I would like to apologize for the delay, it was my fault for not making the research needed before I got into this Anime. I thought there was only one season; when I realized there was a second one, I thought of making a two part review. I judged the book by it’s cover but it wasn’t undeserving for reasons we will touch during this review. My ego got the best of me and I was confident that the second season had nothing to do with the first one, or at least it would play a muted role. I thought that the story would forget about the main characters’ past and we would move on with somebody else like I have watched in other cases.
I was wrong and I am ashamed. So I post this “prologue” for the World Wide Web to see that it is never a good idea to judge an anime based on poor promotional choices from the marketing department and to never underestimate manga artists, anime staff and what they can do.
The following contains heavy spoilers. Reader’s discretion is advised.
If you were to ask me, I would say that generational themes are the hardest to pull off.
I am not saying that other themes are less difficult or less extensive in research, however, successful generational themes requires an immense talent to create a linear story that encapsulates many factors: it requires relentless exposition on the context to create the ideal environment; it requires the premise to be interesting, compelling and engaging while being simple at its core; it requires an ample amount of characters and constant work on characterizations (how much do you change a character through his story without drastically changing his personality, and how long will it be before it starts to grow stale), creating empathy, familiarity and patterns based on personalities while laying out the flaws in each one of them while still being likable.
Generational works are a capsule in time while being part of a bigger picture. Memories (in the form of flashbacks), symbolism, remembrance, comparisons, references and Easter eggs have to be brought up at many points in the story to remind you: everything the characters do is determined by what other characters did in the past.
In the end “passing down the torch” themes are lengthy, dramatic and somber works. Just go to western movies, series and musicals to find out. If they don’t come in endless sequels in films they come in the form of songs with endless lyrics, dialogues and 3rd person narration.
Japanese animation and manga deal with those themes, especially in Shounen manga and I marvel how how these authors are able to squeeze with these themes taking in consideration the tone, context and the unspoken rules of Shounen manga magazines. However, Shounen authors have to sacrifice some of the previously mentioned factors within the story to make generational themes “work”: the pacing or endless necessary flashbacks; being blatant or artistic; focus on the events or focus on the characters, so on and so forth.
The theme of generations in Seinen manga is pretty much non-existent since the topics covered are akin to psychological, socio-political issues and commentary, and are more worried to lay out a cynical and grim reality to spark discussion rather than to tell an inspiring story.
Shoujo and Josei seem more open to the idea of generational traditions, although shoujo manga has their set of unspoken rules and ultimately has to force the theme the same way Shounen manga does.
Most of the titles I have seen from Josei manga delve into more mature themes that include fetishes, dysfunctional relationships, mildly sexual love stories, abusive/romantic affairs and betrayals… things you see in Mexican Telenovelas. However, there are gems. Gems that can’t be boxed into one theme or genre; gems that can be as inspiring as Shounen is without the exaggeration; gems that be thought provoking without the need to be overly dramatic or have an extreme context; gems that can transcend ages, demographics and even preferences of topics.
I found a gem: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu.
It’s a gem that has transcended the black and white pages. The animation raised the bar so high that it is impossible for me to not to talk about adaptation and translation of text to cinematography, once again.
To respect everyone’s time I will be referring to the series as Showa Rakugo from now on.
What is Raguko?
I think that this section is very important to note since the anime touches upon an ancient art form that has been around since the 1600-1700s.
I would like to point out that my knowledge on this topic comes from the involvement from the comedian and Rakugo master Tsukitei Hosei. He made me check it out to form my opinions about the art a long time ago.
If you want to read more about how Rakugo is structured in modern times, I can recommend Rakugo: Performing Comedy and Cultural Heritage in Contemporary Tokyo. It follows the experience of Laurie Brau, a foreign woman, as a temporal apprentice in a mostly Japanese-male dominated world. What I can give you is what I understand about that world and may not be accurate.
Still, in layman’s terms, Rakugo focuses on telling stories with a twist and it’s a difficult art to breakdown: it’s all about voice acting, a little bit of theater, a bit of comedy and a bit of telling fables. Rakugo shares resemblance with gathering up around a fire and telling scary, heartwarming, dramatic stories, because Rakugo focuses in storytelling in its prime form.
Nowadays, some artists perform original pieces and other Rakugo masters performs pieces that were passed down from the Edo period as they were told; thus, the language and the context of the story remains intact. As Brau puts it in her book: “The Rakugo repertoire has been considered heritage because it encapsulates Japanese thought and preserves knowledge about the past.”
Since 2005, there have been some Japanese dramas that have touched upon the culture within the Rakugo families, but we have seen a significant increase in these types of works in more recent years. My conspiratory mind goes to a specific event that took place in 2013 and the popularity of the aforementioned Tsukitei Hosei (he started to learn Rakugo around 2007-2008), but again, that’s only my conspiratory mind in the works.
Showa Rakugo came from a place of deep admiration, knowledge and love for an art that keeps testing its resistance each decade. Some of the works performed are so old that have a different codification in language so it begs the question: How was Haruko Kumota, the author, able to introduce story about something so archaic, unpopular in modern times and still be able to appeal new audiences considering the context in which Showa Rakugo was released?
About Haruko Kumota and How Promotion may have Failed her
Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, was released in 2010 through ITAN magazine directed towards young-adult women from the mind of Haruko Kumota. The majority of her previous works wander around Yaoi and BL manga. If this title seems out place considering Kumota’s past entries, it’s because there is no indication that she would be making something outside Yaoi and BL.
So considering this, let’s play the game of how do we pitch this series to our anime-lover friends outside of “It’s the best” “It’s so cool” “It’s so good”?
So what do we have to convince more people to see it if they don’t know what Rakugo is? If we go by the title, it’s one of the most descriptive titles that holds a little *not so much* a spoiler of the series. Showa and Genroku are periods in Japan ( Genroku is a short period within the Edo Era). Rakugo is the name of the art and Shinjuu refers to double suicide of lovers, taken directly from stories about that. So, if we were to roughly translate the title would be something along the lines of: The Double Suicide of Genroku Rakugo in the Showa era or The Double Suicide of the 1700s Rakugo in the 1900s.
Those who have watched it, know that the title it’s a reference in literal and poetic sense. How do you explain such a thing without giving any spoilers or trying to make it sound interesting?
If someone who doesn’t like Yaoi or BL asks us, “What else has she done?” what do we say? There is no way we could tell a lie, they would immediately google her entries and would discard this work quickly remaining unconvinced.
We have to resort to images; and failure would keep piling up. The official poster and dvd covers has to be the most uninspiring covers I have seen. It is beautiful, soft and colorful; but overall, it’s non-descriptive image that only holds meaning after you have watched the series. This was a brilliant idea, once you understand what the image is trying to tell you; but it’s not good enough to captivate the curiosity of anime watchers.
So… let’s consider the summary of the series. A guy who has been in prison wants to become a Rakugo master doesn’t seem captivating or persuading enough. Only those who have heard about Rakugo or those who heard about the reviews of the show are willing to check it out.
What do we have left? Only our capability to convince someone to watch it. How can we convince someone that this is what they are looking for when the story revolves around a practice that can be viewed as dry?
So it begs the question: why did a manga artist chose Rakugo to be in front and center knowing how difficult it is for people to get into?
In an interview with the magazine Febri (April 2017), Haruko Kumota mentioned that she has always liked Rakugo and wanted to persuade people to see Rakugo with new eyes.
“So I also thought that it’d be great if people could read my manga and become interested in going to these halls. Great numbers of rakugo storytellers work really diligently to polish their art, so it’s really sad that so few people come to see them perform.”
I don’t have any data to contradict or confirm if her plan worked. What it convinced of was that her talent is greater than she realizes, especially when her lasts words in the interview poetically describes what her story is and tried to mimic:
“Thank you for choosing to this manga or anime about a subject that is often said to be rather “plain.” But if you actually try listening to rakugo, you’ll find that it’s not plain at all; rather, it’s an incredibly rich cultural legacy that depicts the entire myriad of emotions that exist in our world.”
I don’t know if she is aware of this, but Showa Rakugo is exactly that: a depiction of an entire myriad of human emotions; something it is fleshed out in that same interview when she treats her characters like precious people as if they were alive.
People as Characters
In a way, and reading her interview with Febri, Kumota reminds me of Masashi Kishimoto for how they talk about their characters. For both of them and their manga, they talk about their message in an author’s perspective. “I wanted to convey…”, “It was very important to me that *insert theme* was brought up…”, “The world they live in…” are some of the vague quotes or just the feeling I have when reading their interviews. When it comes to the characters they have created, it’s a different story entirely.
You will often find them talking about disagreeing with their own characters’ motto, not understanding their decisions or why they do the things they do, as if their characters walk on the streets of our own realm. As authors their involvement is only to act as a gruesome god putting them in situations beyond their characters’ control.
The only difference is that Haruko Kumota has enough to short patience for her characters. She uses all of her linguistic tools to skip time whenever she feels is necessary, she is not preoccupied of making their characters match their growth with their physical age, she is not worried to leave spaces for discussion with vague dialogues, she uses secondary characters to introduce new issues while discarding them very subtly; because of this practice, she has more control over the events that lead the characters to their disgrace or glory.
Haruko Kumota isn’t afraid to display the faults in her characters and is unconcerned to find the thing that “makes them change”; instead, she pushes the characters a little and pretends not to care where they end up, almost having a “hands off” attitude towards the characters lives.
The feeling about the characters being alive gets translated so well for the animation format that it’s scary to think they are not based off real people (to some degree).
Removing to Add
The anime and the work of Jun Kumagai (screenplay and composition) alongside Mamoru Hatakeyama (director) raised their bars when putting Showa Rakugo together. They removed what was not needed, to convey everything through visual elements.
I know, lately I have been so keen into adaptations, because unlike my previous review, this work it was all about changing for the better.
Now, I believe I have talked about how first person narrations are difficult to layout in any written media and have to be changed, removed or transformed into something else when an adaptation is made. Unfortunately, we see a lot of cases in which screenwriters force those narrations to fit a visual narrative and this sparks an obvious issue:
“How did you know about the parts you weren’t there for?” (Taken from original Team Four Stars’ Dragon Ball Z Abridged.)
In books, the change of perspective has to be so subtle to unnoticeable to be believable. Only then, an author has successfully achieved what other authors struggle with: if done wrong, the change of perspective in text can become a unintentionally tacky, numbing or absurd (50 Shades of Grey as an example of describing feelings and thoughts of other characters while having a first person narration).
In cinema, the first person narration is a luxury and sometimes an artistic choice to bring forth things we wouldn’t have noticed. If screenwriters are not careful enough, it could come off as disrespect to the audience’s intelligence (which happens very often).
Manga uses this first person narration for a couple of reasons the main one being the quantity and quality of the message. There is a determined amount of pages to describe the feelings of a character and it’s a tough choice manga artists have to make: focus on the action and take 15 additional pages with visuals each time (ultimately elongating the runtime of the manga), or take one page and squeeze the character’s thoughts in between the action.
In manga, there’s no inconvenience to stay in one page and reread the character’s speech and his thoughts, because it’s accompanied with images and it’s available in one page. But there is a limit on how much you can convey with static images especially when you have a limited amount of panels and pages that are accompanied by text.
In Kumota’s case, you can read what the characters are thinking, you have the choice to read their performance as well and see the character’s body language. She needed to use internal dialogues and text from the performance because her goal is to make you interested in Rakugo while giving you hints on what the characters are thinking and how they are feeling.
To make an animated adaptation of this manga without a translation, it was impossible to do. It was a battle of weight. What was more important? What the characters were thinking? Or what they were performing? In manga it’s both and one can’t live without the other. It is important you know about the characters thoughts as well as to establish how beautiful, dedicated and talented the Rakugo masters are. How do you translate that into a dynamic form such as Anime?
This was what made me skeptic of the anime as a whole when it was released in 2015 and the reason I didn’t watch it then. I didn’t want another Shigatsu Kimi no Uso where everybody around interjects with descriptive dialogue and literal visuals saying “That is so good! It’s their piece! It feels like I am in a field with flowers” while showing the field of flowers and undermining the performances. However, I definitely didn’t want another Ballroom e Youkoso where the importance is placed in the inner thoughts about the technique and the athletic poses the dancers serve.
Making characters think over the performance would’ve drowned the intention of the author, and not interjecting wouldn’t have the same impact.
Jun Kumagai and Mamoru Hatakeyama realized this problem right away and I imagine them going back to the board thinking on how to translate characters emotions through visuals while avoiding to fall into long narrations and monologues.
Their answer was clear: they would use classic techniques of cinematography to convey both states of mind.
Showa Rakugo and Visual Storytelling
The famous idiom, “A picture is worth a thousand words” remains true for a reason. We see stories develop everyday when walking on a park, riding the bus, with photos in social media and even within memes. From a creator’s perspective, sometimes, conveying everything through pictures is an enormously hard thing to do. This task becomes really hard in adaptation, especially when the original material is so heavy in thoughts and emotions guiding the story through.
It is hard but not impossible. Showa Rakugo is the prime example of it. Yota, the main character’s first performance (Episode 1), in front of his long time friend (his “boss”), is a taste of what to expect regarding the anime but for me, is not the best.
I remember that this first scene was put as an example of a YouTuber’s video to convey the “Brilliant Layered Storytelling” of Showa Rakugo. In my opinion, the scene left me marveled but unconvinced. While it did have more visual cues than your normal “art performance” anime, it is not exempt of falling into some bad habits that really set back the full potential of Showa Rakugo.
When Yota takes the stage and falls due to his nervousness, we see him carefully scanning the sits to locate his friend, meaning that he wanted to leave a great impression on him. After locating him, he sits in his cushion and thinks, “I want to impress the boss”, and to be honest, at that point we already put the pieces together without him telling us that he wanted to impress him.
From the moment he started performing the “Dekigokoro” story, his nervousness receded and he regained his confidence very fast. For a first performance on a first episode without knowing the hardships behind the scenes, it wasn’t a great first impression, for me. It only takes a different meaning once you re-watch the first episode after you have finished the anime.
The voice actor, Tomokazu Seki, is so talented to let you know Yato is good, but not great. The energy Tomokazu applied to Yato’s performance reflected more of Yato’s candid personality than his ability as a storyteller. Sometimes letting a monotone voice or not modifying his voice enough to let us know that two characters were talking. As the story continues we see the audience’s positive reaction and people talking about his ability and his purpose. As a big band jazz song starts to play signifying his success, we cut to his sweat running down his neck to know his exhaustion. He finishes his story with a bow and relieving sigh.
In a way, this was the opening scene to the world of Rakugo and it was a marvelous attempt. His nervousness, eagerness to be heard and the dialogues in between his performance tells us about the desire for him to succeed and a little about the minor characters and their relationships with Yota.
However, in Anime – especially in competitions-, it is a formula that has been applied many times, so this scene left me pleased but, as I mentioned, unconvinced. What’s more, the big band jazz song took over Yato’s speech and I got distracted with it for other reasons I will touch later.
In the same episode, Kikuhiko’s Rakugo, Yota’s master, contrasted greatly his student’s performance. Images regarding the story he was telling flashed before our eyes to let us know what Rakugo can do. It didn’t tell us anything about Kikuhiko and it was only a display of the mastery of his craft. Writing-wise it makes a lot of sense as to why it is structured this way. Kikuhiko’s first performance is a strong statement: “This is Rakugo”.
Still, for me, it wasn’t enough to sway my opinion of the anime and certainly 45 minutes of incessant dialogue, events, culture references and images charged with meaning, may be a little hard for people who do not know what Rakugo is, people who get too impatient waiting for the hook to come or for people who don’t know what’s so special about Showa Rakugo.
For me, the moment I truly understood I was watching something special came in episode 2. Kikuhiko decided to tell his story regarding his childhood friend, Sukeroku. First person narration was needed but I didn’t hear one. His interruptions were only brought up to explain a passage of time or to tell us that he didn’t know what happened next: we were watching a life through a condensed story about the daily lives of two young boys. The pacing picked up as we make a few time-skips during the same episode and we finally land on the day Kikuhiko and Sukeroku were allowed to perform in public.
To be straightforward, I was hoping to see interjections from the audience: Yota and Konatsu (Sukeroku’s daughter) time to time to see their reactions, because I wanted to see Yota’s growth and not Kikuhiko’s. By minute 15, I didn’t want to jump back anymore. I got stuck in Kikuhiko’s life story and the anime as a whole.
Then, the moment of Kikuhiko’s first performance came: I was sold.
At many points, we see close ups to Kikuhiko’s worried eyes, his ticking mouth, his sweating neck, his trembling hands, the bored and skeptical reception from the audience, the silent disapproval of the master, the camera doing abrupt close-ups and long shots to instill an uncomfortable feeling.
Akira Ishida’s voice acting also reflects this anxiety, changing and toning down his expressiveness to a monotone delivery and at times desperate. Often speaking and changing characters so fast that is difficult to follow the action of the story. The more he delivers his lines, the more visibly agitated he looks.
The music starts playing a creepy melody that juxtaposes the light comedic story he is telling. The more he continues the music start drowning his soft tone of voice symbolizing how silence can be deafening in situations of stress. The camera gets further away each long shot making him look little, insignificant and bringing forth his inferiority complex next to Sukeroku. Finally, he delivers his punchline and it doesn’t land well with the audience; hopeless, he bows and returns backstage with a hunched back: he was defeated by his own mind. This marked an ominous foreshadowing.
No cuts, no distractions, no comments, no inner thoughts, it’s just Kikuhiko, the stage, the audience and his voice. At the same time, it was a battle for Kikuhiko to prove his worth, the moment of breaking free from being Sukeroku’s shadow; a shared moment of complicity between two friends; camaraderie and rivalry at the same time. It was the moment Kikuhiko thought it was never enough: not enough talent, not enough effort, not enough study… simply not enough.
Before that, we needed to consider that Kikuhiko never liked Rakugo that much and was doing it because he needed to; Sukeroku was doing it because he loved Rakugo. This first performance marked the fate for both of them. Sukeroku’s innate talent guided him to rely on his success discarding public’s opinion while Kikuhiko chased success through his hard work and clean image.
To me, this first performance was the turning point in many senses: as storytellers and as people; as personalities and choices that were going to be made during the rest of the story and how everything went from wrong to worse.
After this scene, it seems to me that the anime staff decided to rely less and less on descriptive dialogues and had more confidence on their ability to focus on the visuals. The weight of each scene was already there masterfully shown by Kumota’s pen and in the first 17 minutes of Kikuhiko’s childhood. There was no need to repeat what it meant.
If there was a way to describe how the rest of this story was told is all there in episode 2. As a first impression it was good and re-watching it gave me chills. The anime staff treated the audience with respect and carried the story with careful attention about how the characters are portrayed in every step of the way through the first season.
Needless to say, the epilogue of the first season and the beginning of the second one, plays with different rules. The narrator is removed and we see the events unfold like a normal anime would. We see changes in perspective, inner thoughts and more interruptions from the audience, but by that time we are so accustomed to every character that we want to see what their thoughts are, especially when watching a performance we have already seen. Even then, there are moments in which the characters perform a piece twice because for Hatakeyama and Kumagai, the most important thing was to show and not tell.
Showa Rakugo format’s changes as we focus on the other main characters and less on Kikuhiko (now, going by Yakumo). However, the story is adamant in letting you know that Kikuhiko is not done yet.
When I reached the end of the first season, my interest peaked: after going through of a captivating character with a heartbreaking story to tell, how was Yota going to surpass the level of attention Kikuhiko had during the first season? What else there is to tell? After a, somewhat, satisfying epilogue with a timeskip of 10 years, after Yota received his title of Rakugo master relegating his journey to the background… is there anything that we can find interesting with such a carefree, and apparently boring, weak character when compared to Kikuhiko?
Yota: Flaw or Virtue?
If the first half of the story was focused on Kikuhiko’s life, now we get introduced to the theme of not knowing what type of storyteller Yota wants to be. Comparing the both of them, Yota’s character didn’t seem as interesting as it was set up in the first episode of the first season.
Kumota’s answer to make things interesting with Yota, was to tie everything to Rakugo, specifically through the story named “Inokori”. Allegedly, this performance was hard because the main character of that story was performed in different ways depending on the Rakugo master’s personality. As Kikuhiko put it lightly, it was not easy to achieve for someone like Yota.
Why? Because he relied on copying performances rather than injecting his own style. During episode 6 (season 2), I started to question myself, “Who is Yota?” and “What makes Yota, Yota?”
So I played with the idea to attribute a trait to each character that could represent them the most to find out the complexities of their personalities. How does this work? Well, if we attribute them one trait and we find out that it doesn’t encapsulate their decisions, dialogues and actions, we can get an idea that they are fleshed out characters. For example:
Kikuhiko is stoic, but his stoic attitude doesn’t tell us that much about his reason behind it.
Miyokichi is seductive, but it doesn’t tell us her inner struggle and the reason why she behaved the way she did.
Sukeroku is eccentric, but it doesn’t tell us about the semiotics of an artist’s mind.
And then we have Yota.
For a varied and complicated cast, Yota seems to be out of place. Based on his decisions, actions and dialogue seem to indicate that he may be just a copy of Sukeroku on all fronts. Still, he can’t be described as an idiot, because he isn’t. He may share the same hyperactivity Sukeroku was known for, but he is not eccentric and he knows how to handle things responsibly, unlike Sukeroku. It all comes back to his high emotional empathy and his listening skills.
Since the beginning of the series, it has been established that he memorizes things by ear. His rakugo is “good” in many people’s eyes, but he is heavily criticized because he is copying other people, despite this, he was certified to act on venues and was about to graduate at the end of season 1, even if he never found his own style. Whatever Kumota needed to work regarding his growth as rakugo master was very limited.
I suspected that the author didn’t know what to do with him (in her planning and drafts) after spending a lot of time with Kikuhiko’s story. I began to think that Yota was a self insert of the author’s mind and her thoughts about the character’s mellow personality, and in a way it is. The claim of not having a strong ego seems Kumota’s own voice crossing the 4th wall regarding Yota.
It may appear that his role is a playing a blank canvas. He represents us while not being a direct representation of us. But here is the tricky part: as you might have already figured out, Yota’s existence is complex when looking at the bigger picture.
He is interesting not because he has to find his style, but because we live through him; at the same time, he has his own quirks, his own moral code, his own worth and his own convictions. He is the one who listens which lays out his extreme empathetic nature, which unchains his need to imitate, which fleshes out his weak sense of ego.
Kumota is stubborn to make us believe that Yota doesn’t have a fleshed out personality, when it fact he does. The issue is that Yota is so meta that separating him, his themes, the author’s thoughts, his role as blank canvas and his place as a main/secondary character is almost an impossible task. In a storytelling point of view, he also represents future, hope, forgiveness, openness and compassion.
Light can not exist without dark. If Yota represents all the positives of being a good listener, Kikuhiko represents the downside of being a great one.
Regret and forgiveness; passion and reason; seeking for company and longing for loneliness; success and failure; life and death; friendship and rivalry; haunted by the past and fear of the future; mastery and self-loathing; taking the blame and being a victim… Kikuhiko goes through every one of the themes in a short amount of time (12 episodes).
Kikuhiko represents the duality and illogical side of humans. No, really.
To encompass all of his flaws and his virtues I would need an entire different section to deconstruct his motives, personality and decisions as it changes constantly throughout… as we do in real life.
Perhaps the most compelling theme I was most interested in, and the one that didn’t change that much, was his walk to redemption. Still, I would need pages upon pages deconstructing everything, especially when there is a need to talk about his personality.
He is many times stubborn, but compassionate; kind but strict; loving but disdainful; confident yet terrified; being happy while hoping for demise; he feels deserving of hell while not wanting to go there; his regrets and past decisions makes him shift the blame onto himself while leaving a window open for putting the blame onto others; he hates being hated but finds comfort in it as he hates himself. I could go on and on.
The moment Miyokichi (his ex-girlfriend) recited the words: “When I die I will come back and haunt you” was like a curse placed on him. This grief of his, is portrayed in manic episodes in which he encounters grim reapers with the appearance of Sukeroku or Miyokichi.
Because he was stubborn even with himself, he didn’t see himself as the victim but a perpetrator, the one who took the life of two people. Even if it was an accident, his actions in his youth were the catalyst to that day. Or that’s what he thought.
The truth is, Sukeroku was at fault of his own life. He decided to walk that path, retreat and act cowardly regarding his expulsion. Miyokichi was no different. Instead of reason, she listened to her anger and led her life to a path of no return. The same was for Kikuhiko. He tried to do everything right, respectful of the elders’ expectations and working diligently, but in doing so he neglected friends and love. Instead, he decided to listen to everybody’s opinion of him.
“Failing to let go” is what we see in the second season as an added theme to an already overcomplicated character. The encounter with the “god of performance” lays out how he feels in his advanced age regarding death and how he sees himself:
Shinigami: You are too swayed by affection, that’s your greatest sin. Cut away from the things you hold on to. This is what you want, isn’t it? Look at it burn. Are you scared? This is what it means to die. Bon, look closely.
Kikuhiko: You are a Shinigami. So you are the god of performance? I finally met you… No, I don’t want to die. Will I end up, once more…failing to let go.
With this, it was clear that he felt he was living a life he was not meant to have and his place of success and happiness was undeserving. Many of his actions can be described as the guilt of living. The duality of wanting to die but holding to life for those who he held dear, that was his greatest sin.
Love him or hate him, nothing of what happened was anyone’s fault and no one can blame Kikuhiko for wanting to live his life the way he did. Perhaps one of the most questionable things did was to conceive a child with Sukeroku’s daughter (not said but it was heavily implied): Konatsu.
When I go back to the conversation Konatsu had with Higuchi regarding this topic, I still don’t know what to make of it. I mean, I understand that both Konatsu and Kikuhiko wished to keep Sukeroku blood alive and while poetic and not outside their characteristics; to me, it feels like a stretch, poetic, but nonetheless a stretch.
Bloodline doesn’t secure success. Bloodline doesn’t guarantee talent. Bloodline doesn’t assure preferences. Bloodline doesn’t predetermine the entirety of your personality (at least there is not enough scientific proof it does and going down that path may trap scientists into a stereotyping spree).
Yato was the proof that it doesn’t matter where you are in life or where you came from; if you love Rakugo, you can become attached and be part of the Rakugo family. In a twist, this theme is somewhat neglected. However my issues regarding the ending have more to do with my moral codes clashing with story, therefore my view is biased.
Even if this was the case, an interesting thought ran through my mind when I reached the end of the series. More than judging and undermining Kumota’s talent as a writer, I didn’t like Konatsu’s decision and I disapproved of Kikuhiko’s actions and that is beautiful.
Konatsu’s independent thinking, her unconditional love and respect for her father as well as her love-hate relationship with Kikuhiko, makes her move completely logical. I can even imagine Konatsu trying to convince him through guilt with lines like “This is to keep my father’s blood alive. It’s your responsibility. You killed him.” What convinced Kikuhiko may forever be a secret. Still, it doesn’t mean that I am okay with their resolution, but I can understand the good intentions behind it.
Perhaps, my favorite scene has to be Kikuhiko’s redemption. I loved every second of it, as it showed what we were thinking whenever we saw Kikuhiko suffering: Sukeroku didn’t want for Kikuhiko to blame himself for things or people he could not control; likewise, Miyokichi was on her way to find her own peace alongside her husband. They were still paying their dues. It was a good way to say goodbye and close the book on a positive note.
Showa Rakugo is poetic and dramatic in every sense without the need to portray incessant crying or the need to appeal to your pity. It leaves spaces for you to put your own take on the characters without challenging Kumota’s ability as a writer.
As a result of her talent, the animation was the perfect vessel to communicate these complexities, to the point of swaying Kumota’s own disagreements of her character’s actions, especially Miyokichi. In this sense, Showa Rakugo the anime was a visual festival.
As master Kumota, herself, puts it:
“The beautiful background and the detailed depictions of the characters, the incredibly sophisticated cuts in which the cuts are put together, and the clean, soothing sounds. Using this foundation, Director Hatakeyama brings together so beautifully a story that is like a runaway horse (chuckles). He has really created a world without peer.”
And I agree.
Showa Rakugo’s minor flaws
This is the section where I complain about something in the series. There are two things I criticize the anime for: one it’s the selection of big band jazz music and Akira Ishida’s voice acting for old Kikuhiko.
While most of the classical Japanese selection of music was great, my mind was breaking when I heard the big band Jazz soundtrack. It’s not that the pieces are bad, actually they are really good. The issue is that it doesn’t connect to anything in the story.
I am unsure of what they wanted to achieve with it. First, I thought it was to connect an old kind of music to a practice that had its golden era during WWII, however, these pieces are brought up really scattered across the animation to say it reflects the timeline. Then I thought that it was a way to describe the glamorous life of celebrities in Japan, the way Hollywood celebrated their icons in the 40s as we have heard in many movies set in that decade; the same issue appeared, the selection was too random.
I decided to look at it differently: I thought that it was just a way to get an upbeat song to play in moments of victory. Yet again, the songs are used at random times again.
Finally, I thought that it was a way to contrast something, maybe the whole debacle from new vs. old, or to appeal a younger audience. To be honest, that something is yet unclear to me because, as you guessed it, the selection is random.
In the end, I decided to stop finding the meaning behind it and that’s a shame. To me, it weakens the series its poetic approach and it was distracting more than accompanying or guiding the story whenever we got to hear it.
If you have an idea of what these tracks might represent, please let me know in the comments.
Finally, please don’t hate me for what I am about to say, but I do think that Akira Ishida’s voice as old Kikuhiko was a miscast. Ishida has peculiar voice that is incredibly recognizable, giving him an older character to portray may have given him a bullet point in his resume but, in my opinion, it doesn’t fit the appearance of the character. I am saying this not because of his lack of experience or his lack of talent, but because even in his 50th year of existence, Akira Ishida’s voice still sounds too young and it fits best when portraying younger characters.
I don’t know if it was because of the budget or because they didn’t want to cast anyone else in the character for marketability, but his older voice is not believable. There are some dialogues he delivers that sound good, but the majority of the time it feels like he is trying too hard to give Kikuhiko an unstable voice. The only time it fits well is when he is portraying Kikuhiko at a younger age and when Kikuhiko “loses” his voice due to the raspy quality Ishida’s voice has.
Animation wise, I can only think of one moment in which the animators skipped a frame (in an important moment even); but aside from that, the stylistic choices regarding colors, backgrounds and designs were beautiful without overdoing it or getting an excuse for keeping a minimalist look on the composition (we have to be thankful for Jun Kumagai).
Whatever your take is on the characters, on the story, on the themes, on the anime staff or the author, love is at the center of this tale. Love and all of its derivatives.
Love can give and it can take away. Love can be rejected or embraced. Love can be healing or a curse. Love can breed hate and only love can quench it. Kumota’s love for Rakugo led her to create this marvelous piece and the anime staff created something special by loving the characters in her story.
Showa Rakugo is a poem in itself, within, outside, left, right, open, closed, on top and at the bottom. It doesn’t matter the perspective you want to see this series, it will always have a meaning at a large scheme or in isolated scenes.
I just want to point out that, if you haven’t seen this series, take your time to give it a chance. I have barely scratched the surface just talking about two characters.
Leaving out important characters (like Kanetsu) was a conscious decision that has nothing to do with labels, the truth is, I had to revise, cut, change this review over and over again because I didn’t want it to be too long… in the end it still came up pretty long.
There is still a lot to check out and someday we will come back to Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju once the live action is finished and available to the world. There, we will see more of the cast leaving Kikuhiko and Yota aside and I will focus more on the other characters. It is also the reason I wanted to include as much as possible from the beginning to shorten our “The Case Of” episode in the future because, as you know, I usually extend myself on those. Hopefully, the live action, can carry through the love and passion Kumota, Kumagai and Hatakeyama, alongside the voice acting cast channeled through their performances.
Showa Rakugo is a journey you have to see to believe. This series goes beyond my basic talent and poor capability to communicate through words to convey how good this story is. I guarantee it.
I RATE IT:
I am not ashamed to admit I cried, plenty of times when re-watching the series for a second time. Keep tissues close, keep your mind open and enjoy. Even if the themes are packed with meaning in short scenes, the story is great enough for you to be engaged.