The Winter 2017 Anime Preview Guide Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
How would you rate episode 1 of
Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju ?
What is this?
With his master's blessing, the foolhardy Yotaro has finally become a shin'uchi under a new name: Sukeroku. Now that he's finally able to support himself, Yotaro is more determined than ever to marry Konatsu so she won't have to raise her child alone. Unfortunately, the more Yotaro begins to face the reality of rakugo's dying influence, the more he realizes that he still needs his master Yakumo's help to keep it alive, not only for love of the ancient art itself but also for his newfound family's future. After racking his peanut-brain for a solution, Yotaro comes up with a few crazy ideas. He should start writing new rakugo stories, blasphemous as that may sound to his master, and insist that he return to live with Yakumo and Konatsu as one big happy family together. But can this rebirthed Sukeroku change the mind of a man who's so determined to bury the rakugo tradition forever with his death? Can a young fool ever melt the heart of such a stubborn shinigami? Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is the second half of the Rakugo Shinju manga adaptation and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Fridays at 3:45 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
Ah, it's so good to have Rakugo back. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu's first season was one of the clear highlights of last year, a show that matched strong characters, theatrical storytelling, and beautiful presentation to arrive at the highest tier of anime dramas. With Yakumo's tragic backstory concluded, season two presents us with a Yotaro on the verge of his own final promotion, grinning as he adopts the Sukeroku name. We may not always get sequels to the greats, but Rakugo at least has returned to us.
This episode isn't really a standout in the way the first season's premiere was, but it doesn't have to be. Most of the strengths that made the first season great put in at least some appearance here, from the smart framing of performances to the solid character writing and generally beautiful compositions. The strength of Rakugo's direction and character acting are clear in the contrast between Yakumo and Yotaro's performances. Yakumo's work here embodies the sensual grace that he made a home in the first season; Yotaro's call-and-response shouts echo the audience-friendly attitude he inherited from the previous Sukeroku.
Beyond the great performances and charming character moments, this episode also puts the show on a firm track for the season to come. Yotaro and Konatsu had already developed an endearing relationship in the first season, but the way the two of them and Yakumo have formed a makeshift family is amplified through their mutual concern for Konatsu's baby. The scene of Yotaro trying to comfort Konatsu about their engagement reflects Konatsu's thoroughly established life story while also charming as pure romantic comfort food. These two are great together, and I hope this season offers Konatsu a chance to shine as one more example of rakugo transforming itself in order to survive.
That idea of transformation, and rakugo as a tradition that must be protected, informs this episode's final act. Yotaro ends up running into a writer who basically articulates half the points the previous season hovered over, from the awkwardness of living in your master's shadow to the contradictory needs of rakugo as a forward-facing art form. Speaking of the “lifespan of popular culture,” his words fly gracefully over Yotaro's head, a fact we're clued into through the camera's habit of mirroring Yotaro's distraction. This writer is the collaborator the generally tongue-tied Yotaro needs, and I look forward to seeing exactly where Yotaro and his friends take their treasured art form.
Overall, this wasn't a standout episode of Rakugo in terms of either narrative or visual execution, but that's to be expected. We're easing back into a story that's only half over, and the variables for the second act all need to be set in place. I look forward to watching another season of this wonderful drama unfold.
It's only been a few weeks since I listed the first season of Rakugo Shinju as my top series of 2016, so it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that I'm immediately hooked on the new one. I think this is the first time I've ever genuinely enjoyed a recap scene, and the idea of having Yotaro summarize past events as if he's giving a performance fits the series wonderfully. So much of rakugo is about the connection between the performer and the audience, which makes it seem very fitting for a character to start things off by addressing the viewer of the anime series directly.
With the story of Yakumo and Sukeroku now placed firmly in the past, it feels like there's a clear and natural path for the new season to follow. Just as he's inherited the Sukeroku name, Yotaro has also inherited his predecessor's mission of finding a way to keep the art form relevant in a time of cultural change. As much as he needs Yakumo's help to succeed, there's a big battle of wills being set up here. Yotaro is basically throwing the rulebook out the window by proposing the idea of writing new stories, yet he's doing it to save a tradition that Yakumo would prefer to see die out. It should be a nuanced and meaningful conflict over creative ambitions, which isn't something you see every day.
Just in case the cultural stuff doesn't float your boat, the subtle human drama of the series also appears to be alive and well. Yotaro, Yakumo, and Konatsu should make for quite the compelling family unit, and there's enough history between them to fuel some emotionally charged exchanges. As much as I'd like to see the story move along more quickly, that slow and steady pacing helps make time for the significance of each scene to sink in.
And, of course, we have the performances themselves. This series has gotten very good at conveying a lot with relatively limited animation as Yotaro and Yakumo portray the characters in their stories. They're entertaining and captivating at the same time, which is what rakugo is supposed to be. I continue to be blown away by how much there is to like about this quiet little show about an old form of storytelling.
While I was already dying for Rakugo Shinju to return, it didn't really occur to me how much I'd missed this show until Yotaro delivered his optimistic take on what makes rakugo timeless. "The art of rakugo is about empathy," he says, "It's not just about making people laugh. Empathy doesn't change, no matter the age." And it's true! This show used rakugo, an antique form of comedy in a language I don't understand from an era with traditions I don't fully grasp, to delve deep into the hearts of characters who sought but often never found empathy from the world around them. While the stage was often the only sanctuary for lost souls like Kikuhiko, it could also be a prison for the very same reasons, and we got to see all the transformations, revelations, and delusions it granted those captives who felt nonetheless liberated by its art. You don't have to know much about this antiquated form of comedic storytelling to find the humanity in it, and that's what made Rakugo Shinju such a powerful story for so many people last year.
Still, rakugo as a form of artistic expression was imperfect, which is one of many reasons it's slowly dying. Nepotistic, patriarchal, tied to the past—all those things helped rakugo survive in the olden days, but now they're choking the life from its 20th century remnants. Yotaro fell in love with rakugo for what it used to be, but his potential sponsor (the would-be apprentice that Yakumo turned down last season!) has helped alert to him the possibilities for what it could be in the future. While the first half of this episode is mostly recap (albeit heartwarming recap that re-orients us with our favorite characters), the second half gets right into the juicy new directions the story will take now that we're back in the 1970s timeline. The idea of a struggle between Yotaro and Yakumo feels like a battle for both the future of rakugo and Yakumo's own soul, as the bitter old codger is determined to let the flawed art that both gave him his life and took everything away from him accompany his soul to hell when he passes.
But rakugo doesn't just belong to Yakumo/Kikuhiko/Bon, and it never did. This may be a low-key character drama about complicated adult emotions, but it's also become a race against time to prove to Yakumo that rakugo has a future in breaking tradition, a future that may still include him even in his twilight years. I hope this means that Yakumo will write his own rakugo to pass down through generations. I hope this means Konatsu will perform rakugo alongside her family members. And I definitely hope we get more shows as well-written and thought-provoking as Rakugo Shinju in the future. For now, I'm just glad we get to see the end of Yakumo's story animated after a whole year of waiting, and that it's already off to such a promising start.
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