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“Japanese Mass Entertainment”

Entertainment of Words


In the last chapter, we went over the origin of Japanese mass entertainment. So we now know that the very beginning of Japanese cultural laughter was in acrobatics, or to put it differently, laughter which comes from visual fascination. Then, when did words start to entertain us? Since when people enjoyed laughter from words as something cultural?
This time, let us follow the history of the entertainment of words.

The origin is what we call in Japanese, setsuwa, which is translated into English as legenda. The oldest written document recognized in Japan is Kojiki, and here readers encounter a series of ancient Japanese myths. As you follow the chapters in this document, you will come across a story like the following.

Amaterasuookami, the Goddess of the Sun, greatly enraged by the serious outrage of her younger brother Susanoonomikoto, hid inside a cave and the world suddenly became very dark.
“Oh no! We have to do something about this!”
The other Gods gathered around the cave she hid in, and decided to open up a big party.
Because their laughter sounded so happy and cheery, Amaterasuookami couldn’t help peeking out from the cave. The Gods pulled her out from the cave to join them, and like this the world was filled with light again.

Although this passage is about the holy Gods in their realm, the story is written in a very humorous manner as if they are nothing different from us human beings with emotions and curiosity.
Similar humoresque passages appear a lot after Kojiki, but because paper was very precious in the ancient days more were passed down for generations in story telling than in writing.

Now, let us focus on the part “story telling”. Spreading humorous stories not only through writing but also by telling people – this is believed to be the beginning of the history of creative spoken entertainment today such as rakugo and owarai.

Then what about other social entertainment? Entertainments such as noh and kyogen – which have now turned into more of traditional performing arts than mass entertainment – have developed styles from karuwaza and kokkei acrobatics to of amuse the audience with body language.

What’s interesting about this is probably the point that the two styles have traded positions in the society over the last couple of millenniums.
Years and years ago, the acrobatic performers driven away from the court have pursued ultimate visual entertainment by imitating people and animals in front of the lay people. Like this the style has founded a firm base for mass entertainment including kabuki, noh and kyogen.

On the contrary, myths and stories spread and were told among people who belonged to the higher positions of the society since the legenda required knowledge and sometimes literacy. Because legenda and storytellers were not something that had many contact points with the common people, spoken entertainment was probably not considered as part of mass entertainment.

But when you look at the situation in the twenty-first century, kabuki, noh and kyogen are expensive sources of entertainment. Or rather, they have gone beyond the level of entertainment and are now more of art that you have to pay for and go to the theatres to appreciate.
On the other hand, spoken entertainment like rakugo and owarai are now spread across the country on air to nearly every family. Not only that, it has gained a very wide support and is now something for everybody.

There is no doubt that the debut of televisions has contributed a lot to this transition. You can enjoy high-class entertainment of professional performers at home in your living or dining room. Perhaps the definition of “mass” changes here.

In the next chapter, let us bring the spot light to RAKUGO, one of the first developed style of spoken entertainment, with specific stories. Keep tuned!

Photo: Suehiro-tei
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