Image source: アニメ「昭和元禄落語心中」 on Twitter

Just as no person lives forever, no artistic medium lives forever. The specter of Death looms large over Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju as master rakugo storyteller Yakumo, the traditional storytelling art of rakugo, and the eponymous Showa era of Emperor Hirohito are all on the verge of dying. By the time this season is over, all three may be gone.

Descending Stories is the second season of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, the first season of which was selected as one of Anime Now’s best shows of 2016. In this season, the master Yakumo looks like he’s on his last legs. While flashbacks in season one let viewers see Yakumo both as a young man and a seasoned veteran, in season two, he is frail and gray and has visions of long-dead friends as he awaits the inevitable.

Death is frequent topic of discussion in Descending Stories thanks to the story of Shinigami (a sort of Japanese Grim Reaper). It is a tale where the personification of Death makes a deal with a man. Yakumo’s jailhouse performance of Shinigami convinces then-inmate Yotaro to seek out the master upon his release and become his apprentice.

Even outside the narrative of Descending Stories, viewers are bombarded with images connecting Yakumo and death. In the opening credits sequence before each episode, Yakumo is seen turning his back on people, walking off into the distance, and falling into nothingness. At one point his friend Sukeroku appears (perpetually young due to his untimely death), sits behind Yakumo, and pulls back his kimono to reveal his bones.

Image source: アニメ「昭和元禄落語心中」 on Twitter

As Yakumo ages and seems ready to die, his beloved rakugo is also shown to be on the verge of death. Early in season two, set in the late 1980s, there are competing mediums threatening to draw attention away from rakugo. An entire conversation takes place in the street with a video rental store conspicuously in the background. In a less subtle scene, a child is shown playing a handheld video game in the middle of a rakugo performance. For the on-screen audience, the appeal of seeing rakugo in the theater is waning.

Faced with competition, it would seem rakugo must change to stay relevant to new audiences. Rakugo is superficially similar to stand-up comedy in the sense that a lone performer tells stories on stage that are (generally) comedic. As a traditional art form, however, most rakugo performers tell established stories from decades, even centuries, past. Yakumo’s apprentice Yotaro is eager to develop new material and create new stories but Yakumo doesn’t approve. For him, change itself is a form of death, and he’d rather “take rakugo with him” when he dies.

Image source: アニメ「昭和元禄落語心中」 on Twitter

As the story of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju unfolds, there is another death taking place behind the scenes: the end of the Showa era. While Japan uses the same calendar as other nations, there is also an “era” named for the ruling Emperor. The reign of Emperor Hirohito was called Showa and it was the longest in Japanese history at 63 years, covering the build-up to World War II, the post-war reconstruction, and the subsequent economic boom.

With video stores and Game Boys shown encroaching on rakugo’s audience, season two of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is crossing from the 80s into the 90s, mirroring the passing of Emperor Hirohito in 1989 and the start of the Heisei era (which continues, as of this writing, to today). Americans may remember the 1990s as a time of prosperity, but in Japan, it was a time of economic stagnation known as the “lost decade,” an end to decades of growth and success.

Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju has a lot of young characters who will keep the story going, and here in 2017 we know that rakugo still exists. Yet in the setting of the show, everything seems to be at an end. The curtain is closing on master Yakumo, rakugo as he knows it, and an entire Japanese era. Only Yakumo seems to be content with that.

Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

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