The Spring 2017 Manga Guide
Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
What's It About?
Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is an original manga by Haruko Kumota about rakugo, the Japanese art of dramatic and comedic storytelling with a single performer. Set in the 1970s, this first volume focuses on the earliest career days of Yotaro, a former delinquent recently released from jail who sets out to be the first apprentice that rakugo master Yurakutei Yakumo has ever taken under his wings. With nowhere else to go and a passion for rakugo that started when Yakumo performed a moving piece for Yotaro's prison, Yotaro blissfully allows the stern and blunt man with a touch of a mischievous side to treat him as essentially a pet in his household. Along with Matsuda, Yakumo's attendant, and Konatsu, Yakumo's grown ward and the daughter of the legendary deceased rakugo master Yurakutei Sukeroku, the four settle into an awkward if mostly happy routine. Yotaro's passion for rakugo is underscored by his lack of skill and by Konatsu's jealousy over the fact that Yakumo has taken on an apprentice, when all she's ever wanted is to perform rakugo—something her gender doesn't allow for during that era. She also blames her father figure for her dad's death and tries to keep her passion for her father's own style of rakugo alive by practicing daily and eventually tutoring Yotaro to find a style of his own similar to that of the comedic Sukeroku's. By volume's end, Yakumo has registered Yotaro as an officially-recognized zenza, leading him to debut at the lowest levels of professional rakugo.
Descending Stories: Show Genroku Rakugo Shinju (5/23/17) is available in paperback for $12.99 from Kodansha Comics and in digital format via comiXology. A 25-episode anime adaptation is streaming in its entirety on Crunchyroll.
Is It Worth Reading?
In the space of one short volume, Kumota throws the reader headlong into the world of professional rakugo and all that's required to become one of the rare masters of the art—from the large amount asked of professionally recognized apprentices to the barriers that exist to stop even those with passion and talent like Konatsu. Although the characters do virtually nothing on the page outside of discuss rakugo, practice rakugo, and perform rakugo (Yotaro's real name, Kyoji, is rarely mentioned—instead he's called a term in rakugo for “blockhead”), the primary characters are all distinct and compelling enough to make the reader eager to learn more about them. From Yotaro's gung-ho can-do attitude, to Konatu's frustrations and her awkward relationship with her father figure, to Yakumo's sly charm even in the face of his often-uncompromising attitude, these characters are fascinating to read about. Especially intriguing is the revelation that Yakumo was somehow—even by his own admission—at least partially responsible for Sukeroku's death, as well as the bond between the two performers during their youth that's only hinted at in this first volume.
All motion and performance-based art is difficult to portray on a static page, but Kumota does an admirable job of breathing some life into the rakugo performance panels. While the reader has yet to see a tale told from start to finish—perhaps an impossibility given the length of most of these pieces and the number of pages that would eat up—what scenes we do get convey emotion, mood, and the most memorable lines of the pieces through character's expressions, the screentones, and the art layout. In many respects, this technique mirrors what happens in real rakugo, where one performer has to express multiple people and an entire plot and setting, all while sitting on his knees and giving off minimal movement.
The character designs—the faces in particular—are stylistic and expressive and the backgrounds, which include many buildings in traditional Japanese architecture style, paint a vivid picture of the world of rakugo during this era. There are moments, however, when the background disappears for what seems like a distractingly long time, but that's a minor issue. Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is just warming up at this stage, but the skill and research Kumota uses to bring her work to life make for an entertaining, absorbing, and even educational read.
Reading a manga centered on an unfamiliar topic makes it that much more difficult to get into, because it's therefore a less relatable story. Kumota circumvents this issue by making Yotaro one of the dopiest, most enthusiastic, likeable protagonists you could ask for. It doesn't matter that I had only the vaguest of ideas of what rakugo performance was before I read the manga, because Yotaro was so enamored with it, so excited to learn it from a master, that I was drawn in anyway. The practice of rakugo really only means anything because it means so much to Yotaro, Yakumo, and Konatsu, but their passion for it, which is shown in varying ways and with different motives, makes it seem totally worth dedicating their lives to.
I still really wish the manga were more capable of capturing the actual performance of rakugo. I find Kumota's art style unimpressive and very distracting in general, but it does a nice job of displaying the facial expressions and body language of performers. The real issue is that the portrayal suffers without an audio component. There's such a great emphasis on how different rakugo performers can recite the same stories in different ways, and this is really impossible to appreciate without being able to hear the tone of their voices. I was immersed in the story, but I wanted to be more immersed in it. But the characters are strong enough that these performances are secondary. Konatsu has such an intense desire for revenge against Yakumo, despite any confirmation that she has a valid reason to feel so. Yakumo is rigidly defined by the traditions of rakugo, and ironically this hurts his chances of helping it to live on in the modern world. And then there's Yotaro, so hard-working, so friendly, and so incompetent that he disrupts all of this angst with his sheer likeability. A lot of side characters remark on how unusual it is that Yakumo took on an apprentice, let alone a dunce like Yotaro. To the reader, though, it's obvious that Yotaro is exactly what Yakumo needed, not just for plot reasons, but for the wonderful balance of character interactions that result.
Appropriately, Descending Stories is almost a perfect metaphor for the performance of rakugo. It is hampered severely by its format, yet the execution of its story is at times so compelling that you look straight past that limitation. It has strong characters and a nice mix of intense drama and light comedy, and I'm very interested in seeing how the plot continues.
Oscar Wilde once proclaimed all art quite useless. Mind, this was at the beginning of his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, so the likelihood that he actually meant it is debatable, but that almost makes me expect even more to hear a similar statement from Yakumo, the elder rakugo artist in this volume. Rakugo, in his mind, is a dying art, one that doesn't interest the kids today and may never rise to greatness again. Almost against his will he takes young Yotaro, a failed gangster fresh from prison, on as his apprentice, but it seems more like he's trying to capture the camaraderie of his own training days than that he actually intends to teach the young man. He's old, he's stubborn, he's set in his ways…and he's also deeply sad. Whether or not Yotaro is ever able to succeed, it's clear that Yakumo sees the heyday of rakugo as far behind him.
That's part of what's good about this book. You can find old men and women like Yakumo anywhere where there's a specific art, skill, or trade that's fading out, people who see the end of their world in every new form of entertainment or machine. Talk to a lace-maker who tats by hand and even as she's teaching you, she'll imply that there's not much hope for the skill. Yotaro is completely undaunted by this, which helps to balance out the volume, because Yakumo is a heavy character. The supposition that his ward has that he killed her parents – her father was his rival and friend – makes things even darker when Yotaro is out of the picture. The fact that Yakumo won't teach her rakugo because it's not something that a woman can do (in the traditional view of things) further incenses her. She teaches Yotaro her father's stories out of spite, but it's clear that that's not enough…and that if Yakumo would just relent and allow her to be his apprentice as well, she'd give up her anger.
It is maddening that Yakumo is so rooted in the past that he can't see allowing a woman to learn his art – especially since allowing it to be mixed-gender could potentially save it from the oblivion he sees ahead. All of the characters in here are stubborn in their own, difficult ways that can make reading the volume a frustrating experience at times. It's also a little difficult to fully grasp rakugo without sound and motion. The manga does do a good job, but it doesn't quite capture the real magic of the art. But the story itself is rich enough to captivate, and despite the frustrations of characters who are very human in ways we perhaps wish they weren't, Descending Stories’ first volume is absorbing.
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