OP:”Usura Koori Shinjuu (薄ら氷心中)” by Megumi Hayashibara
If I were to pick one word to describe this series, I think it would be “exquisite”. And needless to say, that’s a word I don’t really use all that often in reference to anime.
I have a close friend in the film business, a great lover of all forms of visual arts. He’s certainly a muggle, but he does enjoy anime occasionally. When he watches anime like Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, though, he says “I don’t get it. Why does this have to be animated? There’s no reason it couldn’t be live-action.” Part of that is no doubt a function of the old-school view in the West that anime is all mechas, Miyazaki and porn. But even more so, I think, it comes down to a fundamental difference in the way Japanese and Americans view animation. And that fact that a series like this one being animated is the most natural thing in the world to a Japanese person is one of the reasons why I love the country so damn much.
Shouwa Genroku is, for me, art for art’s sake. It’s a celebration of art in a literal sense, but it’s also not here with any ulterior motives (certainly commercially) – it’s telling a subtle story about rich and vibrant characters and doing it with great patience and restraint. This episode is full of moments of quiet grace and beauty, and also of beautiful, terrible sadness. The line between love and hate is not easy to see sometimes because hate is not the opposite of love by any means – indifference is.
It seems to me that Hatsutaro sums up the essence of Shouwa Genroku in one simple phrase – when he tells Kikuhiko that for him, trying to do Hatsutaro’s rakugo would be like a songbird trying to be a crow. This series is about the two sides of every coin, perhaps most especially about the extremes of rakugo itself – what a marvelous medium it must be if two men as profoundly opposite as Hatsutaro and Kikuhiko could both excel in it.
As I said last week, it’s the incredibly hard road Kikuhiko has to walk to get to where he ends up that makes him the standout of the cast for me. There are so many times he could have given up on rakugo, but he never does. He bears up to the incredible pain of seeing Shin-san get further and further ahead of him, succeeding by being himself (which is impossible for Kiku to do). He sees his potential path to success – erotic rakugo – banned by mlitary censors. He survives being sent to the countryside with the Master’s wife while the Master takes Hatsu to Manchuria with him when the war starts. And even in exile, he continues to practice rakugo in order to steady himself, give himself the strength to move forward.
I think the most profound scene of the episode for me comes when we see Kikuhiko reciting one of Hatsutaro’s rakugo to try and lull himself to sleep – remembering the time when Hatsutaro told it while the two linked pinkies in a promise that they would survive the war and reunite. It’s a moment of great sadness, no doubt, but also a display of Kikuhiko’s strength of character – he never forgets. And when the war ends and the Master and Hatsu haven’t returned, Kuki dutifully takes the Mistress back to Tokyo (to Kagurazaka, in fact, the geisha district in Tokyo lucky enough to survive the war – and where I was lucky enough to live while I was in Tokyo) and performs rakugo for dinner parties in order to make ends meet, and to keep the flame alive within himself.
This episode is really all about persistence of spirit – belief in those we love, and the love of an art that’s close to our hearts. It was Hatsu’s natural love affair with rakugo that pushed Kiku to hate it for a time, but also what made him come to love it. To love it so much, in fact, that he fully dedicates himself to Hatsutaro’s dream of keeping rakugo alive. Kiku’s faith in Hatsu is rewarded when he and the Master return alive from Manchuria after the war, And Hatsu’s faith rewarded when the war-weary people embrace rakugo again in an attempt to get back some sense of normalcy and zest for life.
It’s still no clear to what extent the love between Kikuhiko and Hatsutaro will become something more than fraternity, but at the very least I think it’s been made clear that their disagreements over rakugo their passions will run high. And the arrival of the mysterious Miyukichi (Ayanami Rei herself Hayshibata Megumi) seems certain to portend even more turmoil to come.
ED: “Kawa, Taredoki” (かは、たれどき) by Kana Shibue