You get a little history lesson for free with every episode of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – though I hardly think that was the beginning of the pitch to the production committee. I have no doubt that an appreciation for Japanese history and culture is a big help in terms of enjoying this series, though not absolutely essential – as much as it’s primarily a personal story, Rakugo Shinjuu is also a fascinating look at the peculiar relationship the past and the present share in Japan (especially when it comes to art).
I think the disconnect between Western anime fans and the subject matter of this series became pretty obvious when viewers started commenting about how Kikuhiko worked at a “butler cafe” a few episodes back. While it does disturb me to think that legions of non-Japanese anime fans have such a stilted and narrow idea of what Japan is, it did make me laugh – and it made me wonder if young Japanese fans were almost as disconnected from the world of Shouwa Rakugo. Do they know, for example, of the Taikomochi – the male geisha? Until the mid-18th Century there were no female geisha in fact, but by the time of Kikuhiko’s youth Taikomochi had long been marginalized by their female counterparts. This context adds an especial significance to Kikuhiko’s recollection of his boyhood in the geisha house, and the disdain the residents held for him.
There’s more to this angle, though, because in a way the taikomochi were the first rakugo storytellers – that became their primary function for hundreds of years. I’m not sure there’s any direct connection to Kikuhiko’s situation apart from an interesting kind of symmetry – the major driving factor for him is the plaintive desire to belong. As someone who’s been an outsider for his entire life, it seems this hunger for acceptance has never left him. The idea of the Ibasho – a place to belong – is a monstrously important concept in the Japanese consciousness. And I think Kikuhiko’s longing to find “my rakugo” is ultimately a longing to find his ibasho at long last.
As one watches this impending tragedy of a story play out, they can’t help but try and imagine what the chain of events leading up to the present is going to be. I can really sympathize with Kikuhiko here, because Sukeroku is always ahead of hm – even in terms of understanding. It shouldn’t be the case, because Sukeroku plays the fool and the field, and rarely seems to take life seriously. But even in something as fundamental as understanding people he’s ahead of Kiku without really working at it, and he’s seen the course of Kiku’s rakugo before even Kiku did.
Unfortunately, I see this carrying over to Miyokichi’s situation. What will cause the rift between these men – is it a budding homosexual attraction, a fight over Miyokichi, or both? Of the latter we can be pretty certain, and the path of it is pretty clear. I don’t think Sukeroku loves Miyokichi and I don’t think he ever will, and I do think he loves Kikuhiko as a friend and brother at least. But because he’s always been the one to get everything – women, friends, gigs, the essence of the situation – I sense that on some level he doesn’t like seeing Kikuhiko have something he doesn’t, even if he doesn’t want it all that badly. And I think he may try and take it away, just to show that he can.
For now, though, the focus is on Kikuhiko’s awakening as a performer – facilitated so perfectly by the play that one wonders if Sukeroku didn’t plan all this to the last detail. That role was indeed the proof for Kiku that he has “it” – both the ability to entrance an audience, and the hunger to experience what that’s like. His rakugo, once he finally finds it, looks a lot like the play – in fact at the next workshop he chooses to perform “Shinagawa Shinjuu”, which tells basically the same story. We see Kikuhiko’s face in shadow as he watches Sukeroku perform his “rakugo for the people”, but the shadows recede as if they were scales falling from his eyes, and he realizes with perfect clarity what his rakugo is. It’s “interior”, a rakugo not for the people but for himself.
The irony here, of course, is that the people love this rakugo because they see the sincerity and commitment in it, as well as Kikuhiko’s talent. This is a liberating and upbeat moment, but one can’t help but note the similarity both in title and theme between “Shinagawa Shinjuu” and this series – a synchronicity that surely cannot be coincidental. The essence of tragedy is not surprise, but knowing the tragedy is inevitably coming and having to watch it come, helpless to prevent it – and that’s the situation Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu has placed the audience in. It’s unsettling to contemplate, but I wouldn’t want to miss a second of it.