Well, you know the drill by now, gentle readers. Somehow, some way, I have to make sense of that – to try and do justice. When a show is out where the buses don’t run like Shouwa Genroku is, it really does do a better job speaking for itself than any after-market scribbler could ever do in trying to embellish it. But I keep trying, week after week, because this series is so damn good that it virtually demands to be talked about, and because on some level I feel like the more people talk about it, the better chance someone out there who hasn’t watched it yet will decide to give it a chance.
To begin with, my apologies for being a day late with this post. If there was ever a show about which I’d like to post on-time it would be this one, but paradoxically, I don’t think it’s right to write about it or even watch it unless you can give it your absolutely undivided attention. I had RL conflicts this week so I waited, and I’m glad I did because – as I expected – this was an episode that was an emotional freight train even by Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu standards.
At this point it’d probably be fair to say that Yakumo should be seriously considered as one of the most fascinating characters in anime history. This is an incredible web he’s at the heart of, with a dizzying array of well-written and compelling characters, but he’s certainly at the heart of it. We’ve been on this journey with Kikuhiko for almost two seasons now, and if in fact it’s come to an end (as the last few seconds of this ep strongly suggest that it does – and that’s not all that suggests it) it represents one of the most astounding characters arcs and acting performances in anime history.
That closing scene was noteworthy on so many levels, packed as it was with pathos and poetry and irony to spare. It was also a triumph for Hatakeyama-sensei as a director, a virtual symphony of visual brilliance. It can be said that a director’s role is to marry sound and image, and if so he does it so beautifully here – all eyes will of course be glued to Yakumo and Konatsu and with good reason, as the entire season has been building up to these moments. But I loved Hatakeyama’s montage of street life in Tokyo just as much – of faces familiar and unfamiliar, of the turning of the hours and the seasons, of the transience of beauty and of life itself. Time is a merciless opponent, forever undefeated – it stalks us all relentlessly, and the world continues to spin once we’re gone, the effects of our lives slowly dissipating like the ripples in still water where a pebble has been tossed.
There’s much focusing on the future in this episode, which is something of a departure for Shouwa Genroku. Given that – harsh as it is – Yakumo isn’t really a part of that, it would be fitting if indeed this where the episode where he left this Earth behind at last. He seems to have attempted on some level to cleanse himself and rakugo from it by burning the theater, but as the old manager tells Yotarou, rakugo can be performed anywhere – anywhere there’s a storyteller and an audience to listen.
This motif continues with the news that Konatsu is pregnant again – news she tries to tell Yota with hints as subtle as a dagger up the strap, but which he manages to elude until she tells him outright. The big difference this time, of course, is that the baby is Yotarou’s – though one couldn’t possibly detect anything less than unreserved love in his feelings for Shinnosuke. This is not the signature moment of the episode for obvious reasons, but it too is one that’s been building for a long time. Yotarou has finally won over Konatsu’s heart with patience, persistence and simple decency, but he bears no resentment that it’s taken as long as it has. Indeed, resentment is something Yota seems incapable of.
Yotarou is a rare character in the sense that he’s someone who’s unequivocally straightforward, selfless and good, yet remains a complex and fascinating person. He’s such a sweetheart, this guy, he really is. The first moment that moved me to tears this week was his description of why he would never want to surpass Yakumo – in the process giving a wonderful and heartbreaking summation of the role of master and apprentice. He also tells Hii-sensei that one should never stop looking for more things and people to love, that life can never be too full of them. It’s so simple but it makes so much damn sense, much like Yota himself. How much better would this world be if everyone were like him?
The theme of the future certainly doesn’t leave rakugo itself behind here, either. There are the first signs that Yota may be cracking when it comes to giving Hii-sensei’s new works a try – his resolve that he’ll never do them while Yakumo is alive is also a tacit admission that he will do them once the old man is gone – among the many loves of Yotarou’s love is rakugo, and he loves it too much to let it die. But he also asks Hii-sensei if he has any works for women (it seems clear from the reaction that the answer is no) and this is another future-centric thread running through this episode.
But then, there’s that last extended scene. It was always going there, I suppose. Konatsu and Kikuhiko are very complicated, there’s no question about it. The thing is, even in her angrier moments there’s always been a tenderness to Konatsu when it comes to the old man, sometimes hard to see but always there. She knows, I’m sure of it – I don’t know exactly what she knows and when she knew it, but I suspect she’s pieced together almost all of it long ago. When she laments that Kikuhiko has suffered so much for her sake, I think Konatsu means more than simply his staying alive to raise her. I think she knows the burden of truth he’s carried inside him for all these years, to protect her.
Rarely has a simple “thank you” carried so much meaning – and Yakumo’s “you’re welcome” was even simpler. It’s because these weren’t words that changed anything – they merely confirmed. But it still matters that they were finally said – that Konatsu finally acknowledged all the pain and all the weariness Yakumo has carried with him for so long, so much of it for her sake but for rakugo’s sake, too (when he laments all the things he wished he’d done, it’s quietly heartbreaking). It was a beautiful, shattering moment that’s been building for a long time, and it delivered on all the promise of what had come before.
Let’s not lose sight of what was happening around those two. Yotarou was performing “Nozarashi” on the radio – Konatsu’s favorite piece, and the one Yakumo performed for her (with Sukeroku’s help) on the eve of the terrible events at the inn. And Shinnosuke showed up to recite it along with his stepfather, matching him perfectly in tone and intonation as he tossed sakura petals in the air because his grandfather had asked to see them. The significance of this moment cannot be overstated – the third Sukeroku performing along with the boy who’s the spitting image of his birth grandfather, the second, as Yakumo and Konatasu held each other and enjoyed the performances and cherry blossoms filled the air. It’s a perfect storm of mono no aware like you’ll rarely see in anime.
We’ve been teased with the notion of Kikuhiko’s death before, but there are symbolic reasons to believe it might be for real this time. The perfect symmetry of the above moment, for one, and the fact than Shin this time comes to Bon not as a terrifying red-eyed shinigami but the blood brother he knew. It feels as if this was the moment – Kikuhiko finally reached an epiphany with Konatsu, and seemed to have found a peace that had eluded him since we’ve known him. And then there’s the fact that the actors who played Shin and Bon as little boys returned to voice the preview.
It’s heartbreaking if true, that we should lose him just as he finds that peace, and just as he agrees to take Konatsu on as an apprentice – which is a huge future-centric development both for her character and the entire story. But heartbreaking or no, this really does feel like the time to me. If the first season was all about building up to the unknown known, the double-suicide of the title, this season has all been building up to the moment when Yakumo finally goes to his rest. It has to happen for Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu to be complete as a story, and it has to happen with enough time for the series to show us the rest of the cast coming to grips with it – and finding a way to embrace a future without him. They will – time is relentless, but it’s also larger than any one of us, and the next generation forever follows in the path of those who leave them behind.