After Kikuhiko’s triumphant self-realization of the previous two episodes, episode seven is all about the interpersonal consequences of that development. This was a hard episode in a lot of ways. It gave us something I’m probably not alone in feeling nostalgic for - the easy, irreplaceable bond Kiku and Sukeroku share. But despite this, and partly because of it, we had to watch Miyokichi get utterly wrecked.
The episode opens with some fast-paced rakugo from both men. Kikuhiko is again, tellingly, performing a story whose plot and humor hinge on the misfortunes of a geisha. Kikuhiko and Sukeroku are now finally equals in every way and each have their own all-consuming, internal drive for their art. Practically speaking, Kiku may now even have the edge as the more responsible and professional member of the duo. He’s in love with rakugo at last, but where does that leave his other personal relationships?
The thing about Kikuhiko and Miyokichi’s relationship is that the dynamic up until now involved Miyokichi being the more forward partner. Intimate scenes between the two of them were often spent with Kiku voicing his self-doubt and anxiety over his failure to click with rakugo, and Miyokichi comforting and reassuring. With his confidence and new dedication as an artist, Kikuhiko realizes he’s, well, just not that interested in spending time with her anymore. Miyokichi is no spacey woman and realizes this pretty quickly, though she tries to temper it. She can’t discourage his passion for rakugo right after being one of his biggest cheerleaders, so she turns her jealousy on the one interpersonal relationship that hasn’t taken a backseat to the theater: Sukeroku.
I’ve seen a few critics interpret this episode as being all about romantic and sexual jealousy. That is, Miyokichi seeing that Kiku is *in* love with Sukeroku. While I’m not ruling that out, it strikes me as a shallow interpretation. Kiku and Sukeroku have a relationship that is difficult to characterize. They have elements of family, friendship, collaborator, and rival in their dynamic, but also a deep love bound by their shared past and shared dreams of a future in rakugo. Impending tragedy aside, this episode was the most “classic” Kiku and Sukeroku. It was hard not to be just bit joyful at seeing them banter and enjoy their camaraderie again. We see and almost feel Kikuhiko’s sense of freedom and release at being able to just be with his friend and artistic equal without the pall of envy and inadequacy following him. At least for the moment, they can be two companions looking towards a bright future. It’s them against the world, and Miyokichi is standing on the outside of this almost sacred bond. Take it away, threshold framing shot:
Kikuhiku’s new stardom also brings him full circle from a painful experience in his past. Master Yakumo, who once picked Sukeroku to accompany him to Manchuria over Kiku, asks Kiku to do a performance tour with him. He’s finally the one who is chosen, who isn’t abandoned or written off as weak. Yakumo’s request triggers Kiku’s usual emotional tells, as well as a stunningly captured mix of disbelief and bittersweet accomplishment.
Being “chosen” is really the key theme for Kikuhiko this week. Chosen, loved, accepted, praised. He’s living in the light of his triumph on the stage in every area. Meanwhile, Miyokichi faces different prospects: ignored, looked over, forgotten. So much analysis of this show by myself and other bloggers has been devoted to the parallels and compliments of Kiku and Sukeroku’s characters, but this episode really drove home the diverging paths of Kiku and Miyokichi. If you made a chart of their respective happiness, it would be inversely proportional.
Kikuhiku’s performance as Benten and his suggestive rakugo not only utilize his natural gifts as an artist, but allow him to come to terms with his traumatic childhood, where he was apprenticed out from a geisha house (really, kicked out), a place where he was unwanted. By performing comedic stories that mock the world of geisha, he’s both able to deal with those lingering feelings and, in a way, prove the people who said “boys can’t be geisha” wrong. It was always interesting that in his lowest moments, he found comfort and companionship in a geisha. It’s tragic, and ironic, though. Kiku is able to move forward with his life and career with stories that use the unfortunate circumstances of geisha as a punchline, while Miyokichi, an actual geisha, must face the reality of those circumstances. Kiku can move on from her, too, and she’s left to wait. She always seemed more romantically interested in him than vice versa, but there was real intimacy there. Now, a woman who in all likelihood has been used by men and used men to survive throughout her life has to watch the man she truly loves move on to bigger and better things.
Kikuhiko and Miyokichi’s opposite fortunes were also underscored by a neat visual trick. The makeup Kiku wore for his role as Benten and Miyokichi’s geisha makeup in this episode are almost identical. But, while Kiku’s signaled brazen confidence and victory, Miyokichi is most miserable when she’s in her full “uniform.”
This was all a very roundabout way of saying - of course she envies Sukeroku. Maybe not even romantically or sexually, but just for the fact that he and Kikuhiko have something she’s left out of: a bond that isn’t based on attraction or manipulation; a version of unconditional love. She’s probably never been close to another person like those two are to each other.
The moment that broke my heart more than any other in episode seven, though, wasn’t necessarily a sad one. After an irritated Miyokichi comes to Kikuhiko’s apartment only to find her evening plans have been usurped by a very drunk Sukeroku, all three characters, just for a few moments of our time, occupy the same space. There’s tension, but Miyokichi and Sukeroku fall into a lighthearted teasing. Kikuhiko looks back at them, for better or worse his two most intimate relationships, and the look on his face kind of shattered me. It’s a moment of peace, of calm before the storm we all know is coming, and I like to think that Kiku, like us, just wants to stay in that moment a little longer.