Prelude – Anticipation and Preparation:
Before I begin what is likely to be a rather lengthy and detailed post, I should preface this by saying that I’ve been anticipating Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu since it was first announced. I never got a chance to watch the 2 OVAs last year (since they were never subbed), but that works out in the end because this 48-minute premiere was essentially those two previously released episodes put together. And oh boy, I loved it. I knew I was going to enjoy it, but my already high expectations were somehow surpassed. Get ready for some serious gushing.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Kumota Haruko, the original mangaka. She’s done several short manga over the years, but Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is the one that’s received all the awards under the sun, and now we know why. Funnily enough, this is her only title that isn’t BL, so if you can feel a connection between the male characters that perhaps goes past friendship, then that’s likely very intentional on her part – though I suspect it will never be anything more than subtext. In preparation for this premiere, I went ahead and read all of Kumota’s previous works, and loved them all. I especially like the ones that focus on adult characters in a mature way that avoids the typical tropes you find in those sorts of stories. Sadly, there’s no way for us non-Japanese fans to read Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu at this time, but this anime adaptation may just be all that we need.
An Ex-Prisoner in the Showa Period:
Unlike most of the anime out this season (or the past few seasons), Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a historical piece, set primarily during the Showa Period (1960–70s). It’s a refreshing change from the typical anime high schools, or the magic-powered LN high schools. This is a mature story about adult characters that feel like they’ve already been living their lives up until this point of introduction. Within the first few minutes it felt like I’d been transported 50 or so years into the past, as if I’m reading a Murakami novel. But the unique time period isn’t all that’s worth praising, because the brilliant cast of characters carries this episode so effortlessly that I can say I already love all of them.
The main character of this episode is only known by his nickname, Yotarou (Seki Tomokazu), who has just been released from prison. He’s got no family, very little money, but after getting a visit from the “grim reaper” of rakugo storytelling while serving his sentence, he’s decided that he’s going to seek out that man and become his apprentice. He spends all that he has on a fine suit and a proper haircut, walks up to the man in question and presents himself as the goofball he is, which earns him his nickname. From the first few moments we share with Yotarou, it’s hard not to love him. We can assume that he was imprisoned for theft, but that almost doesn’t matter here, because he comes off as a loveable kid with plenty of charisma, who wants to change his life for the better. I found myself rooting for him from that moment on, and that feeling only grew as the episode progressed.
A Riveting Ensemble Cast – Alive and Deceased
But whilst Yotarou was the main character of this episode, this is an ensemble cast (you could narrow it down to four – three alive, one dead). It seems like every character is going to get their time to shine – perhaps each episode will cover its own character arc, much like this one. Arguably the most pivotal character in all of this is Yuurakutei Yakumo (Ishida Akira), Yotarou’s newfound master. He’s an older man who you can’t quite pin down, shifting from genial smiles to harsh glances. We don’t get the details of his past just yet, but this is a character that feels like he’s lived a misfortunate life filled with regret. Clearly, the death of his longtime friend and fellow rakugo storyteller, Sukeroku, has affected him. For the time being, all we see of this man from the past his hazy figure looming over Yakumo, as if purposefully haunting him.
The final ‘main character’ introduced is Yakumo’s ward with whom he shares his home, and the daughter of Sukeroku. While taking the support role for this story, it’s Konatsu (Kobayashi Yuu) who stands out the most for me. At first I thought she was going to be a stand-offish character from first appearances, but then I remembered this isn’t like your typical trope-filled anime where you can’t help but get slapped in the face by a tsundere wherever you go. This is Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, and it treats its characters like real people, all in difficult situations with their own inspirations and predicaments. Konatsu’s in particular in the one that resonates most with me. She ends up befriending Yotarou and becoming his ‘real’ tutor, as Yakumo isn’t the sort to train him directly. She does all the hard work, yet gets little credit. She’s clearly inspired by her father’s rakugo storytelling, but as a women in that time she is unable to step on the stage and do it herself. It’s painful to watch her curse her womanhood for robbing her of her opportunities, but it makes her even easier to root for. More than anyone else, I so desperately want to see her succeed. Thankfully, her and Yotarou’s storylines seem to be going hand-in-hand, so future episodes may just grant that wish.
Composition is Key:
You wouldn’t believe this was by Studio DEEN at first glance, would you? They’ve earned a less than positive reputation over the past decade or so, but director Omata Shinichi was also in charge of the studio’s two best regarded (and best animated) works in recent years – Rozen Maiden (2013) and Sankarea. So while the studio itself was questionable, once the PVs started coming out and the staff list was known, it became clear that we were in safe hands. The directing, lighting, and composition in this episode was superb; this could have very easily been a standard adaptation, but there has been great care put into the production that I can’t help but gush over how good it all looks.
The animation is limited, but not in a way that’s detrimental. Not every anime has to be filled with sakuga or screaming action sequences. When the characters move around, it feels fluid and fitting with the pace and tone of the moment. The faces and expressions are utterly brilliant; whether grim or silly, it makes these characters that much easier to love. Yoratou’s goofy smile is perhaps my favourite, and I hope we get to see a lot more of it. But even better than the expressive faces is the effective composition and the smart use of lightning. I’ve read comparisons to Uchouten Kazoku, and I can certainly see that. But while that was a lovely looking show, I would argue that this was even better. There were so many standout scenes in this episode alone that I could write hundreds of words on each.
To name a few, the backseat scene with Yakumo and Konatsu was perhaps the most emotional moment of the episode, made even more poignant by the dark palette and the distance between the characters as they each stare off the screen. Yakumo’s words are harsh and barbed, and Konatsu’s tearful response is powerful even if we never see it directly. We only ever see Yakumo’s face in detail when a car flashes by, painting him in an almost villainous manner, which carries into several more scenes – whether through his performances or his cold interactions with his Yotarou and Konatsu. Another Konatsu scene that stole this episode for me was her chatting with her mother’s friend, speaking of when they were both young geisha, and how she got involved with Konatsu’s father. Although she can’t remember the incident exactly, Konatsu blames Yakumo for her father’s death, as we get a striking shot of her dying father with Yakumo sitting over him, his cheek splattered with blood. But the scene back in the present is what’s most beautiful – the deep blue night sky beyond, her face cut off from the shot to preserve her emotional response, and then the big moment when she curses herself for being born a woman. It’s tragic and beautiful all at once.
I loved the many close-ups we got as well. It felt like we were getting uncomfortably up in their faces, whether witnessing them elated or emotional, and it worked perfectly with the panning wide shots to make us feel like we were part of the theatre audience. If I were describe Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu’s aesthetic in one word, it would be cinematic. Similar to Boku Dake ga Inai Machi (the other top-quality show this season) it feels less like anime and more like a live-action drama. The characters are given room to breathe, and the dialogue feels so natural that nothing about the experience comes across contrived. It’s like watching a good movie that you just don’t want to end.
Rakugo – The Power of Storytelling:
I must confess, I knew very little of rakugo going into this episode. I didn’t know if I was going to be entertained as much as I perhaps should be from watching the in-show skits, and originally thought they we would only get the ‘highlights’ rather than the full-on performances. I presumed it a risky move to show the stories unfold in real-time, with the chance of them feeling drawn out or boring. But thankfully, I was proven wrong. The 10 minute (and yes, I counted – it really was 10 minutes!) scene of Yotarou giving his “Dekigokoro” performance was sheer brilliance. I was pretty much spellbound throughout the whole thing, finding myself smiling and laughing right when I should have been. The “three wives and a sick child” part actually had me howling – and that’s when I knew this was going to be something special. I was already immensely enjoying the character drama leading up this big performance, but the fact that this was pulled off so effortlessly has me smitten with this show already.
The two things that the make the rakugo so enjoyable are the strong directing and the individuality of it. The various cuts during Yotarou’s performance heightened the experience, making it feel like the we were watching him act out several characters that each have their distinctive mannerisms and their own place on the screen. What could have been difficult to follow ended up seamless, passionate, and totally entertaining. Since watching it, I’ve actually watched a few rakugo performances online, which is perhaps the biggest accomplishment possible as far as Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is concerned.
What makes this even better is how each character has their own way of performing. This is storytelling in its purest form – a one man comedy routine that differs depending on whoever is delivering the words; Yakumo does more third-person narration than Yotarou, and delivers his lines with more seriousness, whereas Yotarou takes most of his inspiration from the deceased Sukeroku, which you could almost describe as slapstick. I definitely preferred Yotarou’s approach in this episode, but it all comes down to preference. The cherry on top would be the stellar performances by the voice actors, especially Yotarou’s. This is a true test of their ability, and seeing one voice portrays 5 or 6 characters that feel distinctive and emotive helps elevate the performances to the next level. All in all, the rakugo scenes were pretty much perfect.
Looking Ahead – Stories of the Past and Present:
Another thing to add to the Checklist of Love would be how complete this episode felt. The double-length sure helped, but this felt like watching a 3 hour movie. This was certainly Yotarou’s story, but every other character got their moment in the spotlight, and every second felt vital. After finishing this premiere I was hit with a wave of emotions, but at the end of it all I thought: “We’re going to get 12 more episodes of this?“. I know the rest will be standard length, but if this quality keeps up then we are in for something special.
It looks like the second episode is going to be about the history between Yakumo and Sukeroku, which is bound to feel like another complete story in itself. Without knowing the exact age of Yakumo in the current time period, it’s difficult to say when this flashback episode is going to take place, but I would guess at least 25-50 years in the past, since it looks like we’re going to cover their time together from childhood all the way to adulthood. With the hints we got of Sukeroku’s lingering presence throughout this first episode, I cannot wait to see the real story of what happened back then, and whether or not Yakumo really did kill his friend and fellow rakugo prodigy.
Overview – First Impressions:
Whew. Well, this marks my longest RandomC post to date (2.5k words), yet perhaps the easiest to write. I could have added another 1,000 words without much effort, but I’ll stop here and save my energy for next time. If you didn’t gather from my words, I loved this episode. From top to bottom, it was pretty much perfect. I’ve now watched it two and a half times (the last half was for screen capping purposes), and each time I loved it even more – catching more details than before. I imagine this sort of show won’t appeal to everyone, which is unfortunate; and it’s unlikely that it’ll be a big BD seller, which is a terrible shame, but I’m just grateful that it exists at all.
To all those anime fans that claim ‘anime is dead’ or that they don’t make anime like they used to, I present you Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. I’ve been anticipating it for months now, wrote about my high expectations in the Winter 2016 Preview, and I must say that we could be tapping into something great here. After re-watching this episode over and giving myself time to clear my head, I think I can say this is probably one of the best first episodes I’ve ever watched. The last time I felt this level of emotional connection was with Ano Hana, which is still my favourite anime. But there’s a certain level of craft in Rakugo Shinjuu that goes beyond pure infatuation.
I cannot wait to see what’s to come, knowing we’ve got 12 more weeks of this sort of quality storytelling ahead of us. See you all next week.
ED: 「薄ら氷心中」 (Usura Koori Shinjuu) by Hayashibara Megumi