Rakugo was never a thing that sparked my interest. There hasn’t been an anime I know of that really tried to showcase the early entertainment culture of Japan such as kabuki stage plays, enka, or any theater based culture. Sure, it’s been mentioned in passing for some shows that are set in Showa Era, or when Momotaro is involved – but there hasn’t been one that really made me appreciate it as an art. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju did more than what I expected while having so much focus to the art as much as to the characters. One will enjoy seeing the growth of the characters both from the lens of rakugo, and their actual portrayal.
The story takes the route of having one of the main characters narrate a series of flashbacks that would link how the past molded his current disposition in life. It had a very slow start. I was definitely not captivated with the story at first – but as the series explored the dynamics between Kiku and Sukeroku, watching them grow definitely built up my interest on how things will end. This is knowing how things will likely tragically end. After all, the English translation of the title is Showa and Genroku Era Lover’s Suicide Through Rakugo. If you ever watched it and stuck with it until episode 3, but felt like nothing was happening, I implore you continue as the real build up would only start after Miyokichi, a geisha character, is introduced.
It is pure coincidence that I am watching this alongside Sangatsu no Lion this season because I saw both Kiku and Rei choosing their craft – not out of passion, but out of necessity to live. It’s not the ideal but certainly a characterization aspect that I liked from both shows. Both of them even experienced a similar abandonment trope so following their choices in life would be a struggle in real life – but that’s what made their (read: suffering) stories, good to tell and empathize with.
As much as I like Kiku and Sukeroku’s personal quest in finding their own rakugo style through the early part of the series, the highlight has always been their relationship. A brotherly love mixed with contempt, jealousy and adoration. I admire both characters for displaying brotherhood in lieu of rivalry in having to inherit the name of their master. Kiku held all of the negativity inside him after all those years – witnessing someone display a style he wanted but probably would never be able to emulate. He’s such a defeatist due to Sukeroku’s better sense of public reception – which he himself admits to be one of the important aspects of rakugo. He took quite a while to figure out that rakugo is something he’d like to continue to love and do. Meanwhile, Sukeroku – from Kiku’s point of view seemed like he had things already figured out from the very beginning. He displayed his ever cheerful facade despite his inferiority complex towards Kiku. All these feelings welled up nicely and drove the story, but there was never a moment when they forgot that they are brothers. Even when a woman became involved.
One of the highlights for me of the show was when Sukeroku did ‘Shibahama’ story towards the end of the season. I really felt the sincerity and the power of rakugo right at that moment. Or should I say story-tellers in general? I was not fully convinced on the idea of having someone do a one man act of a story but once you see Sukeroku’s Shibahama – one will realize why Japan gave rise to rakugo – why people came to appreciate and came back to theaters after the war. We all needed these stories, and we all needed the rakugokas like Sukeroku and Kikuhiko to put that human element in the stories.
The slow decline of rakugo during Showa Era adds flavor to the story because it’s no longer a personal quest to become good at their craft. At one point – it became more of how they can ensure the art of rakugo will survive the test of time. I am not familiar with Showa Era that much but I know that this time period covered the WWII and its aftermath which meant occupation of Allied powers. This brought in a lot from the west – and one of the most prominent as shown in the anime was jazz music (hello, Sakamichi no Apollon). The first ever 24 hour Japan TV network broadcast also happened pretty much around the same time period (NHK – 1953). This historical accuracy of the anime was something I really liked because it made all these real events crucial to the universe that Showa Genroku was trying to build. A universe that explores how a culture survives through the people.
Rakugo was at the verge of decline with only Kiku and Sukeroku being the last of their generation. It’s no longer just a matter of doing what was ‘normal’. Is evolving the tradition – essentially an act of destroying the core of that culture? This question was one of the lasting impact that the series had on me – besides the love for the character development. It’s hard to imagine how a big bulk of mankind’s culture might have reached this point, and the practitioners were posed with the very same dilemma. Where do you think is the borderline between innovation, and outright deviation?
There’s just so much the story has to offer since the last episode actually just sprung back to present after the flashbacks which leaves me the question how things will be from here on with Yotaro? This actually really makes me excited to explore because now we understand Kiku’s background – now we go back to present and see how he’ll fare to who seemed like an uncanny ghost of Sukeroku. His past continues to haunt him – as seen in the last S1 episode so I hope S2 is more of how he unchains himself from that and hopefully be able to continue passing on the name of Yakumo. I would hate to witness the loss of that heritage.
I am so glad however that I just recently finished watching this just on time for its S2 which will be airing on Jan 7, 2017. Thank you Secret Santa for recommending this very underrated anime. I wouldn’t have picked it up in 2016.
Please make sure you visit Reverse Thieves for more of the 2016 Secret Santa entries!
PS: My choices were: Showa Genroku, Kaichou wa Maid-Sama, and Gungrave. I’ve watched a fraction of Maid-sama but never got to finish it so I wanted something fresh. Gungrave wasn’t something on my radar at the moment but I’ll surely get back on that. It sure gives that FF Unlimited vibes that I never really understood, lol.
image credit: pixiv users のる and 楓華元澤