Combining a rock solid fundamental narrative with strong social subtext and emotionally evocative presentation, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is a stunning feat of storytelling and a modern masterpiece of animation.
Plot synopsis: Upon being released from jail, young yakuza member Yotarou begs Yakumo to let him become a rakugo performer. However, Yakumo has more than one skeleton in his closet; haunted by his past and what seems like an inevitable future of failure, we return to the past to see what happened to his best friend and lover.
Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a series that presents its nuanced nature and themes to its audience right off the bat. It is a series about naive, strong personalities with considerable strengths and weaknesses trying to find happiness and despite their shortcomings and bitterness. It is a classic tragedy at its core, one that stands up to scrutiny and one that can be appreciated on a fundamental storytelling level even without considering its implications about sexism, tradition and family. It is a rare breed of anime that has no interest in pandering or giving the audience panem et circenses, but rather a tightly woven narrative that builds and deepens character relationships with each passing episode towards a conclusion that packs a potent, but honest, emotional punch.
The narrative of Rakugo unfolds in the manner of a tale told by an old master storyteller in every sense. The shot composition is precise, the dramatic moments cue an appreciable shift in narrative focus and direction, and only the major beats are spelled out, leaving much to implication. It’s a character driven piece; external forces like the war and economic problems certainly have a presence, but they merely serve to place the characters in different settings to flesh them out. The real meat of this tale lies in a relationship between Yakumo, his lover Miyokichi, and his colleague and best friend Sukeroku. None of these are their real names; in Rakugo, rarely anyone is referred to be their actual name, because after all, this a a tale of the past, not an extended flashback sequence. Episode by episode, with the fatal finale already being known to the viewer (it is stated in episode 1 and in the very title), the development of the main trio in their personal and professional lives plays out like a dream, growing from initial hostility based on differences in skill and entitlement to genuine warmth and intimacy and then to seething hatred and betrayal. It’s a tale as old as time, but barring an ending which prioritsed poetic storytelling over believability, this one was told with grace and honesty.
Given that characters are at the core of Rakugo‘s plot progression and thematic material, they are ultimately the most memorable aspect. Yakumo is a man who is lame in more than one sense of the word, unable to walk and lacking in the passion that earns his immediate friend and co-star, Sukeroku, much more immediate attention and praise. He works outside of studying to be a Rakugo master so he is not being overly reliant, his maturity and elegance making him a favourite with the ladies around town, and the talented and mysterious Miyokichi vies for his heart. Things seem to stacked against him, yet he fights through them. Sukeroku finds this stance absurd and unbalanced. Yakumo is the one the master favours because of his family connections and sensible expressions which are more befitting for a traditional performer. Sukeroku may be the audience favourite, but Yakumo’s undeserved entitlements and love are something that Sukeroku was barred from since the beginning of his apprenticeship. However, despite one having what the other does not, Yakumo and Sukeroku have one of the most powerfully platonic (bordering on minutely erotic) and adult relationships that can be seen in the medium of animation. They have different weaknesses and strengths which create complex and severe consequences. Yakumo’s relative coldness and less flexible personality make him ideal for a traditional performer, disciplined and true to the practices of old, but he is less sympathetic to those who are more unconventional and his methods only exacerbate the death of rakugo. Sukeroku’s more audience friendly, bombastic comical style may be the only way that rakugo can be saved, but he has little respect for the hierarchy, is impulsive and spontaneous beyond what is acceptable for a practitioner of the fine arts and he doesn’t have Yakumo’s hesitance. Miyokichi, a woman who seeks love beyond all else, only complicates matters by pursuing Yakumo, despite his nature opposing her every action.
The first season of Rakugo is wrought with sadness, friends taught apart by their natures, obligations and the desire to preserve the arts. It is a story where the external factors and nature overcome people who genuinely want things to turn out well, but instead blaze a trail of bitterness and despair. Despite this, Rakugo is by no means a show that pushes darkness in the face of the viewer. Rather, it presents its characters strongly and allows them to play off each other as they develop both professionally and personally, making poor decisions because that’s all they know how to do and losing what’s important to them. The circumstances have an air of inevitability to them, as with a bit of thought and swallowing of pride, they could have been avoided the tragic endgame. Nonetheless, while not a happy ending, seeing the many aspects of the main trio crescendo in a climax, leaving behind a legacy of two young people and one old friend to carry on, was a powerful one.
In addition to providing a seamless tragedy of love and loss, Rakugo even weaves in some social commentary about sexism and the shrinking popularity of Japan’s traditional arts. As Yakumo is well aware, the old-fashioned styles of storytelling just can’t entice the masses in the same way they use to, with the technological boom and a lack of international appeal. Given that, despite having a Major in Japanese and spending a semester in Japan, I hadn’t even heard of rakugo is a testament to how steeped in Japanese culture it is and how little appeal it has to foreigners. Much like the 2010 commercial bomb House of Fives Leaves, Rakugo requires a degree of understanding of Japanese culture and values to be properly appreciated, such as the family-like style that workplaces like to take, or the historic sexism surrounding Japanese performance art. It’s well known that many Japanese performance arts, like kabuki, are a male-only art form, even for female characters, and women were largely regarded in Japan as less capable. However, that an intelligent and cunning woman like Miyokichi had her entire life dashed over a single mistake, and that rakugo prodigy Konatsu has spent her entire life being unable to perform, seems absolutely absurd while being entirely believable for its setting.
The visual presentation is deceptively strong, and those not paying attention, or judging exclusively on animation quality, may make the mistake of labeling Rakugo as “average” in this department. The character animation may be a bit lacking in in-between frames and the background detail isn’t always at its best, though the distinct character art, setting-appropriate rustic colour palate and poignant visual metaphors more than make up for any deficiencies in animation quality. Characters are drawn with consistent emotional sharpness and precision that elevates them beyond what a looser, more fluid art style would allow and fits with the adult nature of the narrative. Much like everything else about Rakugo, the details and mannerisms of the characters match and further cement their characteristics; Sukeroku is broad-shouldered and scruffy, spreading himself out and paying little heed to his environment, reflecting his spontaneous and impulsive behaviour. Yakumo’s sharp eyes, slim build and controlled movements allow every movement to show of his deliberation, in stark contrast to Sukeroku, while also serving as a constant reminder of his damaged leg. Miyokichi’s appearance changes drastically throughout the series, from healthy and lush, to pinched and anxious, and eventually messy and desperate. This attention to detail is remarkable, and not one ounce of it is wasted.
The set pieces in Rakugo ground it in the Shouwa era and lend it that period-piece vibe that feels both seamless and palpable. The Rakugo studio, restaurants, streets and lake side all feel like they in that time period, devoid of deep hues or vibrant colours you might see in modern day Tokyo or the digital sheen present in most modern high-end anime productions. However, while this does hold it back from being as beautiful on an artistic level as high-end fantasy series, it give the world of Rakugo a strong rustic, old-fashioned atmosphere that raw aesthetic beauty could never satisfyingly substitute. Even the odd use of CG for the trams and vehicles doesn’t really detract from the experience, as they are mostly relegated to the background and serve to make the city feel more bustling. However, the real winner here is the pitch-perfect shot composition, which reflects and elevates the emotional intensity the most important scenes, while still restraining itself and not making the series feel like a monochromatic chain of melodramatic moments. Shots which emphasize off-center framing and depth of field to show psychological distance, editing which gives a strong sense of the relationship between the story-teller and the performer, and angles which create either calmness or a lack-thereof not only give Rakugo a more cinematic feel than most of its cleaner contemporaries, but enriches the narrative.
The audio presentation in Rakugo is just like the audio presentation in an actual rakugo, which is to say, well composed and complementary, though never something that takes charge. It is largely either absent or quiet, except in the more emotional moments or rakugo scenes, where, depending on the nature of said scene, it may play out deliberately off-key. The instrumentation, much like the colour palette, consists only of that which fits the setting; no bombastic Hiroyuki Sawano score here, just low energy violin strings performed in conjunction with the scene. The OP is certainly memorable, Megumi Hayashibara’s melodic and Geisha-style sexual voice blending in well with traditional jazz to create a sensory experience only heightened by the reserved use of colour and powerful visual metaphors of drowning and isolation. The ED ends each episode on an appropriately minimalist and atmospheric note, patriotic trumpets and symbolism serving more as an accompaniment to the well designed but low key stills of characters and the Rakugo studio. Sound design is icing on the cake; each blunt footstep by Sukeroku’s wooden shoes, slight clang of a tea cup being placed down and rustle of fabric feels unique and authentic.
Given the aforementioned House of Five Leaves never got an English dub, it’s a safe bet to assume that Rakugo will never get one either, and that’s even if it gets a localization. However, much like other anime grounded deeply in Japanese culture, a dub that matches the stellar performances of the original would be very difficult to pull off. The cake definitely goes to Megumi Hayashibara, one of the most famous voice actresses in Japan, whose raspy voice and seductive edge in moments of intimacy lends Miyokichi a sense of uneasiness and, despite all the makeup and beauty, a tortured soul underneath it all. It’s rare for such a sexual character (not sexualised, those are abundant) to be presented in such a compelling manner, even within the Josei (older women) demographic, but Hayashibara sells it with grace. This is matched by fellow industry veterans Akira Ishida and Kouichi Yamadera, who play Yakumo and Sukeroku, respectively, with both nuance and gusto. Yakumo’s more thoughtful, guilty and self-conscious manner is palpable from beginning to end, while Sukeroku’s flighty and spontaneous outlook on life is given depth by his occasional expressions of bitterness to Yakumo.
It’s rare in any medium for strong presentation and evocative storytelling to elevate the other to such a degree, but that is precisely what Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu accomplished. Even if viewers are unfamiliar with Japanese gender roles, modernisation and Rakugo itself, the character interactions and development alone propel this to the best of its year. Even should the second season not measure up, what has been accomplished in these few episodes stands among the best of what the medium has to offer. As a perfect storm that loses very little ground in any department, Rakugo is an absolute must watch.
Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is available on Crunchyroll. Watch it now!