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.