Yakumo and His One True Love:
Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is exquisite on so many levels that I often think it must be a dream – or perhaps a nightmare? I had a feeling this episode was going to be dramatic, and it was. But not the usual drama we see in anime where characters scream at each other in fits of fury (which I personally am a fan of, for the record). Here, we see the positives and negatives to every important character and are able to love or hate, root for or be annoyed by, all of them. It’s no surprise to say that Rakugo Shinjuu treats its characters less like tropes and more like complicated morally-grey people who can make shitty choices from time to time, and this episode made that as clear as day.
I think each character’s arc/decisions are worth diving into, so I’ll first start with Yakumo, and by extension, his current master, Yuurakutei. These past few weeks have seen Yakumo (still named Kiku but I’m sticking with Yakumo for consistency sake) getting better at rakugo and finally being recognised for his particular talents. We catch the tail end of their tour as Yakumo has all the men in the room blushing by his womanly charms, before apologising to his master for messing up her performance at one part, even though Yuurakutei didn’t even notice. Having them together like this is rewarding to see, knowing that Yakumo would eventually take on his role. And by the looks of it, Yuurakutei would choose him over Sukeroku any day. He’s got his own dilemmas to consider, like whether he can convince the higher-ups to give Sukeroku that promotion, or whether he’s lived up to the name he inherited from his father. It just goes to show that even the masters of the craft feel they haven’t done enough with their talent and still feel inadequate from time to time. But for as sympathetic he is in the final moments of the episode, there’s still parts to his decision-making that make him rather unlikeable (in my eyes).
Back to Yakumo, he’s pretty much the Asshole of the Week. While I’m loving his character arc and can’t wait to see the rest of his journey, some of his choices are deliberately cruel, especially when it comes to Miyo. As it turns out, he never even told Miyo that he was leaving to tour the country, which had me agape thinking how awful that is. But his reason is that he wants to sever his ties with Miyokichi, and the only way to do that is by pushing her away, making her want nothing to do with him. He thinks the worse he treats her, the more likely she’ll run off to someone else; but as we saw in their reunion, she still loves him and will do anything to be with him. He claims he loves her back, but I’m not so sure. They live in tricky times where someone like Miyo perhaps isn’t worth risking your career over, but clearly Yakumo loves rakugo and Sukeroku more than he does his actual lover.
Miyokishi and the Lies of Men:
Now onto Miyokichi. Oh, poor Miyokichi. Who would have thought she would be the blameless one of the bunch? I said that every character had the chance to be both likeable and hateable, but in truth Miyo seems like the victim in all this mess. Her current situation is pretty pathetic, and she’s perfectly aware of that. She admits she isn’t a big fan of rakugo, but goes to watch the performances incase her Kiku walks on stage – she just wants to listen to him speak, because she loves him so much. This is made even more painful once we learn about her past. It turns out Miyo’s experience with men has always been awful, filled with lies and deceit, as she was tricked into going to the foreign state of Manchuria in the 30s before losing her family in the war and had nowhere to return to, so had to resort to selling her body to make a living. Eventually she met Yuurakutei who brought her back to Japan and got her life back on track, which leads up to her returning to the present story as his personal mistress, where she met the love of her life.
I’m glad we got an explanation of why Miyo wants to love a man so desperately and doesn’t want to be alone. Living the life she had to suffer through couldn’t have been easy; she just wants to live easy by the side of a man. That may not be the most empowering story of the century, but that doesn’t disqualify her from being a fascinating character. If anything, I’d say after this episode she’s probably the most likeable of the cast. Clearly she’s going to be Konatsu’s mother, and this episode finally showed her interacting with Sukeroku in a way that hints to their eventual partnership. They were both left behind while Yakumo went on his trip, and Sukeroku always seemed to have feelings for her – feelings that he couldn’t hide this time around. But even though Miyo knows she’s soon to be dumped, she makes one final desperate plea to be with the man she truly desires, who brushes her off like she’s nothing but dirt.
Sukeroku and Adapting to Change:
And then there’s Sukeroku. Like Miyo, he’s falling behind in Yakumo’s newfound success, sticking to the rakugo that he knows how to do, remaining the same smelly, carefree sort who lives to entertain the people. His conversation with Yakumo in the Tennessee bar (which gave us some amazing music in the background) felt like an important moment in their relationship. There was tension in their words, disagreement in the methods that each other is taking. This was inevitable, and has very little to do with Miyokichi – although the same master who found her is now preventing her from being with the man she loves, adding him to the ‘occasionally unlikeable’ pile.
But Yakumo and Sukeroku are fundamentally different people, and with things getting serious they’ve decided to take different approaches to their rakugo. Yakumo is sticking with the conservative approach – embracing the tradition of rakugo and the times it comes from. Sukeroku, on the other hand, is willing to adapt his performing with the moving times, given they are talking in an American-style Jazz bar/restaurant in the middle of Japan. Times have changed since the war, and Sukeroku believes for rakugo to survive as a form of entertainment that’s not just for old people, it has to evolve. This is a fascinating question because it’s one that I imagine many rakugo performers had to consider back then, and to this day, as it’s not near as popular as it used to be. It’s considered a dying art form, with TV, films, radio, and pretty much anything else getting the attention. It’s not hard to see why in the ever evolving world we live in, but Rakugo Shinjuu puts a magnifying glass on the issue, perhaps in hopes that there could be a modern resurgence and appreciation for it.
Finally, we learn about Sukeroku’s past and how he inherited that name. We knew his former master died not long before he was introduced in the second episode, but now we see what sort of life he lived back then. Compared to Yakumo’s sophisticated and feminine upbringing among geisha-in-training, Sukeroku lived dirt poor with a man who never found the fame he deserved. What is fascinating is the change in his voice and expression when he thinks back to that injustice, considering the hilarity of someone named Sukeroku attaining the role of Yakumo. Of course, we know that will never come to be, and with that, he bids farewell to his lucky fan and agrees to part ways with Yakumo as they both strive for the same goal through different means.
Overview – What’s Next?:
The main theme of this episode was definitely ‘saying goodbye’. Whether to your own name, your lover, your friends, your rival – everyone had to give up something this week and it was both painful and exquisite to watch. As I said at the beginning: Is this a dream or a nightmare? I’d go with the latter, given this is essentially a tragedy in the making. We knows the final result but not the details that get us there. However, it does seem like Yuurakutei will get aggressive with Sukeroku, while Miyokichi perhaps embraces his love after being turned down and treated like dirt because of the horrible past she’s had to suffer and how that will forever tarnish her name.