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‘Rakugo Monogatari (Rakugo Story)’

A funny tale of Japan's art of comic storytelling — and it's not all giggles

by Mark Schilling

Rakugo, which might be described as traditional Japanese sit-down comedy, once had a certain snob appeal among foreigners here. If you could boast that your hobby was rakugo, as either a fan or participant, you were saying you had summited the Mount Fuji of the Japanese language. (The Everest to me was kanbun, an ancient form of literature written entirely in kanji.)

I don’t hear much about rakugo anymore; the form has done a slow fade as its core fans, foreigners included, age. This is unfortunate since, as Shinpei Hayashiya’s new comedy “Rakugo Monogatari (Rakugo Story)” shows, a lot of laughs can still be found in Tokyo’s four remaining yose (vaudeville-style) theaters, the temples of rakugo.

The film will also disabuse those who think of rakugo as a dead art — old men reciting feudal-era funny stories by rote. The real-life rakugo-ka (rakugo performers) who appear on screen bring their characters and situations to life with spot-on gestures, expressions and timing. Mastery of medieval puns is not needed to understand that these guys (and one quite funny girl) are talented comics, period.

The film, which was scripted by Hayashiya, himself a veteran rakugo-ka, plays like a series of rakugo sketches that start and stop rather than build. But as episodic as the structure may seem, Hayashiya is steadily laying the groundwork for the promised laughs-and-tears climax. And he delivers, despite overdoing some unfunny medical melodramatics.

His putative hero is Masato (Wasabi Yanagiya), a weedy, wimpish guy who becomes enthralled with rakugo after seeing it live and decides to become the deshi (disciple) of Koroku (Pierre Taki), a bluff, burly rakugo-ka living in Tokyo’s shitamachi (old downtown). Masato can barely work up the courage to approach the master’s house, let along knock at his door. But Koroku’s wife, the friendly, easy-going Aoi (Tomoko Tabata), immediately susses what he wants — and invites him in.

Koroku agrees to take on Masato as a deshi and gives him a stage name, Koharu, though he is no natural raconteur. Instead, in his first appearance before a paying audience, Koharu blows up ignominiously and retreats in embarrassed defeat. What, other than masochism, can possibly keep him going?

But just as we’re settling in to watch Koharu gut through to rakugo glory, he fades into the background and the focus shifts to the other rakugo-ka at the theater, from an intimidating all-business type (Baseki Sumidagawa) to a cute young female star (Poppo Shunputei) who is raking in the yen on TV.

It is Koroku and Aoi, however, who loom largest not only in Koharu’s existence but on screen, as their story, from their comically bickering present to their romantic past, takes over the movie.

This point-of-view shift made me wonder whether Hayashiya was attempting a bold narrative experiment — or had simply lost the plot. The answer is neither: He manages to draw all his narrative threads together by the end, despite dropping a few of them on the way. But it’s a meandering way to make a movie.

As Koroku, Pierre Taki — once vocalist with techno-pop unit Denki Groove and now an actor — would seem to be a bearishly unlikely rakugo-ka (especially after seeing him in so many regular-guy roles), but he proves to be a fluent performer, though we see only bits and pieces of his routines. Also, in his off-stage comic scenes he can be refreshingly offbeat, as when Koroku catches Koharu mooning about with his wife’s undies. Instead of conventionally exploding, he wrestles them out of his disciple’s sweaty grip — and exits laughing.

Koroku, the lug, is predictably wrapped around the finger of his pretty, big-eyed wife, Aoi. Tabata fleshes out this standard-issue character — the artist’s patiently supportive wife — giving her not only an Edokko (Tokyo native) earthiness but a casual, forthright sensuality. She doesn’t steam up the film so much as humanly warm it.

“Rakugo Monogatari,” though, is finally more about its title art than any one character, presenting everything from the polished routines of its top performers to the arduous struggles of its Koharus to follow in their footsteps, with an insider’s insight and affection. It’s as good an introduction as you’re like to find in a film, but to truly experience rakugo, you have to see it live, of course. And if you really understand all the jokes, please don’t tell me about it.