This, my friends, is not a mass-produced model.
I noticed that for a little while earlier this week (thought you’d have missed it if you blinked) Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu was ranked first among Winter series in Stalker points. That’s over now of course, but if there’s any legitimate chance that this show is going to fare at all decently on disc, I consider that a very pleasant surprise. If you were to point at any show on the schedule and say it was most unlike any this season, for me this would have to be the one.
For me Shouwa Genroku doesn’t quite match up to Boku Dake ga Inai Machi in terms of sheer emotional power, but as an intellectual exercise this is a pretty remarkable series – and by no means is it a cold fish in the process. The feelings at play among the characters are very genuine and relatable despite the fact that one could hardly envision a more remote setting for a Westerner. There’s something to the idea of a brotherhood of man, I think – as long as people react to situations in a genuine way, we’ll never fail to see ourselves in them.
As suggested by the preview, this second episode (and first of post-OVA content) took place entirely in flashback. Ishida Akira is sadly typecast far too often, but when given material that really stretches him (Kyousougiga is another prime example) he shows what a sublime actor he is. I continue to be utterly fascinated by the vast difference in style between Ishida’s Yakumo (who’s given the stage name of Kikuhiko by his master as a boy) and Sukeroku (who gets the name Hatsutaro, which he hates – at what point does he change it?) as storytellers. And here, we’re given insight into how it extends to their very nature – these two were chalk and cheese literally from the moment they met on the doorstep of the 7th Generation master Yuurakutei (Yanaka Hiroshi).
Kikuhiko is a lost soul from the moment we see him – the son of a Geisha abandoned by his parents when he injures his leg and is unable to perform. One gets the sense that Yuurakutei is by nature a kind man (kinder than his wife would prefer, anyway) and that he takes the forlorn boy in more out of pity than any sense of budding talent. Hatsutaro by contrast is pure bravado and boyish idiocy, like Yotarou a commoner who throws himself at a master out of love for Rakugo and a lack of enough sense to know he’s not supposed to aspire to be a storyteller.
These two boys could hardly be more different, but it’s Hatsutaro’s openness that pushes Kikuhiko to finally let out a little of the sadness that consumes him. They become friends, they become brothers – whether they become more is left to future episodes to reveal. But they also become Rakugo storytellers, eventually earning their names on a place on the stage. And again, it’s in its depiction of the art of storytelling itself that Shouwa Genroku achives perhaps its greatest heights of brilliance.
As different as these young men are in life, they’re even more different on-stage. It’s easy to see why the future Sukeroku should be such a winning storyteller – he lives as one, even when he’s not on stage, he’s on stage. He’s a natural. If anything I find Kikuhiko even more fascinating, because his path to Rakugo stardom is so much more un-natural. That Hatsutro’s is the Rakugo of the common man is obvious from his first appearance (even the children love him, and I loved his his counting routine turned into a kind of sing-along). But just as obvious is that Kikuhiko was not born to this, that he wears it like an ill-fitting yukata. His first trembling stage appearance is one of the most uncomfortable five minutes of anime I’ve seen in a very long time – the silence of the audience is like a slap in the face. While in some ways the episode flies by, that sequence felt like it went on forever.
That Hatsutaro was able to make Kikuhiko smile even after that trauma is remarkable, and it seems that this is the reason Kikuhiko came to love him – it seems no one else is able to make him smile at all. Even knowing where the series is going to end up I can’t help but be fascinated at the notion of watching it get there. The web of emotions that connects all these characters is tangled indeed, and the strands that tie Kikihiko and Hatsutaro are at the very heart of that web.