The Winter 2016 Anime Preview Guide
Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
How would you rate episode 1 of
Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū ?
What is this?
Yotaro has rather unusual ambitions for an ex-con in Showa-era Japan. He wants to master the centuries-old art of rakugo storytelling under one of its most renowned masters, a grumpy old codger named Yakumo. Ever since he saw Yakumo perform from prison, Yotaro has wanted to make this Edo-era style of one-man theater his own passion and trade, but there are a couple obstacles barring his path. At first, he's simply untalented, barely able to deliver monologues without stammering or being criticized on his delivery by Konatsu, a lodger in Yakumo's house who has long studied her late father's style of rakugo but cannot perform herself because she is a woman. To make matters worse, as Yotaro is tutored by Konatsu over time, his style begins to resemble her late father's, who Yakumo had a turbid relationship with that ended in a mysterious and violent accident. If Yotaro wants to develop his own style of rakugo, he'll have to learn more about the history of not only the performance art itself, but the lives of the people it has already transformed around him. Shouwa Genroku Rakuga Shinjuu is based on a manga and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Fridays at 4:00 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
What a premier this was. Shinichi Omata has been on the cusp of a directorial breakout for a while now, and it looks like this may be the show. Cutting his teeth at Shaft and absorbing just a few elements of their “house style,” he's since become a mainstay at Studio Deen, bringing a strong creative voice to a studio not normally associated with high-quality productions. His adaptation of Sankarea brought a fairly mundane story to life with a strong sense of atmosphere and purposeful, character-focused shot framing, and though I haven't seen it myself, I've heard his reboot of Rozen Maiden was also quite visually compelling. But if his earlier work was somewhat limited by its source material, it seems like the award-winning Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinji is finally giving him a chance to show just how good he can be.
Genroku Rakugo breathes confidence, and makes no apologies for its very specific focus. It's a low-key period drama centered on a style of performance that's niche and out-of-fashion even within Japan, and basically unknown elsewhere - but for all that, this double-length premiere comes off as intimate and relatable and wholly engaging. Its characters have strong and distinctive personalities, embodying larger-than-life roles that seem fitting for the show's one-man play focus. Its story might come off as a little too slow or classically melodramatic for some, but it is a bulletproof execution of its specific genre space. And coupled with this strong fundamental storytelling is some of the strongest aesthetic execution you'll find.
The early scenes of this episode demonstrate Omata's masterful use of light and understanding of framing, with every other shot coming across as iconic and full of emotional undertones. Characters’ emotional shifts are expressed visually through the wandering camera's eye, or captured in single beautiful compositions that make tapestries of their exchanges. And when the show actually gets to the protagonist Yotaro's major rakugo performance, all this aesthetic precision is brilliantly put to use in making his story-monologue into a living production. Genroku Rakugo doesn't just sell the difficulty and creativity of rakugo, it actually makes an incredibly niche art form totally engaging even to a complete layman. Yotaro's conversations are brought to life through a brilliant vocal performance, making his story style feel completely distinct from his equally well-acted fellow players. And the direction does justice to that performance, shifting purposefully between diverse angled shots intended to emphasize the illusion of a conversation, and intimate shots of Yotaro's own personal body language, evoking the adrenaline rush and loss of self that accompanies any lived performance.
The acuity of Genroku Rakugo's understanding of performance points to its last great strength - the way this episode so consistently captures the young artist experience. Rakugo might be a niche art form, but almost anyone can relate to the feeling of pursuing a craft with all your passion, and spending a night lost in appreciating the gifts of one of your idols. Genroku Rakugo's strong storytelling and direction don't just make it beautiful and engaging, they make its subject matter and emotional space real. And for all its formal excellence, I'm still surprised by how much fun this episode was, and how quickly the time went by. The drama might not always hit its mark, and not all of the material was equally engaging, but Genroku Rakugo's strengths were impressive enough that I can't really dock it for small gaps in overall polish. This was a superb first episode.
Hello and welcome to Anime Program For Japanese Adults. This week, we'll be learning about the shifting societal attitudes of the Showa era through a historical drama that uses both rakugo and jazz to evoke a myriad of austere yet multi-faceted emotions not unlike the ones explored in the work of Yasujiro Ozu--wait wait, where are you going? COME BACK, THIS IS CULTURE!
So this series revolves around a very old form of Japanese theater that I've typically seen referenced in other anime as a boring/hokey pasttime for old people, and Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju (what a mouthful!) makes no bones about the pasttime's reputation for tedium. It's a historically important form of entertainment, but only a few masters of the craft struggle to keep it alive even in the decades-past time when this story is set. It's not SGRS's goal to try and make rakugo seem particularly exciting, but weirdly enough, if you're already open to its premise, it kind of succeeds at that anyway! What this anime lacks in pulp or pizzazz, it makes up for in style and substance by deftly communicating how much its characters care about the art form for their own very different reasons. Even more importantly, the routines that each of these performers choose speak volumes about the story beneath the story, a tale of conflicted personalities and damaged relationships that affect not only how they play each role in the rakugo routine, but how they see the old stories reflected in their current lives.
And that's a good thing, because rakugo routines can run up to half an hour long. Oh don't worry, they don't perform any sessions of that length in this (50-minute) episode. No, they limit themselves to a ten-minute routine followed by a four-minute routine. Both performances are uncut. Both stories are overwhelmingly reliant on an understanding of ancient Japanese humor archetypes and traditions. This show is not for everyone.
Of course, it's still an incredibly solid rendition of what it's trying to achieve. Even if the rakugo routines aren't your bag (I certainly can't claim to understand them very well), there's so much great character work going on in the main story that it brings resonance to the routines as complex extensions of the people performing them. Even if you don't really get what's so funny about the story of Dekigokoro (fun fact, I did not know that Ozu himself made a movie by this same title before invoking his name in my first paragraph), the way that Yotaro tells it over the course of ten minutes, and the impact his audience has on his performance as it evolves, speaks volumes about his motivations for picking up the craft. Things get much darker and more sinister when we see how his newfound style differs from his master Yakumo's, and the twisted dynamic holding their potentially deadly apprenticeship together will undoubtedly drive the core of the show going forward, with the bitter yet bleedingly sympathetic Konatsu as a wild card between them.
I don't think I can recommend Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju to very many anime fans, simply because its barrier of entry and demands on patience are pretty steep, but I'd definitely recommend it to fans of adult dramas steeped in Japanese tradition. Given the number of accolades that have been heaped on its source manga over the years, I'd say we're in for a heavier story than its roots in "comedic storytelling" might suggest, and I'm eager to see what this tale has in store for its troubled trio of characters.
There's something truly wonderful about listening to a good storyteller, rakugo or otherwise, and if that's a form of entertainment that you enjoy, you really ought to check this show out. I was lucky enough to see a rakugo performance at Japan Expo in France a few years ago (the performer was trained in Japan but spoke French) and Showa Rakugo is a very good approximation of what it's like to be at a live performance. In fact, even though this is a fifty minute episode it doesn't feel that long, and that's largely due to the two full rakugo performances we get to see. Both stories will be familiar to those who have a broad knowledge of folktales, as they are both based on stories that exist world wide, but for a non-Japanese audience that simply broadens their appeal, giving Western viewers the same basic familiarity Japanese viewers might have.
Along with the actual rakugo, this is an interesting story on its own. The clearly difficult past between Konatsu and her late father's friend Yakumo, the rakugo master apparent protagonist Yotaro is training under, is definitely intriguing and has all the makings of a very different kind of theatre. I do suspect that Yotaro and Konatsu are more of a framing device for that tale of the past, in part because Yakumo is so clearly haunted by the deceased, very possibly in a literal way. The use of “showa” in the title doesn't really tell us anything on that front, since the era lasted from 1926 to 1989. However, a brief flashback to the “accident” that killed Konatsu's father and the fact that the word “shinju,” meaning “double suicide,” is in the title definitely has some much darker implications, which is interesting since rakugo tends to be thought of, in my experience, as a lighter form of entertainment.
As is necessary in this sort of show, the voice acting this episode is impressive, with the three actors who get the chance to voice the performances, Tomokazu Seki, Akira Ishida, and,briefly, Yuu Kobayashi, doing a wonderful job of conveying the different characters portrayed by each single performer. The animation is also up to the task of showing how the performers use body language (from a kneeling position) to illustrate each character's age and attitude and even to make it appear like two or more people are actually having a conversation when only one person is sitting on stage. The sepia tones used also help to set the atmosphere, and the backgrounds, full of record players, chunky televisions, and utility poles, along with the clothes worn by Konatsu, all set the stage very well.
All of that praise aside, this is a long, relatively slow episode, and it really isn't going to appeal to everyone. Not much happens, and if you don't like listening to stories, this will have limited appeal, because wonderful as the animation and voices are, this is far from action packed or urgent. But it captures both the mood of the era and the art of rakugo, and if you're up for a little cultural history with your storytelling, or even if you just want to see someone tell a tale using only their voice and body language, this is not an episode you want to miss.
Review: When it comes to doing reviews, there's been a long and involved debate about whether quality and entertainment value can truly be evaluated separately or whether they are so intrinsically linked that quality equals entertainment value and vice versa. This double-length first episode is my Exhibit A for the former argument. While I did occasionally find it entertaining, how well it is put together impressed me far more than its entertainment value did.
Having an understanding of or appreciation for rakugo (which is basically a uniquely Japanese form of sketch comedy) is not necessary for understanding and appreciating the first episode but it does help, especially since a fair chunk of the episode's running time (10 straight minutes at one point and more than a third of the episode overall) is pieces or entireties of rakugo performances. Still, even without that the routines can still be funny, especially the heavy irony in a man who is implied to have been a former thief and hoodlum trying to entertain an audience with a routine about a burglar. Key to this all not boring the uninitiated out of their minds is the expressiveness of Kyoji/Yotaro, both in a visual sense and in a great vocal performance by the venerable Tomokazu Seki (Fate/stay night’s Gilgamesh, among many other prominent roles). Kyoji is a very passionate young man, so much so that his enthusiasm bleeds into every fiber of his being, and the production convincingly displays that. He makes for such a sharp contrast to the more formal and carefully controlled Yakumo that it's no wonder that, despite his reverence for Yakumo, Kyoji still finds his style gravitating more towards that of Yakumo's deceased partner, a figure who haunts Yakumo to this day. That provides some of the requisite tension for the drama aspect to work, while Konatsu provides the rest. In fact, both she and Yakumo are strong, complicated characters who cannot easily be classified with a glib adjective or even a single sentence. Even Kyoji is not oblivious to the complex relationships and emotions which have built up between the two of them, and the first episode is clearly only scratching the surface.
The technical merits involved here are no joke, either. Studio DEEN's visual effort puts nearly as much animation into the way Yakumo or Kyoji are expressing themselves while performing rakugo as you might see in the prolonged action sequences of many action-oriented titles. While the visuals are not always at their highest level, backgrounds and coloring can be sharp and character designs are a decided step away from typical anime stereotypes.
Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju very decidedly skews towards much older audiences and does not proscribe to common anime tropes, so this is a title well-suited to those looking for mature fare off the well-trodden anime paths. It does require some patience, but the patience is worth it.
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