Every time I think it can’t top itself, it tops itself.
This much I know – if 2017 sees something besides Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu head the Top 10 list when it’s over, either this show will have limped to the finish line (which seems hugely unlikely) or the year will have birthed at least one more truly remarkable anime. It’a hard to overstate just how good this series has been so far – every episode has been a cracker. The subtlety and depth in the writing combined with Hatakeyama-sensei’s impeccable direction are a kind of perfect storm of grown-up anime storytelling.
Everything about this show – and this episode – is so good that you can cherry-pick whatever you want to praise. 23-minute anime eps that feel like half that are usually the realm of breathless action series, but this mature, contemplative character drama flew by in record time. The layers just go deeper and deeper – the big addition this time around being Shinnosuke (Komatsu Mikako) having matured into a fully-fledged (well, partly-fledged – he’s only six) character in his own right. Given everything little Shin represents in Shouwa Genroku, his active participation was always going to have a massive impact on the story.
There’s one thing I want to make note of, because it speaks to just how brilliant this series is at narrative. Shin never spoke a word in the first three episodes of the season – naturally enough, as he was an infant. But between them Hatakeyama and Kumota-sensei managed to show us exactly what sort of person he would become – just from his face, and the way others reacted to him. Shin radiated charisma, even as a baby. He was ready with a smile and a laugh, eagerly lapping up everything around him with curious eyes. He was a unifying factor and a pacifying element in a very tense dynamic involving the three principals in the story.
Now, as Shin has grown into a walking, talking little boy, we see just how much he takes after his grandfather in every way. He understands full well how charming he is, and in his innocent fashion he takes full advantage of it by charming the adults at the theater. He gets free snacks, forbidden access to the green room, a lift to adult eye-level to watch the performance – and all of the adults he charms don’t mind a bit. This is a gift – Sukeroku had it, Shinnosuke has it. It’s a dangerous gift, as we saw with the grandfather – but with the child, it’s still an unbridled joy for those around him.
The agonizing pathos of this, though, is that Shin is a living and breathing reminder of what happened to his grandfather. This can surely be hard on his mother sometimes, but the real agony is for Yakumo (for reasons we all understand). Yakumo carries a heavy burden of regret with him generally speaking, and every glimpse of Shin’s smile is surely a fusillade of mixed emotions. But Yakumo still loves Shin, and Shin loves the man he calls “Grandfather”. When Yakumo arrived at the green room and scolded Konatsu for bringing Shin inside, it was a tense moment – but when the old man hugged the boy and praised him for his manners, I just about lost it. How can so much be conveyed in one brief dramatic moment – so many different emotions of such staggering depth? That’s great drama, plain and simple.
Also great drama is the moment when Konatsu finally takes the stage to perform rakugo in front of an audience (albeit a tiny one – literally). Yotarou again proves his limitless selflessness – he’s not threatened at the notion of Konatsu following him onto the stage, but relentlessly pushes her to perform even as she resists. Kontsu loves the stage – she satisfies her jones to a certain extent by playing the shamisen for Yotarou’s performances, but every night she performs “Jugemu, Jugemu” (fans of Fullmetal Alchemist and Gintama may recognize it) for her little boy. Yotarou (whose star has risen along with his creative voice in these intervening years) has performed it on TV to great acclaim. It’s a rakugo beloved by children (including Shin) and it’s easy to see why.
On her own, Konatsu would never perform in front of an audience, even of kindergarteners. But Yotarou is nothing if not relentless and resourceful, and after a masterful job of warming up Shinnosuke’s class, he literally pushes her on stage – and Konatsu finally has her moment in the sun. It’s not a tough crowd, it’s true, but Konatsu clearly has the rakugo magic in her blood (as does her son). Still, even after her triumph, she demurs firmly from performing again – out of respect for the tradition of rakugo, which is that only men perform. Men who’ve spent long years mastering the works of writers long dead.
This eternal tug-of-war between past and future, at the heart of so much great drama, is never far from the surface in Shouwa Genroku. Its tragic central figure, Kikuhiko, lives it every day in the face of his step-grandson and the belief that he’s taking rakugo with him to the grave. Hii-sensei is as stubborn as Yotarou and relentlessly pushes for change, but Yotarou is too busy to concern himself with new works and Yakumo fiercely resists. It seems, in a sense, that Bon is taking rakugo with him out of deference to “his” Shin – as a form of penance, and as a final tribute to Sukeroku’s genius. Ultimately Yakumo will either come to peace with the past and allow rakugo to have a future that outlives him or he won’t, but that’s the core of the remaining story almost certainly – and just as certainly the boy who seems to have inherited Sukeroku’s soul will be a big part of it.