Fallen Words

By Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Released in North America by Drawn and Quarterly.

Sometimes you don’t need deep, significant plots. You don’t need characters that go on an incredibly journey that lets them grow up and learn about life. And you may not need 65 volumes to tell your story. Sometimes all you need to do is be interesting, to have an anecdote to tell and to enthrall the listener with that anecdote. And if it ends on a funny note, well, so much the better. The art of rakugo is beloved in Japan. It’s basically storytelling, but has an element of stand up comedy to it (while, of course, being nothing like stand up at all). The stories usually involve dialogues, all conveyed through changes in tone and pitch. And now we have legendary mangaka Yoshihiro Tatsumi giving us some rakugo in manga form.

There are eight stories here, all about 30-50 pages in length, and almost all being fairly comedic and lighthearted. Even the darkest of the bunch, which involves a down-on-his-luck man who befriends The Grim Reaper (seen on the cover here) is still fairly humorous until its dark conclusion. Since Tatsumi cannot aurally convey what the world of the Rakugo is like, he simply has to do it by drawing us into the stories. And it works beautifully, as I found it very hard to pull myself away, even when I was reading about yet another get-rich-quick scheme (a common theme of these stories is the lack of money).

While I said the stories weren’t stand-up, they are of course devoted to telling a funny story. I was reminded a bit of the longer and less humor-oriented parts of Henry Rollins’ old spoken word albums, where he described photo shoots in Australia and crappy jobs euthanizing animals. The other thing these stories reminded me of, especially since some of them *do* end with a punchline that makes you groan rather than laugh, is the shaggy dog story. Not in as much as you feel that you just wasted 15-20 minutes of your life (which is what the best shaggy dog stories offer to the listener), but that feeling that the journey was more important than the destination. In a story about a courtesan and her clients, all of whom sit alone and rail at the poor beleaguered assistant, the final joke is sort of a quick “the end’ gag. What’s fun is the entire story itself, watching these puffed-up and self-deluded middle-aged men ranting and raving because they aren’t getting any.

My favorite story, in terms of combining all the elements I mentioned above, was the third in the book, Escape of the Sparrows. Featuring a prologue that is seemingly irrelevant to the rest of the tale, this them spins off into another ‘deadbeat guest’ story, but becomes far more fantastical. As the pace quickens and the stakes increase, the story also takes on a fantasy element, and even manages to have some beauty. And then… there’s the last page, which features a horrible, horrible joke that wraps up everything the entire story did in a neat bow. You will groan, but feel like applauding.

Such is the nature of the craft of rakugo. Tatsumi says in his afterword that the performers would retire if they didn’t feel they could convey the different moods anymore. I don’t think Tatsumi has anything to worry about here, though. This is not only a great collection of humorous short stories, but a storybook, the kind that you feel like reading aloud to people after you’ve finished it. Perhaps someone will read these and become a rakugo (or its Western equivalent) of his own!

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