It happened! Konatsu performed rakugo! I’ve been waiting for this moment since the very first episode and it feels so, so rewarding to watch her take centre stage and have an audience in the palm of her hand. I loved this episode because I love Konatsu, but not as much as she loves rakugo. Cast your mind back to the later episodes of the first season when we saw child Konatsu, when we witnessed the fierce passion she had for the storytelling medium. She worshipped her father’s ability and performed in inns for the pleasure that comes with performing (as well working for her failing father), but she had rakugo in her darkest moments, and it’s clear that affection she has for it has not dwindled. Yakumo doesn’t partially love the art form, Yotaro wants to improve and adapt it to the times, but I think it goes without saying that no character understands and loves rakugo as much as Konatsu.
I had the pleasure of watching rakugo for the first time at last year’s Edinburgh Festival and one of the stories the performer told was Jugemu. Anime fans have likely heard of it before (most likely from Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood), but watching it in person is a joy, so this episode was already high in my expectations when it became the main story of the week, performed by Yotaro at first and then Konatsu. It’s pure fun, filled with energy and allows you to try to attempt the tongue twister for yourself (and likely fail) before the performer spits it out over and over, faster each time until you’re dizzy from their talent. As it was shown in Rakugo Shinjuu, however, it was slowed down for the children who are fond of this particular tale, which allowed for Konatsu to take her time and put character into every syllable. Her exaggerations and expressions come naturally to her, but the moments where she broke character to soak up the audience’s love for her rakugo were the most satisfying of all. Both when she first stepped out and when she took a breather before the final part, that’s when you see her dreams happening before her eyes and makes for the most heartwarming viewing.
This is one of the key plot points I wanted addressed in this second season, so I’m glad it happened so early. I don’t want to ask for too much, but I sure do hope this isn’t the end of her rakugo career. She repeats back the fact that rakugo is a man’s profession as it’s been drilled into her over the years (likely from Yakumo). I expect he wouldn’t approve of her becoming a master for herself, but that storyline would be a goldmine of oppertunity, so I hope that is the direction we go. Konatsu can say her well-practised words all she wants, but her true feelings are apparent. She loves rakugo. She wants to be a rakugo performer. And most importantly, she deserves to be one.
Since this episode jumped ahead several years we see Shin is now in kindergarten, and he is every bit as talkative and likeable as Sukeroku. He’s a charming little kid who shares his mother’s early passion for the profession, and clearly his doting parents approve of the talents he shows. It’s his relationship with Yakumo that stands out to me, however, as his grandfather holds him close and refuses to scold him. I expect if there will be one person in the world to convince Yakumo that rakugo deserves to advance and grow, it will be Shin. He likely reminds him of a young Sukeroku, which brings him back 50 or 60 years to the times they shared as kids. This is show and tell at its finest, and yet another example of the multi-layered drama. These important interactions and conversations serve their purposes to move the story forward, but they also call back to earlier times, tragedies, and further develop characterisation that almost no other anime of this length matches. Yakumo may be a stubborn conservative who rips up blueprints for the future of rakugo – a man who seems determined to bring this art form to the grave with him – but he is a truly fascinating character in every scene he’s a part of. Knowing the life he’s lived, it’s impossible to hate him, even as he acts as the antagonist for our protagonists in one way or another.
All in all, this was the most positive, heartwarming, joyous episode of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, which is a rarity. I don’t expect this to happen often (or ever again), but I loved it while it lasted. All four episodes of this second season have been nothing short of stellar, and if this doesn’t shape up to be the best anime of 2017 then there must a masterpiece production waiting on the horizon. But for now, Rakugo Shinjuu stands alone as one of the greatest anime of this decade, while the competition rivals of the leftovers.
ED: 「ひこばゆる」 (Hikobayuru) by Shibue Kana