It was hard adjusting to a new anime season after the transcendent masterpiece that was the second season of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju. But with the release of volume 1 of the manga** last month, at least we can experience the story again with Haruko Kumota’s delightful and expressive art. One of the greatest strengths of series is that the growth and drama of the characters’ lives inform their work on stage, and vice versa. Some of the best revelations, tearjerker moments, and character building was done through rakugo performances. Like most numerical ratings, the positions themselves are somewhat arbitrary (except 1 and 2, don’t @ me), so if you prefer to think of this as “10 rakugo moments in Rakugo that were deeply affecting” go ahead. Along for the ride in some cases is Nomadic Dec, the only other person on Anitay whose fanaticism for this series is on a similar level as mine.
10. Toki Soba - Season 1, episode 2
This the first full performance we see from a teenaged Sukeroku (still Hatsutaro). The joke is pretty simple: a wily customer tricks a noodle stand owner from charging full price by constantly interrupting his money counting to ask the time. On its own, it’s cute and funny, but the power of this performance is to establish Sukeroku’s larger-than-life stage presence and infectious charm. It was also set up beside Kikuhiko’s first flop of a debut. It’s interesting that Kiku’s choice - “On Flattery” - depended on more nuance and wordplay, while “Toki Soba” is more gag comedy. Sukeroku always seemed to be confident in the kind of story he was good at - unpretentious and full of big, sometimes unscrupulous characters - much like himself.
9. Inokori (Sukeroku) - Season 1, episode 9
Sukeroku’s rendition of this long, complicated story of a trickster who cons others at a geisha house by taking on different roles (“the man who stays behind”) is the definitive performance all the way through the middle of the second season. Yakumo says at one point that Sukeroku’s mastery came from, well, bringing his Sukeroku-ness to every role. He WAS Saheiji, the main character of “Inokori.” His lilting voice and easygoing flair blended seamlessly into a centuries-old tale. Understanding his unique rendition of the story is necessary for understanding the power of Yotaro’s version, which is why this “Inokori” is not the top ranked one.
The story also stands out because it’s one that Kiku self-admittedly sucks at. Despite being set in a geisha house - where Kiku’s more intimate, tragicomic side would normally flourish - this story is more suited for Sukeroku due to its rollicking and masculine tone and characters. Still, Kiku, who knows he can never truly master this story, slips into his best likeness of Sukeroku to try and teach Yotaro in his late friend’s style. “Inokori” is significant both as a mark of Suke’s personal style and as a reminder of the importance of passing down a legacy.
8. Nozarashi (various)
The joy of “Nozarashi,” which is performed by almost every major character at one point in the series, is not the joy of masterful artistry. Actually, from my understanding, the true meaning behind the story - of a silly fisherman who goes fishing for bones in hopes of drawing out a female ghost - is pretty crude and not kid friendly! The often childish versions of “Nozarashi” that take place in the show aren’t done on the stage, but on the street, in backyards, almost as a form of folk storytelling. These moments are used to show the characters finding simple joy. When performed by a child Sukeroku, “Nozarashi” becomes Kikuhiko’s first taste of friendship and laughter in a tragic life. This story is later passed on to Konatsu as a child, and even later to Konatsu’s son. The mastery of rakugo that runs in this family may be crafted on the stage, but the love for the art is built on these intimate, casual performances. It’s not surprising that “Nozarashi” has become the standout story for fans who have been introduced to rakugo through the show.
7. Hangonko (Kikuhiko) - Season 2, episode 5
Kikuhiko has a long history with sensual and/or eerie rakugo. They’re what set him apart as a young man, and how he came into his own as an adult performer. But did you ever notice that in the first season, he tends to perform stories about put-upon or woeful geisha and their lovers, and in his older years he trends more towards stories of men seeking their dead (usually geisha) mistresses? Either type of story capitalizes on his ability to tap into both masculine and feminine personas, but stories such as “Hanganko” - the tale of a man who uses an incense burning ritual to try and draw out the ghost of his dead love - take on a bittersweet meaning for the aging Kiku. He’s not only bringing his decades-honed style and early childhood experiences in a geisha house to these performances, but the melancholy tone comes from his guilt over Miyokichi’s death. Before he collapses in the middle of his “Hanganko” performance, he envisions the female ghost as his late friend/sometimes girlfriend. It’s a powerful performance, showing how ingrained his guilt has become, and how his deep well of personal tragedy is a burden as a well as an effective tool for his art.
6. Inokori (Yotaro) - Season 2, episode 6
Yep, two “Inokori” on this list and this one is Yotaro’s moment. This is an interesting one to write about, because it has more significance for Yota’s character arc than it does artistic pizazz. Full disclosure: I definitely prefer Sukeroku’s version, and even comparing Yota to himself, his unpolished “Dekigokoro” wins out. It’s because of Yotaro’s journey, however, that his “Inokori” ranks so highly. A large part of season 2 deals with Yotaro’s struggle to find his own rakugo, knowing that the future of the art rests on his shoulders.
Unlike Yakumo’s refined technical expertise or Sukeroku’s overwhelming presence, Yotaro has always been humble and almost childlike in his love for rakugo. His journey to learn “Inokori” was in fact at the urging of Kikuhiko in hopes that he would be a little less humble. The bombastic character of Saheiji, Kiku explained, is good for “drawing out a man’s ego.” Instead of bringing some concealed flavor of Yota’s personality to the forefront, his performance draws the audience into the colorful world of the story. It’s not a revelatory, fist pumping moment like Kiku’s “so that I could be myself,” but it finally defines what Yotaro’s rakugo is.
“Inokori” is an emotional heavy hitter because of the role it plays in the characters’ lives, instead of the actual content of the tale (like “Shibahama” or “Shinigami”). Having taken the name Sukeroku, Yotaro is under extra pressure to perform this particular story - one that has gone unmastered since his namesake’s death. He’s not only proving himself to Yakumo and the rakugo world, he’s proving himself worthy of a great man’s name. It’s a fitting tribute, and a triumphant moment for yet another generation of artist.
5. Jugemu (Konatsu) - Season 2, episode 4
Dec: There is a general strength of performance that exists in Rakugo that overcomes the language barrier, such that reading the subtitles comes second to simply listening to sounds, and feeling the deep emotional resonance. Konatsu’s highly comedic performance of “Jugemu” exemplifies this to the degree where what is being spoken is almost immaterial. Indeed, it is a rare instance where the translators chose not to give an English equivalent, as it would hinder a joke that is entirely based on amusing alliteration. Yet it is Yuu Kobayashi’s delivery that elicits the laughter with her rolling sing-song tone, and with her pauses, elevates an otherwise very slight story into both a rousing culmination of Konatsu’s foray into the world of performance and profound moment of reflection and acceptance of its importance in her life.
To cap it all off, that final burst of a smile is a release of tension not only from nervousness about being on stage, but from her long-gestating anger and sadness at the tragedy that colours her feelings towards the artform. It is a turning point for Konatsu, where she truly acknowledges that rakugo threads through the core of her existence, and binds her together, and as the chorus of rapt young children shows, it binds others together as well.
This performance transforms “Jugemu” from the hilarious story of an indecisive father blessing his child with every auspicious name available to the thematic embodiment of heredity and evolving familial relations that pervades the series. It is no coincidence that Yakumo Yuurakutei’s final gift to Shinnosuke in the afterlife is a performance of “Jugemu.”
4. Shingawa Shinju (Kikuhiku) - Season 1, episode 6
I always think of episodes 5 and 6 of the first season as “the ascent of Kikuhiko.” He goes into them a technically proficient but reserved artist and comes out with a taste of how good it is to be loved by an audience and a new confidence in his unique skills. You can’t really talk about “Shinagawa Shinju” without mentioning the play Sukeroku organized with Kiku in a larger-than-life crossdressing role. For the entire show up to this point, Kiku has been struggling to truly harness his ability to play with gender on stage. The implication is that he had been avoiding his childhood trauma at being exiled from a geisha house after he failed at a woman’s art - dancing. Tapping into his softer sensuality meant returning to the place of his first abandonment. Sukeroku’s play allowed him to do this in a safer way. He could become the character of Benten without all the burden resting on Kikuhiko the rakugo star. The first rakugo performance he brought his new confidence to was “Shinagawa Shinju,” a winding dark comedy about an aging geisha who tries to arrange a lovers suicide. Most notably, he figures out who he’s performing for - himself.
3. Dekigokoro (Yotaro) - Season 1, episode 1
Yotaro’s first performance is charming, messy, and thrilling. His future also depends on it. After begging his way into Kikuhiko’s household after being released from prison, Yotaro’s old gang boss tracks him down. Yotaro can escape a return to his criminal life under one condition: convince his former associate that his rakugo is worthwhile. For this challenge, Yotaro picks a complicated comedy about a petty thief - something that reminds him of himself. He doesn’t have much in the way of technical skill, but Yota endears himself to the audience with humor and enthusiasm. Long before he was a revered performer, Yotaro was just this excitable kid. “Dekigokoro” is his origin story as well as the boundary between his old life and his future.
I like that as the audience ourselves, the first full length rakugo story of the show isn’t one of Kiku’s master performances. We’re learning the joy of rakugo from the ground up just like Yotaro. It’s a very deft decision from a storytelling perspective. We also see how the character pour themselves into the stories, and it’s nice to have the first example of this be fairly simple, but very fun.
2. Shinigami (Kikuhiko) - various; notably season 1, episode 1 and season 2, episode 9
It’s hard to write about “Shinigami” without writing an entirely separate article, but the tl;dr is: “Shinigami” is Kikuhiko. Kiku spends the better part of his youth and young adulthood trying to understand who he is: as a man with a purpose in the world, as a performer, and as someone with artistic value compared to others. When he sort of figures it out, it’s two sided. As a confident performer, he embraces his versatility and sensuality that stems partly from his painful past in the geisha house. But there’s another side to him - a man who doesn’t crave the spotlight, but desires solitude above all else. It almost seems to be a more intrinsic quality. From the cover of the first volume of the manga to the final episodes’ exploration of his mortality, “Shinigami” is Kiku’s home base.
In episode 8 of the first season, Kiku makes peace with his love for both Miyokichi and Sukeroku, but also breaks his ties with them in order to grow as an artist unencumbered by competition and distractions. In the first scene with him newly alone in his apartment, he practices his trademark “Shinigami.” The image of him alone - at home or on stage - performing this story is revisited again and again. This isn’t the man who, although he did it “for himself,” enthralled audiences with his sensuality. Kiku doesn’t need or want anyone to be a part of his “Shinigami.” In scenes where audiences are present, he doesn’t even seem to acknowledge them.
It’s a supreme irony that “Shinigami” became not only Kikuhiko’s signature story, but the very thing that drew loud, brash, Sukeroku-like Yotaro to his door. Season 2 expounds on the idea that Kiku sees himself as a shinigami, as the death of rakugo. Every solitary performance is of a man grappling with his own death, sometimes wishing for it. It’s not until he accepts that he lived a full life, loved and was loved, and created a legacy that will live on can he face death - not as a menacing shinigami, but as a content person.
- Shibahama (Sukeroku) - Season 1, episode 12
Dec: The most affecting performance of the series, the narrative structure of Rakugo’s story bleeds into “Shibahama,” as the impending tragedy heightens the dread and rawness of the performance. Here is a man trying to apologise to his wife, child, and friend, and it becomes his penance without him knowing that he is shortly going to die. That dramatic irony draws so much more pathos from an absolutely stellar performance by Kouichi Yamadera. The entire arrangement of the episode is to accentuate this final, beautiful performance as its centrepiece.
As Sukeroku begins with, “They say that a man’s three indulgences are drinking, gambling, and sex...But there’s no man who doesn’t love the company of a woman”, the camera pans across a pensive Sukeroku’s wearisome, stubbled face as his vices are named, nevertheless alert and focused on his friend and his coming performance. This is Sukeroku represented at his truest. Barely surviving, broken, but still dutiful. In this episode, Rakugo dispenses with its usual subtlety to impart a distinct image of all the facets of this flawed man, to imprint an indelible memory for both the characters and the audience. Indeed, it is this performance that lingers in the mind and creates greater empathy for Kikuhiko’s sense of being trapped by the past during the Futabi-hen arc, for in many ways, the audience is as well.
M: It’s a tough call between “Shibahama” and “Shinigami.” After all, the iconography and themes of “Shinigami” make up the most central motif of the entire series. And as far as how much of the performer himself is bleeding into the story, they’re about equal on that front too. So ultimately I picked the one that made me cry. I tell people who ask what Rakugo is about that over two seasons, it’s the redemption story of one man (sometimes I compare it to Les Mis). As the deuteragonist, we don’t get into Sukeroku’s head nearly as much as Kiku’s, but it’s also his redemption story. “Shibahama” gave him the chance to make peace with everything that had come before.
Much like the deadbeat husband in the story, Sukeroku’s path out of poverty, alcoholism, and apathy is steep. The line between character and performer are so thin as to be nonexistent in this heartrending performance. It’s not a patient wife who gives Sukeroku a chance at rehabilitation, but his best friend Kiku. His real wife, Miyokichi, is absent from most of the performance and his life. When the fisherman rejects his former vice with “I can’t have this becoming a dream again,” you know Sukeroku is speaking it with a sincerity that’s bone deep. This performance is his tribute, gift, apology, and promise to his young daughter and the friend who has never abandoned him. And while part of the brilliance of “Shinigami” as it’s used in the series is how it entwines with Kiku’s life and how others see him, I think I could watch this “Shibahama” in a vacuum and still understand the regret, love, and hope behind it. It’s a triumph, and of course a tragedy considering what comes next. But it sure is the performance of a lifetime. Sukeroku’s life may have been cut short, but he was able to give the performance of a lifetime, and a piece of himself that would last forever.
**disclosure: I worked on the manga, so while my love for this series is not professionally unbiased, it is completely genuine.