Everything about Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a goddamn miracle.
Real life has been taking over my life these past few weeks, but I finally made it to my backlog episodes Rakugo Shinjuu. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but Rakugo Shinjuu’s case, I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed its immersive and effortless fusion of rich cultural settings and satisfying character drama until midway through the fourth episode. A full rakugo performance per episode has now become customary, and you can feel the adoration for its cultural sources seeping through every scene and every line from each character. The amount of detail Rakugo Shinjuu expends on its cultural world almost makes it feel like a documentary of traditional Japanese performing arts, but not once has Rakugo Shinjuu had to rely on clunky info dumps to explain its world. The characters are the culture, and the culture is the characters, and the intimacy to which Kikuhiko and Sukeroku inhabit their art and passion gives as much insight to their characters as to their world.
We’re still technically in flashback mode, but the story now feels like it belongs more to Kikuhiko and Sukeroku than Yotarou. The friendship between Kikuhiko and Sukeroku is the show’s backbone, and much of its success doesn’t just lie with their contrasting personalities, but their refreshing honesty in the way they communicate their feelings with each other. The honesty in the relationship is more conspicuous with Kikuhiko than Sukeroku; Kikuhiko’s aloof and stoic façade belies many insecurities, while Sukeroku never holds back on his brash and spontaneous personality, and we see that dichotomy from the way they behave to the way they dress. Kikuhiko openly admitting his envy of Sukeroku’s natural performing abilities wasn’t just about Kikuhiko’s self-esteem; it’s also about how the deep bond of their friendship enables them to share and forgive feelings of resentment, which in a more clichéd alternate universe his resentment would have stewed until it exploded in a melodramatic outburst of feelings.
Kikuhiko is also a perfectionist, and like all perfectionists, he has a deep well of self-doubt that prevents from truly exposing his true self as a performer. Sukeroku knew Kikuhiko just needed a dose of discomfort to force him out of his own head, and Kikuhiko’s performance — from his dizzying realization that he was actually commanding the audience’s attention to his glorious burst of spirit at the climax of his performance — it was a class act from start to finish, and shows why Rakugo Shinjuu is just so darn good at creating moments that hit on multiple levels of emotion and aesthetic.
When you get out there, sweep your eyes across the room. You’ll have ’em in the palm of your hand.
– Sukeroku’s acting advice
Speaking of class acts, we are introduced to Miyokichi the geisha in this episode, who serves as Rakugo Shinjuu’s fanservice block, but the old-fashioned kind, where Miyokichi is completely in command of her sex appeal using only her womanly guiles, coy smiles, easy confidence, and flirtatious chatter. There aren’t any lingering gazes to Miyokichi’s figure beneath that kimono, but when the camera pans to a bare leg or visible undergarment, it doesn’t serve as titillation for the audience, but a reminder of her character’s sensuality.
Miyokichi also pursued Kikuhiko pretty single-mindedly, a rare feat for a woman of the times, not to mention among female characters in anime. Their relationship is an interesting one; Miyokichi is easygoing, effortlessly charming, and could have any man she wanted, but she went after Kikuhiko despite his hard-nosed and austere appearance. I’m enjoying how their way the gender roles are somewhat reversed in their relationship, where Miyokichi is the pursuer and Kikuhiko is the one awkwardly finding comfort in Miyokichi’s arms. Given that Miyokichi is also Kikuhiko’s teacher’s mistress, everything about their relationship screams of a terrible idea, and it already feels like a story that will lead to much heartbreak and regret.
The problem with the story of Kikuhiko and Sukeroku is that we know how it’s going to end — with Sukeroku’s death and Kikuhiko’s transformation to bitter foster father and greatest rakugo performer of his time. These two episodes showed us how strong Kikuhiko and Sukeroku’s friendship once was; now it’s going to show us how their friendship breaks down.
Other random thoughts:
- Here’s a fun fact about me: my first exposure to Japanese culture was not through anime, but through Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha and its movie remake. I’m certain that whatever I read or watched of the geisha experience was riddled with inaccuracies, and Miyokichi might be the first time that I’d seen a geisha portrayed in anime. But if an anime were to provide insight into the geisha experience, I’m glad it’s under Rakugo Shinjuu reverent hands.
- Again, the camera work, especially with the performance scenes, was exceptional. Excellent character writing aside, I can safely say that those scenes wouldn’t be as effective if the cinematography didn’t work to complement them the way it did.
- Again, the music. So classy and so good at setting the tone of the moment.
- Poor Kikuhiko’s kissing skills are about as natural as a wooden board.
- I’m so glad that Rakugo Shinjuu is also turning out to be a proud and unapologetic showcase of traditional Japanese arts.