In last week’s episode of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, we learned that Yakumo wasn’t always a natural - and we got a close look at bad rakugo. In the childhood and teenage flashbacks to Yakumo’s upbringing, we saw how young Sukeroku had the same innate charisma and dynamic presence as the present day Yotaro. That left one big question, though. How did Kikuhiko grow into Yakumo, the uncontested master of Rakugo? Episode 3 tells that story. It also happens to be the only episode so far without a full or near-full Rakugo performance. This is fitting, as it turns out Kikuhiko’s journey was a very private one.
The whole episode sets up the tension between independence and dependence for Kikuhiko. After his failed debut, he dedicates himself to practicing a louder, more animated performance style. In other words, trying to emulate Hatsutaro. Hatsutaro, as it turns out, is the first person to recognize Kiku’s unique strengths - his beautiful, soft voice and natural sensuality. He suggests that instead of the brash comedy Hatsutaro excels at, Kiku try bawdy and erotic stories. In pre-war Japan, the two boys lead a comfortable existence, but we still get the sense that Hatsutaro is the one leading Kiku’s relationship with Rakugo. He’s becoming more comfortable with the craft, but he’s neither going out of his way to challenge himself nor shining on his own.
When the war comes, the popularity of Rakugo wanes, young performers join the army, and the more risque stories - the very ones Hatsutaro suggested Kiku perform - are censored. The safe world of the theater is falling apart around the two boys, but they remain committed. Until, that is, the elder Yakumo decides to ship out to Manchuria and take Hatsutaro, leaving his wife and Kiku to live in the country.
In the country, Kikuhiko realizes that despite his bad leg, he would have no trouble settling down, getting married, and leading a pleasant but uneventful life. For the second time in the episode, we’re shown that ladies dig him. These innocent romantic interludes don’t make much of an impression on us, though, because they’re also not at the forefront of his mind. It’s still Rakugo - and Hatsutaro - that haunt him. It’s during this time - Kikuhiko’s first true period of independence - that he begins to develop a Rakugo practice that’s his own style.
For the first time we see and hear the languid movements and, frankly, sexy voice, that are trademarks of present day Yakumo’s style. But even this breakthrough is tied to Hatsutaro, not only because Kiku’s absent friend was the one who first encouraged his style, but because Kiku is doing Rakugo in large part to cope his isolation and loss of purpose.
When the war ends and Kikuhiko and Yakumo’s wife are able to return to Tokyo, Kiku is able to shine as a Rakugo performer for the first time. In contrast with episode 2's bomb, he wins the crowd over with his more intimate, evocative style. He still awaits the return of his master and best friend, but we can see how fulfilled he is by his new role as Tokyo’s star Rakugo performer. Even in his small movements, we can see a confidence starkly different than the nervous, contained teenager of episode 2. And then Hatsutaro comes back.
Post-war Tokyo brings a return to popularity for Rakugo and the young men are able not only to fall back into their comfortable routine, but to rise to fame. Even though they’ve both carved out their signature styles, Hatsutaro’s presence almost immediately reestablishes a dynamic where he leads. Kikuhiko is happy to have his friend back, but issues of co-dependence creep in again. It’s already being heavily hinted that a woman - almost definitely Konatsu’s mother - will put strain on the two boys’ relationship, but the tension already exists in a much subtler way. Kikuhiko’s growth as a Rakugo artist has always been defined by its relationship to Hatsutaro and his Rakugo. Hatsutaro is responsible for Kikuhiko fining his strength and individuality, but Kikuhiko is shown to only be able to truly flourish outside of his friend’s shadow when he’s completely independent. The episode is bookended by Kikuhiko literally and figuratively leaning on Hatsutaro. From a personal standpoint, it’s a happy ending, but we’re hit with sadness and maybe a sense of dread. We already know the bright and righteous future ends in tragedy.