her really delightful story about a man with a serious foot fetish. I love how her soft, friendly lines are in sharp contrast with the edgier content of her BL stories. She also has the most amazing ability to depict facial expressions. Her characters will sometimes go through a series of new expressions in quick succession and each one in just so apt. In particular, she does so many perfect chuffed faces that I can’t help but grin when I see one. It is just so obvious how pleased with himself the character is. (I’ve never seen her give a chuffed face to a woman. The first woman in this series, Konatsu, is in fact perpetually dour.) She almost always includes a little puff of breath either from the nostrils or the mouth, which is basically the icing on the cake.
Given her marvelous abilities with faces, she might be the perfect artist to tackle the rather difficult subject of rakugo. Unlike Tatsumi’s book, which adapted famous rakugo stories to manga, Kumota’s series tells the story of Yotaro, a young hoodlum fresh out of prison and madly in love with rakugo thanks to a performance by the master Yakumo he saw while still in the joint. He heads straight for the theatre and begs Yakumo to take him on as an apprentice. And for some reason, Yakumo does. (He likens it to taking in a puppy, a description which works especially well given Yotaro’s puppy-like personality.) Although most of the series focusses on the characters and their relationships with each other (and with only two women and a lot of tender moments between guys, you can see Kumota’s inner fujoshi all over the place in this ostensibly mainstream work), you also get to see the characters on stage strutting their storytelling stuff.
If you’ve never seen a rakugo performance, basically, it is like watching someone with a serious mental disorder act out all the voices in their head. The storyteller is seated on the stage the entire time and changes his (mostly male storytellers) voice, mien, and gestures to act out the many different characters in the story, usually at a fairly breakneck pace. So the facial expressions are especially important in helping the audience keep track of who’s who in the performance. And Kumota nails this. A quick glance at a panel and you know if the current character is a woman or a poor boatman or a schlubby innkeeper.
In addition to the modern times rakugo apprentice action, you also get to see rakugo back in the glory days before the war, the hard times during the war, and the rebuilding of the genre after the war in Yakumo’s lengthy backstory. Two boys are taken in by the seventh Yakumo (Japanese stage names are passed on to apprentices/children, so you get the generations. It’s all very complex and interesting.) and only one of them can be the next Yakumo. But they’re also best friends, practically brothers and then rivals in love.
Lots of action and passion in their story, but I’ll be glad too when she gets back to Yotaro, basically because I love Yotaro as a character. He’s just so super enthusiastic and excited to be in this world. He also has the best way of talking. Maybe it’s a good thing the story is focussing on Yakumo’s history. If I was always reading Yotaro and his style of speaking, I might start talking like an overenthused former yakuza myself. And that would probably be bad for business.
UPDATE: The series is now being published in English, so all you monolinguals should check it out!