For this week’s Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, we’re out of OVA material and are into regular length anime episodes. Many people who were dazzled by the series’ first, double-length episode were worried that the quality would drop. I have good news! Rakugo’s second episode, while less lavishly animated than the premier, maintained the excellent character drama, music, and rakugo performances that hooked us last week. Lots of complex naming schemes ahoy!

This episode is the first in what seems will be an arc of flashbacks focusing not on Yotaro, but the childhood and early adulthood of present day rakugo master Yuurakutei Yakumo and his late friend and rival Sukeroku. As a child, Yakumo (at this point called Bon) has the same delicate features and air of dignity as in old age. Bon is sent to the house of the current Yakumo after sustaining a permanent leg injury, ruining his livelihood as a dancer in a geisha house. Of course, no matter how skilled a dancer he might have been, a geisha house isn’t the ideal place for boys, as multiple characters point out. There are a lot of comparisons drawn in this episode to Yotaro, and the first one is that both enter the rakugo master’s house because they have nowhere else to go. The same goes for young orphan someday-Sukeroku, who comes to Yakumo’s home because his only caretaker has passed away. His situation is even more like Yotaro, in that he’s drawn to rakugo because it was an inspiring, bright thing in a lonely place. So, the two boys step across the threshold both in reality and symbolically into their new, shared lives.

I love these shots

It’s interesting that in the past, Bon is the character who is supposed to be in Yakumo’s home and Sukeroku is the interloper. It’s a cool contrast to the present, where Sukeroku’s daughter is already the household fixture, and Sukeroku act-a-like Yotaro is the one inserting himself into the arrangement. Like present Yakumo with Yotaro, past Yakumo reluctantly agrees to take Sukeroku in as his second apprentice.

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Baby Sukeroku, like Yotaro, believes with pure conviction that he is cut out to do rakugo. So he does it. The first performance of the episode is an impromptu one for only Yakumo and Bon. At such a young age, we can already see the charisma and presence he has, emphasized by how his gestures make the audience visualize the story. I’m once again so impressed with how this show draws us into rakugo:

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The baby main characters then visit the public bath, where Bon is hit with the loneliness of his current situation. Abandoned by his family and shut out of the geisha house, he feels forced into rakugo, an art form “in which I had no interest” His pain as he cries silently is beautifully animated, pretty but hard to watch. Sukeroku’s solution is as easygoing as he is: learn to smile.

After establishing the fraught beginnings of the two boys’ relationships, the action jumps forward to their early 20s, where they have just received rakugo names from Yakumo. The young men have more or less retained their personalities from childhood. Yakumo chides Sukeroku, now Hatsutaro, on his unprofessional demeanor, while encouraging Bon, now Kikuhiko, to be less stiff and more personable. The direction and animation really carry the feel of these characters across perfectly. With their new names, the two men have also earned the privilege of opening for Yakumo. We also learn that Kikuhiko is still tepid about rakugo.

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The full length rakugo performances, much like the premier, include some of the best moments of the episode. These scenes draw comparisons not only between Hatsutaro and Kikuhiko, but between Kikuhiko and his now-student Yotaro. Unlike Yotaro’s tense but thrilling debut, Kikuhiko is a nervous wreck.

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This rakugo is painful to watch. It’s incredible scene direction-wise, though. Kikuhiko delivers his humorous monologue in a shaky monotone, with frequent cuts to the bored audience. He fails to connect with his viewers, both inside the show and out. As his signs of physical distress grow, the background music takes an almost horror movie-esque tone. This is probably the most affecting use of secondhand embarrassment in anime I’ve encountered!

Hatsutaro, on the other hand, has kept his natural talent for engaging with an audience in adulthood. He immediately captures our attention (and the theater goers’) with his animated gestures, booming voice, and charisma. He steals the show with the same stage presence Yotaro did. Most interestingly regarding Yotaro is the difference between his and Kikuhiko’s final bows. It’s an exact copy of the shot from the first episode, but the emotions of the characters and success of their rakugo couldn’t be more different:

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We still have to see how the nervous and detached Kikuhiko grows to become the most respected rakugo performer in Japan. Despite Hatsutaro being his obvious rival, he seems to be the only person that can draw Kikuhiko out of his shell. We know from the premier that Hatsutaro and Kikuhiko have a long and complicated relationship leading up to Hatsutaro/Sukeroku’s death in an accident, and this episode established a hugely compelling emotional pull that’s bound to lead to heartbreak later on.