Rakugo Shinju: Haruko Kumota

Rakugo ShinchuI 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.

Super ChuffedGiven 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!

18 thoughts on “Rakugo Shinju: Haruko Kumota

      1. And now I have to take that back! I was just thinking about this now, and I realized it is actually “shinchuu” after all. So I guess my romaji skills are not that terrible. “Shinjuu” is lovers’ suicide, but “shinchuu” is what’s in your heart. I should really pay more attention to these things, but they sound similar if you are half-awake (as I often am).

  1. I have this book sitting on my shelf since last year, only half-read. It was an impulse buying, seeing how good the reviews were in various Japanese book forums, I immediately went to honto and bought it. I think I over-estimated my skill as I needed to pull out my dusty electronic dictionary in order to read it. I think it’s quite interesting but I don’t know why it took me longer to enjoy it. Probably I am just not really into rakugo.

    1. It’s probably a tougher read given the subject matter. The rakugo stories that show up in the text are definitely not beginner Japanese style. But if you can manage to push your way through it, it’s certainly worth it. Otherwise, cross your fingers and hope a publisher outside of Japan feels like it’s worth taking a risk on.

  2. I’m very curious about this manga 🙂 . It has been translated into Chinese but I’m not good enough to read a rakugo manga. I don’t know this mangaka, but I really love her old men…

    1. It’s worth a read. The specialized vocabulary of rakugo would be hard, but she actually doesn’t use too much of it and tends to explain it whenever she does, so you might be okay reading it in Chinese. You’d definitely like her stuff, and this rakugo series in particular is great.

      1. I’ve read a few pages scanned in Chinese and finally, I bought volume 1! Still waiting for it but looks very funny ^^ . I should stop buying so many comics T-T

      2. Let me know what you think when you get to read the whole thing! It is pretty funny, but Kumota had a great way of playing funny and serious off each other, so it never goes too far either way. I should probably stop buying so many comics too, but I tell myself that it’s for my job. I *have* to buy comics. Because I am a comics translator and I must do research. Basically, I am rationalizing my comics buying habit.

  3. I’ve finally read volume 1 in Chinese. It was pretty hard when talking about rakugo stories that I really don’t know about (some of them seem to be classics). But, I loved it a lot. I’m asking myself if it’s better to wait for a French or English translation or continue to buy the series in Chinese. This manga is lovely and very full of life. I love Yotaro but also Yakumo, who is the kind of “handsome old man” I like, as we can see in Ono Natsume’s manga or est em’s manga (and maybe Yoshinaga Fumi’s Ooku xD). About Natsu, I didn’t really understand why women can’t become rakugoka.

    Thanks for this article. I’ve been stucked by this cover, but I wasn’t able to remind the title of this manga 😀 !

    1. I’m glad you read and liked it! I really think this is such a great series and Kumota is so, so talented. I wish this would get translated into English, but I doubt it will. The topic is just too unwieldy, even though Kumota explains rakugo so well and you can enjoy the story and the characters even if you don’t understand rakugo. And Yakumo! I swooned over him. He is totally the “handsome old man”. I feel like Yakumo’s character is a little secret nod to Kumota’s life as a BL artist, since he is such a classic BL character as seen in Ono and est em’s work, as you noted! And about Natsu, I think it’s not that women *can’t* become rakugoka, I think it’s more like it’s much much more difficult and she will never be able to climb the ranks like the men can. I actually have seen woman rakugoka perform, so I know it’s not forbidden.

      And glad I could be your online title memory!

      1. Thanks a lot for the explanation. I’ve found the word, she meant there were no women shin’uchi (真打) . Finally, I still haven’t bought volume 2 >_< .

    1. I have to order lots of books from Taïwan. But I also really want to read manga in French (Sunny, Six Half, Ooku, Moysimon, Altaïr, etc…). Dilemma 😦

      1. Oh that’s completely true ^__^ . I would like to act less as a consumer, purchasing faster than I can read. So I limited my comic budget each month. Plus, I wanted to read all manga I’ve bought these past few years.

      2. That’s a pretty great reason for limiting your comic budget. I can relate to buying stuff faster than I can read it. Maybe I need a budget too! Although I usually buy a ton of stuff while I’m in Japan and then very little for the rest of the year. But I still have so many books I haven’t read yet. Hmm. I’ll have to think about balancing the amount of stuff I buy with the pace I read at.

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