An Observation – Similarities in Greatness:
I think it’s fair to say that the two top-quality anime of this new season are Boku Dake ga Inai Machi and Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. Both are mature stories aimed at adults that managed to set themselves apart from one another in their premieres; Boku Machi hooks you in with its suspense and that cliffhanger ending, whilst Rakugo Shinjuu transports you to the world of traditional Japanese storytelling with a polished double-length episode. I still stand by my initial impressions that last week’s Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu episode was one of the best premieres I’ve ever watched. But Boku Dake ga Inai Machi’s was also sheer brilliance, to the point where I can’t remember a season with two openers as strong as these ones. Even if the rest of the shows currently airing end up as disappointments (which I don’t personally believe), these two are more than enough to carry us through these winter months.
Funnily enough, after thinking these two anime were massively different in their premieres, their second episodes ended up remarkably similar. Both are much slower-paced compared to their openers, both take us into the past of our characters’ lives, both are now telling the stories of characters that are dead in the present, both are strikingly cinematic in their aesthetic, and both are told with absolute confidence. And while I think most people will prefer the aftermath of Boku Machi’s shocking cliffhanger, my heart still lies with Rakugo Shinjuu’s blast from the past, as we learn about the younger years of Yakumo and Sukeroku.
A Step Into the Past – Polar Opposites:
It appears we’re now going to focus on this flashback for the time being, which I was expecting and anticipating. The links between the past and present were evident in the previous episode, so it’s a great thing that we’re spending some time with our rakugo masters in their youth. What stood out to me in the first few minutes was that Yakumo’s leg was already damaged from such a young age – having danced up until now, he was essentially abandoned by his family and sent to learn about rakugo after an accident that meant he’s now unable to walk without a cane. It’s those little extra tidbits that elevate the characterisation we’re getting here, made even better when Yakumo lets the tears pour when he’s reminded of losing his family. It must be difficult to be pushed into a field that he has no experience or interest in, and has to get past his depression and learn how to smile.
In contrast, Sukeroku (Yamadera Kouichi) is just about the opposite in every possible way. Where Yakumo is clean and well-mannered, Sukeroku is a dirty common boy with a brash attitude. Yakumo is introverted and quiet, Sukeroku is extraverted and doesn’t think before he speaks. One studies hard even when he doesn’t particularly care for the art of rakugo, whereas the other stays out late at night but manages to pull through with his ‘gift of the gab’, as we say over here. Whereas Yakumo has to break every one of his habits to deliver his stories, it comes naturally to Sukeroku, who has lived and breathed rakugo since a young age. With nowhere to go after the death of the old man who took care of him (and not having any real parents), he comes to the current rakugo master in a way that resembles Yakumo and Yotarou’s first encounter in last week’s premiere. Now we are seeing why he took him in – to Yakumo, Yotarou must feel like the second coming of his closest friend.
The Key to Successful Storytelling:
It’s a bold move to purposefully make the audience feel uncomfortable, disappointed, and perhaps even bored for a good chunk this episode. When Yakumo stepped out on stage for his debut rakugo show, you could feel how nervous he was. In that moment I forgot that this is the current master who now delivers seamless performances, weaving the snores of his apprentice into his performance with ease. Here, however, the teenage Yakumo is dripping with sweat, his hands are clasped together, and it feels like the stage is going to swallow him up. Anyone who has had a run-in with public speaking knows how nerve-wracking it can be, and that was captured brilliantly during his performance. If you felt yourself drifting off during in those minutes, that’s because you were meant to feel that way – right up until the music swelled and grew in volume until we could not longer hear Yakumo’s feeble attempt at comedy. It was painful to watch and relieving to see it end, directed with such assurance that I can honestly say boredom has never been so brilliant.
Again, to compare opposites, Sukeroku commands the stage. From the moment he steps on it he shows no sign of anxiety, going so far as to wake up the audience by screaming out and beginning his story. From there, everything just clicks. We, the audience, are engaged just as much as those watching him in-person. He delivers his story with confidence, his jokes landed when they were supposed to, proving that the key to successful rakugo storytelling is a smile. He walked on with a smile, spoke with one, and left with one – his energy is contagious and that comes across onscreen, and it’s easy to see why Yakumo smiled not once, but twice when watching him perform. Just like Rakugo Shinjuu had us in the palm of its hand during these two performances, Sukeroku had his personal audience in the palms of his own.
Overview – What’s Next?:
I expect those who were on the fence with last week’s premiere – who found it boring or too slow for their tastes – will probably jump off after this episode. And while it’s a shame that this will likely become an under-appreciated gem, it is a gem nonetheless, and those who stick around are surely in for a treat. While I definitely missed Yotarou and Konatsu, it feels vital that we stay in the past for the time being. This week showed the beginning years of Yakumo and Sukeroku’s relationship, but I suspect next episode will focus on them in their twenties, introduce Konatsu’s mother, and perhaps explain what caused the legendary Sukeroku’s death, and if that was the reason that spurred Yakumo on to take rakugo seriously and become as good as he is in the present time.
Also, it’s a bummer that we still haven’t got the OP yet, but I suspect that will come next week. The ED, however, was beautiful. It’s a simple song, but the accompanied colourful visuals and panning frames really help set the perfect tone.
ED2: 「かは、たれどき」 (Kaha, Taredoki) by Shibue Kana