It’s been a long journey though decades of history, but the curtain has fallen on this storyteller’s story. More than just introducing a new generation to a lost art, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is also a deeply personal tale full of tragedy but also love. Join us as we share our final thoughts on this beautiful masterpiece.
The only criticism I have of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is that the double length first episode does not prepare you for the emotional, mental, and spiritual beating you are going to take throughout the series. My initial impression made me think the show would be be a dry homage to an old tradition, a lost art form that the author took a liking to and wanted to share with the world. To a certain extent that is probably true. The series does not shy away from showing entire rakugo performances and definitely holds it up on a pedestal. But as the second episode takes us back to Yakumo’s childhood and we begin to realize the full scope of the story, you can quickly tell you are watching something special.
What SGRS truly turns out to be is the biography of a person born in 1930s Japan, following him through the ups and downs of his life and the changing world around him. This is not a coming of age tale though. There is no growing up, finding a career, and starting a family in the traditional sense. Yakumo, along with his closest companions Sukeroku and Miyokichi, are deeply flawed but sympathetic characters that captivate you every second they are on screen. Their relationships with each other and those closest to them draw our attention to all kinds of important topics, from finding our purpose, to the meaning of love, sexuality, and gender, to what kind of mark we want to leave on the world after we’re gone. All of this is handled with a level of maturity and nuance that I’ve certainly never seen in an anime, and maybe any other form of fiction.
In fact, everything is done so well in SGRS that it becomes overwhelming to try and explain why it’s so good. The writing, directing, and stylish visuals are all top notch, but for me it comes down to the bond you form with the characters. Their circumstances are certainly unique and extraordinary, but the joy and pain that they go through feels very real. It makes me wonder if I would have enjoyed the series as much if I had watched it when I was younger and in the average anime watching age range. I feel like to truly appreciate and understand the struggles and flaws of the characters, you need to have some life experience under your belt. I felt their pain because I’ve been there, or been close to people that have.
That personal connection I felt with this show had me actually evaluating my own life choices and circumstances. As I’ve gotten older, I thought I was done with that feeling when it came to anime. Nearly every anime story focuses on issues you deal with in your late teens and early twenties. Brimming with optimism, they tell you that anything is possible if you work hard and rely on those close to you. To a certain extent that is true. Anything is possible. What they don’t tell you is that things rarely turn out the way you expect. Most of the time things work out fine, but sometimes they don’t. What happens when you make a wrong choice? Does that make you a failure or a bad person? How do you cope with the consequences?
Those are the kind of real, adult questions I found haunting me after watching this series. It sounds like a downer, but perhaps the best part of SGRS is that it isn’t really cynical at all. Ultimately it says that we are much more complex than just the sum of our actions. It says that we can find our path to happiness, even if it takes some unexpected turns. It certainly doesn’t sugar coat anything and there are some very dark moments, but there is also a lot of joy and healing. Stirring up those kinds of questions and emotions elevates this series from entertainment to art. SGRS is a work of art, a masterpiece of the medium that anyone looking for more out of their anime needs to watch. I’m still thinking about it a week later and I know it will stay with me for a long time.
Marlin’s Final Thoughts
I’ve somewhat joked to the rest of the Glorio Crew that this show is exhibit A as to why no one should ever become a performer. The life of a performer is incredibly demanding, your very sustenance comes from your ability to live the emotions of your performance. Inevitably, this affects their real life, and can warp it in ways beyond repair. Rakugo is a fascinating example: Not only are you meant to embody a single character, but scores upon scores of characters, drawing influence from your own life to bring people into your own world. The easiest way to explain it is as a radio drama that you sit in a theater to listen to. Often, the art is challenged by its limitations both within those performing and by the changing tastes of the modern world. What makes the story of SGRS so engrossing is its ability to tell how this art could still be relevant in the modern day. However, its deeper tale is that of the life of Yakumo.
Rakugo, initially a stumbling block to the uninitiated, is only the medium for the lives of these characters. Art’s power is in its ability to bring the viewer beyond themselves, to look at eternal truths of the human condition. Many times in Rakugo, that comes in the form of man’s concupiscence, a desire against their true good. We start to see that the nature of Yakumo and Sukeroku’s Rakugo speak to their inner selves. Yakumo, who has been scarred by abandonment and betrayal, does Rakugo to understand himself. He is resistant to others in his life, and even when he finds connections he struggles to accept and retain them. At first Sukeroku seems like the opposite, outgoing and gregarious, he engenders himself with almost anyone instantly. However, all of his relationships are cheap. He treats women like objects and his elders as bygones. These two can only find true belonging in each other. Once Miyokichi hits the scene, their implicit trust starts to wane. The pressures of society pull on the threads of their relationship until Miyokichi’s pettiness and Sukeroku’s self-destructive tendencies finally rip them apart. Even when Yakumo tries to repair what was once lost, too much has changed to make such happiness permanent.
Coming into the second season, we get the rawest portrayal of what it is like to be filled with old age and regrets. The story ostensibly transfers to Yotaro, but the emphasis is never truly off Yakumo. His conflicted thoughts between the enormity of what he has lost in his life and the little that remains that holds him back from despair cast a dark shadow towards Yotaro’s optimism. In the middle of them is Konatsu, who carries the baggage of Yakumo’s past but is unwilling to resign herself as he so desperately wants. Her strength makes a strong mark on the second half. It’s her decision to have a child that both brings her and Yotaro closer as well as continue to draw Yakumo away from the edge.
The strength of the writing behind all of these characters is something that cannot be overstated. They feel like real people not simply because they have faults, but because they have hopes. All too often I feel when people want “realistic” stories, what they really want is desperate stories. They want characters who continuously fall prey to their own faults and succumb further and further to their desires. It’s an incredibly perverted idea, in the traditional sense of the word. Those people want to see humanity twisted, as if they’ve lost hope in its goodness. SGRS succeeds for me by having these characters fall, but not always be consumed by their faults. They still are able to recognize the good in what they want, and when the opportunity presents itself they do not automatically make the vicious choice. In the end, Yotaro’s message is exactly that: hope in the good, focus on it, and people will respond. He saw the good in Konatsu, and refused to leave her alone. He saw the good in her son, and treated him as his own. First and foremost, he saw the good in Yakumo, in what his art of Rakugo brought to the world, and refused to let it die.
SGRS should be remembered for a long time. Never has anime been able to portray so fully the life of a person and so beautifully lay out its details. It’s my dearest hope that everyone watches this show, if only to remember that there are ways that anime can transcend the modern designation as part of pop culture and tell a story of true depth. We need shows that remind us of the universality of art, of how even people as far removed from the culture as New Zealand and America can be touched by a story so long as it speaks to the human experience.