In Fallen Words, Yoshihiro Tatsumi takes up the oral tradition of rakugo and breathes new life into it by shifting the format from spoken word to manga. Each of the eight stories in the collection is lifted from the Edo-era Japanese storytelling form. As Tatsumi notes in the afterword, the world of rakugo, filled with mystery, emotion, revenge, hope, and, of course, love, overlaps perfectly with the world of Gekiga that he has spent the better part of his life developing.
These slice-of-life stories resonate with modern readers thanks to their comedic elements and familiarity with human idiosyncrasies. In one, a father finds his son too bookish and arranges for two workers to take the young man to a brothel on the pretext of visiting a new shrine. In another particularly beloved rakugo tale, a married man falls in love with a prostitute. When his wife finds out, she is enraged and sets a curse on the other woman. The prostitute responds by cursing the wife, and the two escalate in a spiral of voodoo doll cursing. Soon both are dead, but even death can’t extinguish their jealousy.
Tatsumi’s love of wordplay shines through in the telling of these whimsical stories, and yet he still offers timeless insight into human nature.
Rakugo(落語) had always been an art form that was considered untranslatable to an audience outside Japan, and even there its popularity has plummeted in the last decades, seeming to go the way of picture dramas.
In the past decade though, two mainstream anime have brought the medium to the attention of foreigners and more casual viewers, always carrying with them this quintessential Japanese sense.
While Joshiraku is genial, watching the subbed anime meant that most people felt left out of the jokes, mainly relying on the intricate wordplay usual of the author and references too obscure for ~90% percent of the people watching it.
Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu managed to set the record straight for most , seeing as it actually featured some rakugo even if as a backdrop, had a human and relatable story and so on. It is especially good, for the one person reading this who hasn't already seen it, maybe you're the blessed one. Reading this before watching it will surely enhance your experience of the anime.
So, here we have a collection of some classic rakugo stories, translated into gekiga(劇画) by the true master of the genre who coined the very name, the late Yoshihiro Tatsumi. This review is too small for me to a give a detailed intro to this man, but let me just give my opinion that he's the spiritual father of realistic, seinen drama. Urasawa Naoki seems to me to owe a lot to this man, and that should be enough.
The story really is the main point of the work, and Tatsumi has done an excellent work conveying it. A big part of the flow of a rakugo play are misunderstandings and a big part of them is in turn timing. The film-like time and page space normally familiar to gekiga means that this is played out particularly well. The entire style of narrative reminds one of '50s or '60s Hollywood and Italian comedies, so even if the intricacies of the plot and dialogue are lost, they're all very enjoyable. One can easily like this without knowing or caring a tiny bit about rakugo. Especially if you like historical works, the feeling of the periods it depicts is portrayed well enough, with an underlying modern twist providing much of the comedy. While reading the English version surely spoils some of the peculiar turns of dialogue, the style of gekiga means that it's eminently more transferable to a Western readership than any other attempt at this kind of story.
Art is what may put off most readers of such works. The backgrounds are simplistic compared to what Inio or other modern artists have given us, and while there is a good sense of motion and space, most character designs seem crude and repetitive. I personally rate it high enough despite its lack of intricacy due to the service a simple, realistic way of drawing gives wings to the strengths of that artist.
Nothing special here, all tied in with the comedy. Most characters are meant to be symbols transparent enough for the viewer to understand and empathize with in the short space and time such a story affords. There are good bits of comedy and some moral lessons derived from their setting, so I rate that high as well.
Overall this is a good read, not something special, but charming in the way it manages to mix two media not so known or easily understood and create something more welcoming than the sum of its parts. It is a great starting point for both rakugo and gekiga and in this lies its real merit.
If the prominence of rakugo in anime makes you read this and then go on straight to Abandon the Old in Tokyo then it has really done its job, and a great one at that.
tl;dr: Product of two not so mainstream art forms, it reconciles them well and serves as a stepping stone for exploring both. Its standalone merits, while not bad in any way, are overshadowed by the great context it immerses one into.