You’re so close it makes me jealous.
– Miyokichi’s words that mean more than she realizes
Find a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life — so goes the most famous of aphorisms, which like many other axioms of inspiration, greatly simplifies the complications of reality. Rakugo Shinjuu brought the question of passion to the forefront in this episode, and as Kikuhiko learns, in his constant questioning of his own capabilities, passion for a profession isn’t something that is as black and white as Confucius once alleged. Passion, talent, and persistence inextricably and often inexplicably intertwined, like when Kikuhiko gets inexplicably lauded for a performance of an art that isn’t his forte, but doesn’t get anywhere the same level of praise for the art that is supposedly his forte. It was a painfully ironic reflection of how’d always lived his life — obedient, subservient, and compliant, from the time he was apprenticed out by his geisha guardians to the local rakugo master, to his effortless ability turn on his charm when the situation requires it. Kikuhiko didn’t choose rakugo of his own volition; he resigned himself to love rakugo because it was the only path available to him. Sukeroku, on the other hand, wasn’t given a rakugo apprenticeship; he demanded and beseeched for it, and nothing (except booze and girls) now matters to Sukeroku but rakugo.
So it’s not just talent that separates Kikuhiko and Sukeroku: it’s also passion. That realization was almost debilitating — not only does Sukeroku seem to know Kikuhiko’s performance style better Kikuhiko does himself, Sukeroku knows exactly the inspirations that drives his rakugo. Kikuhiko has a full-out existential crisis — why and for whom does he practice his rakugo? What defines his drive, his fire, his dogmatic devotion? Can his passion even be considered legitimate without being unequivocally validated But much like his showstopper the week before, his epiphany came to him under the gaze of his audience — he performs rakugo for himself, not for anyone nor anything else. It’s a strangely simple conclusion and another interesting contrast between the two friends — Sukeroku’s inspirations are completely external, but Kikuhiko’s inspiration comes from within. For Kikuhiko, who had constantly used Sukeroku as a standard bearer against his own abilities, it was only natural that he would extend that comparison to even their personal motivations.
Unfortunately for Miyokichi, Kikuhiko’s epiphany doesn’t bode well for their budding relationship, although there might not have been even a single bud to begin with. I can’t quite gauge Kikuhiko’s feelings for Miyokichi, since he seems only fond of the apprentice geisha whenever it’s convenient for him. For all his stately mannerisms and sartorial elegance, Kikuhiko isn’t very emotionally mature: he is terrible at communicating his feelings, leading her on while simultaneously pushing her away. It’s a classic case of “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone”, and with Kikuhiko leaving for a month to travel with his master, we’re on track for sparks to start flying between Sukeroku and Miyokichi. Unlike Kikuhiko, whose personality can be colder than a Sapporo winter, Sukeroku’s heart is permanently plastered on his sleeve, which by default makes him a much better communicator than the even-keeled Kikuhiko. Both Sukeroku and Miyokichi are open books when it comes to their emotions, and it’s poetically fitting that they’re both drawn to someone who is completely unlike them in character and comportment. Kikuhiko might be dismissive of their antics, though it’s clear that he enjoys that attention, but with the unspoken caveat that those interactions are on his own terms. You can’t have your cake and eat it too — so goes another well-known aphorism, which in this case, portends the unfortunate future that we know will come to pass.
Behind its rich traditions and cultures, Rakugo Shinjuu is telling a very simple story, one that’s been told a hundred times before. But like all good stories, the essence isn’t in the plot, but in the execution. Rakugo Shinjuu’s best decision was to singularly focus their story on Kikuhiko and Sukeroku’s friendship; they could have been alien fishmongers on a mission to capture a mermaid princess for all I care, but it all comes down to a classic tale of friendship between two compelling and well-rounded human beings.
Other random thoughts:
- Every rakugo performance has been a lesson in effectively using camera angles, character expression and body language, and sound and music to tell a story.
- I loved how Kikuhiko’s performance was framed to come right after Sukeroku’s to contrast their different performing styles.
- The reveal that Kikuhiko had once wanted to be a geisha paralleled Konatsu’s desire to become a rakugo performer that we saw from the first episode.
- I hope we get more background to Kikuhiko’s upbringing in that geisha house.
- Kikuhiko and Sukeroku are both incredibly stubborn, which is the one thing they have in common.
- Sukeroku is a classic case of being too talented for one’s own good. His passion for rakugo is obvious; his perseverance less so.
- I could almost feel my heart break when Sukeroku started telling Kikuhiko about his plans for them to one day do a two-man show.