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The Death and Rebirth of Rakugo

by Anne Lauenroth,

The second season of Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū is upon us, and it's like this wonderful gem of narrative craftsmanship never left. After patiently waiting for us during the nine month intermission (did Yotaro never leave that stage?), time is traversed in the simple flip of a name. Yotaro, now Sukeroku III, invites the audience to partake in the story's second act. Tearing down the fourth wall in a way similar to a rakugo performance, he turns us into collaborators in a work that could not exist without people waiting to appreciate it. Within the story, there are still enough enthusiasts left to pack the theater, albeit at a much smaller venue than the one we saw Kiku perform in 10 years ago. It's also the last rakugo theater left in Japan. Traditional sit-down comedy is approaching the end of its lifespan in popular culture, an end long overdue according to Yotaro's new patron, Higuchi Eisuke. As a writer, he has quite a bit to say about the fleeting relevance or lasting significance of storytelling as an art form.

"They say that the lifespan of a piece of popular culture that requires no explanation is about fifty years. Even if it survives past then, it stops being an art form for the masses. Yet rakugo's lasted for three hundred years, and it still pulls in the general public. Why is that, do you think?"

Rakugo, like all art, is meant to reflect upon life, to puzzle and challenge, to create a dialogue and give something back to the world that inspires it. But art as popular culture can only stay relevant for as long as it's able to connect with the people, adapting to include new references and address changing perspectives. Rakugo rests forever unchanging in a sacred cocoon. If it continues to be held captive by its last master, solely to preserve the memory of the one person he could love and dream with, it cannot survive when that master dies as well.

"I would rather rakugo go away completely before it becomes corrupted."

So says the shinigami of the rakugo world. Since he's acutely aware of the tragic role that his inability to change played in the demise of an art that both saved and destroyed him, Kiku finds solace in the idea of taking rakugo with him to the grave, finally reunited with the person who should have been by his side to shape the future of an art they both loved and hated. Sukeroku II's death has sealed Kiku's fate in tragedy, rendering the art's lone preserver incapable of the change necessary for his art to stay alive, and the intended maverick reviver of this art trapped in the unchanging memory of his bereaved. Subconsciously, Kiku is punishing Sukeroku for leaving him behind, while simultaneously clinging to his one-sided role in their pact as a lifeline that has only made him more bitter, lonely and sad. So why did Kiku finally accept an apprentice after all those years, despite claiming the death of rakugo to be his fate?

"They say a storyteller's at his finest in his twilight years, but the Eighth Generation is surely at his peak of beauty right now."

There might be beauty in impermanence (the fleeting cherry blossoms being at their prettiest right before wilting and all that), but it seems like Kiku needed to reach the twilight of his life (and repeated visits by Sukeroku's ghost) to realize that maybe his destiny wasn't to take something beautiful away from the world just because it had always left him behind. Maybe it's finally time for him to start working on the unfulfilled part of their promise: revival. Of course, Mr. Writer says it best:

"Rakugo is freer now than it's ever been. That said, it can't be something to only protect. To properly carry on the classics, and to create new rakugo... I believe both are important."

While art can't and shouldn't be divorced from the context it was born in, it will only remain relevant if it's allowed to breathe and grow and morph into whatever new generations need it to be – especially an art form like rakugo that needs the audience's reflections to truly come alive. If the audience can no longer find themselves within a story, it might as well be left untold.

Ever since Sukeroku's untimely death, Kiku and Konatsu have only been able to relive the stories of their own tragedies – Nozarashi and Shinigami. For these and other classic stories to retain meaning to others, it's time to tell them from a fresh perspective. For Kiku's promise and life's work not to become meaningless, he must allow himself to tell another story. Rakugo doesn't require a new Sukeroku to survive, but it's in desperate need of a more hopeful and less death-focused outlook. Instead of aspiring to become more like one of his dead masters, Yotaro should embrace their legacy and enrich it with his own unique contributions.

Reviving something doesn't mean rejecting what previous generations accomplished. There's a reason for the survival (and even recent renaissance) of rakugo in Japan, just like there's a reason why people are still fascinated by the works of Shakespeare, 400 years after his death. Our everyday lives and language may have changed significantly compared to those living in the Edo and Elizabethan eras, but human nature has not.

"The art of Rakugo is about creating empathy. It's not just about making people laugh. Empathy doesn't change, no matter the age."

The protagonists of Shakespeare and the rakugo canon might face very different challenges from our own, but the way people love, laugh, and suffer is universal and timeless, from Greek tragedies to modern-day cinema. Preserved in a vacuum, tied to an unchanging time and place, these universal accomplishments of the human search for truth and beauty would hold only a fraction of the importance they enjoy today. Art is meant to touch and inspire new generations – without a Richard Wagner, there's no John Williams, without classical music, no jazz. The merits of artistic accomplishments live on in the legacy they leave behind, and that legacy can only continue if it's allowed to grow, as old works are re-imagined by younger generations – preservation through creation, not just conservation.

During last year's vacation to Japan, I went to see a rakugoka. He had just returned from touring Europe, where his performances had been subtitled in English to bridge the language barrier. In his introduction, he told the Tokyo-ites how several audience members had asked him to perform Nozarashi – these young Westerners had discovered a pre-modern performance art from a faraway country through a different form of pop culture entirely: anime. This anecdote earned him cheers from the local crowd. Obviously, age isn't the only barrier powerless to stop empathy, as these new rakugo fans from other cultures have been introduced to the artform through Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū. Interestingly, the canon of classic rakugo stories seems to translate better than modern plays, since they often rely more heavily on references to culture or recent events.

This is the future I wish Kiku could see. If these stories, deeply rooted in a particular time and place, can transcend cultures through our shared human nature, then surely fictional rakugo will survive the non-conformity of an ex-con becoming a master and embrace the passion of a female performer as well, pushing through the societal barriers that forced Kiku to deny himself a fulfilling life.

When Higuchi forges his new pact with Yotaro, the question he asks is one that Kiku should have asked Konatsu a long time ago:

"Will you create new works of rakugo with me?"

Hopefully, we will be granted this wish when Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū ends in March, right around the time when the next cherry blossoms fall.

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