Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū
Episodes 1-2

by Gabriella Ekens,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū ?

The first thing to understand about Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū is that it belongs to a genre of entertainment that rarely appears in anime. It's a prestige period drama, the likes of which you see nominated for Oscars or airing on PBS – only, you know, this one's animated and from Japan. Since anime fans tend to lean more toward the fantastic and escapist, this grounded-but-thoroughly-foreign fare will have limited appeal in the West. While a good 90% of anime leads are high-schoolers, the principal actors here are people who've already lived out a big chunk of their lives. The series deals with emotions that the average anime watcher (a teenager or twenty-something) might not be able to relate to. That doesn't mean that Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū is necessarily "better" or "deeper" than more typical fare. It just means that my standards for evaluating this show (and others standards for enjoying it) may be very different. If you watch stuff like Mad Men or Downton Abbey for fun, you'd probably enjoy Rakugo. But if those shows leave you pining for giant robots and superpowers, this is an easy skip.

In some ways, you can think of Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū as a “sports anime” in that it's all about one particular physical activity (that can in some situations be competitive). That activity just happens to be rakugo - a form of Japanese performance art. I had never heard of rakugo before this show, and if you're like me, you might want a breezy explanation. A rakugo performance consists of the seated, stationary performer acting out a comical story with the help of limited props. These stories are dialogue based, and the rakugoka (rakugo performer) plays every role. Different characters are represented by variations in the performer's voice, tone, and posture. To an outsider, one of the more immediately impressive things about rakugo is how successfully these subtle changes in mannerisms can represent different people. The closest thing to rakugo in contemporary western culture is probably stand-up comedy. While there are now established lineages of rakugo performers, it was originally (and in some ways still is) populist entertainment. Unlike stand-up comedy, where each performer creates their own material, all rakugoka draw from a shared canon. Any rakugoka can stage the same set the same way any theater can stage Hamlet, but different performers can perform the same set in different ways. That appears to be the predominant conflict in Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū. The master, Yakumo, has a restrained and deliberate style. By contrast, his apprentice is raucous and bombastic. The show may end up exploring how individual artists can chafe with convention, and the role that plays in the development of an art.

So here's the story so far. Sometime in the 1970s, a small-time Japanese punk named Kyoji gets out of prison. Rather than return to his life of petty crime, Kyoji has obtained a dream – to study under one of Japan's rakugo masters and become a performer himself! He was inspired by a master rakugoka, Yakumo Yurakutei the Eighth, who did a charitable performance at the prison during Kyoji's internment. Having nothing better to do on the outside, Kyoji books it to Yakumo and badgers the gentleman into taking him on as an apprentice. At first amused by the former criminal, Yakumo soon realizes that the young man is serious and tries to dissuade him, hinting at some unseen harshness to the profession. However, Kyoji remains adamant. Ultimately, Yakumo is forced to take him on as an apprentice in name only, allowing Kyoji to stay in his home but leaving all training off the table. Forced to teach himself, Kyoji begins developing a raucous and energetic style similar to that of Yakumo's deceased frenemy, Sukeroku Yuurakutei. This is further complicated by the fact that Yakumo has adopted Sukeroku's orphaned daughter, Konatsu, who idealizes her birth father. Obsessed with his legacy while also harboring her own artistic ambitions, she's both resentful of and overjoyed by Sukeroku's apparent reincarnation in Kyoji's performance. Konatsu also detests Yakumo for some unspecified reason. As the two continue to blossom as artists on their own terms, Yakumo hangs over them, preoccupied by some dark history between him and Sukeroku. It seems that these two young people are bound to inherit emotional baggage from their spiritual and biological parents. Eventually, Yakumo gets fed up with Kyoji's imitation of Sukeroku. When Kyoji makes the faux pas of sleeping through Yakumo's performance, the master expels him. Kyoji is initially heartbroken, but Konatsu convinces him to beg Yakumo to take him back. He does, and Kyoji finally becomes Yakumo's true student and heir to the art of rakugo.

That's all just in the first (double-length) episode. The second cuts to some 50 years in the past to show us the early friendship between Yakumo and Sukeroku. On that note, since performers inherit names like titles at certain points in their careers, they use different names throughout the episode. For the sake of simplicity, I'll keep calling them Yakumo and Sukeroku, but they change names when they become acknowledged as performers. The two first met as children when they began their apprenticeship to become the next Yakumo Yurakutei. Our Yakumo, then called Bon, was employed as a child dancer until a crippling leg injury ruined his career. His mother, a geisha, could no longer afford to take care of him, so she sold him into a rakugo apprenticeship, which he had no interest in. There, he met Shin-san – our future Sukeroku – a street urchin desperate to study rakugo. When his novice routine manages to draw a laugh out of the endlessly dour Bon, Yakumo Sr. agrees to take him on as well. The two boys (very different in personality, but equally tragic in circumstance) form a fast friendship when Sukeroku helps Yakumo Jr. grieve over his parental abandonment. A decade or so later, they both premiere as rakugoka under the names Hatsutaro (Sukeroku) and Kikuhiko (Yakumo). Despite having practiced intensely, Yakumo flubs his debut, lacking any confidence before a crowd. By contrast, Sukeroku easily enthralls the room, bringing them to riotous laughter. Even the freshly-burned Yakumo has to smile. In the back, Yakumo Sr. seems to disapprove. For now, that's all we know.

So initially, Sukeroku was by far the more passionate and successful apprentice. While Yakumo was brought into rakugo by misfortune, Sukeroku feels genuine passion for the art. However, we know Bon will eventually inherit the prized name of Yakumo. The question right now is what happened in those interim years. Is the elderly Yakumo still dispassionate about rakugo? We know that he's developed into quite a skilled performer. What were the circumstances behind Sukeroku's death, and how do they inform the Yakumo we know? It looks like this might be a story about what makes people passionate about art.

Directorially, the most impressive thing about Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū is how it manages to convey the feeling of a successful rakugo performance. The crux of rakugo seems to rely on whether you believe the performer as several separate people in performance. In the first episode, Kyoji's debut is signaled to be successful by the dynamic editing. There are frequent cuts, particularly when he switches characters, to tell viewers that he's acting out different people with distinct trains of thought. They're unusual cuts too – jump cuts and editing choices typically used to depict a conversation between multiple people, even though there's only one person (Kyoji) in these shots. The series uses filmic language to convey something that rakugo would normally do in its own language (tone, posture, mannerisms). The character animation is good, but animation would still have greater trouble capturing the subtle expressive mannerisms that go into rakugo. So the show compensates with cinematography, and to great effect. This is highlighted in the second episode, where we see a bad rakugo performance. The camera hardly ever cuts away, making us view the dialogue as coming from one indistinct and uncomfortable character, which makes his performance ineffective. These held shots also convey the tension of a flailing performance versus the easy dynamism of a successful one. It's not flashy direction, but Showa Genroku manages to translate the feeling of rakugo directly into the language of film. Trying to depict one artistic medium through another is always a challenge, but this show pulls it off with discreet grace. (I've got to watch some films that feature rakugo to see whether Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū invented this technique or borrowed it.)

It helps that everything in this story is rooted in character. This isn't the kind of “sports anime” that just depicts the activity for its own sake. This is a story about people, told through their relationships to rakugo. So far, every performance has had character significance. The first episode's infamous ten-minute long performance works because Kyoji (performing as "Yotaro") is using it to convince his former boss to let him leave the gang in peace. The comedic routine is really layered seduction. Kyoji has to convince his audience that he's several different people talking to each other, so he can also convince his boss to let him go. At the same time, the show needs to convince the viewer that presenting a centuries-old, ten-minute comedic monologue in its entirety is not only an acceptable but entertaining narrative choice. Call me a sucker, but I bought it.

Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū has set the stage for a heady character drama about passion for a discipline, intergenerational regret, and how individual practitioners shape their art. It reminds me of Kids on the Slope – another period piece about people growing up and discovering their love for something. No complaints here. On with the show!

Grade: A

Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.

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