OP: “Imawa no Shinigami (今際の死神)” by Megumi Hayashibara
I’m not sure I can ever remember a season where the gap from the best series to the rest of the field was as wide as it is in Winter 2017. We’ve seen pretty much everything premiere except the second season of Rewrite, and while there are a few intriguing prospects, and Yowamushi Pedal continues to be a treasure, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu: Sukeroku Futatabi-hen just stands head and shoulders above everything else. This kind of subtlety, depth and directorial brilliance would be something to savor in any season – in this one it’s a veritable Godsend.
This week starts (literally – no cold open) with the new OP, again written by Ringo Sheena and stunningly performed by Hayashibara Megumi (Miyokichi). If one tends to believe OPs can be spoilery the symbolism in this one is as subtle as a boot to the jaw, but that aside it’s a stunner – Omata Shinichi’s (I assume it’s his work) work a real thing of beauty. It’s an unsettling and bleak mural of scenes from the subconscious of Shouwa Rakugo, and as the narrative starts the story very much reflects that. This series is in a pretty dark place right now, even by its own lofty standards.
It’s clear that all the major characters are somewhat lost at this point in the story, and I include rakugo itself in that because it’s very much a character in this show as well. Yotarou is struggling to bear a weight he really wasn’t prepared to carry, despite his cheerful bravado. He’s expected to be the savior of rakugo while at the same time trying to survive his “trial run” as husband-provider for Konatsu and the baby. That would be burden enough, but Yotarou is still a babe in rakugo terms – he’s got to try and find his own voice in the art of storytelling, and that’s easier said than done.
Complicating all this is the media frenzy (in truth I’m not sure you could muster a media frenzy over rakugo today) over Yotarou’s Yakuza past. To his credit he’s never tried to hide it, but the stigma attached to that tattoo on his back and what it represents in a conservative country is hard to overstate (especially in an ultra-traditional subset of it, the rakugo community). He’s struggling to draw big crowds, and not just because of the rumors – he’s also struggling as a performer, clearly trying too hard.
Adding insult to injury is the return of Amaken – which of course means the blissful return of the great Yamaguchi Kappei. Amaken seems to delight in rubbing salt in the new Sukeroku’s wounds, and as a rakugo commentator in the press he’s in a position to do serious damage. He is right, though, that Yotarou is in a real bind – caught between the rakugo of his namesake and his mentor. It is indeed the dilemma of a student of a great master – imitation carries one only so far, and now the young Sukeroku has to find his own rakugo. But his confidence is shattered and his mind is scattered, and it even manifests on stage – in trembling, fidgeting, fast-talking and even a desperation strip to the waist to show off his carp.
Meanwhile, Konatsu is groaning under the weight of her own burden – motherhood without an actual husband, lingering resentment towards Yakumo, uncertainty about Yotarou. For his part Yakumo is struggling under the greatest burdens of all – encroaching old age and a weariness of life itself. He’s not kidding when he says he’s been waiting for Konatsu to follow through on her threat to kill him – no matter how much she blames him for the death of her parents, Yakumo surely blames himself more. He’s cut back on his duties as president of the rakugo association, betraying perhaps that there may be some truth to Hii-kun’s claim that Yakumo intends to take rakugo to the grave with him. And his lessened duties have not relieved his stress, as he’s now at home more to deal with Konatsu and her baby boy.
Of all the relationships among the living in Showa Genroku, that between Yakumo and Konatsu may be the most complex. The opposite of love is not hate but indifference, and there’s much passion in both. Konatsu admires the old man’s rakugo (she states her horror at the idea her son would never see Yakumo perform as her reason to spare him) , and surely feels conflicted emotions about the man himself – he raised her, after all. Somehow, miraculously, the little boy himself possesses a bright and happy temperament – he might perhaps be the key to unlocking everyone’s heart, in the end. Whoever his father is the boy has both the face and personality of his grandfather – and if there’s anything Konatsu and Yakumo agree on it’s their love for him. As with rakugo, though, we’re left with the question – just where does Yotarou fit in?