Japanese Title: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
Similar: March Comes in Like a Lion
Watched in: Japanese
Genre: Historical Drama
Length: 25 episodes (2 seasons)
- The Rakugo acting.
- Strong drama and characters.
- Alignment of art, tone, and theme.
- Full performances each episode isn’t necessary.
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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.
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