Part 3 of my countdown of the Winter 2016 season.
2. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu
Of all the shows airing in the winter season, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu (Showa and Genroku Era Lover’s Suicide Through Rakugo) is clearly the one intended to appeal directly to mature sensibilities, using adults (remember them?) to examine the rocky relationship between artists and their professions.
I admit to having doubts after the pilot episode aired, enjoying the cast and performances (the latter in moderation), but worrying that the apparent shift to the past would turn the show into a cliché period drama in the vein of Kids on the Slope. Fortunately the writing proved strong enough to avoid this issue, despite the focus staying with the core trio’s turbulent history, understanding that if the characters are properly fleshed out then the story will move according to their personalities rather than contrived misunderstandings or ass-pull twists.
Every member of the cast is sympathetic but flawed in all too believable ways, whether Kikuhiko’s artistic pride and abandonment issues causing him to coldly push people aside, Sukeroku’s arrogant rebellion against the stiff protocols of his elders or Miyokichi’s need to feel wanted taking on destructive impulses. Even at their most hypocritical, self-serving moments their actions never feel out of place and while this does make it difficult to root for or even like the cast at times, it’s painful in an all too relatable way. You’re basically watching a quietly moving tragedy slowly unfold in the background, with every small decision slowly leading to a point of no return. The last anime I’ve seen to depict this slow burn into misery as successfully was Berserk (although thankfully the subject matter radically is different).
What makes Rakugo particularly engaging is how the performances themselves are treated as reflections of Kikuhiko and Sukeroku struggles in a wider context, often communicating aspects of their characters they’re unable to articulate. Kikuhoko’s initial attempts, for example, showcase a person too emotionally guarded and fearful of faltering to ever relax and successfully engage with his audience, only finding a compromise through figurative masks to hide behind. Sukeroku on the other hand has a natural honesty and warmth, but also an egotistical streak in the way he breaks protocol to appeal to the largest audience possible. Watching their off-stage interactions you could be forgiven for misreading the odd dynamic behind their give and take relationship, but seeing it played out through rakugo provides a much better understanding as to the ways they complement one another.
This symbiotic relationship between artist and profession is mirrored throughout their lives; the dual-suicide translation in the title not only representing their personal arcs but the art form itself, with both witnessing an evitable fall from grace. Sukeroku abandons his trade, failing to revolutionise it to fit modern tastes, while Kikuhoko’s carries on out of a sense of duty rather than passion, eventually seeing the one thing he dedicated his life to slowly destroyed by the uncaring hands of time. All in all it’s quite a downbeat conclusion, although the role Yotaru plays serves as a glimmer of hope that rakugo may yet find a way to coexist in a new era.
Overall while Rakugo does have a habit of being a little dry and distant on occasion, with some performances dragging on too long, it’s still a fantastic example of intelligent and heartfelt storytelling. Much of this lies with Mamoru Hatakeyama, who despite only having two other directorial credits, has succeeding in adapting an extremely challenging story to screen. His other works (Sankarea & Rozen Maiden: Zurückspulen) already showcased a talent for improving drastically fairly mediocre source material and with this we see an even better indication that he can handle more unique and personal subject matter. I really hope the partnership he has with the normally terrible Studio Deen continues because together the two of them have been consistently spinning gold.
Here’s to season two.