OP: 「今際の死神」 (Imawa no Shinigami) by Hayashibara Megumi
Okay, let’s talk about that opening. When it was released online earlier last week I watched in repeat for hours, blown away by the grim symbolism, Hayashibara Megumi’s haunting vocals, and the feeling of dread that follows Yakumo as he wanders aimlessly through colourful space, throws himself from a cliff, and is watched by his friends, families, and loves ones as if he’s being judged for wrongdoing. I understand this year of anime has barely begun, but I think we’ve already found the OP of the year – or at least the one every other show has to beat. The poignant imagery is strong and much like with last season, hinting to the inevitable tragedies that will inevitably come.
What makes this opening so affective is the focus on Yakumo, who is without a doubt the best-written character in the series – and perhaps one of the best-written anime characters I’ve come across. As I mentioned in the Best of 2016 post, it helps that we saw every aspect of his life – from his youth to this old age. We know him inside and out and have witnessed all his tragedies and mistakes, and he’s survived despite them all. Yet surviving doesn’t mean he isn’t plagued by all those errors of the past. Miyokichi is the strongest reminder of his past horrors; with her voice actress behind the vocals, and with Yakumo and everyone else literally standing on her face, it’s clear he can never escape this woman. And with her being name dropped in this episode we witness Yakumo at his most vulnerable, which links to that feeling of shame or guilt he has with her. Is there more than meets the eye, or is he just grief-stricken that his infatuation lead to devastation and he can never forgive himself for it? This leads up to the excellent Evangelion-esque scene with everyone surrounding and reaching out to Yakumo as if to help him, only to have them all shatter around him and for Sukeroku to reveal he is an empty skeleton beneath his robes. My reading is that it shows this is a man who either hates himself or is not what he appears to be. Whatever the case, there’s more to Yakumo than we’ve seen thus far, which may be the most shocking thing of all.
And let’s not forget the obvious takeaway from the opening: The Death flags. I’ve been spoiled for one plot detail that I will mention when it is eventually adapted, but when it comes to the end of Yakumo’s life, my own prediction is that he won’t make it to the end of the series. He’s getting older by the episode, and I don’t think Konatsu is likely to fulfil her promise and kill her adoptive father; she admits this week that she cannot now because then her son would never hear his rakugo. This father-daughter relationship is so rich and complex that I don’t even know where to begin or how to analyse it. All I can say is the resentment, respect, and strange sort of affection they hold for one another is unique in the medium, and I can’t think of any other relationship that compares. But back to my point: I predict Yakumo will die – the preview even shows him in pain – but he’s still got a story to tell before we reach that point. It would be tragic but not too shocking if he did pass on before the end, but then the first season told us the ending right at the beginning, so perhaps the layout of this season’s arc isn’t so different after all.
Outside of Yakumo, Yotaro got a lot of attention this week, and not the good kind. At his best, he is loveable and goofy and someone who can easily put a smile on your face; having seen rakugo in real-life, I think he’d be a brilliant performer to see because of how much energy he puts into his work and how carefree his spirit feels. But this episode showed him at his weakest. Much like his master, when it comes to the mistakes of his past, but Yotaro’s are enough to turn audiences away. When it was revealed to the public that he is an ex-convict with a gang tattoo on his back, he lost half his TV deals and his audiences started dwindling. And worst of all, his performances were plagued with nerves, and he ended up making a rash decision that did not pay off and was frankly in poor taste.
After the mess he made of his show, I was surprised when Yakumo was so forgiving and even encouraged Yotaro to keep fighting, since he is so quick to smacking him and pointing out his flaws. But on reflection, it makes sense that Yakumo would have a soft spot for someone who made errors in their past. Perhaps that’s why he’s willing to perform at jails in the first place? That detail may not be further explored, but I think there’s enough to draw a connection and proves that Yakumo has a heart deep down; he isn’t the empty skeleton of a man that he thinks of himself. The more I learn about his character, the more impressed I am by the writing in this series. Yet I shouldn’t be shocked at this point. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is one of the greatest anime of this decade and I hope in years to come it’s remembered for the quality and craft it displays, even if it’s never going to be the most popular.