Playing catch-up: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju Eps. 2 & 3

There’s only one way I can describe this period anime about an antiquated Japanese performing art: it’s bloody cool. Perhaps it’s the characters, whom we see growing and changing before our very eyes; perhaps it’s rakugo itself, which requires more than a bit of charisma to pull off; perhaps it’s the atmosphere of the anime, which is brimming with style and history. I was completely enraptured, even though at its core, these two episodes are simply about the friendship and coming-of-age stories of two young men.

Shouwa’s premiere set up a lot of questions for their characters, and the biggest question of all was about Yuurakutei Sukeroku, Konatsu’s deceased father, Yakumo’s lifelong friend, and Yotarou’s uncanny likeness. At the end of last episode, Yakumo decides to open up his past to Konatsu and Yotarou, setting up a flashback before the start of World War II. I’m not a big fan of flashbacks, especially if the flashbacks take time away from the main cast of characters with whom we’d already been acquainted with. But it’s working just fine for Yakumo’s backstory, partly because Shouwa is taking its time to fully flesh out his close friendship with Sukeroku.

Yakumo and Sukeroku had been training under the same rakugo master since they were children, and both of them have completely polar personalities even though they have similarly tragic backgrounds. Yakumo, who had been walking with a limp since young, is stoic and serious; Sukeroku, on the other hand, could easily be Yotarou’s doppelgänger: rambunctious, carefree, and fervently passionate about rakugo. I’m actually surprised that Yakumo didn’t have bigger emotional reaction now that we’ve seen how ridiculously similar Sukeroku and Yotarou are.

ep3-4

Unlike other coming-of-age stories, their friendship didn’t take long to flower; the two formed an awkward bond after the brash Sukeroku easily broke down Yakumo’s emotional walls. Everything about their friendship feels real and natural — the way their characters play off each other, how their performance styles somehow mirror both their personalities and their relationship — it was like watching an intimate portrait of their teenage lives in Tokyo. This flashback is told from Yakumo’s eyes, however, and I was slightly surprised to find out that Yakumo was considerably less of a rakugo talent than Sukeroku. Yakumo was forced into rakugo and taught himself to love it, but Sukeroku, not unlike Youtarou, was enamored with the art from the beginning. Their differences in skill level were apparent from their first performances — Sukeroku was so much more creative and expressive, with the way he used his props, and his unabashed facial expressions and bold hand gestures. Yakumo, like his personality, was technically proficient but aesthetically monotonous. Yakumo did seem to harbor feelings of envy and bitterness, and though those emotions didn’t fester long, the behavior of current-day Yakumo suggests that those emotions eventually made an unwelcome return. But Yakumo and Sukeroku loved each other in the most fraternal way possible, and you could probably make a pretty good argument that their chemistry stemmed from more than just friendship.

Shouwa is so very skilled at illustrating a complete view of its world that we don’t actually notice how detailed it is. Yakumo and Sukeroku both came of age through the World War II, and we got to see the effects of the war on a smaller and more intimate scale. The conclusion of the Second World War was one of Japan’s darkest periods, and although Shouwa acknowledged its oppressive influence on Japanese society and economy, I’m glad it didn’t stray too far into the war’s grimmer repercussions. Instead, Shouwa smartly decided to show how the war affected its characters, for better or for worse. Yakumo was forced to split from his first love, whose only brother was enlisted by the army, leaving her as the only child left to care for an ailing grandmother. With Tokyo’s dwindling population, the rakugo scene took a hit, forcing the boys’ master to take Sukeroku to Manchuria so they could earn a living by entertaining the local troops. In one of Shouwa’s rarer emotional scenes, Yakumo abandonment issues come back to haunt him when he questions why he wasn’t chosen to accompany his master to Manchuria. The other big, well-earned emotional moment was when Sukeroku and the master finally return home after many years; in terms of anime runtime, it had barely been ten minutes since their last appearance, but Shouwa did so well at building a sense of temporal prolonging over the war period that their reunion was worth every sob and tear.

I could easily write pages more to attest for how effortlessly good these two episodes were. What I’ll say instead is that this flashback story of boyhood friendship far has felt incredibly complete — the character dynamics and development, the authentic, grounded atmosphere, the careful camera work and art direction, the perfectly complementary music, the attention to detail — this tale of antiquated performance art continues to be ridiculously wonderful to watch.

ep3-7

Other random thoughts:

  • The music in Shouwa is so great and been used so well to complement different scenes. Yakumo and Sukeroku’s first rakugo performances, for instance — Yakumo’s anxious performance is matched by a tense, angst-filled, piano-driven jazz number, while an upbeat, cello-squeaking, swinging melody accompanied Sukeroku’s electric performance.
  • That OP and ED are beautiful to watch and listen to.
  • The VAs for the younger and older Yakumo are doing an incredible job at keeping Yakumo’s vocal inflections and intonations consistent.
  • Another piece of trouble with flashbacks: pacing can really become a problem, especially since you don’t want to stay away from your main cast for too long. But instead of framing the flashbacks as obligatory exposition, Shouwa chose to focus on Yakumo and Sukeroku’s journey, and I think the emotional payoff will be huge when we finally get to their falling out and Sukeroku’s eventual death.

ep3-8

  • Apparently rakugo performers change their names each time they are promoted to a higher rank, which meant that Yakumo and Sukeroku were known as Kikuhiko and Hatsutoro for these few episodes. For the sake of everyone’s sanity, I’m just going to be consistent and stick with Yakumo and Sukeroku.
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6 thoughts on “Playing catch-up: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju Eps. 2 & 3

  1. If there’s one thing anime has taught me over the years, it’s that the simplest of stories can make for some of the very best of shows (and movies). Rakugo Shinjuu strikes me as an extremely restrained title in a lot of ways, so I can’t help but think that a more complicated storyline would have been at odds with its style. It’s a superbly classy series, but in a ‘less is more’ kind of way, which I love.

    • Yeah, I only realized how remarkably simple its premise is as I working on this write-up. It’s funny, isn’t it, because aren’t we taught that “less is more” is most of our writing classes? But there really aren’t that many anime out there that actually subscribe to the “less is more” principle.

      • Yeah. I think Studio Ghibli is usually pretty reliable on the “less is more” front as well, though as far as televised anime is concerned, the last title I can think of that really nailed that for me was Usagi Drop. I guess it was about time for another one – here’s hoping Rakugo Shinjuu can keep it up right through to the end.

      • I’ve embarrassed to admit that I’ve only seen two Ghibli films 😐 — Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. The other films are on my perpetually expanding to-watch list. And yeah, I didn’t think of Ghibli at all since their stories always have some degree of fantastical elements in them. Although this might depend on how we’re defining “less is more”? If we’re talking simple character-focused stories, Spirited Away might qualify; stripping away the fantasy elements, it’s simply the story of a young girl forced to grow up amidst extenuating circumstances. Maybe you can add Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro in there too.

        (Another embarrassing fact about my lack of Ghibli viewing experience: I only remember the stories for Kiki and Totoro because I’d read the novelized picture books of those films as a child.)

        I haven’t watched Usagi Drop (I’ll add it to my bulging to-watch list), but I’m now thinking of Kimi to Boku as also fully utilizing the “less is more” concept (which some might argue ran with “less is more” until it was almost languid), and perhaps Sakamichi no Apollon. I think I’ve mentioned that in my write-up as the anime that most resembles Rakugo Shinjuu, at least in terms of atmosphere, music, and undying passion for an art form.

        By the way, thanks for continually dropping by with your thoughtful comments! I’ve definitely been enjoying our discussions so far 🙂

      • I think when I say “less is more” I’m mostly thinking about the idea of negative space. For example, one of the things I dislike about a lot of anime is that they tend to have a lot of dialogue that’s unnecessary in order to get an idea or a feeling across. One of the reasons I like Ghibli (and especially Totoro!) a lot is that the scenes tend to speak for themselves, and everything that’s unnecessary is stripped away. Usagi Drop struck me as being quite similar in that respect, which is why I also mentioned that in my comment.

        And you’re welcome! I really enjoy being able to talk about stuff like this with like-minded people. Whether we agree or disagree is secondary to the fact that I’m able to have a good conversation. 🙂

      • Ahh thanks for clarifying. I think I’ve made it pretty obvious in most of my posts that visual storytelling is really what gets my blood pumping; just the little details and character movements that say a lot more about the story than simple dialogue could. I think dialogue can be pretty powerful if done delicately — I loved OreGairu, but I could barely get through two episodes of Bakemonogatari. It probably just comes down to personal taste.

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