My first experience of rakugo was back in 1973 when I was staying with the Kakehashi family in Tokyo’s Sengawa. Mr Kakehashi loved showing me the best of Japanese culture, so one day he took me and my visiting parents to a rakugo theatre.
I remember being seated in the middle of the hall and the rakugoka singling us foreigners out for special mention in his lead-in to the main part of the story. I understood enough to know that he was getting a chuckle from the audience at our expense. But my Japanese was so poor that I quickly lost the thread of the story, and by the time he reached the ending, I’d so completely lost the plot that the ochi was lost to me. Mr Kakehashi tried to explain it all, but the details were all too complex. It had relied on a pun on a word which at that time I didn’t understand. But although we three foreigners couldn’t follow the story, we were intrigued and amused by the instantaneous shifts in voice modulation, facial expression and angle of the head each time the rakugoka shifted between characters. Clearly something very clever was going on.
Fast forward to today and – inspired by rakugo – I can produce “Dad jokes” in English and Japanese which rely on puns of the dreadfully obvious sort, but nothing as subtle as a good rakugoka can do.
In their pioneering English language tome Rakugo – the narrative art of Japan, Miyoko Sasaki and Heinz Morioka explain that ochi literally means ‘falling’, but that it is used ‘in the sense of “conclusion” or “summing-up”’. In her book, Rakugo, Lorie Brau says the ochi can consist of ‘a bit of word play, a plot surprise or even a gesture’. In my experience, the best ochi is the one you don’t see coming until it hits you. What’s more it doesn’t have to be something that reduces the audience to hysterical laughter. It is enough even to inspire a gentle smile and the desire to come back again soon to hear the same rakugoka in the same theatre tell a different tale.
That is why fans enjoy the many classic tales in the rakugo repertoire. It’s like a good Beethoven symphony. You know what the ochi will be anyway. The best thing about a performance is savouring the entire story. Not just the ending.