Time to breathe a big sigh of relief.
It gives me great satisfaction to write that post title, believe me. There was ample reason to believe a second season of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu was likely, starting with the very conspicuous roles Yotarou and Konatsu played in the premiere. Deen is as prone to sequels as any studio, and the pace of the storytelling had the air of a series that knew it had many more chances to be on stage. But until the announcement comes you never know, and the fact that the disc sales were so low (the manga did receive a decent bump) means that the decision was likely made in advance, and this was effectively a split-cour series.
As has been the theme of many of the best shows this winter, the element of surprise is not a major factor in Shouwa Genroku’s appeal. The greatness of this series – and it is great, second only to Boku Dake ga Inai Machi this season – is in consistently delivering profound and moving character drama week after week. In effect the first and last episodes of the season were the bread on a sandwich, with the meat being everything that came between. We spent eleven episodes building up to this point we knew was coming – now the season finale has the difficult job of taking us off-grid for the first time since the premiere.
This show is certainly lucky in its choice of cast, because the role of Yotarou is hugely crucial, coming as it does on the heels of the departure of Sukeroku and Yamadera Kouichi. Fortunately in Seki Tomokazu it has a seiyuu fully on-par with Yamadera and Ishida, someone capable of bringing Yotarou to life both off-stage and on, and of standing toe-to-toe with Ishida. We’ve really only seen one gear from Yotarou so far (sixth, probably) but that’s kind of how it was with Sukeroku too – the darkness inside him revealed itself much more slowly than it did with Kikuhiko, and Yamadera proved himself as adept at the quiet and agonized moments as the bombastic and charming ones.
This ep was certainly on the melancholy side despite Seki’s relentless energy, and if it had indeed been the series finale it would have been a pretty depressing way to go out. There’s an air of loneliness hovering over everything, starting with the cremation and funeral of Sukeroku and Miyokichi. Konatsu quite understandably feels alone in the world, but Kikuhiko (soon to be Yakumo) feels more profoundly alone in a way she can’t yet understand. Now he must bear the burden of the Yuuraketei name he never wanted, and of the future of rakugo. He must watch over a child not his own who deeply resents him, and blames him for her parents’ death almost as much as he blames himself. The man who craved solitude is now more alone than he ever dreamed he might be.
The weight of all that would surely have crushed a lesser man, but Yakumo is nothing if not stoic – and far stronger than he believes he is. But there’s little warmth between he and Konatsu, who refuses to obey him and even swears she’ll kill him one day (which seems ominous in this sort of series), while he stubbornly refuses to betray any affection for her. And rakugo is clearly suffering, yet another reason for Yakumo to berate himself. Theatres are closing all over Tokyo, and when we finally flash forward to the “present” and Yotarou’s first appearance as a Shin’uchi, the hall is mostly empty.
Make no mistake about it, there’s a strong generational theme to Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, and Bon is being ground in the relentless churning of the gears of time. But he’s still a part of the story, and I suspect he will be for at least part of the second act as well. Konatsu’s child (a son by the looks of the preview) may well be too, a child she conceived illegitimately because she didn’t wish for Sukeroku’s genes to die out with her. It’s yet another burden on Kikuhiko, another debt he owes to Sukeroku.
The most heartbreaking scene of the episode comes as Kiku and Matsuda-san are visiting the Seventh Generation’s gravesite on the anniversary of his death. Bon has a vision of Shin coming to visit the grave too, slowly materializing in the haze of incense. For once Shin refuses to speak, leaving the burden of conversation to join the other burdens Bon is already being crushed under. In the moment, it struck me that the one thing Kikuhiko and Konatsu have in common is their love for Sukeroku (and rakugo), and that perhaps that might be some sort of hope amidst all the despair.
That Yotarou chooses that very moment to arrive on the scene and ask his master whether he might inherit the Sukeroku name is surely no coincidence. What Kiku can never do is be the changing face of rakugo, the one that adapts to the times – no matter how he might want to bear that burden he simply lacks the capability to carry it. But Yotarou can, for his rakugo is cut from Sukeroku’s cloth. And if indeed he does, that lifts a part of the weight of Kiku’s responsibility to Sukeroku off his shoulders, too.
If the first act of Shouwa Genroku was about the past, then the second will surely be about the future. In a sense we know the ending this time, too, because in our own time rakugo is not dead – it remains an important and respected part of the Japanese cultural identity. There are so many stories to be told, both on the stage and off, and fans of good anime should feel very fortunate that Omata Shinichi is going to be given another season to share them with us.