OP: 「薄ら氷心中」 (Usura Koori Shinjuu) by Hayashibara Megumi
Gorgeous to the Eyes and Ears:
Where do I even begin? Perhaps I should start by saying that I felt the double-length premiere wouldn’t ever be surpassed; which isn’t saying the rest of the series would be bad, but that I wasn’t expecting anything that perfect again. But then this episode comes along, with half the amount of time, delivering an emotional punch to the gut (in the best way possible). Honestly, I think this was even better than the first episode, and if we get an episode better than this, then Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is going to be something else.
Before I dive into what actually happened, I feel I should talk about how great this show looks and sounds. While the animation was limited – which, as I said before, is not a bad thing – the composition, shot framing, and changing colour palettes are all top notch. Whether vibrant and filled with life, or dark and moody, every scene matches the tone of the moment, and given the years this episode covered, it was so satisfying (and saddening) to see the visuals change according to the environment and situation these characters were forced into.
The other side to this episode that has to be mentioned is the music. God, this soundtrack is killer. Whether it be the jazzy OP with its whispering vocals (and crisp, haunting visuals), the mellow ED, or the strings and pianos that accompany the stirring moments of the episode – it’s a perfect match for the series, and a serious contender for best OST of the year. However, what stood out most for me would be the oppressive wave of ambience that gets louder and louder as the war approaches. Similar to last episode which had the volume of the piano playing increase until we could barely hear Yakumo saying his words, this was another excellent example of sound editing that helped ensure the audience felt uncomfortable at just the right moments.
World War II – Everything Changes:
Not enough anime focus on stories set in Japan during WWII, but more often than not those that do dip their toe into that era end up packing an emotional punch. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is no exception, delivering a gorgeous depiction of the horrors of wartime and the trials it puts through everyday people who don’t deserve to suffer. While I wouldn’t consider it the best depiction of WWII (that award goes to Grave of the Fireflies), it provided an unfortunate backdrop, separating our characters and allowing for some wonderful, emotional drama. I knew it would be coming, but I didn’t think we’d have a whole episode dedicated to that moment in history, because that would basically mean a rakugo-less episode. We got little performances here and there, but nothing compared to the previous two episodes.
However, because this episode didn’t focus as much on the storytelling performances, we instead got to step inside Yakumo’s head space. His narration was prevalent throughout, and we got to see Yakumo go through his own trials – his own little journey, if you will – before returning to the world of rakugo, a better performer because of it. We saw him get his first girlfriend, get sent away to the countryside with the previous master’s wife, meet another (nameless) woman who we can assume was either his close friend or second girlfriend, work away in the factories, and become the breadwinner of the household to make up for the absences.
Some standout moments during this time would have to be Yakumo comparing himself to his master’s cat being cast aside, as Sukeroku is instead taken under his wing and given the special treatment. You could see the pain in Yakumo’s face when he realised he was being abandoned yet again, allowing him that moment where he spat out everything that was on his mind, even if it wasn’t enough to change the situation. The other part that stood out to me was seeing the previous master’s wife mourning the presumed loss of her husband and dwelling on whether or not he would return. While she was initially introduced as the stern and unmoving one of the two, this episode managed to humanise her and showed that she developed a genuine relationship with these two rakugo apprentices.
Love and Friendship:
One thing I love about Yakumo and Sukeroku’s relationship is how their moments feel so genuine – like things real friends would say to each other, while all meaning something deeper; like Sukeroku commenting on Yakumo sounding like he was trying to be someone else when giving his performances, or Yakumo making that pinky promise and then holding his shaking hand up during their years of separation to remind himself of that simpler, easier time. Every moment that matters is executed with such precision and purpose that I can’t help but be awed by what we’re getting. This is character drama at its finest, as we get to know every little detail about Yakumo’s early life, filled with love and friendship and everything else that turned him into the man he is in the present time.
From the moment war arrives this episode retains a certain emotional impact that had be hooked throughout the second half, but the moment when their master and Sukeroku returned to the household had me in tears, along with everyone else. It was such a satisfying and heartwarming moment, aided by the airy music and warm sunset colours. It worked on a visual and emotional level, proving just how powerful Rakugo Shinjuu can be. I just hope the drama doesn’t simmer down anytime soon.
Rakugo Within Rakugo:
One thing that I think I – and many others – have noticed after this episode is how this whole flashback is essentially one big rakugo performance. I should have realised it sooner, since the first episode ended with Yakumo telling his story to Yotaro and Konatsu, but I think his narration (especially the final line) is what made it more obvious. It’s got all the beats to a rakugo performance – though perhaps more dramatic than comical – and we’re really getting to know so much about Yakumo’s character along the way. I, personally, did not care too much for him in the premiere, at least compared to the rest of the cast. But I feel once this story is over, we’ll all look at him a different way; we will have seen the life this man has had, and we’ll understand him on a whole other level.
An Adaptation that Fills in the Gaps:
I would like to bring up how Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is being adapted compared to the source material. For those interested, the first double-length episode covered all of the 1st volume and 40 pages of the 2nd, while the past two episodes have been adapted at a much slower pace and many of the scenes have been fleshed out from a few panels or didn’t exist at all in the source material.
Believe it or not, the previous episode only adapted 22 pages – Yakumo’s nervous performance and Sukeroku’s confident one did not exist in the manga. Similarly, in the manga the scene where Yakumo got sent to the countryside during the years of war only took up 3 pages, which ended up around 7 minutes in the second half of this episode. It’s a bold move to fill in the gaps and slow down the source material, but I think DEEN are pulling it off much better than I would have given them credit for. For those wondering how long this flashback is going to last, I’ll put that under a spoiler tag. If you’d rather not know, then don’t look. If you do, don’t discuss in the comments unless you also use spoiler tags!
Overview – What’s Next?:
Again, another brilliant episode. I don’t know how I would even begin to fault it – thankfully I’m enjoying it so much that I have no intentions of doing so. I didn’t expect another episode as great as the premiere, but this is the best episode yet. Now we just have to wait and see if it will continue to improve. With the introduction of a new woman, who I would assume will be Konatsu’s mother, I expect dynamics will be shaken in the next episode, as the flashback continues. By the looks of it, Yakumo and this new woman are getting rather close, which makes wonder what role she will play in the story going forward. It’s just a shame it’ll be another week before we get to see that on-screen. Hopefully the next seven days will fly by.