If you tell me you were expecting anything less than that, I’m going to slap you.
There’s anime, and then there’s Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. It’s not like anything else in the medium, or much outside it really. It’s just “Rakugo” – brilliant and thoughtful and powerful in a way that’s totally unique. I can honestly say I’ve never seen an anime quite like it (if I were to pick one it would be Hyouge Mono, which is less odd than it seems – and if Deen weren’t doing this show, Bee Train would kind of make sense). It may not sell figures at Toranoana but this show takes storytelling to a level few anime will ever even aspire to.
We have a kind of perfect storm with Shouwa Genroku, including a superb production from the much-maligned but suddenly trendy Deen. Whether you call him Omata Shinichi or Hatakeyama Mamoru (I’m not even sure he knows when he rolls out of bed) this is one of the best directors nobody talks about. Shibue Kana’a music is transportive and magical. Kumoto Haruka’s source manga is almost startlingly literate and emotionally penetrating. And the cast – where does one even begin with the cast? Ishida Akira and Yamadera Kouichi were a perfect Yin and Yang in the first season, and now the second season sees the arrival of the Seki twins – two of anime’s finest actors – on center-stage. It’s almost too good to be true (but the rest of the season mostly sucks, so there is that).
Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is so many things, prominent among them an epic story told on an intimate scale (which is possibly the most reliable literary formula for success there is). It’s also a story about storytelling, which lends a particular kind of duality to the narrative. Everyone plays a character on stage that’s a version of themselves, but one of the observations this series makesis that we’re all pretty much doing that all the time anyway. We present ourselves as we want others to see us, on stage or off. What ties all this together is the art of Rakugo – a peculiar kind of art that straddles the line between high and low culture in Japan the way no other traditional Japanese art form does. And that, seemingly, looks to be a major theme of “Sukeroku Futatabi-hen”.
Sukeroku’s ghost remains an important character despite being long dead – which he was at the end of the first season, and ten years have passed on-screen when we pick up the story. Yotarou has finally become a Shin’uchi – and in doing so, he asks his master for permission to take the name Sukeroku. Yakumo (now president of the rakugo association) agrees, perhaps more easily than one might have expected. Meanwhile Konatsu has just had a baby – a baby whose father’s identity is not made crystal clear here. But the baby has the smiling and affable temperament of his grandfather – a temperament shared by the one who’s just taken his name. Make of that what you will.
This story is such a spider web of intricate details and subplots that I can’t possibly do it justice here. The future of rakugo is certainly one of them. Yakumo has pressed Yotarou for three promises: don’t die before he does (he’s sick of that), learn all the plays of Yakumo and Sukeroku, and extend the life of rakugo. Yotarou (who plays the fool as well as anyone) has remembered long after Yakumo believes he’d forgotten, but this is not a simple problem. Like his namesake, the new Sukeroku is a forward-thinking populist storyteller – one who has very little in common with the master he idolizes, truth be told. That master calls the writing of new rakugo “heresy”, and declares he would rather have it die than be “corrupted”. Yet he still gives Yotarou leeway to do what he pleases – for now – and is clearly divided in his own feelings (just as he was with the first Sukeroku’s rakugo stylings).
Into this mix is added Higuchi-sensei (Toshihiko Seki), a writer of some renown and a lover of rakugo. He actually appeared briefly in the first season, and he was turned down as an apprentice by Yakumo. He too idolizes Yakumo, but disagrees about the future of rakugo – and has the eloquence to formulate another vision. His belief is that any time an art form exists for longer than 50 years it stops belonging to the masses, and starts belonging to history – and rakugo has lasted 300 years. There may be only one theatre left in Tokyo (and none in West Japan at all) but still, rakugo lives – and Higuchi sees in the new Sukeroku to complete what the first died before accomplishing, to modernize and popularize the art again. “If Yakumo had taken more apprentices, rakugo would be in better shape today.” he laments to Yotarou, before uttering the most intriguing line of the episode – he calls Yakumo the “Shinigami of Rakugo”.
Yet another fascinating element is the relationship between Konatsu and Yotarou (and Yakumo). Not knowing if he’s the father or not, Yotarou still presses Konatsu to marry him – and he does so not because he’s “head over heels” for her, but because he loves her as a sister. It’s an intriguing take on love, and one that makes a lot of sense – not to mention very much reflecting very much who Yotarou is as a person. What of Yakumo? He loves Konatsu, but every day she presents a painful reminder of the person he loved more than anyone in the world, and lost – and she loves him while still blaming him for that loss. Yotarou’s request to return to Yakumo’s house in Kagurazaka promises to spawn a compelling emotional drama amongst that odd little family.
In the final analysis, perhaps Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is most alive when it’s on-stage, allowing the cast to express the full breadth of their personalities and to enrapture us in the magic of the ancient art. Yakumo is old now, but he retains his full mastery. He embodies everything in rakugo that’s dignified and majestic and even holy – and timeless. The new Sukeroku is, like the old, a barely-contained vessel of pure energy. He’s everything in rakugo that’s bawdy and irreverent and populist and universal – and contemporary. Is there room in rakugo for both its Yin and Yang – then, or now? Shouwa Genroku‘s second season will surely, among other things, seek the answer to that question.