Portraits of Rakugo

HERE’S AN ARTISTIC QUESTION: can I cut a portrait of storytelling in action? I don’t mean cutting a portrait of the story teller – I know I can do that – but somehow to capture the act of storytelling itself: the pace, mannerisms and energy of the storyteller?

The idea of capturing silhouettes of people in motion is one that has long fascinated me.

Suehirotei, Shinjuku: home to the Japanese storytelling art known as rakugo

On a recent trip to Japan I made time for a second visit to the Suehirotei theatre in Shinjuku, Tokyo. This historic theatre is one of the few remaining centres for rakugo, the Japanese art of comic storytelling. Rakugo is considered quite a ‘low brow’ art form in Japan, which means the space is slightly scruffy and mostly full of elderly Japanese who like to pop in and see what’s going on. The performers speak very quickly and often in slightly archaic Japanese. Some of the audience appear to fall asleep!

For an Englishman like me – with very moderate Japanese language skills – a visit to Suehirotei is obviously challenging on many levels!

Drawing Rakugo

Watching rakugo, I understand very little of the content for each story. The reason I went back for a second visit was to draw the performers, which I realised would be easy to do given the relaxed atmosphere of the theatre and sparse audience attendance. Each performer entertains the audience for about 10 or 15 minutes, sitting on a flat floor cushion in the middle of a large stage and speaking directly to the audience. Some of the performers use props (one was even a theatrical paper cutter who asked the audience to challenge him by describing scenes for him to cut) but most simply hold a fan and a small cloth which they use in creative ways to illustrate their stories. 

Sketchbook open on a table with a drawing on the right and two pencils on the left
My Rakugo Sketchbook

I was fascinated by the energy and pace with which each performance was delivered and tried to capture that in my drawings, which quickly became quite loose and scribbly. In any event I had to draw quickly, as each performer was quite soon replaced by the next! I left the theatre with a sketchbook containing twenty or so pencil drawings. 

Cutting the Drawings

When I got back to England I scanned these drawings and printed them out on the back of dark paper for cutting. Being a silhouettist I’m far more comfortable using scissors than a knife, so took a pair of small scissors and began to cut carefully around each drawing.

Rakugo no 12 held up in front of a white wall

The most obvious limitation of using scissors is scale. Since I work with the paper held in one hand, and the scissors in the other, I can only cut pieces small enough to hold. Each time I stab the paper with the points of my scissors I need to steady the paper from behind with a finger.

I generally start in the middle, and work out towards the edges, turning the paper with my left hand as I work. The final cut is the long, complicated cut around the outside.

The process of cutting is very different to the process of drawing. It’s an interesting thing to spend several hours cutting out a pencil drawing which only took only a few minutes to create! I become very involved in strange, abstract shapes: the minutia of pencil mark making.

In general, I find the process of cutting to be meditative, considered and calming, while drawing is the exact opposite: frenetic, instinctive and energising. Perhaps that’s why I’m always so intent on finding ways to combine the two in a single work of art.

Unfinished paper cutting on a white tray with scissors and many small scraps of paper.
An unfinished paper cutting in progress during CAT 2024,
the outside edge is left uncut until the last moment to give me something to hold onto
Seated figure facing right
Rakugo no 18, scissor-cut paper on glass, 2024

Cutting the outside edge is both satisfying and really hard. The cutting becomes really delicate and easy to break.

Although small in size I try to make each piece “expand” into the space around it by carefully cutting the faint, extra lines around the figure which my hand naturally makes while drawing. I really like that the cuttings don’t have an obvious edge to them. It isn’t always easy to see exactly where the figure ends the space around them begins.

Finally, each piece is then mounted them onto glass before framing to give a sense of depth behind them. I want them to look like drawings which have been somehow lifted off the paper. 

Showing the Rakugo cuttings for the first time

Last month I took part in the Caversham Arts Trail, in which artists all around Caversham open their studios to the public for a few days. I had six framed paper cuttings on the wall, which I exhibited to gain insight into how people might react to them. Interestingly, I sold one of them, which is as good feedback as you can get! 

Six framed paper cuttings in a row, hanging on a white wall in a rather messy studio space
Six Rakugo paper cuttings on display at CAT 2024

Visitor Comments

One of my favourite comments came from a visitor who remarked that the cuttings seemed to have a kind of vibrational energy. She likened them to the transporter bays in Star Trek: that moment when the figure is shimmering with energy but not yet fully formed.

Rakugo no 18: detail

Many commented that the cuttings look like ink paintings; it isn’t at all obvious they’re paper cuttings until one looks closely at each work. At that point the shadows become an integral part of each piece, causing people to ask questions about how they are made.

Other people commented about the faces, which seem to work from a distance and yet disappear when you look too closely. It was a deliberate choice on my part to cut only the pencil marks I actually made, and not to think about what I might have been trying to draw at the time (eg: an eye, ear or hand).

As human beings, we are conditioned to see faces wherever we look. When drawing random lines it’s sometimes hard not to see faces “appear” unintentionally in the drawing. This makes it interesting to see how little of a face I can draw and still have it “read” like the face of a person.

Comparing the paper cuttings to the original drawings I notice that the cuttings seem far more energetic than the drawings, which now seem rather ordinary to me. This new adventure into paper cutting has filled me with enthusiasm to explore this technique with new subject matter. What to draw next? 

You can see the full set of Rakugo paper cuttings in the Art Gallery

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Marianne Pryor
Marianne Pryor
14 days ago

Absolutely stunning, Charles! Are they for sale?

12 days ago

Very cool. I’m happy to see your other types of work. I’ve only seen silhouette until now.

Sue Reeves
Sue Reeves
12 days ago

Really enjoyed reading your blog on Rakugo Charles – fascinating work.

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