Starting Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu had me slightly wary. Many things about it reminded me of a show called Kids on the Slope, which I hold in high regard. Kids was the perfect mix of setting, art direction, and music to keep me coming back for more, even if the undertones of its source material worried me as the show neared it’s finale. While the two shows do have some similarities ( the artists struggle, polar opposite protagonists that support each other, brotherly dynamic of a emotional unavailable person contrasted with an outgoing counterpart), Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is able to showcase why these 13 episodes are treat for everyone.
The shows first season centers itself around the 8th generation Yakumo, a master of the Japanese art called Rakugo. Yakumo and others who practice in the art, relay on spoken word storytelling to captive audiences in theaters. The first episode introduces us to Yakumo, his first apprentice Yotaro, and a aggressive woman named Konatsu who quickly reveals that the 8th Yakumo killed her father, Sukeroku. This revelation lays the foundation for Yakumo to retell his life’s history , along with his relationship to Sukeroku and Konatsu, throughout the remaining episodes.
The story spares no detail as the audience is taken to Yakumo the 8th and Sukeroku (Bon and Shin, and later Kikuhiko and Hatsutaro respectfully) first meeting as children outside their new teachers house, the 7th Yakumo Yurakutei. From there the show takes us through the two boys lives as they trained, become men, live as roommates while trying to make a living, and eventually part ways when their lives take different paths. The resolution to all this reminiscing is ultimately used to unveil the struggle these men took, and the impact that their respective legacies have had on the present decade of the shows first episode.
Thematically, the show is fairly consistent with its depiction of its two star Rakugo performers. Shin/Hatsutaro/Sukeroku is the brash, informal, and careless half of the relationship. The art form comes naturally to him, as he quickly assumes the role of favored pupil. In spite of his lack of practice and love of drinking, he quickly becomes a crowd favorite and he professes to Kikuharo his love of the audience as his main motivation in continuing to perform.
Meanwhile, Bon/Kikuharo/Yakumo the 8th is depicted as a timid and fragile person filled with self doubt after failing to be a dancer and witnessing his competition in Sukeroku overshadowing him. Kikuharo unknowingly becomes consumed by Raguko, practicing alone whenever the chance allowed him, all the while doubting whether or not he should continue. It isn’t until the two apprentices perform a play together that Kikuharo finds his love of Rakugo, and is able to channel that into a unique story telling style that earns him fame.
This is the point in the story that impacts the present day events the most. Kikuharo had been seeing the former mistress of his master Miyokichi, while the two did have some appearance of love towards one another the relationship ends poorly. To add to this, Sukeroku was expelled and forbidden from performing Rakugo after insulting the 7th Yakumo. In a rush of revenge,depression, and fear of loneliness Miyokichi and Sukeroku run off and have a child together named Konatsu.
The rest of the show, is the resolution to the friendship these men have and should be watched without any prior knowledge of what will transpire. With that said, I am going to talk about these three in a bit more depth as they are encapsulated in the main theme of the story.
Miyokichi, Kikuharo and Sukeroku are all emotionally damaged and narssistic individuals whose early childhood struggles pressure them well into adulthood. Kikuharo as a child was practicing to be a dancer before he arrived at the 7th Yakumo’s house. But was set back by an injured leg and a gender issue of men performing geisha dances, which led him to be ridiculed by others and himself at an incredibly young age. Sukeroku was an orphan who forced his way into being an apprentice after his first master past away. He feels shame for not being chosen as an apprentice, and that Kikuharo is always favored over himself. Lastly, Miyokichi was living with an undisclosed trauma as a child, which leads her to romance men who won’t love her back. This serves as her reasoning for comitting love affair after affair once Kikuharo leaves her, and her revenge romance with Sukeroku has undesired results.
If there is a one word commonality between these three, it has to be abandonment. All three are unknowingly afraid of being abandon, after feeling that despair as children. Kikuharo was abandon by those he loves, dancing, and his Rakugo community. Sukeroku felt that he was abandoned by his master, the audience and his wife. While Miyokichi actively plots against being abandoned from the moment she feels she has lost Kikuharo. Even the 7th Yakumo felt he was being abandoned when his father had began training a talented apprentice. So much so that the 7th Yakumo used his family name to supersede the apprentice for the Yakumo title.
This may seem as a damnation of the shows focus, but ultimately it works beautifully. The slow progression allows the audience to witness the work, or lack thereof, each character subjects themselves too. The Apollonian and Dionysian dynamic is evident, but the show plays with that theme enough to make you second guess just how the series will resolve relationship between the two men.
While with all of this in mind, I hope that people we’ll watch the show. Even though the it may seem that I did not enjoy these characters and their progression, I find myself increasingly second guessing my own interpretation due to how layered the characters are. I just hope that when watching you give the show your full attention, as each episode will provide more information (verbally and visually) to help with the emotional impact of the shows finale.
Quick Things of Interest
The shows choice and use of music i s outstanding. Using certain instrumentation and styles for the show doing the pre-WWII and then a different set for the post war was a nice subtle to establish a change of the country.
The direction of the scenes involving characters performance of Rakugo, is also an achievement. Each character looked, sounded and behaved differently once they started. But these differences were also slight. When you watch, observe the eyes, lighting and positioning of the performer in relation to the camera. Studio Deen did a superb job of making something as simple as a retelling of a story, and filling it with tension with the framing of those scenes.
The show does a great job of keeping the male to male relationship platonic, but becomes a bit obvious with its manga roots in episode 11 and 12. It is a bit jarring after so many episodes, for the shift in tone to change so suddenly.