Going into the winter season, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju was my most anticipated anime. Good josei adaptions are few and far between, and I do love a good niche topic. The premier episode had a few special circumstances: it was double length (about 48 minutes) and the material was originally an OVA bundled with the manga. So, while this was a pretty astounding premier, it wasn’t a normal anime episode.
The story takes place in the Showa period, seemingly in the late 1960s or 70s. The “rakugo”in the title refers to a form of storytelling that features a lone performer who must tell a comedic (though often tragicomic or ironic) monologue through only gesture, tone, and inflection, playing multiple characters. Rakugo is an art form that was very popular in the Meiji and Showa periods with a reputation as a “lowbrow theater,” so the subjects of rakugo stories often revolve around characters and concerns that were thought to represent the common people.
This episode laid the groundwork for three complicated adult characters with complicated adult interactions. We start with Yotaro, a young man who has just been released from prison. His first destination as a free man is the rakugo theater, to see the “Great Artist” (Daisensei). “I’ll be fine. I’ve got nothing. And since I’ve got nothing, I’m going there. That’s the kind of place the theater is, right?” This all happens before the 1:30 mark. The opening 20-30 seconds is a neat little montage of people listening to rakugo on the radio, too. Not only are we immediately wrapped up in Yotaro’s enthusiasm to enter the world of the theater, but we’re drawn into magic of rakugo itself.
The “Great Artist” is Yakumo Yuurakutei, considered the greatest living rakugo performer. Yakumo once performed a story (the one from the opening, at that) at Yotaro’s prison. The reserved master agrees to take Yotaro as his student and into his home, despite never having an apprentice before. Also living with Yakumo is Konatsu, the daughter of Yakumo’s late friend and fellow artist, Sukeroku. Konatsu studies her father’s notes, practicing rakugo secretly.
At least 15 minutes of the premier is devoted to rakugo performances, including Yotaro’s 10 minute debut. This performance is a triumph both in character work and animation. Yotaro chooses “Dekigokoro,” the tale of a petty thief, to perform not only for his teacher and Konatsu, but for his former crime boss who has discovered that Yotaro is out of prison. At first, the camera and Yotaro’s tone of voice are consistent. As he becomes more comfortable in his skills and the space he’s occupying, the camera matches his dynamic performance. We’re invested in his art, his success, and the tension of Konatsu and Yakumo as they wait to see how he carries off his debut. For a performance that would have taken up half of a regular anime episode, of an art form that modern Western viewers are completely divorced from culturally, to be so captivating, is a pretty special thing.
The trio of main characters already seem like real people. They have a dynamic that’s interesting to watch, with Yotaro’s boyish enthusiasm playing off of Konatsu’s more guarded personality and approach to rakugo. They, and Yakumo, all have their own unique pull to being involved in the theater and thus, with each other.
Although Yakumo is the most inscrutable member of the main cast, the episode sets up a deeply personal conflict that I’m guessing will be at the forefront of the entire series. Yotaro reminds Yakumo of his late friend and rival Sukeroku, who died with his wife in an accident. Their relationship is ambiguous enough that Konatsu wonders if Yakumo was involved in her parents’ death. By taking Yotaro into his world, he’s perhaps immediately drawn towards the energy of Sukeroku, who haunts him. Just like Yotaro is finding his own redemption through rakugo, is Yakumo (consciously or not) seeking redemption by mentoring the living image of Sukeroku?
I’m not sure we can expect quite the same level of finesse in the animation from here on out since the show is leaving OVA material, but hopefully Studio DEEN will continue to capture the emotions of the characters and subtle thrill of rakugo. The smoky jazz music interspersed in this episode was also a nice touch. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju certainly made its mark, though. I can’t wait to see where it takes these flawed but endearing characters as performers and as people.