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.