The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju

Title: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
Genre: Drama
Company: Studio Deen
Format: 13 episodes
Dates: 8 Jan 2016 – 1 Apr 2016

Synopsis: When Yotaro gets out of prison he knows what he wants to do: become a rakugo performer. This form of traditional comedic storytelling is typically passed down through generations and Yotaro is determined to learn from the very best, but the great Yakumo doesn’t take apprentices. There’s something about Yotaro, though, that reminds Yakumo of an old friend and he agrees to take the young man in. Already in his care is that old friend’s fiery daughter, Konatsu, from whom Yotaro gains hints at Yakumo’s past. With so many memories resurfacing, Yakumo decides to sit them both down and tell them his story, beginning in the 1920s.

The Highlights
Characters: Complex, though they often struggle to express themselves.
Rakugo: Presented as a cherished art form and used creatively to tell two stories at once.
Directing: The details and visuals flesh out the story where the characters can’t.
Ending: The backdrop is set but the story continues.

Art can be inspiring. For some, one taste is enough to generate a life-long passion. Rakugo is just such an inspiration for three characters in Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu — Yotaro, Konatsu and Yakumo’s old friend Sukeroku. However, this was not so for Yakumo, known in his youth as Kikuhiko. Instead, his relationship with rakugo developed over the years into one of both deep appreciation and resentment. Rakugo was never his choice and he seems to lack the natural talent that bursts from his fellow apprentice Sukeroku. But in struggling to adapt to a career foist upon him, Kikuhiko learns to mold the art into his own tool of self-expression. Indeed, his rakugo is the only place where he can really explore his own feelings. This story of how Kikuhiko became the Yakumo we meet in the first episode is fascinating, compelling and deeply personal.

From the very start, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu sets up this powerful contrast between the characters who are driven by expressive passion and those who feel constrained. Sukeroku is squarely in the former category. He knows what he wants and is limited only by his own single-mindedness and irresponsibility. While he suffers for his life choices and refusal to act as he is told he should, he can’t be anything but true to himself.

That Sukeroku could have it all and chooses to throw it away is incredibly frustrating for Kikuhiko, who never feels he has that option. Kikuhiko and the geisha he meets named Miyokichi both feel trapped by a society that won’t accept them. Resigned to never being able to have what they want most, Kikuhiko and Miyokichi allow their entire lives to become performances, forced to become what others want them to be in order to survive.  Being themselves is an unattainable dream, a luxury.

Developing and exploring these complex characters and their relationships is where the series truly excels. Never do they spell out what they are feeling. Instead, the real story remains just below the surface, revealed through subtle interactions that allow the audience to read between the lines. While this can sometimes leave the characters feeling cold, they carry a realism and believability not often seen in anime.

With a cast unable or unwilling to express themselves openly, it’s up to the visual storytelling to fill in those details. This the series does incredibly well through skillful directing. Here, the touch of a hand, a change of posture or a downward glance says much more than anything the characters speak. Unless, of course, that speech is a rakugo performance. Since rakugo is shaped by the performer, the art form provides a creative lens through which to explore the characters. Most of the stories are presented in full and chosen specifically to parallel what the character performing is feeling, essentially telling two stories at once. The performances are further enhanced by some exceptional voice acting and editing that emphasizes the skill of the performer in embodying several different characters within each story.

The only moment that didn’t sit quite right with me was, unfortunately, the climax of the series. While most of the series balances the characters’ underlying motivations with their outward manifestations, the climax feels somewhat manufactured and contrived, reducing its impact. It was not enough to damper my enthusiasm for the series, but considering the whole story was building to this moment, it was a little disappointing.

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu demonstrates some of the best of what anime has to offer.  It’s a beautiful character-driven story told though an expressive and uncommon art form. While Yakumo does finish telling his own story in these thirteen episodes, it’s clear the tale is not yet complete. I for one am looking forward to more.

The Rating: 9

Reviewed by: Kaikyaku

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