Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju

 

Similar: March Comes in Like a Lion

Millennium Actress

Aoi Bungaku

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Historical Drama

Length: 25 episodes (2 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • The Rakugo acting.
  • Strong drama and characters.
  • Alignment of art, tone, and theme.

Negatives:

  • Full performances each episode isn’t necessary.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Rakugo is a traditional Japanese style of storytelling, a mix of stand-up comedy and one-man theatre. The performer stays knelt on a cushion and depicts several characters in conversation, using only a fan and cloth as props. If you’ve ever recounted a story to friends, imitating multiple people by slightly changing your voice and shifting your head back and forth, you will have an idea of Rakugo. The stories are comical in nature, though a performer does like to throw in an occasional drama to throw off the audience.

Steeped in tradition and inflexible, Rakugo is a dying art form in the face of modern entertainment such as television. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is the story of Rakugo – how it used to be and how it struggles to keep up with the times, as told across two generations. It starts in the modern day with former yakuza member Kyoji released from prison, aspiring to perform Rakugo and turn his life around. He goes to the revered Yakumo, who had performed at the prison during Kyoji’s incarceration. The young man’s enthusiasm triggers a flood of memories in Yakumo. We flash back to his days as an apprentice and the rivalry he had with Sukeroku.

This is a classic talent versus hard work type of career story. Yakumo is the perfectionist – dedicated and hardworking despite his crippled leg. Sukeroku is his opposite – gifted, lazy, freestyling, and charismatic enough to hold the audience in his every word. I like these types of rivalries. However, the trap I often see writers fall into is showing too much favouritism to one over the other. Some will unrealistically depict natural talent as the sole ingredient to be the best, when that is obviously untrue (lazy writing, as it doesn’t take effort to show why the character is so accomplished). On the other hand, stories with hardworking protagonists will discard the power of innate talent, ignoring how much of an advantage it gives in the early and middle stages of mastery.

Rakugo strikes the perfect balance. Talent goes as far as it should and hard work accomplishes what is realistically possible. Furthermore, it depicts the cost of dedication and the trap of talent. Neither character is free of sacrifice for their approach to the art.

At first, these characters weren’t of particular interest, but they grew on my over time when I got to see how they lived and the conflict they dealt with. Yakumo puts the career, the dream above all else. I appreciate characters with conviction to be the best and not take opportunities for granted, as I have mentioned elsewhere. But what sells it is the cost that comes with this mind set. I cannot stand it when there are no consequences, no matter how noble the aspirations. Writers sometimes forget that accomplishments cost time, time that is no longer available to spend on other part of life, such as friends or hobbies.

It starts slow, though by the end of season one, it had me hooked to the drama. Season two spotlights the next generation of Rakugo storytellers with Kyoji as the lead, which, while still a good season, isn’t really necessary. The first ends in a strong place, so don’t feel compelled to watch season two for completion’s sake if already satisfied.

Enough about the characters, let’s talk of the art itself, of Rakugo. The performances are fantastic. The first episode has a complete Rakugo act on stage about a thief stealing from a conman, who is making a claim for stolen property that doesn’t exist with the police. It’s a gripping performance – not just in anime, but also by the voice actor, Tomokazu Seki. This scene will let you know if Rakugo is for you.

By contrast, episode two shows us a bad performance and it is striking. The lines fall flat, the delivery has no emotion, and no one laughs at the routine. You feel just like the audience watching this – bored. And it is perfect. A good actor intentionally acting badly is a challenging feat.

My favourite detail in the performances is the cinematography, the show don’t tell of how the scenes are shot. When a performer is making everyone laugh, the audience in the palm of his hand, we see close ups of his neck beaded with sweat, arm straining to hold the pose, and his eye twitching on the verge of losing the act at any moment. We learn so much by seeing so little. If this were a shounen anime, we would cut away to another character, the background darkened as we go into his head for a dramatic monologue explaining everything about the performance, accompanied by a shocked expression one would expect from hearing that your mother was the villain the entire time. Had Rakugo been done that way, I would have given up paying attention.

The one fault of the Rakugo, as great as these performances are, is the insistence on a full routine each episode, which for the most part don’t contribute to the story outside of key moments. It would be equivalent to showing every minute of every game in a sports anime. Because of their nature, each episode is like attending the theatre yourself and you don’t want to go to the theatre 25 times in a day. As such, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju isn’t a show for binge watchers. My recommendation is to do an episode or two a day at most for maximum enjoyment.

Art – High

The characters have delightfully expressive faces that allow for vibrancy in the performances, yet without turning into a cartoony art style. I like the attention to backgrounds and textures.

Sound – Very High

All of the major actors in Rakugo are excellent, as they need to be for performances that require a dozen different voices alternating on the fly. The actors must have had a blast with these roles that didn’t just have the one voice throughout.

Story – High

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju chronicles the art of Rakugo across generations and the artists it inhabited. This methodical anime weaves art and drama that draws in the audience to satisfying results.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Try it, I urge you. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju has limited appeal, as evidenced by its niche success. However, give it a try – an episode is all you need – for you are missing out otherwise.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Deep NarrativeStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju – Anime Review”

  1. Thanks a ton for reviewing my suggestion. Really glad you enjoyed as this is my second favorite anime.

    I do agree that while occasionally the rakugo did seem to go on longer and more often than it should’ve, I do think that it was intentionally used in most episodes to show a window into each character’s development and mindset. Additionally, many are tonal stories that tie back into the plot. The content of the episodes generally align with the stories that are told. Light, hopeful episodes are often paired with comedies and hopeful stories, while the darker episodes near the end of each season have very grim subject matter. Again, I do agree that Rakugo is HEAVILY emphasized within this show, but I don’t think I was ass put off by it as you might’ve been.

    (Spoilers for second season to anyone reading)

    Another thing I wanted to touch on was your reference about a second season feeling like an extra rather than a necessary continuation. I feel very strongly otherwise. I think that while I liked the first season better because I liked Sukeroku and Yakumo better than Yotaro (and it’s such a character-driven show so that’s important), I thought that the way the first season built a foundation for the next to come was truly masterful and then seeing it all play out after was so beautiful. You as the viewer being the only one to understand Yakumo’s jaded and strict outlook on rakugo and how that affects all the people around him is a great story dynamic, plus his death was so beautiful. I really think that those final episodes of season 2 are just as good as anime gets. The epilogue to his life was something that after watching season 1, I felt like I needed, so when season 2 arrived it was like an entirely new story. While season 1 could stand alone, I think that the story is better with both of them considered.

    I also want to say that the realization of what actually happened at the end of season 1 (revealed midway through S2) is one of the most interesting character insights I’ve seen in a long time. It really throws your previously held expectations for Yakumo just out the window and lets you see him anew.

    This is a great video about Rakugo that you should watch because it goes into detail about some of the best parts of the show so well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kt1ZNn_RUA

    Again, thank you for the review, I’ve been looking forward to this one for a very long time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wouldn’t have removed any of the Rakugo performance because, as you suggest, they do lend to character and theme, but we don’t need to see them in full each time. Reducing the less important ones would strengthen the key performances (Your mind subconsciously says, “They’re showing us the full performance – it must be important!)

      You are right that the second season is a good continuation of the series. My comment was merely that if, imagine, season 1 was all we had, that it ended there, it would have been a suitable ending. A negative end, to be sure, but a satisfying one. The second season does take that negative state and carry it into a positive ending, which I can see many people liking more because of the hopeful tone. I did love Yakumo’s dance with death in his last few episodes. The imagery was excellent (couldn’t talk of it in the review, for it was too much a spoiler). And yes, the “how it really happened” revelation was powerful (again though, the original season 1 scene, as we thought it had happened, would have still worked if it ended there).

      Overall, I loved much about this anime. Great recommendation.

      I’ve saved the video for later when I have a moment of free time.

      Like

      1. I’m just very passionate about this anime and love it a lot. Sorry for the long comments every time you review something I love, I just have nobody to talk to about anything so I release all my thoughts here. I will also probably be writing similar ones for LoGH and S;G 0 considering the first series for each are in my top 5 favorites

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s