Manga Adaptation by Studio Deen
Streaming on Crunchyroll
Having falling in love with a rakugo performer’s rendition of the story Shinigami while serving time in prison, our unnamed protagonist (later nicknamed Yotaro) is determined to start a new life as a rakugo performer himself. Upon his release, he immediately tracks down the famous Yakumo and begs to be accepted as his apprentice.
Artemis’ verdict: Classy, Yes, Entertaining… Maybe
Honestly, I’m still trying to decide how exactly I feel about this one. I’ll get the positives out of the way first – and there are plenty of positives here. The post-war Showa-era setting is wonderfully portrayed, not to speak of how little we see of this time period in anime. There are a myriad of titles set in the Sengoku, Edo, and Meiji Periods in particular when it comes to historical pieces, but I can think of very few set in the Showa Period. Personally speaking I’m something of a fan, so I’m incredibly happy to see the small but important details given due attention here. I also feel that the artwork, though quite understated, complements both the setting as well as the atmosphere it invokes; this is a classy anime, and there’s a very sophisticated air to pretty much everything about it, including the way it looks and sounds.
Speaking of sounds, Rakugo Shinjuu sure isn’t skimping on its cast members. There are some serious A-list voice actors here including one of my all-time favourites, Ishida Akira, who plays his role as the rakugo master Yakumo to perfection. All the cast are incredibly well-suited to their characters though, from the endearingly sincere and overeager ex-con Yotaro to the far more cynical yet sympathetic Konatsu. The characters themselves are an interesting lot – adults wrestling with an adult world – and Rakugo Shinjuu definitely seems to be a highly character-driven story. The story bills itself as a drama which I suppose is technically true enough, but it’s a fairly quiet sort of drama with most of the tension aimed inwards rather than outwards. Anyone expecting any ‘action’ of the flamboyant or melodramatic type will probably come away disappointed, as even for a josei title it comes across as very restrained.
This is where things get tricky. Because the plot is so basic and the main cast relatively small, there’s really nothing to distract the viewer from the fact that they’re watching an anime about rakugo… and with the greatest respect to traditional methods of storytelling, I don’t actually care all that much about rakugo. I knew what it was before watching and have even had the opportunity to see a little for myself while in Japan, but I don’t have any passion for it and that’s a bit of an issue when every character in Rakugo Shinjuu so obviously does. They’re compelling enough in their own right that I’ll (hopefully) be able to keep watching without boredom sinking in, but there’s no getting around the fact that rakugo is still at the heart of the show. How well it’s portrayed is still up in the air for me, and while I want very much to like this series, I can’t pretend enthusiasm for something that I don’t have.
I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on this, as I do like much of what I’ve seen so far and believe it has a lot of potential. Whether or not it’s going to be a series that actively entertains me is another matter.
Marlin’s verdict: Paddy Home Companion
Rakugo reminds me of all the best and worst traits of radio play comedy. Depending on the performer, they can be incredibly entertaining or turn-the-dial dull. A great voice can make for great narration, and well timed comedy is good in almost every format. However, its very nature means there isn’t much substance to keep hold of you. Divorced of the captive audience mentality of being in a car and listening to the radio, I found it hard to keep with the rakugo as it was being performed. Anime is such a visual medium that watching someone just gesticulate for several minutes is inherently going to become boring. I’ll admit the skit Yotaro performed had a great couple of punchlines, but the set-up to get there literally made me yawn. Like numerous music manga before it, I can’t even begin to imagine how the original was supposed to work as it is divorced even further by having no audio aspect. I have to assume that character development becomes a more primary focus as the series goes on. I’m sure we will get more rakugo scenes, but without it taking a backseat to learning these characters’ backgrounds I can’t imagine it will remain watchable for long.
Jel’s verdict: I Got Nothing, Marlin Took the Best Verdict
To Marlin’s point, let me reference that other anime about rakugo:
I actually think they do a good job using the visuals to hold your attention. Aside from capturing the performances well, there are bits of the listener’s imagination that seep through in a few shots and there was even the weird ghost visions things that help take advantage of this being animated instead of live action. Really my issue is the rakugo itself, which I have to wonder if anyone that is not an older Japanese person truly finds funny. I’ll admit I have a short attention span and generally don’t like that kind of storytelling in any format, so that may be entirely on me. I would have been perfectly fine if this had been trimmed down to a single length episodes and just hit the highlights of the performances. The incredible style and uniqueness of the setting and characters are enough to carry it beyond that. I’m assuming this will not continue to be double episodes, so without the extra time to work with I’ll get my wish. If it’s going to be the same character drama to rakugo ratio we got in the opening though, I’m out.