This week I thought I’d review Tiger and Dragon because it’s about rakugo, and yesterday I went to see a rakugo performance so it’s timely and I can combine both things in a nice package.
Rakugo is a form of traditional Japanese storytelling/comedy where a lone performer kneels on the stage and tells a story (usually a stock rakugo story with their own twist added) using only a fan and a small folded towel as props.
Since watching Tiger and Dragon, I really wanted to watch rakugo but was a bit intimidated since it’s in Japanese and my Japanese is weak. I got an opportunity in Australia to watch a performer in English which was quite good but the set up was very different to watching rakugo in Japan.
I’d really recommend going along to check it out even if you don’t understand much of what’s going on. The story-telling is interspersed with other, Vaudevillian style, performances – magic, slapstick comedy and the like which has no language barriers – but more entertaining is the audience.
While other Japanese theatre, like kabuki and Noh have become very stylised over time and seem a bit hoity-toity for the likes of me, rakugo is very much an entertainment for the people. I met with my date at the station and he asked if I’d prepared a bento. Huh? A bento?
As each show goes for around 5 hours, the audience turn up with a bento and oyatsu (snack foods). Seems they also turn up with beer and sake as well.
During the show, each performer is on stage for around 15 minutes and, if they aren’t entertaining or maybe you just run out of beer or something, you can freely get up and leave and re-enter. This is a good thing because the seats are really, really uncomfortable. Napping during the performance is also quite okay.
Tiger and Dragon
Tiger and Dragon is the story of Toraji (Nagase Tomoya), a yakuza guy who is supposed to be collecting money from an old guy who is a big wig in the rakugo world. Instead of collecting the money though, Toraji gets hooked on rakugo and decides he wants to learn it for himself - so each week the performer gives him lessons to pay off the debt.
The reason the performer is in debt is that his son, Ryuji (Okada Junichi), wanted to open a shop in Harajuku selling his clothing designs featuring tigers. The clothes are pretty hideous and, of course, no one ever buys them. Ryuji was a talented rakugo performer but finds that world too old fashioned.
Toraji and Ryuji meet up when they both get involved with the same woman.
Each episode begins with the traditional rakugo story being told on stage and acted out by the various cast members in the rakugo troupe. At the end of the episode, Toraji retells the story in his unique style using the events of the episode.
This is a format that could end up being really awful and contrived but it really does work. You never feel like the plot is being forced.
The story moves between the rakugo world where the weird and quirky performers live together as family - including the eldest son, Ryuhei (Abe Sadao) who has achieved fame as a humiliating himself on variety television and gets ranked “most undesirable man” in polls – and the yakuza world where Toraji becomes a babysitter for the boss’ playboy (unsuccessful) playboy son.
Thrown into this mix a very funny look at the indie fashion world of Ura-Harajuku – and Ryuji’s “apartment” that is the top half of a closet (“but it’s in Aoyama”).
Of course, these worlds collide in strange and wonderful ways.
The chemistry between Toraji and Ryuji is amazing – a mixture of man-love and sibling rivalry and jealousy. They do it so well.
Very clever, very well written and full of heart. I really think I want to rewatch it again soon.