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

[This article contains spoilers for plot points in Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju.]

In my last article on Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, I focused on what rakugo is and how it is changing and adapting to today’s society. But what does rakugo mean to people? What does it signify? What is the nature of the emotional response it gives to its audience and performers? Is it worth sacrifice? Rakugo Shinju does a good job of giving rakugo a different significance to each of the characters.

The Past, Present, and Future of Rakugo

On March 15, the Japanese news cycle was interrupted from its regular updates on the latest ongoing scandals, and reports began to emerge on something rather alarming: the legendary rakugo-ka Utamaru Katsura was considering his retirement. Note that it doesn’t say he retired—rather, he is considering it. Even then, some media outlets saw fit to label the news as “悲報/hihou“: “sad news”—usually reserved for when a beloved celebrity passes away. Such was the impact of the eighty-year-old Utamaru on the national consciousness, an icon of pop culture that had been a mainstay in the minds of the public for generations. And this comes after a previous moment of media-wide semi-grieving last year, when it was announced that he was leaving his TV show after fifty years due to “physical limitations.” One can surely imagine the degree of national mourning when he eventually passes away. Rakugo may be old-fashioned, but it still means something to many people in the mainstream. For many, Utamaru is the face of rakugo. If he goes, perhaps so will rakugo.

All of this brings to mind the still-fresh themes in the animated rakugo drama, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju.

It should be noted that the characters in Rakugo Shinju, their pasts and their intricate relationships are far too nuanced and complex to fully do justice to here, and so I have simplified a lot in order to summarize the basic key points.

Firstly, in the show, the now-aging rakugo master, Yakumo, is shown to be highly reluctant to the idea of rakugo surviving into the future, and seemingly wishes rakugo to die with him—an end which seems to not be too far off.

It is intriguing, because Yakumo VIII (as Kikuhiko, originally) had to do rakugo to survive—it was all he could do. He never really gave himself the opportunity to enjoy it; it may never have even entered his mind. He performed rakugo with a precision that most likely came from his initial training at a young age as a dancer. Due to his disability, however, as the young apprentice Kikuhiko, he had no use for his body, and instead used his mind and his power of speech to the best of his ability, manifested in rakugo, in an attempt to make a living. And yet, rakugo is different from traditional Japanese dance in that it is a lot more interpretative, and thus subjective. For Yakumo, then, rakugo was not anything that he felt he should put too much of his own twist on. This was all to the lament of his best friend, Sukeroku, who all but begged him to find his own rakugo.

Sukeroku II (originally Hatsutaro), on the other hand, sacrificed virtually everything for his rakugo. He didn’t seem to care much about his own well being, and he never had any money. Every emotion and desire was fleeting—women, drink… He had nothing to live for but his art. And it would be his version of rakugo—no-one else’s.

That is to say, Sukeroku was ambitious and forward-thinking enough that he knew that rakugo had to evolve in order to suit the fickle sensibilities of the masses in the evermore rapidly-changing landscape and environment of postwar Japanese society. The more traditionalist elders of the craft, of course, did not see it that way, and such a self-styled revolutionary was regarded as nothing more than an outcast. In truth, the boom period of high economic growth, with its infusion of new media brought about by advances in technology, in particular meant that the plurality of entertainment cast a shadow over such traditions, and it seemed like rakugo was on its way out.

Konatsu, the daughter of Miyokichi, the woman infatuated with Kikuhiko and Sukeroku, has a complicated relationship with rakugo. For her, the art form was at first something fun and wonderful, that people enjoyed. As a young child, she learned a lot from Sukeroku and performed in tea houses for what little cash she could receive. After the death of her parents, rakugo and the world of rakugo performers came to have a darker meaning for her—until Yotaro came along.

Yotaro, heralding a new generation, is moved to tears by rakugo. And after a few years of training, the fate of rakugo’s survival in the modern age is, in many ways, resting on his shoulders. He is perhaps the savior of the tradition–and much of his enthusiasm comes from his background as a former criminal. Much the same as Sukeroku who came from nothing, not having any family, Yotaro also has nothing to go back to, and he wants to start his life from a fresh, clean slate. This gives him the impetus to live to find his own brand of rakugo.

Yotaro (eventually taking up the name “Sukeroku” as an homage to Konatsu’s father) begs his old master, Yakumo, to finally fully embrace and actually enjoy the wonder of rakugo. In this way, Yotaro becomes the embodiment of his dead best friend in Yakumo’s eyes by encouraging Yakumo to see the wider picture just as the original had done.

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

In the first season of Rakugo Shinju, we were led to believe that the shinju of the title, which literally means “double suicide,” referred to Miyokichi and Sukeroku’s death. However, the second season makes it very clear that a new interpretation is on the cards—that the fates of the art and of Yakumo are intertwined and that he intends to take rakugo with him to the grave.

Deaths Is the Main Theme in Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju

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

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