First Impressions – Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu

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Anyone else think this week’s Haikyuu!! was a bit… odd?

Well, here’s the thing – it’s “Sleeper Saturday”, because my top two picks to click as sleepers this season were Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu and Dagashi Kashi (more on that later) both airing today.  But the truth is, it’s kind of borderline to call this series a sleeper – if anything it depends on how you define the term.  There was certainly plenty of reason to think Shouwa Genroku could be really good, but then again for mainstream anime fans it was flying further below the radar than Major T.J. Kong’s bomber.

To get it out of the way, I absolutely loved this premiere – loved it.  Any season that could have two introductory episodes as great as BokuMachi and Shouwa Genroku has a leg up if you ask me.  But there are times when I watch a show like this and I ask, “who in the world is the intended audience”?  I’m not sure there was ever a time when series like this were common in anime, but they’re certainly more rare than ever these days.  I’m thrilled Deen found backing for this series, but it’s hard to imagine anyone is going to make their money back…

It’s not a coincidence that these two great premieres were a Seinen and a Josei respectively (not that there’s anything inherently “Josei” in this first episode), because these are the two demographics that produce a disproportionate percentage of the best anime despite their rarity.  And with Josei it’s extreme rarity, even more than Seinen – if anything Shouwa Genroku feels even more like a NoitaminA series than BokuMachi does.

As it turns out, this premiere double-episode is a retelling of the earlier OVAs – OVAs which I haven’t seen, and which were never translated into English.  That works out fine for me, and these 40-odd minutes do a splendid job of setting the mood and introducing the story.  Rakugo – the art of solitary comic storytelling  – is a quintessentially Japanese art form that’s not easy for Western minds like mine to wrap themselves around.  We’ve seen it touched upon in anime before, but never so lovingly and in such detail as with Shouwa Genroku.  It’s a thing of beauty as presented here, exotic and fascinating and opaque – though how a Japanese viewer would see that side of the series I can’t say.  Perhaps it would depend on what generation they’re from.

It’s clear we’re going to see some time-jumping in this show, but it starts out sometime in the post-war era, probably the 1950’s.  We meet a young prisoner (Seki Tomokazu) being released from jail, seemingly with nothing to his name in the world.  But he has a dream, to become the apprentice of the legendary Rakugo master Yuurakutei Yakumo (Ishida Akira) who won the prisoner’s heart when he performed “Shinigami” at the jail.  The prisoner effectively stalks his hero, waiting for him outside the theatre where he’s performing, and in his feckless desperation somehow manages to capture the interest of the man who never takes on an apprentice (seemingly because he offers the prospect of entertainment, but in point of fact for a deeper reason altogether).

That prisoner comes to be known as Yotarou (a Rakugo term for  buffoon). Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is the story of Rakugo and of Yotarou and three other people – two living, and one dead.  In addition to Yakumo there’s his stepdaughter Konatsu (Kobayashi Yuu), and then there’s her father Sukeroku – who, while dead, is very much a presence in this story.  His daughter still loves him and blames Yakumo for his death.  For Yakumo, with whom he formed the two shining lights of Rakugo for a generation, Sukeroku is both a source of great regret and jealousy – and love.  And Yotarou becomes fascinated with this dead man, whose Rakugo style is so very different from the austere man who’s taken him as an apprentice but teaches him little.

Really, this is just wonderful stuff.  The cast of iconic seiyuu is superb, especially Seki (who reminds us that AssClass would have been better if it’d kept its original cast).  Director Omata (sometimes known as Hatakeyama Mamoru) reminds us what a stellar talent he is, and what’s possible when a director of his ability escapes from Shaft and Shinbou.  Some of the best moments of the premiere are when it absorbs itself in telling entire Rakugo tales for minutes at a time – both told by Yakumo and Yotarou.  Omata gives us fleeting glimpses of what’s happening in the story, because of course this is what the storyteller himself has to do.  He also gives us glimpses into the past, glimpses which will clearly become lingering stares next week.

What’s best of all here, though, is the patient and cinematic storytelling and the way the writing shows us what these people mean to each other.  These relationships are complicated and we experience them through sidelong glances and hidden meanings behind words.  It’s also fascinating to come to learn how these Rakugo masters are so different in style – how distinct what Yakumo does is from what Sukeroku did.  And we learn this through Yotarou and Konatsu, both of whom are naturally given to Sukeroku’s much more rough-edged and powerhouse style than his own graceful erudition.  This gives the old man real pain, but he’s also proud of it – proud because he obviously loved Sukeroku very much indeed, though there relationship seems to have been massively complicated in its own right.

Just what did happen in the past – the friendship from childhood between these two men and the circumstances behind Sukeroku’s death – will seemingly be as important to the plot as Yotarou’s own story.  But just as Rakugo reaches into the past and pulls old stories into the present, all of these events are surely going to be connected.  The conclusion of the premiere – a terrible incident at the performance and the emotional catharsis it engenders – lead to a powerful conclusion to the premiere.  That conclusion frames the series around the pledge Yakumo made to Sukeroku (before or after he died we don’t know) and the one he demands from Yotarou and Konatsu.  It’s a great moment in an episode full of them, and sets the stage for what should be one of the most fascinating and compelling series of the year.

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17 comments

  1. l

    This is in my books the best premiere episode so far of this new season. Better than BokuMachi. The rakugo performances were engrossing – Yotarou's dynamic performance vs Yakumo's restrained performance.

  2. E

    I agree, I liked how this premiere had more subtle character interplay with less monologuing, although it did have longer duration than BokuMachi's premiere.

  3. I

    To be fair this show did have double the amount of time then Boka had so it's not really that fair of a comparison.

  4. S

    I fell in love with this show at first sight.

  5. f

    If Shouwa Genroku is really getting such a lacklustre response, that's really quite depressing, although pretty expected. I mean, there are people over at RC who are already freaking out about any potential BL. I personally find the possibility of a well-written romantic relationship between men and possibly Konatsu's mother (even if one-sided, if the PVs are to be trusted) exciting – it could be so much more than the average BL story. Although I don't think that's all there is to Yakumo's feelings towards Suteroku – I'm sensing some friction as well. Hopefully at least it'll get the recognition it (probably) deserves after it ends, like Shinsekai Yori. On a side note, I'm actually loving Ishida Akira's elderly voice. He's actually playing a non-teenage character..!! In this episode at least…

    I also think this first episode was even better than Boku Machi's (and obviously miles above everything else), for all the reasons in your review. Everything about it was exquisite, down to the very minimal use of OST only at the most dramatic moments – I don't properly have words to describe the moment the drums started playing at near the climax of Yotarou's performance. Those rakugo performances were stunning, and any less talented seiyuu could've made the whole thing a disaster. The ED is also glorious and I'm looking forward to Hayashibara Megumi's entrance. This is probably going to be my favorite anime of the season, if not year.

  6. S

    I totally forgot that this kind of japanese one-man theater existed until I watched this episode. It then occured to me that I have actually watched this kind of performance during a cultural festival a few years back when I was still studying in Sweden. At that time a Swedish man performed a play first in fluent Japanese and then a second time in Swedish. Since I was not fluent in neither language back then that was one odd experience. I could only guess from his acting that the actor was incorporating several persons and from the audience's reaction it must have been a comedy.

    Anyway, I was quite awestruck that we got to see whole lengths of performances in this episode. This kind of reminded me of that one episode from Nodame Cantabile, which only consisted of listening to the orchestra's Rachmaninoff piece.

    In the last year, I have not followed anime as frequently as before due to work. So I am very grateful that you share your thoughts about these kind of non-mainstream shows in your blog. This show would have fallen completely under my radar otherwise.

  7. Thanks. I'm grateful that there are fans like you to watch shows like this one.

  8. R

    I liked the premiere well enough but interestingly I think the part that stood out the most for me was actually the music. I've always liked traditional Asian music (not just Japanese, but there's a lot similar between all of them- maybe I should be specific and say southeast Asia)

  9. R

    Actually after thinking about it that's not doing it justice. I think the other big part was the rakugo performances themselves. The character interactions and setup are great, but it was during Yotaro's performance of Dekigokoro, when I found myself laughing at this play within a show along with the audience, that I really found myself sucked in. So major props to the seiyuu and writers, I actually felt like I was laughing at an actual comedy play, which I guess is about as immersive as you can get

  10. R

    You weren't kidding when you said Josei anime were extremely rare. There are only 36 series tagged as Josei on MAL. And really only about 15 when you take out shorts, OVAs and 2nd/3rd Seasons of the same series.

    Anyways, very good premiere.

  11. s

    you know..why isnt it a thing for tv anime to be and hour long on a weekly basis? Think about all that potential you could have with certain series if they ran for an hour long 24 eps? i think that would be so cool. I know this was a one time thing for showa but still, seeing this just makes me wonder why anime cant be serialized like this….sigh

  12. R

    Mostly monetary reasons. Anime's already treading shaky ground in that area as it is (part of the reason for more shoddily made series, and overwork of artists, etc etc)

  13. s

    yea i know; it was more of a rhetorical question really. I just think it would be so cool if more anime got the hour ep treatment weekly like tv shows in North America. Perhaps someday we may get to that point

  14. N

    Conclusive evidence that Sankarea wasn't a fluke, and that Shinichi Omata is legit as hell.

  15. M

    The story is set in 1971 or later according to the magazine cover (you actually posted it in the blog). I was a bit surprised to see a rickshaw was used as a transportation even then but understandable in Asakusa area (not sure where the theatre is located, tho.), it can be arranged. I like the anime and it seems a reasonable attention by searching on twitter.
    I once visited Suehiro-tei, another Rakugo theatre in Shinjuku, to see the New Year rakugo show of sort. I absolutely enjoyed it, the venue was filled with great atmosphere…Some visitors were dressed in Kimono…I totally recommend it.

  16. M

    BokuMachi and Shouwa ensure that this will be a good season, no matter what the rest of the series are like. Excellent.

  17. G

    I agree with pretty much everyone here that the Rakugo perfomances, played out in length and almost unfiltered, are pure enjoyment. Like Yotaro said, there was no time to even close the eyes, and I especially enjoyed Yotaro’s storytelling of the burglar. It was pretty funny.
    I find Yakumo to be a very interesting character. Very prideful, unyielding; at first it seems that he wants to outshine Sekuroku’s legacy (even though he is already very successful in his style); then, he shows a tinge of lingering affection and jealousy. I’ll look forward to watching more of his Rakugo (hopefully, we will get to see more segments from him)

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