Descending Stories: Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū Episode 11
by Gabriella Ekens,
How would you rate episode 11 of
Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju ?
In its penultimate episode, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu takes all of the shinigami talk in a surprisingly literal direction. Following his unexpected (if not untimely) death, we get to watch Yakumo's spirit make its journey into the underworld, which is realized as a grounded, physical space . It turns out that Sukeroku has been waiting for his friend all this time. Following an emotional reunion and the confirmation that Yakumo's death is for real this time, Sukeroku takes him on a tour of purgatory, which manifests as a recreation of Showa Era street life. Brimming with vendor stalls, crowded bath houses, and cooing geishas, it's as if the era died with Yakumo, who gets to visit one last time before departing to the great beyond.
Of course, this vision of the afterlife is taken right out of Japanese belief systems. The general deal is that when you die, you have to cross the river Sanzu (or River of Three Crossings) to reach your final destination. There are different ways of crossing the river, but the easiest one costs money. In Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, that money is explicitly characterized as the product of living a full life, but I've also read that it's based on virtue or even just how much wealth a person had. The best way is a bridge – in Rakugo's case, a boat – that takes you to one of several destinations. There's a lot of variety here, but it seems that Yakumo goes to the paradise analogue (Takama-ga-hara?) where he'll spend eternity chilling and trying to reach enlightenment.
In Kumota's version of this cosmology, this Sanzu-area seems to be a place for people to sweat out their attachments before they can enter the true afterlife. There's hard work to be done, but also a lot of joy. You get one last taste of the world as it was in your youth, which is extremely sweet. Yakumo's wealth upon arrival is attributed to his age, likely meaning that he lived a full and satisfying life. Sukeroku and Miyokichi didn't, so they have to work for a while, sorting out their issues in the process. While the two are hardly passionate partners now, they seem to have come to terms with one another. While this portrayal of the afterlife differs (as far as I can tell) from many of the classical accounts, it remains in the spirit of Japanese Buddhism in that the goal is working through attachment. People who couldn't manage that get remedial time, while those who did receive expedited sentences.
So how are Sukeroku and Miyokichi after all of these years? Well, Sukeroku hasn't changed much. He still mooches off his friend while also prodding him forward. Mostly, he reassures Yakumo that there aren't hard feelings between them and thanks him for raising Konatsu in his absence. He also clarifies just what went down with the shinigami and the burning theater. Apparently, Sukeroku got the shinigami to help him visit his friend, but the god became such a fan that he started scheming up ways to get Yakumo to embrace an unnatural death. They can apparently possess people who die with regrets, and it seems that the shinigami wanted Yakumo for himself. Sukeroku was possessed halfway through his last visit. which explains the eye-reddening – that's when the shinigami took over. This literalizes the metaphor for Yakumo's death-wish within the story world in a neat way, though not strictly necessary.
By contrast, Miyokichi has done some serious soul-searching. For one thing, she's no longer hung up on Kiku-san. (Although she admits that he's still cute.) She regrets her treatment of Konatsu, admitting that – while she was born out of revenge – she still loves her as her daughter. Most revealingly, she says that she's glad to no longer “be confined by the role of woman.” As a woman of low status, Miyo was never given an option besides playing up to guys for money. This ran her ragged as she got older, diminishing her desirability and leaving her without a livelihood. She constantly had to play at what would get men to patronize her and rarely had a chance to be herself. Now she's finally free, and that's eliminated her anger towards others, which was always rooted in the injustices that society dealt her. Having died in such anguish (Sukeroku reveals that the stabbing resulted from a suicide attempt gone wrong), I'm glad that she's now at peace.
This all culminates in some rakugo. The burnt-down theater is now in the afterlife, since buildings have souls too, y'know? There, Yakumo finds himself slated to perform after a series of other masters, proving that he's earned his place in the history of the artform. There's some neat stuff going on here – apparently, there are pillows in the afterlife that conjure up the images of whoever you want to see most. In Sukeroku's case, that's baby Konatsu. She's overjoyed to see her father perform again, and she even clutches her mother in a moment of reconciliation. I like to think that the pillow summons a person's subconscious while they're sleeping or something. That way, this moment would have involved Konatsu herself, rather than just her image. When it's Yakumo's turn to perform, he summons Shinnosuke, who finally gets to see his grandpa perform Jugemu. Before that, it's Sukeroku who gets what may be the show's final full rakugo performance. It's “Fires are the Edo City Flower,” and it concerns a fire patrol that splits up on a snowy night so they can take alternate turns at a hot pot. Of course, someone uses this to mooch by hogging all of the grub. This echoes Yakumo's long separation from his friends, as well as the tenor of their eventual reconciliation. Following two seasons of descent and sorrow, it's good to see these characters receive some uncomplicated joy together.
In the end, it's Yakumo's time to go. As he boards the boat, he and Sukeroku share one last conversation, the most heartfelt of the episode. Sukeroku states that, having been reunited with his old friend, he can finally move on himself. He just needs to work up the money. The two promise to reunite, pinky swearing in an overt echo of their adolescent promise from way back in episode three. This time, it's Sukeroku who's left behind as his friend gets ushered into paradise – led there by Matsuda, who gets to see his master off in one final act of mercy by the Buddha. Matsuda for MVP.
Next week, we'll get to see how the living cast got on following grandpa's death. It looks like this will be sometime in the 2000s, so the babies are grown up. Konatsu's daughter(!) sips some Starbucks, while hipster Shin-chan listens to something (my bet is Avril Lavigne) on some earbuds. The Showa Era is long gone, folks. Shin's grown up to look a lot like Kiku, and I look forward to finding out how his family has grappled with his memory some 15 years after his death. We've reached the end, and Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu remains a solid masterpiece as we reach the curtain call and final goodbyes.
Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.
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