Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu Eps. 6 & 7

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.

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu Eps. 4 & 5

Everything about Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a goddamn miracle.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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  • 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.

First impressions, part 4

Final part of my first impressions of this winter season. I had meant to make these write-ups a lot shorter, so clearly learning to prune my thoughts is something that I need to work on if I want to be a more efficient writer. I think a quota of eight shows to watch “seriously” is enough for per week, but I do have a couple other “fun” shows that I’m watching I won’t expend to much analytical thought on. I’ll try to drop off some periodic impressions on those shows if I get to them. Anyhow, feel free to read on!

 

77834Akagami no Shirayuki-hime Season 2

Coming back to a second season of Snow White with the Red Hair is like returning home after a long, hard slog. The art and aesthetic remains warm and inviting, and the characters are as likable and adorable as they were in the first season as they were in the first season.

I didn’t think I would like Snow White as much as I did when I first saw it last year. Even though it actually doesn’t have a lot in common with the original Snow White tale, it’s still extremely Disney-esque in its execution, from the setting to the music and the romance between dashing Prince Zen and court herbalist Shirayuki. Unless Disney princesses of
yore, Shirayuki isn’t a hapless damsel in distress, but an intelligent, independent young woman capable of finding her way out of difficult situations using her guile and wits. Conflicts are remarkably low-key, and any conflict presented was basically a push forward for Zen and Shirayuki’s relationship. This hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing — the show knows that its focus is Zen and Shirayuki’s growing relationship, and is so far executing their story with grace and respect.

Nothing actually happened for the first fifteen minutes of this episode — we are reintroduced the characters and peaceful world that they inhabit. What stood out were Obi and Ryuu’s interactions, which were warm, fuzzy, and absolutely adorable; boy genius Ryuu hasn’t done much since he was introduced as Shirayuki’s mentor, while Obi has cemented himself as one of the more perceptive characters of the cast. There were a lot of little character moments between the two — Obi stifling a laugh when Ryuu accidentally bumped his head and Ryuu’s expression of confused pleasure when being carried on the shoulders by Ryuu — a showcase for their personalities that hadn’t been explored much before. Ryuu has seemingly always been treated as an esteemed court herbalist and never as a twelve-year-old boy, and seeing his reactions to Obi affably knocking down those walls is a welcome perspective to his character.

Only in the final few minutes were potential conflicts introduced for the rest of the season. Mihaya, a minor antagonist from the first season who seems like he might become a major player, returns to warn Shirayuki that a bishōnen teenaged boy named Kazuki is after her. Shirayuki, meanwhile, is ordered by Zen’s older brother, Prince Izana, to attend a diplomatic ball in her home country of Tanbarun. Zen, of course, is having none of this, so he orders Mitsuhide to accompany Shirayuki to Tanbarun. So far it doesn’t seem like these two storylines are connected, but it’s nice to see Snow White building some new plot lines that could add a lot more color to its already colorful world.

Random observations:

  • Prince Raj of Tanbarun is as spoiled as ever, but at least we get to see some background to how he became the little shit he is today.
  • I was slightly surprised that Zen asked Mitsuhide instead of Obi to accompany Shirayuki to Tanbarun, but that’s fine, because then maybe we’ll get to see more of Ryuu riding on Obi’s shoulders.
  • I have a feeling Shirayuki knows something about the mysterious teenager that the viewers don’t. We actually know very little about Shirayuki’s background, so I’m hoping this Kazuki character will shed some light on her story.
  • I only just realized this now, but Snow White is the might be the first fantasy anime whose world isn’t mired in an apocalyptic war. Peaceful kingdoms might not make very explosive storytelling, but it’s really allowed Snow White to talk about the intricacies of running a kingdom. I’m hoping that the Tanbarun storyline will have some interesting things to say about diplomacy and negotiation between countries.

 

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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu

Safe to say there’s nothing like Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu this season.

I did come into this premiere having only knowing that this was going to be set during the Shōwa period, or sometime in the 1950s or 60s. I had, however, no idea what rakugo was until I did some quick research (i.e., Wikipedia) before jumping into this episode. From what I gathered, rakugo is a form of verbal entertainment where a storyteller sits on a stage with nothing more than a paper fan and a tenugui (an all-purpose piece of Japanese cloth) as props and regales a comical, complicated story with two or more characters. Something like a live-action narration of an audiobook, if you will.

Shouwa’s premise is fairly simple. Yotaro is happy-go-lucky ex-con who seeks out a star rakugo performer named Yakumo to be his apprentice. Yakumo had once performed at the prison where Yotaro was incarcerated, and inspired Yotaro to take up rakugo once he was released. Yakumo is a grumpy and somewhat arrogant codger but begrudgingly takes him on, but begins to regret his decision when Yotaro’s rakugo style begins to remind him of his late friend and rival Sakuroku, who also happens to be the father of Yakumo’s ward Konatsu.

This episode was twice the normal runtime of an anime episode, and it took full advantage of its length to really breathe life into the characters and the world of rakugo. Yotaro, for one, is a louder-than-life character, with his Cheshire-cat like grin, all-or-nothing personality, and rambunctious performance style. Yakumo is unrivaled in his technical skill who can’t quite seem to shake off the shadow of his old rival nor the resemblance between Yotaro and Sakuroku’s performance styles. Meanwhile, Konatsu is still enveloped by her father’s shadow, holding plenty of resentment toward Yakumo for reasons still unknown, while intrigued by Yotaro because of his resemblance to her father. Konatsu also harbors a desire to step into her father’s rakugo shoes, but is held back by the gender norms of her time.

Shouwa really reminds me of Sakamichi no Apollon, another anime that was set around the 1950s and 60s. The atmosphere and aesthetics, slightly sepia tones, distinctive but understated character designs, and the music — we see of this in the opening montage scene that immediately sets the setting for the rest of the series. This show is exemplary at art of showing, instead of telling, story and complexities. There were many wonderful and subtle character moments in this episode, from Konatsu wishing out loud that he had been born a man to her and Yakumo’s terse interactions in their car, but my favorite scene by far was Yotaro’s premiere rakugo performance. I liked that the show decided to show his entire performance, and it was breathtaking. The way the camera switched perspectives each time Yotaro’s changes characters, the close-ups on his hand gestures and nervously-clenched feet and beads of sweat on his neck, the shots of Konatsu mouthing the words along with Yotaro, and the jazzy, upbeat music that sneaked in halfway through his performance and swelled as Yotaro reached the comedic climax of his story — it was stunning showcase of character and personality and a wonderful initiation to rakugo.

Shouwa is the adult entry for this anime season, and I don’t say that because I’m anime braggart of any sort (I binge-watched High School of the Dead and enjoyed every second of its ridiculousness). Anime has an obsession with the high school experience and characters under 20 years old. I have nothing against high school antics — heck, some of the best anime in recent years have high-school age characters — but it’s just nice to see a more mature show that doesn’t have a hint of moë. So I can understand why this show got so many “they don’t make shows like this anymore” type of reactions. It just shows anime is an art form that can pretty much tell any kind of story with the appropriate direction and animation.