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April 3rd, 2016

Today, the curtain fell on Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju for the last time. Or so we thought. As it turns out, the show will be renewed for a second season, continuing the story of Konatsu, Yotaro and Kiku in the present-day timeline. While I would never have expected this show to get a continuation, I am glad and grateful to see more of these characters, Kiku in particular.

But before returning to the present, we still need to examine the aftermath of Sukeroku and Miyokichi's death, and what that tragedy will do to the bereaved. The direction opts for a non-linear way of editing to expose the discrepancy between Kiku's composed demeanor and his very real, palpable grief.

While the episode opens with a brief shot of a smoking chimney, it's not until Kiku's conversation with his elder from the rakugo association later in the episode that we go back to that image. Watching his friend being burned to ashes in the crematorium, Kiku is alone. All the life and joy he regained in his time with Sukeroku and Konatsu has been drained out of him. Unable to comfort Konatsu, he lets himself be cursed when she lashes out in helpless anger.

This all happened because you came here!

We've seen cold and distant Kiku before, but never has he been so lifeless. Akira Ishida manages to infuse Kiku's detached monotony with a vulnerability that feels closer to real grief than any prolonged sobbing would. His performance has elevated an already intriguing character to unusually complex realism.

But Kiku will cry, for the first time since being forced to admit his abandonment in episode 2. And it will be the discussion about the future of rakugo without Sukeroku at his side that will make him lose his composure for the last time before accepting his burden.

You're the only one of your generation.

Kiku wasn't supposed to be the only one. He was supposed to preserve rakugo, while Sukeroku was the one chosen to revive it. That was their promise. Without Sukeroku, what point is there for Kiku to continue preserving what cannot be revived?

The flow of the era can't be altered. We can't control what the audience wants.
I thought it was survivor's guilt which haunted Kiku in the form of Sukeroku's ghost. But without Sukeroku, Kiku cannot change. It was their promise which cursed Kiku to live in the past, preserver of a dying art form, the shinigami of his friends and rakugo itself.

With the clock on the wall ticking the time of his life and chance at happiness away, Kiku finally resigns himself to becoming the next – and likely last – Yakumo. Keeping his part of the promise and accepting the burden placed on him by the people around him, he surrenders, unable to ever leave Sukeroku or his own name's shadow behind. And the nail gets hammered down (visually and figuratively, because that's just how this show rolls).

I'm the only one who can let you rest in peace.

Nozarashi's crows are crowing under the red sun when Konatsu recites her father's trademark story and threatens to kill Kiku out of revenge. But there's nothing left of Kiku to kill at this point.

Kill me, then. I'd feel much happier.

The shinigami has caught up with him, and this time, it's not just Kiku coquetting with the idea of emotional death as a way to escape. It has become his only strategy at survival. And so, he walks onto the stage, the only path left for him to stay alive, with everything around him engulfed in darkness. Kiku, as we knew him, has died.

My name is Yurakutei Yakumo. I have long forgotten my real name.

This is a painful, but perfect ending to Kiku's story. It makes me sob with sadness and smile with appreciation at how wonderful his story has been constructed and presented.

Except that it's not the ending. Neither the last act of Kiku's nor the ending of Konatsu's story has yet been written. This would be the perfect ending for a tragedy. But maybe, things don't have to end in tragedy just quite as Kiku has laid them out for us and himself.

As if to defy the crows (and Kiku's advice not to entertain impossible dreams), Konatsu screams out Nozarashi, unwilling to let her father's rakugo die with him.

Holding onto his image, it's almost as if she needs to prove their existence. Nozarashi will remain the key to unlocking Konatsu's emotions long after Sukeroku's death. Embracing pain over indifference and oblivion, Yotaro's performance of her father's rakugo makes her cry, but that's exactly why she asked him to perform for her.

She is strong, but she is also selfish. Pregnant without a father in the picture, she vows never to get married and keep Sukeroku's bloodline alive. May the flame of the candle be passed on. There's already a strong chemistry between her and Yotaro, and seeing them bicker and squabble is both beautiful and painfully reminiscent of the relationship between young Kiku and Sukeroku.

Society is changing, and Konatsu might have more possibilities (and brains) to realize her dreams than her parents ever had, despite her foster father's continued discouragement. Being raised by anti-helicopter parent Kiku might prove to have some advantages, after all.

But this will all be explored in the coming second season, so instead of giving in to speculations, I want to look at the episode's final, glorious minutes.

It's the anniversary of master Yakumo's death. Time for Kiku to reflect upon the state of the world, rakugo and his life, which are too closely intertwined to reflect upon separately. I will continue to call Kiku by this name even though he has long since become Yakumo 8th. A name, as we know, has a lot of power over a person. And I want to continue to believe in Kiku and Bon more than Yakumo.

Kiku has truly become the sole preserver of rakugo. Unchanging by default, death (the physical, not the figurative kind) has become a recurring acquaintance for him and Matsuda, with Kiku being the oldest of the rakugoka left alive.

I feel like they're preparing for my death. My position keeps changing while I don't change at all.

Death, kneeling in front of a grave, musing about death while smiling a sad, empty smile – there's not really that much left to interpretation here. When Sukeroku's ghost visits him at their master's grave, Kiku isn't shaken. Being haunted seems to have become a state of normality for him at this point in his purgatory existence. It's Sukeroku's silence that he cannot bear.

Hey. Say something already. You're a storyteller, aren't you?

After all these years, Kiku is still lost without Sukeroku's judgment. And without his friend's rakugo to complete his own.

Out of the smoke walks Yotaro, freshly promoted to shin'uchi after working diligently to find his own rakugo and, in turn, keep his promise to Kiku. Their following exchange is a pinnacle of poignant storytelling, managing to be graceful while ensuring everything that has to hits home with a bang – without punching the audience on their noses so hard that they would fall over and not recover.

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju was a show about people struggling against the restrictions forced upon them by the society they live in. Internalizing other people's expectations as their own, they learned to adapt by denying part of who they are – or failed and burned in the face of their inability to change. But it wasn't just society's pressure which broke them. Not getting what they thought they wanted, they became unable to find happiness anywhere it might have presented itself instead. Kiku resigned to living his life as Yakumo. Bearing a name he never wanted in a life he never enjoyed, he has forgotten who he once was. And what made him fall in love with the art he vowed to preserve. By shouldering the burden of being the preserver, he became unable to see the possibility of happiness, because he became unable to change. On stage, he was the shinigami. Off stage, he was just dead. For Kiku, this is just how the world works after Sukeroku left him behind.

One does adapt to fit a name, don't they?

So he became Yakumo.

Yotaro, his sweet, simple, innocent apprentice, shares his sentiment of the importance of a name, but has a much healthier perspective. He doesn't feel cursed or burdened by the "fool" he has been named after. He chooses to feel honored and embrace it.

That's the name you gave me. And being human means changing whatever way it takes to suit your name.

"Being human". Which is what this was all about for Kiku in his tragic search for Sukeroku and Miyokichi.

Yotaro believes in the possibility of change even after being designated the fool. And Yotaro made another choice. Once he has outgrown the fool, he no longer aims to follow his master's path of inheriting the Yakumo name and preserving the art of rakugo. Once he's found his own rakugo, he wants to be the reformer.

Let me inherit the Sukeroku name.

But Yotaro, in his innocent foolishness, is a lot more mature than Kiku's Sukeroku ever was. He believes in the possibility of growth beyond what has been carved out for you by others – without having to deny it as a consequence.

And so, Kiku's shinigami managed to achieve something Kiku himself would never have dreamed of when he resigned himself to his fate. His God of Death inspired Kyoji to become Yotaro and Yotaro to aspire to the dream of Sukeroku. Opening the door to the past, he brought back the spark of renewal and reform where there was only misery and loneliness. It's a living, breathing spark, opposed to all that unhealthy worship of the dead both Kiku and Konatsu are defined by.

The memory of the dead, no matter if idealized or haunted by, cannot bring about the change so desperately needed. With Sukeroku's death, Kiku's rakugo has become an unchanging, tragic existence destined to die with him. Reviving rakugo has been synonymous with reawakening Kiku's soul and enabling him to move on since we learned about his promise with Sukeroku. But it isn't Sukeroku's Nozarashi which has the potential to release Kiku from the grip of the shinigami. Nozarashi itself has become just as unchanging and destructive as Shinigami. Yotaro still has to find his own rakugo. And when he does, maybe, just maybe, Kiku will be able to fulfill his promise. We will have to wait and see.

Is that end enough for you?

...asks Yotaro when he bows to us after the changed credits.

It would be for me, as this season told and concluded its arc in such sensitive, mature and brilliant way that I am left with nothing left to want out of this show.

But I am more than willing to be turned into a conspirator for act 2. I'm sure there is more truth to be found on this wonderful stage that has already been set.

Thank you, Rakugo, for three thrilling and deeply moving months.

Final verdict: 9.5/10, simply because it hasn't ended yet - best show of the season, contender for best show of the year, and easily in my top 20
Posted by FloatingWords | Apr 3, 2016 6:51 AM | 0 comments
March 26th, 2016

The innkeeper was careful to explain to them just what kind of show this was, so they listened without getting overexcited.

Today was the day. The day Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju set out to break our hearts and bring its story to its inevitable tragic conclusion. We knew what was coming. Yotaro and Konatsu knew what kind of story awaited them when Kiku took off his coat to tell them about the unfulfilled promise between him and Sukeroku in episode 1. Of course, knowing the ending doesn't mean the audience is going to be less involved in the story or its characters' fates. Rakugo itself is an art form where the well-known story matters much less than the way it is told by its storyteller. And today, Rakugo asked us if it told its story well, by breaking the fourth wall more immediately than ever before.

Rakugo is a conversation. If the audience is good, the rakugo naturally becomes good. [...] I was able to do good rakugo thanks to them.

As a vocal member of this show's small, but passionate audience, I find myself humbled by this acknowledgement. Especially since Rakugo delivered so spectacularly on its promise. Even with one episode still remaining, I feel confident to say that it will be very hard to push this show from my top spot of 2016. And it's only March.

We all knew what would happen, but let's take a closer look at how it happened to see why this show succeeds as a tragedy.

After a few moments so tender, it was almost too cruel to bear, the foreshadowing continued to stay strong with this episode. Tragedy works best when the audience is aware of what's about to be lost. And so we see Kiku dreaming of finding Miyokichi for them to live together in their master's house, leaving Yakumo's coat to Sukeroku to further encourage him to pursue his old dream of succeeding the name, contrasted with Sukeroku catching the drum sticks Kiku throws out the window, telling him he'll "pay for that one". With the river looming below the window, glimmering in the dark, the stage is set, waiting for the final curtain to fall. All of these images and exchanges are powerful and effective, and yet still manage to be subtle enough not to break the immersion.

Rakugo has always shown masterful skills at balancing subtle characterization and staginess, with one enhancing the emotional power of the other. This is a fine line to walk, and the series walked it with grace and grandeur.

With Sukeroku about to die, his last rakugo, Shibahama, is a poignant one. It's the story of a poor man who comes into the possession of a treasure, only to have his wife convince him it was all a dream. Scared of his irresponsible nature, she chose to lie to prevent him from ruining himself and their family, forcing him to work hard instead of drinking his life away. The man, aware of his flaws, vows to become a better man.

It's all my fault. I've finally come to my senses.

Until this point, this rakugo could still have been about Sukeroku getting off his butt and finally back on stage again, even if he might face hardships and rejection and it would be so much either pretending not to care.

This interpretation shifts when the show cuts to a lonely Miyokichi, just as the man in Sukeroku's story reaffirms his love for his wife.

I don't want to make you cry.

Miyokichi, of course, isn't at the theater to see Sukeroku make this vow to her. She only came to watch Kiku's earlier performance in secret, not interested in or capable of appreciating Sukeroku trying to make things right.

But the most important part of the story is yet to come. When the wife confesses to her husband, showing him the riches he found weren't a dream, admitting that she lied to him to make him change his lifestyle and accept responsibility, he isn't angry for working hard where he did not have to. Realizing the burden he put upon her, he thanks her for enabling his growth as a person – even if it was at the cost of a lie.

It was your lie that made me realize that. [...] I could never have grown this way without you.

This is Sukeroku's own, reversed Shinigami moment, which Rakugo tells us by cutting to a crying Konatsu in the audience. Konatsu, born out of two people's shared misery, the living lie of what a child should (not) be for their parents. I can't help but wonder if it would have changed anything had Miyokichi been there to share this moment. Could the impending tragedy have still been averted?

In the story, even when he is tempted to go back to his old ways, the man refuses the sake he has now earned, valuing love more than his personal pleasures.

I can't have this becoming a dream again.

Through his story, it becomes clear that Sukeroku knows he has failed his family, and, for the first time, he wants to make it right. Finally, Konatsu might have a reason to be proud of her father. But just like Kiku had to accept his own humanity and need for others to understand what he knew he was missing, Sukeroku's priorities have shifted. Foreshadowed in his opening lines on stage, where, despite looking comfortable to be back, he casually mentions that something "doesn't feel right", going back to who he was before is not an option anymore. His reality has changed, and he finally seems to be able to realize that himself.

This whole day's felt like a dream. Getting to do rakugo like that again... It feels like a gift from God.

Sadly, even if we didn't already know the end of this story, Sukeroku's earlier conversation with Matsuda leaves little room to hope for a happy ending. This is a story about people realizing the value of what they had only after they've lost it.

To the audience, going to the theater to hear both your rakugo styles was a joy they took for granted. When something you expect to hear everyday goes away, it's truly a lonely feeling... Without you two there, it's like the lights in the theater have gone out.

Trying to but scared to find themselves, Rakugo's characters ended up playing their respective roles for so long they became real to them, and it will take unbearable loss for them to find out what was truly important and worth sacrificing for. Is it art? Love? Friendship?

For Sukeroku, his relationship with Miyokichi was a consolation price. Trying to fill the hole his shattered dreams of succession left in him, he was too busy mourning his loss of rakugo to see the human jewel he could have had if he had tried.

Loosing herself in the fantasy of a supposedly perfect love she couldn't have, Miyokichi spent the past years waiting for Kiku to come and save her from her mostly self-inflicted misery. Elevating her memory of him to imaginary levels, she made herself unable to realize Sukeroku could become the husband she could take care of, in her own, sad little dream.

To be fair, the fact that it needs Kiku's return and perseverance to reignite Sukeroku's spark, which then enables him to realize he actually still has something left to lose doesn't make it easier for Miyokichi to see that possibility before it is too late.

You and Konatsu are my treasures. If doing rakugo makes you feel insecure, then I'll gladly abandon that unstable trade. You mean more to me. Let me start over.

Offering up his dream for her happiness is tragic. But Miyokichi has already chosen to rather share a dying dream of love in death with Kiku, and it takes her threat of doing just that to make Sukeroku truly realize what's at stake for him.

Kiku, having come home, ends up delivering all of them from their cocoons of denial, simply by being Kiku. But where he wished to save them (himself included), his return ends up destroying every possibility of happiness (his own included).

It's all because of me. I'm sorry. It's my fault.

This confession is, of course, utter nonsense, born out of old Kiku's survivor's guilt and tendency to take responsibility for the lives of all the fragile and vulnerable people around him who are unable to do so themselves. He might have fostered Sukeroku's inability to take responsibility by always going the extra mile to take care of and cover for him, and his passiveness certainly enabled Miyokichi to project her misguided dreams upon him, but she was broken long before she met him. But this is Kiku's version of what happened, and from his point of view, his interpretation is the only one that makes sense.

I was abandoned again. Punishment, perhaps, for my sweet dreams...

Kiku's impudent dream was to be human, not giving in to the shinigami, but accepting the pain and beauty of human interaction, always so much more imperfect than his rakugo could ever be.

People can't understand everything about each other. And yet people still live together. The love of sharing trivial, meaningless things with others is human nature. I suppose that's why humans can't stand to be alone.

It's his choice of imperfect human connection over perfect solitary art, which ends up being the nail in the coffin, returning Sukeroku's spark not as a God, but as the shinigami who came back because he wanted to change something for the better, because he refused to stay dead. This is the same kind of beautiful tragedy that made another favorite anime of mine so unforgettable.

Where there was forgiveness for lying for the perceived benefit of others in Sukeroku's rakugo, there is no redemption for Kiku. While Sukeroku forgives Miyokichi for not loving him and causing their death, Kiku, once more abandoned, is condemned to live on, burdened with the responsibility of taking care of others, and prohibited to die in peaceful solitude.

I was so determined to live alone, and yet...

When Miyokichi realizes her mistake of denying herself to be loved, and Sukeroku admits to loving something (or someone) more than the idea of himself on stage, their death turns into a painful moment of truth, and not just because Kiku finally learns Miyokichi's real name. It's a form of truth Rakugo has mostly chosen to convey on stage, which is why it comes as no surprise that this scene plays out like the climax of a Greek tragedy, with the laws of physics being temporarily suspended for heightened emotional drama. This is, after all, the culminating moment of Kiku's story, and I'm sure this is exactly how this moment is etched into his mind – an eerie visual and narrative echo of his breakup with Miyokichi in episode 9.

The show's setting and way of storytelling make this kind of heightened state of reality possible without ever feeling out of place. The story of Sukeroku's death isn't about what happened. It's the way Kiku, our storyteller, chooses to tell it which makes it meaningful. The ending has to be theatrical, because their death is much more than a tragic accident. It's the conclusion of the tragedy these people cast themselves in.

I'll go with her in your place. I can't let her fall to Hell alone. – Then take me with you, too!

Part of the tragedy can be blamed on society, but in the end, it's the characters' refusal to cope with the reality they're living in that led them to this fall to hell (which, thanks to Rakugo's heightened sense of theatrical reality, we actually get to see on screen). If only they could have realized their own emotions, they might have been able to appreciate the small happiness life is capable of offering without having to self-destruct because they didn't find the main prize right away.

Why must a person's nature be so foolish?

Why, indeed.

It's hard to say whose decisions have been the most destructive. Miyokichi choosing to be in love with the idea of being in love with someone she couldn't have, pushing away the people who would have loved her, nurturing the theatrical idea of love in death over people waiting for her to love them? Sukeroku's inability to take responsibility before it's too late, depending on having his artistic spark (read: soul) reignited by Kiku to be able to express his feelings for Miyokichi? Or Kiku, pushing everyone away in fear of abandonment, justifying it with living for his art before realizing there can only be art when there are others to reflect ourselves in?

I don't think it was Miyokichi's intention to die there with Kiku. She came because she wanted to be saved by him, trying to provoke him into caring about her through threats, guilt, and pity. The problem wasn't that he didn't care, but that he didn't allow himself to explore that frightening emotion.

What would have happened had Miyokichi seen Sukeroku's rakugo? Would she have seen what Konatsu saw, a possibility for a future? Or would she have stayed a prisoner of her own delusion?

I was able to make it through, knowing that some day, you'd come for me. I know now, the only time I can really be myself is when I'm with you.

Rakugo has been at its best when it left it to the viewer's interpretation to decide what's real – and what's fiction its characters simply choose to believe in.

There is no absolution for Kiku after this fall, which is why he is still haunted by Sukeroku's memory in the present timeline. How did he cope all these years? We know he has perfected his Shinigami, the grim reaper who has become his trademark and self-identification. But is he truly dead inside? I do not want physical death to be forced upon him to find redemption, as I do not think he needs to be redeemed. Staying alive, living through the pain and raising Konatsu in her parents' place are proof of that.

After this episode, I'm secretly hoping for Konatsu, not Yotaro to become Yakumo 9th and fulfill the promise both her fathers made when they were young and still full of hope. And I want Kiku to be alive to see it.

I couldn't have done it without you. Rakugo isn't something you can do alone. So that was enough for me. Thank you.
Posted by FloatingWords | Mar 26, 2016 7:59 AM | 0 comments
March 20th, 2016

The execution of this week's Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju wasn't without its flaws. With the bar being set so high, this doesn't mean it couldn't still be a very good episode, even though it sacrificed some of its trademark subtlety in favor of making sure to get its important point across unmistakably: Kiku, having metaphorically died in his first Shinigami performance last week, being brought back to life through interacting with Konatsu and reviving Sukeroku's rakugo. Narratively, this was all great and important stuff, I just wish they hadn’t spelled it out for us to trip over quite as blatantly as they did.

After Konatsu changes her hostile demeanor towards Kiku when she learns about his profession, it's her job to fill us in about the events since Kiku and Sukeroku's parting. There's a lot of telling and much less showing going on in these first few minutes, which is unusual for a series that has always aspired to share information by means of blocking, framing and composition, through its clever use (and absence of music), and truth-on-stage framing devices. At least we learn these things from a young child, unconcerned about speaking her mind, which defuses the weakness of this way of storytelling while simultaneously highlighting another one: the choice of not casting an actual child actor to play young Konatsu. Even though this is common practice in anime, the memory of young Suzuku Hara's excitingly honest and energetic performance in Barakamon is still vivid in my mind, and, given Rakugo's big underlying theme of authenticity, this episode would have benefited from having Konatsu voiced by a naturally genki child.

From Konatsu we learn that Miyokichi forbid Sukeroku to do rakugo, that she earned money in the not very glamorous line of work of "drinking with men and dancing in crazy costumes", only to abandon her husband and daughter eventually to run off with another man. Konatsu is hurt and bitter, but most of all, she's angry. Having nothing but hatred for her mother (something Kiku criticizes her for), she idolizes her father. Sukeroku, having reverted to being a full-time bum, makes his 5-year old child feel responsible for bringing food to the table. Great parenting, right there. Sukeroku has never been a responsible adult, but I had hoped to see at least a glimmer of something, anything worthy of Konatsu's present and future admiration for her father. But there's nothing to be admired here anymore, among the filth, regret, and delusional ideas of Miyokichi coming back soon. These people, who tried to find solace in each other when what they loved in this world rejected them, have only succeeded at making each other more miserable.

When Kiku calls out to Sukeroku, he comes running into his arms like the child he is, only to be slapped across the face before Kiku gives in and embraces his friend, despite and with all his enormous flaws.

The episode gets a lot better after their reunion, despite the occasional hiccups of stating what should be obvious instead of trusting the viewer to read between the lines, which the show firmly believed in until now.

After Yakumo's deathbed confession last week, it's now Kiku's time to admit to Sukeroku the true motivation behind him urging his friend to come back to Tokyo.

Because I need your rakugo! […] I wanted what you had so much that I burned with resentment… […] Your rakugo has given me every emotion imaginable.

It's more than obvious that we're talking about a lot more than artistic inspiration at this point, and Sukeroku understands.

What happened to you while I was gone?

This is a powerful moment, between the two of them and for the audience, who has seen Kikuhiko turning into and embracing (emotional) death in his performance of Shinigami. It's regrettable that we're not trusted to make this connection by ourselves without having Sukeroku spell things out for us.

You look like a shinigami…

Thank you, Sukeroku. We hadn't noticed.

Kiku, determined to make Sukeroku (and Konatsu) come back with him and accept what once was and still should be – has to be – his calling as an artist, sets out to tidy up their lives, both metaphorically and very literally. The following cleaning montage is not the episode's highlight, but there are some genuinely sweet and tender moments between Kiku and Konatsu in what feels like a very natural, organic relationship.

Allied in their desire to get Sukeroku off his butt and back onto at least some sort of track, they grow closer through scenes very obviously intended to show how these three people could become a family. And not an unhappy one. Performing in restaurants for a handful of people, Kiku seems to be happier than he has been for a long time.

Getting that much of a response from people by yourself, isn’t that a wonderful thing?

When he is invited to perform on a stage which used to be a place for geisha to practice, Kiku's feeling of having come home gets a palpable dimension. This is the subtle, personal, beautiful storytelling Rakugo has always excelled at.

The only parts missing from the full circle are, of course, the liberation through rakugo and a heart-to-heart bathhouse talk. In episode 2, Shin-san's rakugo liberated Bon from his cocoon of sadness and fear.

That was the only time I ever saw you cry.

Now, back with Sukeroku (and back in charge of taking care of him) as well as released from the pressures of society and the rakugo association, Kiku, despite working hard to pay off Sukeroku's debts, is at peace, both on and off stage.

I never felt that way before now.

Kiku's trip into the pastoral countryside and back to where his inspiration originated has saved him from becoming a dead shell just yet. This could be a beautiful, hopeful episode, if only we didn't know how things will end for all of these people.

The only missing link now is the reawakening of Sukeroku, the artist, which, of course, has to happen via rakugo. And what better rakugo to reawaken him with than Nozarashi, the exact story Shin-san told Bon to bring back his smile and enable him to cry for the first and only time in his life.

It’s also Konatsu's favorite, and when she asks Kiku to perform it for her, he can't refuse. But Nozarashi isn't one of his trademark pieces. It has always been associated with Sukeroku, and when Kiku stumbles in his performance, Sukeroku steps in to finish the story. He is back, and with him the jazz so noticeably absent recently.

And, cheered upon by Konatsu, Kiku and Sukeroku finish the story together, performing side by side for the first time since Benten in what should be performed by one actor alone. They need each other, and even though they often enable each other's weaknesses, sometimes, they bring out the best in one another, something that was impossible for Sukeroku and Miyokichi.

Yakumo and Sukeroku seem to be deeply connected names. I can't think of a better way to honor his memory than for a Sukeroku to become a Yakumo.

And so they shine, laugh, bicker, and reaffirm their bond through the morbid story of a dead person's bones coming back to live by sake being poured over them. Kiku can tell Konatsu all he wants about how beautiful women in the audience are an artist’s inspiration. His sake will never be one of those women.

I’ll spend my whole life treating you right!

When Sukeroku exclaims these words at the story's climax, it's an ironic, but nonetheless earnest declaration of his love for Kiku and Konatsu at that moment – a promise never to be fulfilled because Miyokichi will be back to make sure this story ends in tragedy. Hers included.

There is too much great stuff happening here for me to justify disappointment about minor issues, and I have very little doubt next week is going to turn me into a sobbing mess. Maybe I should simply stop watching now, with the image of Kiku, Sukeroku and Konatsu walking off into the land of eternally blossoming cherry trees in my mind?
Posted by FloatingWords | Mar 20, 2016 1:50 AM | 0 comments
March 12th, 2016

In a world full of falsehoods, the charm of a child remains the one consistent truth.

This is a line from Yuki no Kowakare, the final rakugo told by Yakumo. It's been a while since we've seen the master perform, but given that he will pass away shortly afterwards, it's time to reflect upon the choices he made in life, both on and off stage. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju sends him off with a story about a father and mother's relationship with their child, which manages to provide a glimpse at the nature of the bonds between Yakumo and Sukeroku, Sukeroku and Miyokichi, and Kiku and Konatsu at the same time.

It's a story about an estranged family being reunited through a child, "the clamp that holds a marriage together". But as rakugo is (at least supposed to be) comedic storytelling, it's also the story about said clamp being hit with a hammer to stay in place, which immediately brings to mind the Japanese proverb of "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down". Often overstated in its importance as a key to understanding Japanese culture and its appreciation of conformity, the image feels too powerful to discard in the context of this series. The hammer of society's pressure to fit in is coming down hard on Kiku, Sukeroku, and Konatsu.

Backstage, Kiku is full of admiration.

No one can tell this story better. The performance he's worked to perfection.

Yakumo, dutiful keeper of the family name, has indeed worked his performance to perfection, but not just on stage. We have seen glimpses of his own insecurities in the past, but in the face of death, he eventually shares his calling as a rakugoka (or lack thereof) with Kiku. Where Sukeroku was fueled by passion and personal revenge, Kiku longed for a place to belong and be himself. Yakumo had none of these. He became a storyteller out of spite, fear, and jealousy towards the much more talented last Sukeroku. Manipulating his father into bestowing the name upon him instead of the more deserving Sukeroku, he has since been plagued by guilt and the burden of said name.

I didn't know, back then, how much suffering this name would cause.

It's a name Kiku still refuses to inherit. Until now, it had looked like this had been out of consideration for his friendship with Sukeroku, but his motivation appears in a new light after this scene. Kiku, despite being grateful for everything Yakumo did for him as a father and mentor, doesn't want to become like his master. And by refusing to inherit the name, he hopes to escape following Yakumo's footsteps on the path of regret and "karmic retribution".

That's something I've never liked about you. [...] That's one way in which I never want to be like you. That's why I was able to do my own rakugo. I couldn't become like anyone else, but that's why I am who I am now. As an apprentice or a son, I'm glad I was able to come to you.

The tragedy of this, of course, is that we've seen Kiku's Yakumo 8th in the future, defined by regret and guilt. We know for a fact he will become Yakumo, and not just in name. Just like the last Sukeroku's memory is haunting the present Yakumo, the memory of the current Sukeroku will haunt future Yakumo in the form of Yotaro and Konatsu.

A sinful man, unable to forgive others.

Visually, Yakumo's death is announced and accompanied by the recurring image of a tree loosing its last leaves to the cold wind of winter, until the now leafless tree casts beautiful physical and narrative shadows on Yakumo in his sickbed.

With two empty beds placed ominously in the foreground, the tragedy about to play out in the remaining episodes is more than palpable.

I've talked about how Rakugo's setting provided an intriguing space to explore the concepts of truth in fiction and identity on stage. This week, we see Yakumo perform his role as the father who is unable to grow because he is old, and the ability to change is lost with age. But we also see Kiku's acting capabilities turned up to eleven.

When Kiku is complemented on giving his father a fine sendoff at the funeral, Rakugo does so in the most unambiguous way.

Everyone who attended said that you did a fine job. Just like a true storyteller.

Constantly forced to play roles in our lives – the loving father, the confident mentor, the passionate lover – we're always at the risk of taking a wrong step, tripping over our constructed persona, exposing our vulnerable self. Kiku is performing his role of the grieving son like a pro. At least that's how the people around him choose to interpret his "strength".

You didn't shed a single tear... You're so strong.

At the same time, Kiku is wondering if what he's doing right now is part of the preparation or the performance itself.

I feel like I'm supposed to be getting ready for something.

The thing he is supposed to get ready for is Shinigami, his future trademark story and a turning point in his life just like his portrayal of Benten back in episode 5. When he enters the stage for his first performance after Yakumo's death, Kiku fleetingly ponders the idea of choosing a story befitting the occasion.

It would be easy for me to do a sentimental story now. That wouldn't be my rakugo, though.

And where his late master cast himself as a father in his life's rakugo, Kiku chooses the role of the grim reaper. Using the fan (possibly Sukeroku's, judging by the amount of close-ups the camera shows us) as a walking stick on stage (the place we usually see Kiku free from his disability), he tells the classic story of a physician who sought to betray the supernatural gifts Godfather Death had given him.

When a patient has become bedridden, a shinigami will be with them, either by their head or their feet. If they're by the feet, the patient has life left in them.

After the physician wished to save someone destined to die and violated the rules of the pact in the process, the shinigami provides him with a last chance at saving himself through passing on the light of his life to another candle before his one flickers out.

And in a performance Akira Ishida can only be applauded for, Kiku's soul leaves his body to gaze upon the shinigami he has become in the performance of his life – or upon the performance his life has become.

I can see the shinigami perfectly...

It's a perfect, beautiful and haunting moment that had my heart racing in a way the best action sequences rarely accomplish. Feeling adrenaline spikes from a quiet character drama like this has been the most rewarding experience.

Kiku is truly alone now, and when he dramatically collapses on stage instead of bowing politely, he seems at peace like he has never been before.

Yet what does he do after embracing that peace? Eerily mirroring Yakumo's claim of having no regrets when he was clearly ruled by them, Kiku sets out to look for Sukeroku after telling the president of the rakugo association there was still something h needed to understand before accepting the Yakumo name.

What he finds instead is a young Konatsu, performing Nozarashi, the same rakugo Shin-san told to lure Bon out of his sad cocoon when they first met.

But, in the eyes of Konatsu, Kiku is an old man now, and old men cannot grow anymore, as we learned from Kowakare. Old men such like Yakumo. Kiku does not want to become like Yakumo, yet he seeks out Sukeroku to find the missing piece of the puzzle, which will probably end up sealing his transformation into Yakumo. It's hard not to shiver at the tragic irony of every character's actions here.

Yakumo's light has died with him before he could light another candle, and Kiku refuses to light another one, claiming he has nothing to teach in a trade already slowly withering away in the new era of radio and television.

But maybe he will be able to pass on his light to Yotaro and Konatsu's candles just before it's too late. I'm sure the last episodes will be just about that.
Posted by FloatingWords | Mar 12, 2016 9:44 AM | 0 comments
March 5th, 2016

From the first episode, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju has been a strong show in terms of narrative, characterization, sound design, and visual storytelling. This week, it proved itself to be among the best Studio Deen has ever produced, right up there with Rurouni Kenshin: Trust & Betrayal. And those are some big shoes to fill.

I will not talk to those who do not understand performance.

After eight episodes of careful build-up, time has come to cash in on all the little fires subtly fanned beneath the surface. Drama has arrived with a capital D and an execution so theatrical that even without the narrative flashback frame there could be no doubt about the impending tragedy. Rakugo's staginess might feel forced or campy in a different setting, but for a story about truth and identity on stage, it's a brilliant choice.

The series has always used the stage as a safe space for exploring its characters' inner lives. We've learned as much about their motivations, dreams and fears through their performances as we learned from their interactions off-stage.

Please, just watch his rakugo! It shows you the kind of person he…

The past weeks were about Kiku's liberation through the stage and discovering a truth in his performance, unable to shine in a life defined by society's restrictions and his own fears. It's only logical to bring the stage back into real life, at least as far as the visual storytelling is concerned. We're reaching the story's finale, and Rakugo starts hauling out the slightly bigger guns – while maintaining all of its grace.

Just how far can he go?

Kiku and Miyokichi's break-up was overdue, but it's still painful to watch. Miyokichi has long accepted her days on earth to be joyless and herself unable to take charge. Waiting for life to pass her by, she has settled to be a spectator at her own tragedy. And so she sits at her window, waiting for Kiku to come by, eager to see him, but well aware he will only come to end their relationship.

Miyokichi knows all good things must end eventually, and she has no intention to fight back. The show doesn't have to give her any lines to spell this out. Seeing her sitting amidst the fallen petals speaks volumes. Beauty is transient, and just like the sakura, Miyokichi's youth and happiness have already begun to wither. Why should she try to defy the laws of this world?

Her time with Kiku and the illusion of a shared future were as fleeting as the cherry blossoms, and just when both of them realize they never really shared their true selves with one another, the petals are swept away by a gust of wind. After her last, desperate attempt at provoking Kiku into caring about her, Miyokichi dramatically announces her revenge through dying and haunting him in what looks like a reference to Yotsuya Kaidan's Oiwa.

The next time I see you will be in Hell.

Miyokichi isn't the only one being abandoned this episode. After their promotion to shin'uchi, Sukeroku takes his provocations and unwillingness to fit in a tad too far, leading to a heated dispute with Yakumo and Sukeroku's eventual expulsion.

Never darken the door of Yurakutei again!

Until now, Sukeroku has been the rebellious hero of the story. Always striving to be free, full of energy, and radiating with confidence, the larger-than-life Sukeroku is now reduced to watching Kiku perform in secret, hiding in dark corners, pushed to the edge of the screen he once dominated.

Knowing he will never inherit the Yakumo name, Sukeroku finds comfort in Miyokichi's arms, two empty people trying to heal the wound life left them with.

The time for dreaming big is over. It's Kiku who cannot accept this.

Kiku has come a long way. The terrified boy who couldn't allow himself to be passionate about anything has grown into a respected artist, able to express himself on stage with confidence. While he's still somewhat of a sharp-tongued grouch, he clearly burns for his art – in his own, reserved way. Kiku might have been able come so far only by choosing adaptation and repression over emotional freedom, but he has found a space where he can be himself, and has learned to tolerate the spaces where he can't. But there has always been one constant in his life: feeling inferior towards Sukeroku. After Sukeroku's fall from grace, Kiku stays loyal, defending him when others badmouth his talent and trying to mend the broken relationship between master and student.

Firmly holding on to the belief that time will eventually heal everything, Kiku is shocked and devastated when he has to realize that Sukeroku will not be able realize his dream, just as he is unable to admit to himself that he has already surpassed his friend.

It was Sukeroku's rakugo that brought back Kiku's smile after everything seemed dark, and it was his envy of Sukeroku's passion and talent, which prompted him to strive for his own rakugo. Kiku doesn't care about Sukeroku being with Miyokichi, but when Sukeroku comes to say goodbye, Kiku cannot bare it.

Do whatever you want. Just don't give up on rakugo.

Rakugo has long become symbolic of both the freedom and repression it represents for the show's characters. In a heavily regulated society, Sukeroku wished for its modernization to keep up with the changing trends and not fade away, which ultimately put an end to his career. Yet it was also the greatest source of joy in his life, and when that is taken away from him, he can admit to something he would never have confessed to before.

I always envied you. You were loved and pampered… The master did everything for you… I was just a stray dog he took in! Not an apprentice like you!

Sukeroku, with all his claims of freedom and devil-may-care attitude, longed for acceptance and acknowledgement just like Kiku. And so he falls from the pedestal Kiku had placed him on, with Kiku trying to grasp his lost ideal just like Sukeroku tried to cling on to his master when he was expelled.

I had always looked at his back in aspiration… Now I wanted to kick it, cling to it, pound on his shoulders… With that indescribable frenzy of feelings inside me, I gazed at it…

That indescribable feeling, Kiku-san, is called love, and we all strive for and hurt from it.

Sukeroku, who professes independence and is too proud to apologize for his transgressions, Miyokichi, who tries to be anything a man wants her to be in order to avoid developing dreams of her own, and Kiku, enchanting the audience with stories of love, lust, and desire while denying himself the very emotions he’s trying to convince other people of.

With cherry blossoms falling, characters being pushed to the side of a screen dominated by empty spaces while black abysses open up below, the visual storytelling in Rakugo is more powerful than ever.

The looming tragedy is enforced by frequent intercuts to the river Miyokichi and Sukeroku met at last episode and meet again this week, underscored by the just all so slightly too audible sound of gurgling water or Sukeroku's heavy step.

When the camera cuts from their kiss to a goldfish gasping for air, I feel like I'm choking while, at the same time, wanting to applaud the perfect execution of this episode.
Posted by FloatingWords | Mar 5, 2016 7:26 AM | 0 comments