Rakugo (comic storytelling), kodan (historical storytelling), manzai (comic dialogue), and mandan (comic monologue) are the major vaudevillian storytelling performance arts that have been recorded on 78rpms. These performances were important commodities for recording companies. Because a single rakugo performer was enough to make a rakugo recording, recording costs were inexpensive. Moreover, in contrast to popular songs, the contents of performances were not subject to the vagaries of fashion, so a single recording could be re-pressed and sold for a long time, resulting in a product with a long and steady product life.
In the age when Japan had no record companies, recordings were made by foreign record companies on official trips to Japan. The first such recording was made in February 1903 by British Gramophone. Engineers were sent to Japan along with the recording equipment, the master disc of the recording was sent back to England, it was then pressed into a record, and finally the records were re-exported to Japan. In Japanese, this recording method was termed "recording trip recordings" (shucho rokuon) and the records made were called "recording trip records" (shucho rokuonban). Rakugo recordings have been issued by most Japanese record companies from the very earliest record pressings in Japan until after the Second World War.
These "business trip recordings" leave to posterity valuable recordings of comic storytellers active in the Meiji era period such as Tachibanaya Enkyo IV, Tachibanaya Enzo IV, Sanyutei Enyu I, Katsura Bunza, Yanagiya Kosen I, and Kairakutei Black. While these recordings are imperfect by today's standards, modern listeners can appreciate the idiosyncrasies in voice quality and the narration tone of the performers. One should note that famed rakugo performer Sanyutei Encho died on August 11, 1900, narrowly missing out on being recorded on records by a scant several years.
By this author's count, the number of rakugo performers surviving on records in the age of the 78 rpm is upwards of 180. Popular rakugo performers with a large number of records include Yanagiya Kosan III from the Meiji-Taisho periods, and Yanagiya Kingoro, Ryutei Shibaraku (Shunputei Ryushi VII), Sanyutei Kinba III, Yanagiya Gontaro, Hayashiya Shozo VII, Shunputei Ryukyo VI, and Sekisekitei Momotaro from the Showa period. Of course, when all is said and done, Katsura Harudanji I towers above all others in the kamigata rakugo style (Osaka-Kyoto-style), followed by Tachibanaya Kakitsu and Shofukutei Shikaku (Shofukutei Shokaku V). Rakugo performers Sanyutei Kinba III, Ryutei Shibaraku (Ryushi VII), and and kamigata rakugo performers such as Katsura Harudanji I , with their ability to cut wasted time and deliver tight narratives on 78-rpm records with their roughly six minute restriction front and back became hits eagerly sought after from record companies. Harudanji's records continued to be pressed and sold after his death (1934), and were released 78 rpms even after the Second World War.
In addition, with the advent of the Showa period, classical rakugo set in the Edo period became harder to understand, and shinsaku-rakugo (new rakugo) and kaisaku-rakugo (adapted rakugo), which re-set tales in the modern times, gained popularity. Its flag-bearer, Yanagiya Kingoro, took Japan by storm with his heitai rakugo (soldier rakugo) and modern-custom-themed new rakugo.
Records (78 rpms) of manzai began to be made in the Meiji-Taisho periods when manzai 漫才 (with the characters used today) was still written as 萬歳 (with the characters for "ten thousand years", harkening to its roots as an auspicious rite that used humor and featured songs, chants, and dances in addition to humorous dialogue). Manzai of this period was known as "geizukushi manzai" (芸尽くし萬歳 manzai in which one “pulled out all the stops” and showcased one's performative repertoire). The records of Sunagawa Sutemaru and his many trademark routines sold well. The Showa period gave birth to "shabekuri manzai" (comic dialogue-based manzai) lionizing the comic duos such as "Entatsu and Achako" and "Miss Wakana and Tamamatsu Ichiro". In Tokyo, Azuma Kiyokoma is said to be the founder of manzai, and the silky artistic technique of "Senta and Mankichi Regal" were welcomed by men and women of all ages.
Because kodan (historical storytelling) often involve long monologues, it is difficult to pack it into six minutes on both sides of a 78-rpm record. As such, it is not a genre adaptable to the record, so there are unfortunately few recordings. Another popular storytelling variety entertainment was the eiga setsumei ("movie explanation"). These "movie explanations" were also arranged for the medium of the record and sold in large quantities. After the silent film transformed into the "talkie", a unique storytelling performance called "kayo setsumei" (popular song narration) was born. It was a story telling style unique to records. Narration similar to "movie explanations" was inserted between songs. Izumi Shiro was a leading figure in this genre.
The mandan ("comic monologue") was a new performance that emerged with the Showa period. Tokugawa Musei, Otsuji Shiro, Yamano Ichiro, Nishimura Rakuten, and Iguchi Seiha transitioned from performing as movie explainers to mandan comics and made records of their performances. Its novel material made it unique. Other popular spoken performances made into records include the "meisho kaisetsu" (description of famous places) of tourist attractions given by tour bus conductors and the "daido kamishibai" (a “picture story show” performed on the street) among others.
Kosan III was a master of the comic rakugo of the Meiji and Taisho periods. In his novel, Sanshiro, Natsume Soseki paid homage to Kosan III writing, "It was our great fortunate to be alive at the same time as Kosan". In this comic story which takes place during the auspicious new year, Gonsuke, the employee of the overly superstitious owner of a kimono fabric shop, says one hilariously unlucky thing after another. It was recorded in 1916.
The king of laugh-out-loud comedy, Katsura Harudanji I, is also a king of records having left us with nearly 800 records. "Ikakeya" is a story about mischievous urchins in a tenement house who make fun of a metal pot and pan mender. This is an example of Harudanji's stock-in-trade. It was recorded in 1932. The company producing Harudanji's records first recorded "Ikakeya" as well as "Nozaki Mairi" (Pilgrimage to Nozaki), "Hettsui Nusuto" (The Kitchen Stove Thief), and "Kenka no Chusai" (The Quarrel Mediator).
Sanyutei Kinba III
"Watashi no Kao/Rakugo" Kateiyomiuri
(My Face and My Rakugo, Katei Yomiuri magazine).
1954, No. 368, p. 14
This is a familiar comedy about the denizens of a poor tenement house who all get together and set out to celebrate cherry blossom viewing. The residents smile through their tears as they get a taste of the cherry blossom viewing celebrations, substituting more expensive sake with cheaper tea, and boiled fish paste with Japanese daikon radish pickles. It was released in 1936. Kinba's lucid tone made his rakugo easily understood and was adored by all.
The Shibaraku in this recording is Shunputei Ryushi VII. Because of his habit of using verbal pauses such as "e-he" and "e-he-he", he came to be called the popular "e-he-he no Ryushi (Ryushi who says “e-he-he”) " rakugo storyteller. "Sake to Nyobo" is more familiarly known as "Kawari Me". The title of the work was often changed like this for records as a sales strategy.
Otsuji Shiro switched from being a comedy eiga setsumei storyteller to a mandan (comic monologue) storyteller. He was popular for the queer voice that seemed to emerge from the top of his head and for his unique bobbed hair style. This record was released for sale in 1927, at the very beginning of radio broadcasts in Japan. It possessed a novelty and drew attention to the newfangled modern convenience that was called “the radio”. It is humorous for the nonsensical broadcast of the announcer.
"Shibai to Kinema" (Theater and Cinema)
1926, 3 (11), Back cover
With over 259 records, Sunagawa Sutemaru is a leading figure of "geizukushi manzai" (manzai showcasing one's performative repertoire). This record is a standard kazoe uta (counting song). This is a song about "embarrassing" things. It was released in 1933. Sutemaru's repertoire also includes performances involving humorous Japanese wordplay techniques such as muri mondo ("impossible questions and answers"), comic pun mondo (question and answer poems beginning and ending with a set word or phrase such as the "kankan" mondo, "shinshin" mondo, etc.),, and nazokake (asking riddles) as well as parodies of regional folk songs and plays ahodarakyo (mock Buddhist sutras), kokkei okyo (humorous sutras), and kokkei shigin (humorous recitation of Chinese poems), making it a veritable encyclopedia of manzai.
（Norio OKADA, Researcher of popular entertainment/Collector of 78 rpms）