Accepting the Yakumo Name:
Is it odd that I didn’t get emotional during the opening scenes of this finale? Sukeroku and Miyo have just died, after all, yet the way it was handled didn’t make me well up or reflect on the difficult lives they both had. I expected something more emotional – though Konatsu’s harsh words are painful to hear, knowing she lost both her parents in a single night. It almost feels like the mourning occurred off-screen, allowing us to move on. At first I was left unsure about this direction, but after some reflection I feel it was a smart choice; we don’t need to be emotional manipulated any longer. We knew what was going to happen, it happened, and so we must find out how our characters deal with that loss.
This episode once again proved why Yakumo is such a fascinating character. Every decision he makes, every selfish inner thought, every contradiction between his actions and his feelings – it’s all so compelling, and when you add in his likeable and unlikeable traits, you end up with this flawed, damaged, regretful person that we were introduced to in the first episode. He accepted the Yakumo name with tears in his eyes, after doing everything he could to ensure Sukeroku got that spot. It’s painful that the gift of a powerful name came at such a horrible price, especially after learning he never wanted that name in the first place. He was the last one left to inherit it, and so he had no choice but to embrace the mask and hide behind it, throwing away the tragedy of his life story to appease his audiences.
Once you add Konatsu into the equation, it makes sense why the two have a strained and potentially unhealthy relationship, even if he is technically her guardian. They seem just as distant in the past as they are in the present. The scene that stood out to me would be Konatsu promising she would kill Yakumo. While it could have been played off in the same way kids say “I hate you!”, there was venom in her words. And when asked who she learned that language from, she cited Miyokichi. Despite what Yakumo says later in the episode, I think it’s clear that Konatsu is the daughter of Sukeroku and Miyokichi. For all the positivity and love she is capable of, there is hatred within her that matches that of her scorned mother.
Return to the Present!:
And just like that, we return to the present! I predicted we would jump back in the finale, but I didn’t expect some time to have passed since the first episode. It’s not stated, but I would say several years have gone by, as every character is either in a new place or is showing their age. Yotaro has learned 100 stories and moved up in the ranks, shaved his head, and seems a little more mature despite his ever-present goofiness. Konatsu has grown out her hair and has left Yakumo’s household, returning only to visit and announce she is in fact pregnant (though won’t say who the father is). Meanwhile, Yakumo and Matsuda have aged, with Yakumo’s grey haired now white, as he remains haunted by the ghost of his closest friend.
It appears him telling his life story, and of the death of Sukeroku and Miyokichi, has not healed his wounds. If anything, he is more reminded of the man he dearly misses with Yotaro by his side. He may be a goofball, but he’s incredibly likeable and his rakugo is charismatic and genuinely hilarious (I found myself laughing a few times during his short performance and interactions with the audience). To make matters more complicated, the episode ends with Yotaro professing that he wishes to inherit the Sukeroku name, to which Yakumo is left stunned. Could you imagine if it ended there? I would probably freak out and then screamed at the clouds for several hours. Thankfully, there is no need, because a second season has been confirmed!
Overview – Final Impressions:
Let me begin my final impressions by saying how good it feels knowing Rakugo Shinjuu is going to get the full adaptation it deserves. It’s such a relief that I can no longer imagine what my reaction would be if that weren’t the case. But aside from that wonderful news, all I can say about this show is that it was about as perfect as any drama can be. From the first episode to the last, I was enthralled, I was grinning, stricken with grief, confused about whether I was supposed to love or hate the characters, entertained by all the marvelous rakugo performances, and seriously impressed by Omata Shinichi’s directing and attention to detail.
I have read that some people were not emotional connected to the characters, and so couldn’t care as much for the series as they would have liked (although those same people all say that the series as a whole is undeniably great and deserves the acclaim it gets), but I can only repeat what I said last week: I have never come across a cast of characters so easy to love and hate, who are fickle and selfish and make bad choices, but who are decent people who have had troubled lives, who came together through a string of bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances that felt out of their control. I never thought any of the developments as forced, as if the original writer was pushing the characters to fit her ideal narrative; but rather we saw them at their highest and lowest, just getting on with their lives and either embracing or fighting against whatever came their way.
I often try to be positive and praiseworthy in my final impressions of a series, even if I didn’t especially love it, but let me make this clear: I think Rakugo Shinjuu is special. Its storytelling, writing, characters, drama, everything – it’s sublime. It shows that anime is a wonderful art form when stories like this are told. Stories that aren’t easy to sell, but are human to the core. All things considered, I would say Rakugo Shinjuu is one of the best anime I’ve ever watched, and it’s been an absolute treat to write about it every week. And knowing that I will be able to do so again once the second season comes around is a wonderful feeling. As Yotaro says in the epilogue, this was Act I of the story, which focused on the tragedies of the past. I imagine Act II will instead be more hopeful, focusing on the future – the future of the Yakumo and Sukeroku names, and the future of rakugo as a whole. Seeing the empty audiences and hearing about the theaters shutting down is disheartening because it’s likely what happened in real life. But we know that rakugo has a future. It is a still a respected art form to this day, with women now performing on the stage, adapting to the changing world by having performers travelling the world and telling their stories in other languages. That’s what Sukeroku meant when he said rakugo had to evolve. Unfortunately, Yakumo is not cut out to pursue that dream, no matter how much he wants it. Instead I would place my bets on Yotaro and Konatsu – the future faces of rakugo who will live to see their passion regain the appreciation it deserves, and hopefully long enough to tell the tale to future generations.