KABUKI ABC (45) / Crossover appeal: Rakugo storytellers to offer kabuki-like ‘shika-shibai’ performances

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Rakugo comic storytellers do not always remain seated while performing. They sometimes stand up when performing kabuki-like plays called “shika-shibai.”

The kanji for “shika” means deer, and “shibai” traditionally refers to kabuki performances, although the literal meaning is drama or acting. Also, the sound “shika” is in the word “hanashika,” meaning rakugo storytellers.

Shika-shibai sets will be offered as part of the Feb. 11-20 program at the National Engei Hall in Hanzomon, Tokyo. The special sets, now regarded as an annual feature, will be staged after regular rakugo performances.

The hall’s shika-shibai, led by Kingentei Basho, is so popular that the mid-February program draws a full house every year.

Many classic rakugo stories are based on kabuki plays, or feature elements parodying the genre. For example, “Shichidanme” (The seventh act) and “Kuradetchi” (A young apprentice at a storehouse) feature passionate kabuki fans as protagonists. The characters enjoy acting out scenes from the masterpiece “Kanadehon Chushingura” (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers). In “Takoshibai,” even an octopus (tako) performs like a kabuki actor.

Similarly, many kabuki plays were originally rakugo stories, including “Rakuda” (Camel), about a cowardly man who finds the courage to stand up to and embarrass a ruffian when he gets drunk.

Rakugo and kabuki began at almost the same time. They were forms of entertainment for commoners, and have influenced each other as they developed.

Basho, born and raised a stone’s throw from Kabukiza theater in Ginza, Tokyo, has been a huge fan of kabuki since childhood. “I picked up tips for the kabuki flipping technique by watching rank-and-file actors practicing in my neighborhood,” he recalled.

The National Engei Hall’s shika-shibai performances began in 2003, when Basho asked other kabuki-loving rakugoka — including Hayashiya Shojaku and Kingentei Yonosuke — to join the project. The special ending sets were initially not offered every year, but have recently become a regular February feature.

Shojaku — a disciple of Hayashiya Hikoroku (1895-1982), who is also known by his other stage name, Hayashiya Shozo VIII — is regarded as the successor to his master’s shibai-banashi technique.

Rakugoka perform in principle with just a fan and tenugui towel as props, but storytellers using the shibai-banashi technique employ kabuki-style narrations and backdrops that are pulled down to reveal painted scenes — just like in theatrical performances.

Shojaku also serves as a playwright for the special mid-February performances, having written several kabuki-like plays based on classic rakugo stories.

“You perform rakugo alone, but you have partners when acting,” Shojaku said of his shika-shibai performances. “We have to practice a lot to avoid speaking our lines over each other.”

For the upcoming program, the rakugoka will perform “Rakuda.” The “actors” will employ a host of unique ideas for the special play, which was first included in the program in 2009. For example, a tango will feature as background music, while the storytellers will be welcomed to the stage with the same musical pieces played whenever they assume the seated position on a rakugo stage.

The rakugoka usually spend about one month practicing for their shika-shibai performances at the hall. “We always work hard in practice sessions,” said Yonosuke, who often plays handsome characters in the special sets. “However, we often make errors typical of rakugoka, which is probably why the audience has fun.”

Shika-shibai sets follow rakugo performances when offered as part of a regular program. The rakugoka perform shorter stories than usual to secure enough time for the special acts.

A similar program will be staged at Yokohama Nigiwaiza theater on Feb. 25.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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