Yotarou is a former yakuza member fresh out of prison and fixated on just one thing: rather than return to a life of crime, the young man aspires to take to the stage of Rakugo, a traditional Japanese form of comedic storytelling. Inspired during his incarceration by the performance of distinguished practitioner Yakumo Yuurakutei, he sets his mind on meeting the man who changed his life. After hearing Yotarou's desperate appeal for his mentorship, Yakumo is left with no choice but to accept his very first apprentice.
As he eagerly begins his training, Yotarou meets Konatsu, an abrasive young woman who has been under Yakumo's care ever since her beloved father Sukeroku Yuurakutei, another prolific Rakugo performer, passed away. Through her hidden passion, Yotarou is drawn to Sukeroku's unique style of Rakugo despite learning under contrasting techniques. Upon seeing this, old memories and feelings return to Yakumo who reminisces about a much earlier time when he made a promise with his greatest rival.
Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a story set in both the past and present, depicting the art of Rakugo, the relationships it creates, and the lives and hearts of those dedicated to keeping the unique form of storytelling alive.
Under the dimly-lit canvas of a rustic theatre, surrounded by the sounds of slowly-plucked shamisen, waits an audience for a performance of great tradition. Gradually, a man wrapped in an dignified air approaches the center of the stage, sits elegantly on his knees, takes a slight bow to welcome his gazers, and proceeds. Thus begins a performance commonly known as Rakugo or the Japanese art of oral story-telling. Rakugo involves the storyteller to orate a comical account designated between two or more characters, generally playing all roles, distinguished only by slight nuances in behavior, tone, and gestures.
Rakugo has been a classical trait of
Japanese art and culture since the Genroku period (of the Edo era), but has dwindled in popularity and appreciation in more contemporary times. Though, grief can be spared because with this winter’s wind came a show that revitalized this once-felt obscure art-form and turned it into the driving point of undoubtedly the season’s best show, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – a charming character-driven series with tightly-knit interactions and exploration, a marvelous setting, and a bond between subject and its characters that’s entirely commendable.
Set some time after WWII - during the rapidly changing social landscape of Japan - the series follows a freshly-released prisoner who desires to learn the ways of Rakugo and gets taken under the wing of a national master named Yuurakutei Yakumo. The story changes focus from the present tale of the apprentice to a narrative of the past, concerning the master and his deceased friend Sukeroku, along with the slowly-withering art of Rakugo. Now while the premise may seem a little daunting and even a bit boring; nothing is farther from the truth. Of course, the series is an entirely character-focused, unhurried drama, so this does imply a lack of flashy fights, gratuitous panty-shots, and overpowered heroes championing the world, but in its stead what it does offer is a compelling, evocative experience that really has a handle on its ambitions.
The setting, subject matter, and characters are integrated so atomically well that the entire ride is just consistently smooth. The pacing is well-balanced due to everything being finely focused and progressed with clear direction that it leaves no room for wasted effort or filler messes. The combination of these elements along with the tact and grace with which they are implemented, makes this show a worthy title.
First, there’s the setting. The show creates its foundation through a comparative/contrasting lens; a great structural move that tells the story, through story-telling – literally. It is absolutely marvelous to see just how well it is able to integrate its backdrop/setting into its forefront, just like a good theatrical performance would; giving it the feel of a truly refined work with each frame adding something to its overall quality. The setting is heightened by the show’s ability to capture the atmosphere and sentiments of Japanese society at the time, especially in relation to both the character situations and their Rakugo. Even though very subtly depicted, the show bases its portrayal of Rakugo from the perspective of slow decay. After the wave of post-war reality hits, it causes a serious sense of disenfranchisement amongst the culture and people. This allows western senses and modernism to penetrate with a force much greater than it did in the past which augments the gradual but steady disintegration of various cultural arts; Rakugo being one of them. This backdrop plays to almost every nuance crafted whether it is the evolution of characters merely depicted by their change in attire (from traditional Japanese yukatas to fashionable western suits) or the erosion of public attendance in Rakugo houses relative to other more western venues. These subtleties may go unnoticed individually, but are definitely materialized when evaluated holistically and especially when examining characterization.
In addition to the impeccable setting, comes the strongest point of the series: characters. The character dynamics, exploration, and evolution are sublime. The entire series revolves around self-actualization in a way, through one’s art, and everything else revolving around it. The two protagonists, the now-master-Yakumo-then-Bon-chan or “Kiku” and his boisterous friend Sukeroku are a delight to watch, as they tumble through various struggles and events, trying to perfect their Rakugo while trying to find their reasons for doing so. Both characters are perfect complements of each other and really play off one another to add dimension to overall characterization, and each other. The artist’s journey and the character’s journey intertwine like a destined love affair, growing together through both pain and pleasure.
This is why characterization in this show can be looked at on two-fold: from the art, and the individual dynamics. The former really lays the foundation because it not only introduces the world of rakugo in context, but integrates in a manner which complements the “act”. The performances are not just intricate illustrations of the art form, but also essential in tracing the metamorphosis of the characters involved, specifically Kiku. Therefore, the way Rakugo is treated isn’t necessarily just a detached device, but embedded in the heart and motivations of the characters, while also delivering with full force and depth the nature of Japanese story-telling, and the skill that it requires.
Then, there’s the stellar dynamics between the characters themselves. Even though Kiku is the star of the stage, almost every other character feels multi-dimensional, with their flaws, motivations, and importance properly conveyed and explored, individually, and in relation to the bigger picture. Almost every “struggle” is important and is referenced in some form of development, whether it is for Kiku or the others, giving these characters a sense of realness, complexity, and palpability that isn’t easy to accomplish. For example, alongside the two main characters is another side character named Miyokichi (Yurie) –a geisha initially carrying the romantic tide of the series - who acts as sort of the fodder for the emotional evolution of both characters, while also adorning her own individuality as an important element of the show. Her role on paper is solely of a foil but she (and others) end up becoming actualized entities of their own; proving how well done the palette of characters are.
The strength of the characters produces a resounding effect for the overall series that helps give it a strong sense of focus, result, and even thematic resonance. The sheer admiration and dedication that is reflected from the characters exudes the essence of “living for the dream”. Sacrifice, brotherhood, kinship, relationships, family, and most importantly, love, is so wonderfully crafted through the fibers of Rakugo and those in this story that weave it, ultimately into a beautiful tapestry. And love here doesn’t necessarily denote romance, but the kind of love that drives one’s passions forwards and gives meaning to lives. It is a love that transcends beyond description and can only be felt through creation, art, or in this case, Rakugo. And this work does an excellent job embodying and expressing that love.
To bring the series its final touches of splendor is the animation and sound. The animation flows smoothly, with soft, bright colors that play to the vibrant tone of the show. Backgrounds are very nicely done as they bring out the juxtapositioned nature of the setting. The old but stifling feel of fading tradition is contrasted with lively modernized elements that consistently coalesce and enhance the narrative. Furthermore, the music is oddly fitting as it combines instances of jazz or blues against the classic tunes of Japanese strings and compositions. Surprisingly, never once does any of this clash inappropriately, rather works in tandem to heighten the atmosphere, mood, and give full depth to the setting that contains it all.
Really, there is no detractor in this show that innately brings it value down. Of course, this series won’t appeal to everyone as it is very focused on the internal dynamics of its characters and the external passions that define them. Many of the episodes have 10-12 minutes of just Rakugo performances which could be burdensome to few, but as mentioned before, the performances are essential for they aren’t just superfluous additions but character-defining points. Lastly, since it isn’t a complete adaptation, there are loose ends to be had, and deliberately, but none of those take away from the narrative that is actually presented.
Essentially, this story is one worth telling, and even more so, worth listening to.
Now, art forms come and go, evolve and dissolve, and keep humanity breathing with their own life force. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu shows the intricacies of that process through the lives of two men who through their art, change themselves and each other. They are a reminder of the eternality of art (even if the world changes) and those who create it (regardless of history that burns and rises). So even when the shamisen stops playing, and the dimly-lit theatre stands alone, we can still hear the stories of Sukeroku and Kiku, and Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is proud to do us that favor.
Shouwa Rakugo is a story about life. It is a story about the art of Rakugo, of Japan's history during the Shouwa era, of friendship and family, and of sacrificing everything to reach one's potential, but particularly it is a story about life— the lives of two talented, troubled and yet ordinary men.
Shouwa Rakugo may only be thirteen episodes long, but it covers a period of years and decades, a turbulent series of ups and downs, much as life is itself. It depicts the rise, fall and redemption of Yakumo and Sukeroku, and many of those around them. The tearful reunion as Sukeroku returns
from the war in Manchuria is powerful— powerful enough that I also felt myself choking up a bit— and yet it occurs just a few short episodes into the story.
This is due in part to the excellent characterisation of the two and their (oftentimes strained) friendship, but it is also a result of the story's nimble pacing. One might expect an anime covering such a large span of time in so few episodes to end up feeling rushed, but this is not the case. Shouwa Rakugo makes a careful balance between the smaller and the more important events in the characters' lives. It will transition from a hospital scene to a funeral within seconds, and yet it will feel entirely natural, as if no time has actually passed. Many times I found these transitions to hold more punch than the scenes themselves. If stories like Touch and Sakura no Uta have taught me anything, it is that a quick jump to the future can carry far more emotional weight than the events preceding it.
It can be hard to put into words what makes Shouwa Rakugo so special, as so much of its appeal is in what it leaves unsaid. It finds greater comfort in showing its story rather than telling it. The feelings of the characters— their frustrations, their struggles— are often left implied and seldom stated outright. A character will walk along at dusk, mumbling to themselves a rakugo scene depicting the difficulties of departing from one's lover, and it will be very clear what is going on in their mind. It takes a very special anime to pull something like that off, to develop the characters such that the audience can empathize with them without dialogue or gestures.
The story is primarily set during the post-war period in Japan, but it thankfully does not waste time lecturing the audience about the war's effects on Japan, how Japan fought the good fight and lost, and everything we have already heard countless times before in other anime. What Shouwa Rakugo does convey about the war, it conveys through the absence of dialogue: nobody ever says "I'm sorry" when they listen to another person's story, because they've all been there before.
From the first two episodes, it becomes very clear which direction the story is headed in and how it will end. Every major event is foreshadowed in some way, from the dialogue ("The next time I meet you it will be in hell") all the way to the very title of the series (心中). This effectively eliminates any sense of shock that the viewer might experience, but knowing what is ahead does not make the moments and the journey any less heart-wrenching. It actually makes it hurt more.
Shouwa Rakugo deserves special mention for depicting sexual, adult relationships. The heroine is not a cute, bubbly high school girl, but a geisha who makes her living by flirting with men. She is in many ways a despicable human being, and that is just fine. People often do not pick the most respectable or desirable person to be with; they come together and couple for a myriad of reasons, even if it may in the end be to their own harm.
Even if you have no knowledge of what rakugo is— and I suspect this is the case for most people, as it was for myself— Shouwa Rakugo makes it very easy to follow by animating a wide variety of rakugo performances, rather than bombard the viewer with explanations and unfamiliar terminology. While rakugo might not be especially entertaining to the world of 2016, through watching the many performances within Shouwa Rakugo it is easy to gain an appreciation for the talent and effort that is often poured into the art. The styles of Yakumi's and Sukeroku's rakugo are so different from one another that it almost feels as though they are performing completely different forms of art, despite rakugo very much being an art defined by tradition.
The lengthy, 10-minute Rakugo performance in the first episode— one of many amazing moments in the show— reminded me of the ending sequence in Whiplash (one of the best films I have seen), it feeling itself like a musical performance, starting slow and clumsy and gradually building into a thunderous crescendo by the end, Yotarou's sweat visibly running down his face all the while. While he may not be beating his instrument to the point of blood flying across the stage, rakugo is an inherently quieter, more subtle form of performance than concert, requiring nothing more than a person sitting and telling a story in front of a small audience, and so bloody theatrics are not necessary. Its performances are already plenty exciting.
At times joyful, and ever more so devastating, Shouwa Rakugo is a truly sincere and human story. It speaks a simple, raw tale of flawed existence. It does not fluff itself with philosophy, symbolism and other obscure subject matter. It speaks to the individual: it wants you to listen, and it wants you to consider the moments in life where you truly felt beating, breathing and alive. It is in that short moment that it has meaning.
When I sat down to write this review I had a hard time condensing my feelings towards it into written format. This wasn't to say the story was complex; on the contrary, it was rather straightforward on paper. But when I tried to articulate my thoughts to virtual ink, nothing came to fruition. Then after I sat back and let everything that had transpired sink in, it just hit me, a simple word, yet one that was able to properly express the feelings that I had wadded up inside for this title. Simply put, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu was poetic.
From the way it delicately
crafted its narrative, to the organic transition in which its characters found their placement in it, everything Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu did flowed like a poetic stream of unfiltered consciousness. This anime exuded an aura of refinement and class that you don't come across often. It's a caliber quite deserving of the praise directed at it. In place of the spastic eccentricity and bubblegum characters commonly found in the world of anime, we're given a tranquil environment and genuine human emotion. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a title that unveils a compelling story about flawed characters and their pursuit for true acceptance. If I could get just one other person to experience and spread the word of this gem, then my writing this was more than worth it.
Delving into the world of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, or Shouwa, as I'll refer to it going forward, we're introduced to Yotarou, a dimwitted bushy-tailed man who's fresh out of prison. Having a deep yearning to practice and perform Rakugo, a Japanese form of verbal entertainment that's essentially stage storytelling, he seeks out an apprenticeship under the guidance of Yakumo Yuurakutei, a man well renowned for his performing prowess in the field of Rakugo.
Despite what this initial premise would have you believe, the story isn't about Yotarou's journey under apprenticeship; in actuality, it chronicles his master Yotarou's life, along with his friend Sukeroku, as it showed how they dealt with the demanding requirements of the Rakugo industry, as well as the growing pressures that come with adulthood.
Taking us back to his childhood, Yakumo "Kikuhiko" Yuurakutei places us at a time just before the boys met. And from then on the story blossoms on its own before coming to an inevitable stop due to an incident that's discussed during the initial episodes. While both boys found themselves in the world of Rakugo under similar circumstances, their relationship with the performing art itself differed vastly. Their relationship dynamic has been seen before: the polar opposites who don't see eye to eye. Yakumo's ying to Sukeroku's yang. The fundamentals of the story itself aren't what are impressive, but rather the manner in which it goes about executing it.
Instead of simply following the standardized method established for this kind of narrative, we're instead thrust into a more introspective realm, with Yakumo's reminiscing in the form of a Rakugo itself. It's essentially a story within a story, which, on paper, sounds like a muddled mess, but oddly enough felt like the most organic method of absorbing the characters and viewer into the head-space of the tale. The Rakugo art form isn't only exemplified, but it's also utilized on a grand scale to encompass everything surrounding it. It's a form of immersion rarely experienced, basically the Inception of anime storytelling (And here we are, a review about a story, about a story, that contains stories... let's just leave that mindfuck alone).
Everything that shapes the life of the zen-like Yakumo that we met in the first episode, to the reserved boy we meet in the past, all revolves around the influence of Rakugo, both on and off stage. We're given a detailed insight as to how this traditional Japanese storytelling works, as well as the lasting impact it left on the two boys that grew up to master it.
What made this anime so engaging was in the way it went about layering these characters. Nothing is ever explicitly stated outright. Everything from the small mannerisms they display, to the introspective moments that draw no attention to themselves, as well as the way in which they interacted with each other, all helps to add layers to the characters on screen. It's "show don't tell" at its finest. And as their upbringing and personality shape the type of Rakugo they performed, it also shaped what kind of person they ultimately became. In a way, it could be said that an individual's style of Rakugo indirectly reveals the kind of person they secretly are. It's a window into their soul; as saccharine as that statement may sound, there's no better way to describe it.
With Sukeroku, what was outwardly presented in his performances was the common tongue of the people. With a brash and often schmaltzy performance, he didn't care for the social constructs that the world of Rakugo wanted to build. He did it to make the people happy. And just like his style would outwardly portray, his Rakugo revealed what was truly lying dormant within him.
The same also applied to Yakumo, a man who always tried upholding himself to a high standard, following the guideline of Rakugo to the letter. He too was exposed by his style of Rakugo. Rakugo provided the duality that neither would dare reveal out in the open. Like I said, it's simply poetry, a dance between what is shown and what is truly meant to be seen, or rather what is meant to be uncovered.
These characters are deeply flawed but made all the more realistic because of that. They're selfish, pigheaded, condescending, but also broken, affectionate and just looking for a place they belong. There's no antagonist here, just entangled personalities trying to find their way.
Outside of the two male characters, another character worth mentioning was Yurie, who is without question the biggest catalyst who drives the actions taken by the two male leads involved during the show's more personal moments. She's a character whose environment and past experiences did far more than mold her; they broke her. Like the others involved in the story, she masquerades herself as someone who's in control. And it's her need for co-dependence that creates a rift that ripples throughout all crucial events in the story.
Seeing that her involvement is integral to many of the major events throughout the narrative, I won't say anything more about her involvement. Just know that without her, many of Shouwa's more poignant moments wouldn't have exfoliated into the scenes that we were gifted with.
Like the art of performing Rakugo itself, the story also manages to perform and balance a vast array of tonal shifts throughout the narrative without feeling forcefully steered in directions. This, as a result, allowed for comedic scenes to transition seamlessly into sobering reveals without causing any tonal whiplashes. And in a story that revolves around the delicate balance between stage performances and real life drama, that balance was greatly needed.
The project was handled by studio Deen, which by anyone's account, is a scary thing, given their track record, but with Shouwa they actually stepped their game up. The movements and gestures of the characters showed great range and fluidity, which is a vital thing for a show that's revolved around the mannerisms of stage performers. No noticeable shortcuts were taken, and the finished product looked quite pleasing. The opening and ending themes were excellent, with the intro song "Usurai Shinjuu " by Megumi Hayashibara, carrying a sort of sultry/smoky jazz appeal to it. The ending theme also held up on its side with a soothing soft trumpet piece that gently set things off on a tranquil note.
In many ways Shouwa acts out like a Shakespearean play, in that regardless of time period or societal upbringing, the messages it explores are primal and very much a part of what it means to be human, may that be the yearning for love and acceptance, malice born from envious desires, choosing to follow gut instinct instead of rationality or just forming bonds with others for mutual benefit. Shouwa unveil these layers of human pathos in a way that invokes authentic sentiments. This anime sets a benchmark that many would have a hard time following.
This show was easily the most engrossing seasonal title I've watched from the 2015/16 lineup so far. It left an impression that so few have and had some of the most realistic anime characters I've seen in recent memory. This easily became a new favorite of mine.
If there were ever a dark horse for the 2016 Winter season, this title is it. Sadly overlooked by many, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a show that quickly ushered you out of the cold and into the warm embrace of its heartfelt narrative. The more time you spend with these characters, the harder it became to say farewell. This might not be for everyone, given the slower pacing and absence of anime tropes associated with the medium, but for those who want something more than the usual offerings expected, I cannot suggest this enough. It's truly a work of art.
It is truly fascinating of what people are capable of doing to survive in society, especially when you are basically abandoned by your relatives. A young boy who once aspired to be a dancer has no choice but to learn the art of Rakugo, a form of Japanese verbal entertainment in which the storyteller sits on stage while performing a complicated comedical story. Audiences may have had the impression that it solely focuses on the profession, yet this is not the case. At first it seems that it simply served as means of survival, but it becomes apparent that the journey throughout his life was
more than just Rakugo: it is a tale of a flourishing and wonderful friendship, conflict and realization of oneself.
The story of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, or "Showa and Genroku Era Lover's Suicide Through Rakugo" in its english title, is focused around Rakugo and with that, the characters and their interactions. Instead of consisting of a simple story about the ascension of two performers, which it is to a degree, it is a character driven story that ties the lives of the various individuals implicated: Yakumo, Sukeroku and Yurie. The profession is merely used as means to develop and unfold the storyline, whilst portraying the art of Rakugo itself. It must be mentioned that the synopsis of the anime is as a matter of fact a bit misleading; it is focused upon the afore-mentioned trio, albeit showcasing Yotaro's interactions with his master. This however will probably developed in the second season. Another aspect that is prevalent in the anime is drama: it was depicted in a subtle manner, without exaggerating it, making it much easier to digest and enjoy.
The pacing of this work is splendidly done, and very befitting, although it may seem at first sluggish and uninteresting to some. However, it becomes apparent that it is actually a necessary buildup to portray the characters relationship in a very satisfying manner. It is a journey that spans from their childhood to their puberty, culminating in their adulthood. It is a narrative ridden with little details, such as portraying subtly the daily interactions between the protagonists and the cast, or its setting, the 70's and 80's of Japan. Naturally, Rakugo is depicted as well in a satisfactory way: it shows viewers the difficulties of the profession, besides of the great stories contained within: it is simply delightful to listen to. In addition, it quickly becomes clear that world the protagonists live in is strongly favoured by those with status, rather than cunning. This reflects the society of that time rather well with the outdated mentality. Naturally, audiences may find the performing parts tedious, yet these are arguably rather amusing.
The cast of characters in Shouwa is rather small, consisting of a handful of characters, yet it is certainly sufficient to portray the whole scope of this tale. As mentioned earlier, Shouwa is a very character driven story, and it excels in this department greatly. because of the gradual buildup that spans various decades, the characters were slowly fleshed out and developed accordingly to the changes these experienced - this was done through subtle interactions with their peers. The two main protagonists are Yakumo and Sukeroku, who have quite diverse personalities, which enhances the narrative. By the end of the show, audiences may have a total different view of some of the characters.
Yakumo could be described a silent, cunning and self-containing character, yet from the inside insecure and delicate: it is marvelous to see his character develop through the various stages of his life, which includes the realization of himself. On the other side there is Sukeroku, a very charming and enthusiastic man, with a great talent and love for Rakugo, with no relatives. Character development and fleshing out of him is no exception either. The relationship between these two is very well-developed and presented to audiences, it is truly a tale of friendship.
Another crucial character in the anime is Yurie: she is the gear that triggers the wavering interactions between the cast and the main protagonists - in fact, romance is another theme that is present in the anime. As character she may seem rather underdeveloped, yet through various scenes and interactions with her peers, it quickly becomes clear that she is not as shallow as she appears to be. Her life, profession and unrequited love are thing that drove this character forth. The romance can be rather lacking, as it came pretty abruptly and was not really well-developed, alongside the reason on why she fell in love. However, love is not often a rational reaction, so it may be excused in a manner; regardless, some more expansion on it could have been welcome.
The studio behind Shouwa is DEEN, and the animation quality was well done, with very fluid motions. The character's movements when showcasing the performances were subtle and very detailed presented, conveying the art of Rakugo and how these are crucial for a good play. Facial expressions, sweat and similar traits managed to portray the various states of the cast. As for the art style itself, it has a slightly different take than the usual character designs which was enticing; the backgrounds were detailed, despite being composed mainly of internal locations. In some cases some inconsistencies could be found in the background characters, but this was negligible.
Concerning the soundtrack of Shouwa it was befitting, albeit a bit startling at first with various jazz tunes, as it didn't seem to fit the narrative: nevertheless, it quickly becomes apparent that this used to its advantage to upheave the pacing and importance of each scene when required. Piano or violin compositions are used as well, depending on the atmosphere. The voice actors did a splendid job, the various personalities matching with the characters, as well as wonderfully portraying the different intonations required for the various situations, be it the emotional states or the Rakugo performances itself. As for the opening and endings, these consisted of jazz, and blues, while having a great representation of what Rakugo is.
Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu was overall a fantastic anime with a great story and characters, enhanced their interactions and the Rakugo. I was very surprised by the lack of attention this anime got - or rather, it is criminal. I throughly enjoyed this anime, in addition to the plays presented, which were quite intriguing at a personal level. Naturally, this may have been the main factor that have had viewers discontinue the anime, as it can be boring. Regardless, this is a necessary buildup for a great conclusion of the series. I want to mention the fact that viewers who expected a story focused on the difficulties after being jailed, will be let down, as this was not the case; however, audiences are rewarded with a great narrative. Moreover, a second season was announced which in turn may delve into said subject. I highly recommend people who like drama, or character driven stories to try this piece out.