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Kodan: Storytelling tradition emerges into the limelight

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Kanda Matsunojo

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKodan, or narrative storytelling, is one of three major Japanese storytelling traditions, along with rakugo comedy and rokyoku chanting. In a nutshell, it involves audiences listening to a story narrated by a kodan performer.

Rakugo and rokyoku are also both traditions that involve stories being told to audiences. Rokyoku performers chant stories melodiously to an accompaniment of shamisen music, while rakugo performers retell comedic tales from memory.

On the other hand, kodan is primarily a performance art that started with the reciting of historical texts to entertain audiences.

Nowadays, kodan storytellers don’t read from books. However, a small desk called a shakudai that is placed in front of kodan storytellers remains an integral part of the performance. Incidentally, Kodansha Ltd., one of the major book publishers in Japan, was originally established as a firm exclusively publishing kodan material.

Some describe “rakugo as fiction and kodan as nonfiction,” to distinguish the two traditions. In many cases, kodan stories are based on historical facts, such as “Taiheiki,” a full-length collection of war tales written in the 14th century, and “Genpei Seisuiki” that depicts the war between the Genji and Heike clans. And the rakugo canon does indeed include many fictional stories.

However, kodan stories also include many fictional elements. Also, rakugo material sometimes gets blended into kodan stories, and vice versa — the distinction between the two traditions is unclear. Furthermore, it is said that more than half of rokyoku tales came from those for kodan.

Another distinctive feature of kodan that distinguishes it from rakugo is the shakudai desk and harisen paper-folded fan. Kodan performers strongly rap the shakudai with the harisen fan to match the rhythm of their narration.

With the sound of a knock of a harisen fan, stories can suddenly shift. With repeated raps of the fan, performers can evoke fierce battle scenes known as shuraba, meaning “sheer hell.” Some kodan storytellers say they are not “reading” tales but “banging” them.

Currently, about 500 tales are being performed in classical rakugo storytelling, but the kodan canon is said to be 10 times larger. Especially popular are “Ako Gishiden” and kaidan ghost stories.

“Ako Gishiden,” which is also staged in kabuki and bunraku theater, is a revenge story featuring royal retainers that appear in “Chushingura,” another well-known traditional tale.

In kodan storytelling, it is said that there are over 300 tales featuring each of the 47 royal retainers of the Ako domain and the people around them who cooperated with the revenge.

The canon also includes several kaidan stories, which are often performed at yose Japanese-style vaudeville theaters in summer. The raid by Ako royal retainers occurred in winter, so among kodan storytellers, a popular saying goes that they “make a living with ‘Ako Gishiden’ in the winter, and then with kaidan in the summer.”

There are now about 900 rakugo storytellers, while kodan and rokyoku storytellers number less than 100 in each style.

However, in recent years, a young kodan star has emerged: Kanda Matsunojo, 36, who appears regularly on TV and radio.

At the theaters where he performs there are often long lines of fans eager to catch him on stage.

I too have often gone to see him perform.

His impressive technique and delivery seem to appeal to contemporary audiences. Highlights include stories featuring a plot to topple the Tokugawa shogunate government, and another involving a major criminal who slaughters scores of people.

On Friday, the Council for Cultural Affairs recommended veteran storyteller Kanda Shori, who is also Matsunojo’s mentor, to be designated as a living national treasure. He will be the second kodan performer to receive such recognition.

Kodan, which has remained in the shadow of rakugo for some time, is certainly stepping into the limelight.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.Speech

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