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.