I don’t like to get too historical or hysterical with the symbolism, especially when a story is as compelling on the material level as Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the names of the two spiritual centers of the story, specifically the ones they used for each other. “Shin”, as we know, is the first character in the word for “death” (it’s why the number 4 – “shi” – is considered bad luck in the Far East). “Bon” is the name (often “Obon”) of the Buddhist festival to console the spirits of the dead, a huge part of summers in Japan. But the origin of that name is urabon’e, which is Sanskrit – and means “great suffering”. It’s said to have begun when Mokuren, a disciple of the Buddha, saw his deceased mother had fallen into the realm of “Hungry Ghosts” and was suffering terribly, and asked his master how to save her. He was instructed to make offerings to the monks who had just finished their summer seclusion, and danced with joy when his efforts were rewarded with his mother’s release.
That’s a roundabout detour, no doubt, but I think there’s something to it. For Shouwa Genroku is very much the story of Bon’s suffering if you ask me, and Shin’s death is at the heart of much of it. Shin is death, and Bon is suffering. And Bon continues to suffer to the present tense, because he longs to be free of the hungers of the flesh and meet the “God of Performers” at last. But he can’t, because those around him refuse to release him – and even more so, because he refuses to release himself. Bon still clings to this world, for he loves it – and the people in it – too much. And that, dear readers, is not so different in nature from a hungry ghost.
I always need a bit of time to process what I’ve watched after an episode of this series, but this week was especially hard-hitting. There was just so much heartbreak there, and it’s so organic to the story – it comes from coming to know these characters so well and care about them so much, especially Kikuhiko. My God, it hurts so much to see him decline and fail physically – when he admonishes the youngsters that they can’t understand how terrifying it is to feel one’s body rotting away, it’s one of the most devastating moments I’ve seen in anime for a long time. As he says, Kikuhiko relies on that body as the vessel of his rakugo – because he has no choice. I think he sees rakugo as no less than his soul itself, but the soul is tethered to the body, and the body is breaking down.
No less heartbreaking, though, is the love those around him feel for Yakumo. That little Shin (incidentally, isn’t it interesting that a revered old man calls a small boy “-san”?) does is hardly a surprise – he’s an innocent boy who loves his grandfather and sees him as the font of all rakugo. But it’s more than dutiful love – Konatsu loves the old man too, and I’m more convinced than ever that she knows exactly what happened, and that the whole “atonement” facade is her way of coping. Matsuda-san, Hii-sensei, even his old friend and Yotarou’s old boss – he may see it as annoying meddling but all these people love Yakumo and want to see him live on, along with his rakugo. The irony is that he doesn’t seem to want either of those things himself.
Most telling, of course, is Yotarou. He lives his life very much like he performs his rakugo – in service. There’s no ego to indulge, no selfish gene to drive him to act to glorify and enrich himself. Yotarou is a pretty heartbreaking figure himself, because he’s as honestly selfless as anyone we’ve seen in anime in ages. There’s irony here too, though, because in a certain sense Yotarou trying so desperately to push his master back into performing is one of his rare partly-selfish acts. He simply wants to see the old man perform again – and wants his stepson to see it, too. And who in the world can blame him?
It all comes back to rakugo, as it almost always does with Shouwa Genroku. After what seems very much like a foiled suicide attempt (though I suspect Kikuhiko wouldn’t have gone through with it if fate hadn’t intervened) the old master seems to modestly turn a corner. He tentatively re-engages with the world, venturing out of the house to visit his old friend the Boss (the two men reminisce about old times and wearisome responsibilities). But he won’t return to the stage, so it’s left to the likes of Hii-sensei (who’s been secretly recording Bon’s performances, in the ever-present struggle to keep rakugo alive longer than Bon), Yotarou and Matsuda-san to railroad the old man into doing so. And that happens in the form of an unannounced visit to Yanashima, the geisha house.
In 20 episodes full of powerful rakugo performances, I found Yotarou’s here to be among the most emotional of all. Yes, it means the world that he performed “Shibahama” – which Yakumo had no idea Yota knew. It was Shin’s last performance, yes. But I think it’s most significant because it was here, at long last, that Yotarou performed rakugo as himself – where he projected his ego and emotions into the role. This was his “Shibahama” and no one else’s. This is a rakugo unlike any other we’ve seen – a story with no irony and little humor. More than anything it’s an expression of humility and gratitude – the most Buddhist of all rakugo, one might argue. This was Yotarou expressing everything he felt towards his master, and towards rakugo – his gratitude and love. That he was speaking for everyone in the audience was almost beside the point – this was Yotarou at last performing as himself. In a cast this brilliant Seki Tomokazu’s role as Yotarou is easy to overlook, as is Yota himself – they’re the rock at the center of the whirlpool – but his transformation in this performance is the equal of anything Ishida and Yamadera have pulled off in this series.
The ending of the episode was quite a surprise, if nothing else because it was quite out of character with the way Shouwa Genroku normally tells its story. Of course it was gut-wrenching to be ripped out of Yakumo’s performance just as the old man was haltingly beginning to share his tale – the hunger to know where this painful turn has carried the old master as a performer is almost unbearable. But the genie is out of the bottle, and I don’t think it can be put back. Yakumo has more that he needs to say through his rakugo, and no matter how frail and weak his voice is, I believe its power will not be diminished in the slightest.