Yanagiya Kosan, the first “rakugo” comic storyteller recognized as a living national treasure, died early Thursday of heart failure at his home in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, his family said. He was 87.

Yanagiya, whose real name was Morio Kobayashi, was born in Nagano. He was known for his cheerful performances and amiable appearance, and was particularly adept at acting out scenarios involving traditional craftsmen.

Rakugo is a traditional form of comic storytelling in which one performer depicts scenes and events mainly using only vocal and facial expressions.

His death follows that of popular rakugo storyteller Kokontei Shincho II, who died of liver cancer in October.

Yanagiya played a major role in promoting rakugo in postwar Tokyo.

He was president of the Rakugo Kyokai association between 1972 and 1996, during which he worked to modernize the genre. In 1995, he was designated a living national treasure. He was also an expert in kendo.

Raised in the Asakusa district from age 3, Yanagiya began studying under Yanagiya Kosan IV in 1933 and assumed his title as Yanagiya Kosan V in 1950.

He gained popularity by appearing in television dramas and commercials, and he participated in a rakugo production filmed by director Yoji Yamada.

Yanagiya was also involved in the Feb. 26th Incident in 1936. During the military rebellion in Tokyo, several political figures were killed and the capital was seized in an abortive coup d’etat.

Katsura Bunji, head of Rakugo Geijyutsu Kyokai, another rakugo association, expressed shock at the loss of such a noted storyteller, saying, “There is no one who could parallel (Master) Kosan, be it performance-wise or the way he carried himself.”

Yanagiya came down with the flu in late February and had been undergoing medical treatment at home, according to his family.

On Thursday, a family member found Yanagiya dead in bed. He died peacefully, his family said.

The status of living national treasure is bestowed on those in the fields of traditional crafts and performing arts, and designated by the government as “bearers of important, intangible cultural assets.”

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