Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū [Episodes 1-13 Streaming]
As Japan bustles towards the future, one man finds himself enchanted by the past. Yotaro, a man recently released from prison, is obsessed with rakugo - the traditional style of one-man theater, a rich and storied art form that, in the age of television and radio, is slowly becoming obsolete. Yotaro was inspired by a performance by the master artist Yakumo, and begs his idol to take him on as an apprentice. But Yakumo is hesitant to take on a student, and his reasons spiral back across decades of loss and betrayal. There is a secret in the dying of this art, and a tragedy waiting to be uncovered. But to reveal this secret will require going back to the beginning, when Yakumo was just an unhappy boy forced into a life of performance.
We don't often get shows like Rakugo Shinju. The show is a period drama inside a period drama, introducing us to Yotaro, a hopeful student of rakugo in the 1970s, before cutting back to tell the story of his master Yakumo, when he was a mere student known as Kikuhiko. It's a drama of duty and identity, tracking the decline of rakugo in Japan's postwar media explosion through the story of Kikuhiko, his fellow student Sukeroku, and their mutual paramour Miyokichi. Through their story, it draws a sharp image of a specific artistic culture while also sculpting sharp character profiles, reflecting on the nature of an artist's life, and offering bravura performance scenes that truly bring rakugo to life.
By premise alone, it seems to be a clear prestige project, one of those rare and precious adult dramas that somehow slip into the anime production line. But on top of that, it's also blessed with a fantastic director, Shinichi Omata, a man who's emerged from the Shaft school to just now be coming into his own as a creator. Omata's hand is clear in Rakugo Shinju's visual storytelling; from the performances to the everyday scenes and the occasional visual fantasies, the show is a triumph of visual storytelling.
Rakugo Shinju is an intentionally theatrical tragedy, staged something like a rakugo performance itself, and so Omata's purposeful and occasionally ostentatious visual style is a great fit for the material. The everyday scenes have a sense of gravitas fostered through the dramatic shot framing, and the backgrounds and color work strongly amplify this effect. The show is garnished with countless small details of visual storytelling, used to both manage tone and also either echo or foreshadow the events of the narrative. The use of light and shadow can shift from reflecting the relationship between two characters to isolating someone within their own life, and the relationship of characters to their environment always carries an emotive weight even if it's not being parsed as a coherent symbol.
And beyond the everyday scenes, the show's rakugo performances have to be seen to be believed. It is in these sequences that Omata's careful management of the screen becomes most tangibly relevant - by constantly shifting perspective, he is able to capture these performances from the perspective of both the audience and the performer, making both the joy and exhaustion of artistry real to the audience. Characters are smartly framed as if they're conducting conversations with themselves, and different performers are accompanied with very different visual framing.
The voice actors also deserve specific credit here. The show's cast is uniformly exemplary, aiding greatly in bringing these stories to life. Akira Ashida's central performance as Kikuhiko can occasionally seem a little strained, but his affectation almost fits for a melodrama focused on performance. Overall, the voice work is quite excellent, managing to rise to the occasion of a show that really demands more from its performers. And the music is a great match for the actors, a classy mix of percussion-heavy jazz and horns that smartly manages the tempo of the performers, topped off by a fantastic opening song and slow-burning, melancholy ending.
The show unfortunately doesn't have consistent animation throughout, somewhat limiting the emotive effect of the show's later performances. Early on, characters are given greater life through regular tics of physical motion; later, it's just the restless direction that brings both the performances and everyday sequences to life. It's a frustrating weakness in what's otherwise one of the show's greatest strengths, but overall, Rakugo Shinju consistently succeeds in making a niche art form utterly tangibly and even captivating.
The show's storytelling is equally well-composed, though perhaps not the equal of the direction. Rakugo Shinju is an ostentatiously theatrical tragedy; after the opening double-length episode introducing Yotaro, the entire story is dedicated to telling exactly how Kikuhiko got to his current situation. You know from the start how the story will end, and so the narrative is just a slow build towards an inevitable tragic conclusion.
As far as base narrative composition goes, the story is quite strong. Rakugo Shinju builds Kikuhiko, Sukeroku, and Miyokichi into coherent, multifaceted characters with understandably conflicting goals, and every turn of the plot rings with a larger-than-life sense of inevitability. The way the story integrates the changing times of Japan is graceful as well, and the show's regular reflections on what art means to these characters gives it a welcome touch of thematic personality.
However, the show's embracing of its own melodramatic, theatrical forms also ends up being its greatest weakness. Because the story is so larger than life in its construction and telling (dramatic speeches about lover's suicides, flowery discussions on the fate of rakugo as contrasted against the heroes, tearful deathbed confessions), it can often feel somewhat impersonal. I respected this story more than I felt moved by it - the characters never truly came to life for me in a personal sense, in spite of being reasonably well-realized people.
It's an issue that comes down to both style and construction. The show allows little intimacy with its characters; many of the scenes that would traditionally be dedicated to character development are here dramatized through rakugo performances, meaning the characters articulate the symbolic twist of an emotional turn more than its tangible, lived experience. The show's consistent use of symbolism in place of characterization is intelligent and well-considered, but also not a true replacement for scenes of offhand intimacy. And many of the actual character exchanges come across as more purposeful than human, a mix of plot movement and heightened dramatic affectation that leave little room for base human interaction. Rakugo is one of those shows where you can't really imagine the characters having any conversations outside of the ones you see on-screen.
But ultimately, my frustrations about not being able to emotionally engage with the show are only relevant because I wanted to love it more, because everything else about the show is so good. And even if the show fails at achieving emotional universality, that doesn't mean it will be a failure for you - the nice thing about characterization is that only seeking universality is punished in this way, and for people who can already relate to the specific trials of these characters (or the show's overall hyper-heightened dramatic modes), my issues likely won't exist. I'm saddened that Rakugo Shinju isn't ultimately a show that connects with me emotionally, but that should not dissuade you from giving it a try.
Ultimately, Rakugo Shinju is a rare and important show. From its strong underlying narrative to gorgeous direction and top-tier performances, it is a jewel. The animation isn't great, and the show's style of characterization isn't for everyone, but there's so much good here that it's hard not to recommend. This team should be proud of what they've accomplished, and I'm already looking forward to the second season.
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : C+
Art : A+
Music : A
+ Tells a smartly composed tragedy lifted by fantastic direction and great music; the actual rakugo performances are remarkable.
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