The Magic of the Stage in Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuby Nick Creamer,
The glare of the bulbs. The blinding dust of the spotlight, and the faces beyond. The way the art moves through you or abandons you, and meets the audience in turn. Expression of the self and more under the lights, where the open stage can either find a truth of the people or leave you pale and abandoned.
Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū is a great show - in fact, in my opinion, it's far and away the best show of the year so far. But it's not necessarily great for reasons you can sum up in an elevator pitch. “Period drama about archaic Japanese theater style” just doesn't have the same ring to it as anime's biggest hits, and “but seriously, the direction is so good, you gotta see how it frames these shots” isn't the most likely sell either. But I love this show, and I'd like to introduce more people to the things that make it great, so I've assigned myself this fool's task anyway. And to explain what makes Rakugo Shinju great, I have to start at the beginning, with the show's very talented director.
It was almost inevitable that Shinichi Omata would direct a great show eventually. After cutting his teeth on a variety of Shaft staples, Omata quickly established himself as a singular voice over at Studio DEEN. DEEN isn't a name that's been traditionally associated with high-quality anime productions, but Omata's work there has demonstrated a strong sense of theatricality and understanding of both beautiful framing and direction as a tool for conveying intimacy from the start. Just look at some of the first sequences of his first major project there, Sankarea - one early conversation between the two leads uses bleacher seats, a single lantern, and character positioning to convey shifting comfort levels in an evolving relationship. Physical objects are used as emotional barriers, creating a sense of rising intimacy that the audience can tangibly feel even if they can't explain why it's working. It's exactly the kind of frame-as-emotive-tool trick you might see in a show like Monogatari, but removed from the more interpretive trappings that have seemed to become part and parcel of Shaft productions even in shows like Nisekoi.
Given this flair for theater and purposeful framing, it seems appropriate that Omata's first great work would be a show that's overtly focused on rakugo. Rakugo is a very strange artform; it's essentially a one-man play tied to a number of formal assumptions, where the expected stories are so well known that the art comes from how each rakugo performer makes a classic tale their own. A great rakugo performer doesn't just tell a story well, he makes the story come alive; he embodies the characters and brings them to the audience, bringing laughter or tears or even an unexpected terror. Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū is a period piece that covers a wide range of rakugo's influence, from its wartime suppression to the ways it flourished in peace, and on to its fading relevance in the later twentieth century. Creating a period anime about a niche artform based on physical delivery seems like a tall order, but Omata's careful hand and brilliant voice acting team truly bring the art to life.
As a distinct art form, rakugo depends heavily on visual delivery; on the small details of blocking and expression work that allow one actor to simultaneously inhabit many selves. Animation can't actually portray every single physical gesture, but like theater itself, it can fake the broad touchstones and let us fill in the gaps. Anime can frame us directly in a character's head, and use visual spacing to set a specific emotional tenor; it can highlight specific details of physicality, and create tone through pacing and image. Through the varying fortunes of its very diverse cast, Rakugo Shinju uniquely demonstrates the visual power of anime, and makes clear how a strong directorial voice can truly bring any story to life.
But that's a whole lot of preamble, so I should really get into what makes this show special. The first character we meet in Rakugo Shinju is Yotaro, a former convict who was so inspired by a prison rakugo performance that he decided he simply must become the performer's apprentice. Yotaro's passionate and almost abrasive personality comes through clearly in his everyday actions and dedication to his master, but his actual rakugo performances remain flat. Until one day, an old thieving friend of his comes to visit, and in order to prove rakugo is what he is meant to do, Yotaro finally comes into his own.
Yotaro's first great performance is the crowning setpiece of Rakugo's first episode, a fifteen minute ordeal that beautifully conveys both the strength of his performance and the personal experience of that performance as he's living through it. We start off deep in Yotaro's head, as he panics about whether he'll be able to impress his old boss and wonders why he even chose to pursue rakugo in the first place. Close shots alternately capture his facial tension and the shaking of his limbs, and as he takes the stage, the camera actually sticks with his downturned eyes, mainly catching the floor as he hears his own introduction. Claustrophobic shots convey his own sense of panic and entrapment as he takes the floor, desperate to succeed. But then he takes a deep breath, makes a self-effacing smile, and suddenly he is a performer on the stage.
Yotaro is a jester, and so his rakugo is a comedy of errors, a sequence of broad jokes and loud character bits. At the audience's first laughter, we see him grinning like a shark, suddenly in his element after long minutes of anxiety. The camera pans down to his fan long before he reaches before it, as if mirroring how in spite of his rambling monologue, he's actually thinking ahead to the next major cue of his performance. Mid-distance shots demonstrate the unique posture and expressions he applies to each of his “characters” in the way the audience would be perceiving them, but we're not yet truly captured by his performance.
As the laughter of the audience grows, we alternate between how the audience is seeing the performance and Yotaro's own very focused perspective, where the performance feels an extension of himself, and all he's recognizing is the love of the crowd. And then the show introduces one of its most consistent tricks, a quirk of framing that somewhat mirrors Omata's Sankarea blocking. Different “characters” are framed as actually talking to each other across the screen, sharply emphasizing the distinct shifts in body language in a way perfectly suited to a television medium. Even as the shots move backwards, this trick of angled framing continues, now able to use the shifts in Yotaro's physical posture to demonstrate the cohesive nature of his performance.
Yotaro's performance is heavy on near-slapstick transitions and physicality, and the show works hard to convey both the perceived humor of this physicality (shots staged from the audience's perspective) and the precise lived experience of making it happen (shots staged from where Yotaro's own focus must be). Intimate shots are framed to buy into the physical space Yotaro is imagining, as if the square of the camera's view is the house his character is attempting to invade. The shot cuts back to a neutral performer perspective as Yotaro makes a slight joke to the audience, and then suddenly returns to the close shots as Yotaro “looks over his shoulder” in the imagined house.
As the performance continues, the show continues to use a mix of all these tricks to bring Yotaro's work to life. Rakugo is an artform with a very specific appeal, but Rakugo Shinju doesn't have to be limited by the ways a performance would actually be perceived. Through a mix of blocking tricks, excellent expression work and body language, and sequences framed to capture Yotaro's own on-stage feelings, Yotaro's show becomes engaging, relatable, and legitimately funny. As the performance reaches a crescendo, a jazzy backing track rises to emphasize Yotaro's momentum and confidence. This is his moment, and the audience is with him - he clearly draws strength from their reaction, and so their reaction is shown. He's burning up, but he can't even feel it; shots cut to emphasize the exhaustion he can't feel, from the steam above him to the sweat-dampened robes below, perfectly evoking the adrenaline rush of killing it on stage. Through framing alone, Rakugo Shinju evokes the terror and joy of riding that line, of giving it your all and knowing you've captured the audience. Yotaro's rakugo is a rakugo of momentum and fire, and Rakugo Shinju brings that style to life.
Of course, not every performance can be a great one. After introducing us to Yotaro, Rakugo Shinju then jumps decades into the past, where we witness the early performances of Yotaro's master Yakumo. His debut is all nervous tension and flat affectation, an awful display where the focus is often as not on the audience's boredom and his own master's disappointment. Trying to do a silly comedy similar to Yotaro's style, Yakumo flails in tedium. His expressions only get more panicked and less convincing as his performance continues, and the direction refuses to do him any favors - in contrast to Yotaro's energetic shot transitions, the composition here is flat, emphasizing how little Yakumo is able to bring his story to life. As his tale nears its end, we see the same claustrophobic shots and emphasis on nervous shaking that characterized the opening of Yotaro's performance; but placed at the very end of a failed monologue, they tell a very different story.
When Yakumo eventually finds himself, it's not through aping the style of his friend Sukeroku, the blueprint for Yotaro's bawdy comedy. Instead, as we see both in his first artistic awakening and later mastery, it's through creating a more sensual, internally focused style of performance. While many of the same tricks of framing are used to convey Yakumo's style of performance, the intimacy of his gestures is very different - instead of going broad and meeting the audience halfway (what Sukeroku calls a “rakugo for the people”), he creates a captivating private world and demands the audience come to him. Once again, we see the allure of an artist winning the audience in his own way, through a performance whose very unique nature is expressed through visual evocations of the world he's creating. Yakumo is not a jester, but a courtesan, and the fantasies he spins come across not like entertainment, but as a wickedly alluring dream.
When we see Yakumo in his later years, headlining as a confident master of his art, his performance is just as captivating - a monologue that paints vivid pictures and steals the audience away through well-chosen gestures. Unlike Yotaro's wild comedy, Yakumo's firm posture and constant smirk demonstrate the easy confidence he has in his work - and he's earned that confidence. Yakumo's early struggles with rakugo are contrasted against his discomfort in his own skin; he was raised by geishas, who lamented his being born a boy, and he never quite seems comfortable performing the confidence expected of a man. But eventually, rakugo let him find a self he could believe in. Yakumo's sensual style of performance is more than just an interesting creative trick - it is a reflection of how performance lead him to his own identity.
There are many more ideals of performance expressed in Rakugo Shinju, each with their own dramatic flavor and style of visual storytelling. It's remarkable by itself that an anime could so successfully bring this artform to life, and even more impressive that Rakugo Shinju actually tethers these performances to a story that makes them feel absolutely indispensable. Yotaro's boisterous style is a reflection of his identity just as much as Yakumo's subdued storytelling reflects his own life and philosophy, and Sukeroku embodies loud energy and camaraderie both on and off the stage. Rakugo Shinju is a story about the magic of art, how and why we suffer for the beauty of it - and through the unity of its character writing and performances, the show consistently demonstrates how creating rakugo is the most full and pure expression of these characters' selves. The show wouldn't work if the performances didn't sell us on the magic of this craft, but time and again, the show's brilliant direction, voice acting, and sound design gracefully do. From the truth of the performance as lived to the beauty of the show as experienced, Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū brings its art to life.
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