So, because I can’t successfully manage work, adjusting to life, and free time, there were no Rakugo episode thoughts last week. To make up for that, here’s a double
suicide dose - I got kind of lucky, too, because these episodes compliment each other in a lot of ways, together making up the story of how Kikuhiko finally realizes what he and only he can offer as a performer: himself.
Both episodes also continue to show the changes developing in Kiku and Sukeroku’s relationship. Although the young men are still roommates, colleagues, and confidants, they definitely have their own private lives. Sukeroku has always seemed like an independent character, but Kikuhiku living without his friend as the center of his orbit is more unfamiliar territory. It’s not just that Kiku has to support himself with a side job in addition to his rakugo training; the boys live completely different lifestyles, with Sukeroku indulging in women and drinking while Kikuhiko practices or spends time with Miyokichi. Their...different...philosophies on intimacy even affect their respective rakugo during a practice of “Shinagawa Shinju” (remember that! ahem).
It’s not only the two men’s differing outlooks on love and leisure that account for the distance, though. As futatsume (mid-tier performers; neither apprentices nor masters), they have to be concerned first and foremost with developing their individual rakugo. Where the two once grew together, Kikuhiko now feels more left behind than ever. It’s yet another example of how his rakugo is inextricably tied to Sukeroku’s: Sukeroko was the first person to lead Kikuhiko to a breakthrough in his self-confidence, but now Kiku has grown both jealous of his friend’s confidence and more crippled in not feeling out his own rakugo style. The brief flash of self-assurance from episode 3 is pretty much gone for him. Being in Sukeroku’s shadow (often literally), Kikuhiko can’t stop focusing on what he lacks, rather than the qualities only he has.
The can’t do attitude is what Kikuhiko leads with when he gets the opportunity not to do rakugo, but to act in a play put on by futatsume, “Benten Musume Meo no Shiranami.” Kikuhiko is to play Benten Kozo, a thief who disguises himself as a fashionable and beautiful lady. It’s the perfect chance for Kiku to play to his natural charm and sensuality, but he’s paralyzed with nerves. He is encouraged by Miyokichi, who has a lot of poignant and telling character moments in these episodes. It’s not hard to tell she’s a smart woman who would probably choose another profession if she had the chance, and she takes helping Kikuhiko get into character in stride. Her comments on the performative nature of her life both hint at her unhappiness and recall Komatsu’s (99% obviously her future daughter) gender role-breaking ambitions to be a rakugo artist. It’s also interesting to see how the comfortable, easy intimacy between Kiku and Miyokichi has to some degree continued to replace a similar dynamic with Kiku and Sukeroku.
Kikuhiko’s performance as Benten Kozo is one of the most thrilling yet in the series - which has no shortage of good “live” performances. We see Kikuhiku’s unique potential. Other characters see it. It’s cathartic and a bit intoxicating to see him realize it for himself. He starts the performance gingerly, with Sukeroku practically having to force him on stage.
For the first time, Kikuhiko realizes that he has qualities that make him an irresistible performer in ways that Sukeroku and his peers can’t be. The audience is glued to his charisma and very convincing epicene beauty. Instead of shrinking from the attention, it invigorates him.
This new feeling for Kikuhiko does bring him joy...temporarily. His first taste of stardom mostly has the effect of sparking an internal crisis about rakugo. Kikuhiko, who despite his intelligence and magnetism has been traumatized, abandoned, and left with poor self-image throughout life, is anxious that he will never be able to bring the same quality to his rakugo that he brought to his performance as Benten. The thrill of the audience alone isn’t enough for him, as it is for Sukeroku.
The question that dogs Kikuhiko in episode 06, “whom is my rakugo for?” strikes me as a slightly different, deeper issue than previous episodes that were about finding *what* his rakugo is. He’s accepted what his forte is - bawdy, suggestive rakugo - but he hasn’t accepted himself or the public role rakugo can play in his life yet. We’ve seen him use it as a ticket to finding acceptance and basic needs, and as a private comfort, but he can’t seem tap into a reason for finding professional fulfillment through it. At first, the only thing he knows is that he can’t feel the same sense of satisfaction from the audience’s happiness that Sukeroku does.
We get performances from both men in episode 6, and this was, very notably, the only time Kikuhiko stood in the shadows of Sukeroku’s act and didn’t smile or laugh. But it’s not out of jealousy, which Kiku struggled with earlier. He is able to watch his friend and self-reflect instead of compare for once. It actually is Sukeroku who ends up glued to Kiku’s rakugo. It plays with the roles we’ve gotten used to - Kikuhiku, the watcher and follower, is now the watched. So what about Kiku’s rakugo was so special in the end? He performs “Shinagawa Shinju,” the story that was touched on in episode 5. His subtle characterizations are so well-realized that we, like the audience, are able to visualize the story.
This particular piece of rakugo is a perfect fit for Kikuhiko for a few reasons - racier subject matter, the chance to play both masculine and feminine characters, and the point he brought up in episode 5. He’s used to being around “decent” women, especially Miyokichi and the world of geisha. This parallel isn’t lost on Miyokichi, either.
I’m not confident in saying why she was upset by the rakugo performance, but the most likely candidates are that the subject matter reinforced her unhappiness with the pressures and expectations of geisha - some of which “Shinagawa Shinju” makes into the butt of its jokes - or that she found herself wondering whether Kikuhiko has been using their relationship as “artistic reference.”
Kikuhiko has always been the more private, selfish, and melancholy of the two male leads, so his epiphany moment is fittingly internally-focused. It was never about feeling the audience’s energy for Kikuhiko. It’s not about providing a service. It’s about a boy, now a man, who yearns to be seen and understood.