Monday, April 4, 2016

Anime Review: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu

Before the season started I was tentative on this title, it sounded like it could be good but I really hadn't heard much about it. I knew it was about rakugo, knew what the basics of rakugo was, and that it was a josei title. So it was for an entirely unrelated reason that I was optimistic, the last time I was curious but had no idea if a josei title was going to be good was Chihayafuru and we all know how amazing that series turned out to be!

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is exactly what the title says, a story about the performance art rakugo in the Showa era of Japan which involves a lover’s suicide (“shinju”, I haven’t quite figured out how “genroku” fits into this to be honest). The story begins in two different places, first in the early 70s as a criminal is released from prison and surprises everyone by saying he wants to take up this dying art form! You see, one of the great masters of rakugo, Yakumo Yurakutei, once gave a stunning performance of the story “Shinigami” to the prisoners and while most of them were scared crapless, this guy also saw the great fun and skill in the performance and wants to become Yakumo’s apprentice! On a whim Yakumo, who has never taken on an apprentice before, does take in this fool who he dubs Yotaro (“fool”) and Yotaro begins living and studying with Yakumo and the young, antagonistic Konatsu who also lives in the same house. Yotaro gets the basics of Konatsu's story from her quickly, once her father and Yakumo were apprentices under the same teacher until her father and her mother died together in an accident. She’s been raised by Yakumo ever since, both of them seem to blame Yakumo for these tragic deaths, and after a particular spat Yakumo says enough, I’m going to tell you a long story about how Konatsu’s father and I lived and died.

It’s a good thing the series had a double-length first episode (which as I understand it, was a trimmed down OVA) because that’s a pretty dense summary for just the “first” episode! The majority of the show is then an extended flashback, beginning with the day that Yakumo first became a rakugo apprentice. For simplicity’s sake, I’m now going to switch to referring to Yakumo as “Kiku” and Konatsu’s father as “Sukeroku” since those were the names they went by the longest (birth names Bon and Shin respectively) and for the vast part of the story, “Yakumo” was the name of their teacher, it’s an inherited name (plus, I’m already saying “Yotaro” instead of his birth name). And if you go read any other reviews those are surely the names you’ll see used as well and being consistent seems like a good idea here.

I do recommend people read other reviews of the series not to see if they will like it but to follow along as they watch the show, it’s the sort of show that benefits greatly from extra thought. Despite that long premise and the fact that it centers around a Japanese art form which doesn’t have a modern-day English equivalent there’s a surprisingly low barrier of entry to this “show for Japanese adults”. I do quite honestly feel as if you could recommend it to some fringe anime fans who enjoy the character drama-focused stories that come out once or twice a year. This story is entirely about the characters, mostly Kiku in this first half as it chronicles his and Sukeroku’s rise from beginning their apprenticeships (at around the age of seven) up until Sukeroku’s death when they must be in their 30s. Unsurprisingly it’s also a deeply introspective show and you must connect with the characters in order to really get into the story, but I do feel like this is easier than some people might fear.

This is based off of a josei manga and I’ve seen a few pages of it during the course of the show. The manga looks fine but I for one am really glad that I’m seeing the story animated instead of printed. Nearly every episode features at least one, full length rakugo performance (cutting out some of the traditional opening remarks but showing the entire story) and while the anime had a tough job making it interesting every time, I do think that the framing and shot choices used by the anime are far more interesting than seeing the same work but with the limitations of a non-animated work. Not that there’s very much animation in the performances per-say! One big thing about rakugo is that it is a single performer who is mostly unmoving, they’ll shift around and make plenty of gestures but unlike a play they do not physically move around the stage. This being anime and not a live performance however means that the anime’s “camera” is free to move around in close-ups and long shots, looking back at the audience and occasionally “into” the story itself. I found all of the performances riveting and didn’t want to look away (ignoring the fact that I couldn’t because of the subtitles). This is a Studio Deen show which, for those not in a know, generally look rather lackluster and generally uninspired. However, there is a small contingent of Deen shows that look stunning, they tend to share staff (the director also directed Sankarea which is probably Deen's best looking show to date), funny enough a lot of them have been poached from Studio Shaft which has a very distinct visual style, and the fact that this show looks not just decent but actually thoughtful and deliberate is a small miracle, abet one that sometimes doesn’t have a lot of animation on screen.

But you can’t just talk about the visuals of storytelling, you have to talk about the voices and I honestly managed to convince several friends to try out the show just based on the seiyuu here. Kiku and Sukeroku are played by Akira Ishida and Kouichi Yamadera respectively and, while I don’t usually get into the specifics of voice acting, I am pretty familiar with Ishida (I've heard fewer of Yamadera's roles, looks like he did a lot of stuff before I got into anime) and think that they did a fantastic job (Yotaro is done by Tomokazu Seki who is another big-name voice actor). Both have to play the men over a very large span of years, a ton of emotional situations, and give actual rakugo performances! I genuinely enjoyed just listening to these performances as well, not because of the voices exactly but just listening to how the words flowed together audibly. The stories themselves aren’t hard to understand at all as a non-Japanese, I did miss a few references but that was mainly when the episode only showed part of a story, by and large the themes (of honestly, hard work, etc in addition to purely comedic works) were easy enough to follow along and it was quite easy to see both how rakugo was popular for hundreds of years and yet understand why the more glitzy world of movies has taken over since.

Now I’ve explained all of the great things making up the show but don’t fear, the story itself is also gripping one, provided again that you sympathize at least to a degree with our tragic characters. Kiku is the lead and sometimes narrator of his own tale as we begin in interwar Japan where he has been effectively abandoned by his family and he is apprenticed to the 7th generation Yakumo performer, which turns out to be the same day grubby urchin Sukeroku shows up and also begs to be taken on as an apprentice. The two of them become very close, not enemies like the way you’d expect from Konatsu’s derision of Kiku. However Kiku always seems to feel as if he is still an outsider as Sukeroku becomes better and better at rakugo, culminating in Sukeroku and their teacher leaving for China to entertain the troops while Kiku remains behind, working in a factory and idly dreaming of a “regular” life while he dates.

But post-war Kiku is brought back into rakugo by Sukeroku and their master’s return as well as the entrance of the third tragic character in this tale, geisha and sex worker Miyokichi, arrives in a blaze of sunlight, high heels, and jeans. When I first heard that Miyokichi was first Kiku’s girlfriend but later Konatsu’s mother I was worried that this split between Kiku and Sukeroku would be merely over a woman but rest assured, it is far more complicated and heart-breaking than that. Each of the three of them is a different combination of sadness, tenacity, and ambition which makes the story work so much better. Sukeroku and Miyokichi are more traditional tragic characters, Sukeroku is both immensely talented in rakugo and more than willing to adapt to suit the changing audience and times. He doesn’t see it as lowering himself or his work, rather he understands that a performance work exists at least partially (if not more) because of it’s audience, and yet he has flashes of arrogance where he is disinclined to listen to anyone’s advice and when he falls he falls hard and has no coping mechanisms to pull himself back up. 

Miyokichi is a survivor, I don’t believe we ever learned the origins of her situation fully but the specifics don't matter. Miyokichi has pulled herself out of bad situations before but it leaves her a bit desperate, constantly aware of how easy it is to fall back into something awful and therefore willing to take what looks like the first chance out, a chance that often isn’t nearly as secure as she thinks it is. Neither she nor Sukeroku are unlikeable characters at all but, there’s something to their struggles which feels both very familiar and very easy to dismiss. In both fiction and real life it’s all too easy to say “well of course that was going to happen” when you see someone being both ambitious and dumb at the same time and it becomes a bit harder to sympathize with them, even though neither of those traits is particularly "bad". In some ways I feel like it's a bit of a coping mechanism, distancing yourself before their fall and in Rakugo seeing this makes you uncomfortably aware of the upcoming tragedy.

Kiku follows a less common mold, he came into an artistic profession not by choice but necessity and it takes a very long time for him to become comfortable with it, find a reason to give his all in his performances, and to even work out what his strengths are. I loved that, like Sukeroku, part of his motivation became seeing the audience react to him, how much he enjoyed captivating them with his every move (it’s through a play not a rakugo performance but I thought it was great!). In the webcomics community online I see a lot of people say, in a defensive manner, that they aren’t putting up comics for people to bitch and moan about (about a lack of updates etc), it’s all for the artist and I always think “oh listen to yourself.” Yes for any kind of art you need to make art that you enjoy, otherwise you burn out plain and simple, but you only show it to others (through performances, posting online etc) because you enjoy that feedback, those reactions, and I liked how this story was quite honest about it. There is never quite a conflict between Kiku’s more traditional rakugo and Sukeroku’s more modern rakugo, partially because the two of them respect each other so much and partially because there’s no reason, both seek an audience at their core and the two of them at least recognize that to create the largest possible audience that both of their styles are needed.

I’ve seen a lot of folks online enjoy and view the show the same ways I just outlined above, so let’s get to the part where I seem to disagree with a lot of people. First up, I'm not sure Kiku is gay and a good 70% of the audience (if not more) is probably shocked at me now. I'm just not guys! I even made a short tumblr post on it, that I don't think anyone saw, talking about how not automatically having this view (even knowing that the manga-ka has done a lot of BL previously, ie Kiku being gay is likely) made me feel weird and wonder if it had to do with my own ace-ness. Honestly, we see him date several ladies, I don't think all of it was just for appearances. We also see him be VERY close to Sukeroku, but we also see constantly that Kiku has abandonment issues and opens up to very few people but when he does he latches on HARD. Combine that with a small cast to start with and honestly I'm torn between thinking he's either ace or bi, although I'll agree that no, I don't see him being straight at all.

More divisively, the climax of the show is rather dramatic and I saw several folks saying that the "theatrics" took them out of of the moment a little bit to which I thought "wait, I thought that's what we were all here for?" The performances in this show aren't just limited to the sit-down rakugo and I think the series’ most beautiful moments are in it’s most dramatic honestly, like when Miyokichi threatens to haunt Kiku or how a lot of the dialogue between the characters felt like a performance in and of itself (especially between Kiku and Sukeroku, honestly I thought  that’s how those moments were supposed to be viewed, larger than life!). For all the show dives deeply into the character’s lives, it’s still a microcosm of the people they knew and the events they were involved in, so naturally we don’t see every single small moment leading up to the big ones, we see big moments which are a distillation of the unseen smaller ones. It’s why I never really got into theater in high school, I disliked that obvious break from real life (and then gravitated towards slice of life anime, hah!) but here I think it works because of the plot of the story, of course a story about a performance art would be dramatic! 

And again, I was surprised when people started saying later on that it was melodramatic since, yes? It’s been like that for a while? I thought we were all here for that reason? Sure it was upping it a bit but you know, when you start with a lot of drama and hit a high point then yes you need EVEN MORE drama. I did see someone propose how they wish the climax had gone, in a less dramatic fashion, and I won't deny that that idea wasn't a good alternative, but much like my thoughts on Kiku's sexuality I found it baffling that so many other people had a completely different read on a show and I hadn't realized it at all since everyone assumed we were on the same page and therefore no one had really articulated how they felt about the tone. 

Regardless, I doubt the series will hit those heights again until the climax of the second half, if even then since our 1970s characters are decidedly different from the Kiku, Sukeroku, and Miyokichi from two decades earlier. I do wish in some ways that the show had spent more time in the “present”. The first two episodes are devoted to it of course and the last episode spends most of it’s time in the present as well, but once we finished Kiku’s story and returned to the present I felt a little disoriented and wondered how much time had passed between then and Yotaro getting his new haircut. After seeing Kiku and Sukeroku’s life laid out in so much detail it was almost bizarre to skip so much of Yotaro’s life, although I suspect the series was a little dishonest at how much of Kiku’s life it left out (that is, all of the characters age really inconsistently so it’s hard to tell how far apart some of the stories were, I honestly have no idea how old Kiku is supposed to be by the end for example). I am downright thrilled that we are getting a second season to adapt the other half of the story, especially since I don't really know how it's going to go! 

Since we haven't see as much about Yotaro and Konatsu I'm going to hold off from talking a lot about them but already I like how they're different than the previous generation. Yotaro is like a puppy, eager to please and devoted, but so far not only have we seen him act with far less pride than Sukeroku but he also has a much more even temper, considering that he's been through jail and crime I suspect he's also put up with a lot more and might be emotionally stronger for it. And Konatsu is fascinating, there's a lot of both her mother and father in her but when Kiku says he doesn't know where she got her strength from he misses the obvious connection that, although neither of them will admit it, he influenced her hugely and put her in a far different place than either of her parents were (and ugh, they could've had such a great relationship, dammit Kiku and your abandonment issues rearing back up). And finally, I'm still not entirely clearly on what Konatsu's goals in life are so I will refrain from talking about it much but, if she does want to go into rakugo, I did find at least one female performer who was performing in 1974 and I'm not even sure she was the first. Make of that what you will, I don't think the story was timed to match up with that time (I honestly think it was so that Kiku and Sukeroku would come of age in WWII) but maybe by the time season two is out I'll be able to do a bit more research into the topic.

And so you have it, I am continuing in the tradition of other anime bloggers by not being able to talk about this show briefly (Gabriella Ekens of ANN has great write-ups as does Dee of Josei Next Door, posting on Anime Evol) but hey, this show deserves it. It was the best show of the winter anime season hands down and unless the rest of this year is absolutely unreal it'll be in my top five anime of the year list for sure. It absolutely deserves all the praise it gets and I hope that even more people who are looking for a change of pace try it out.