I’ve loved this season of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, but until last week there wasn’t an episode that matched the highs of last year. The previous episode was the most joyous and rewarding to watch because it allowed Konatsu to get the time in the spotlight that she oh so deserves, but this episode was a whole other level of quality storytelling. This was grim and foreboding and the last few minutes were among the best I’ve ever watched, from this series or any other. It was literal perfection in anime form.
I suppose the best way to tackle this goldmine is to start from the beginning. Yakumo brings Yotaro forward to tell him he’s going to perform alongside him at a family performance at the Kabuki-za, which is a pretty big deal. The audience is massive, Yotaro’s popularity is sky-high, but as is pointed out, he hasn’t quite found his rakugo yet. It’s amazing that even after 10 or so years have passed in five episodes, Yotaro still hasn’t reached his goal. Very few series tackle timeskips with the grace of Rakugo Shinjuu – here it feels natural, like we’re flipping from one chapter of these characters’ lives to another without missing out on the important moments. It’s that scope and scale that sets this series apart, along with its intimate direction, its brilliant ensemble cast, and performances that take the wind out of me every week. It just keeps getting better and better and I don’t want it to ever end. In an ideal world, we would see Yotaro and Konatsu grow to Yakumo’s age, we could witness Shinnosuke inherit the future of rakugo, we’d see the boom of its return and popularity in the modern age, as it expands beyond the island of Japan and attracts audiences around the world, as Shinnosuke has his own children, and they starts to grow old, and the cycle goes on and on. But those moments far ahead are all to be left to the imagination; this show has already spanned at least 60 years (if I’m counting correctly) from Bon’s childhood to this very moment, which is remarkable in and of itself.
I loved approximately 101 things about this episode, but one thing that has to be touched upon is the importance of every scene; every moment was vital, delivered with such confidence that not a single second was wasted. This was like a well-trimmed yet packed to the brim novel come to life. Through so many smaller scenes and quieter moments we progressed just about every continual storyline without wasting energy or feeling like it was aiming for a specific quota. Scenes like Shin watching his father perform, falling more in love with rakugo. Or Yotaro trying to find his own self in his upcoming performance. Or the interactions between Konatsu and Yotaro, which are gradually softening as months and years go by. Or Yotaro finally finishing off his tattoo because he wants to finish everything he starts, which brings us back to the future of rakugo in the modern era, which Yakumo seems so adamant to fight against, even though he knew this was coming when he brought Yotaro along for the ride. Even indications of Yotaro’s ill-health, quiet conversations about characters behind their backs, the boom in popularity of rakugo as it adapts to new age technology. It all comes together so perfectly, through a few minutes of scenes that aren’t even the main focus of this episode.
It’s quality crafted storytelling like that prove the worth of this medium, and show that Rakugo Shinjuu could never reach this level in any form other than anime. And it sure does help that the directing and artwork in this week’s episode was among the best we’ve seen. Some weeks it does dip ever so slightly, but this was a polished production through-and-through. Every pan had a purpose. Every lingering shot made you feel something. The composition of the characters, the playfulness in their smiles, the slight hand and leg movements when it came to performing on stage – perfect. This isn’t a serious that needs sakuga after sakuga to prove it’s the best of the best. It’s more of a painting, a classic piece of art that lends to perfectly to the medium. All those who worked on this episode in particular – from the episode directer to the key animators to the inbetweeners – should all be so proud. I’ll be looking into the details of that shortly, because this was nothing short of exceptional.
Now, onto Yakumo’s performance at the end. Yotaro warmed up the audience for him, and even though so much attention has been on him finding his own style of storytelling, it was all about Yakumo as he told a story that related so personally to him that it made his delivery that much more engrossing. As always, the camera work and exaggerated theatrics of it all is what makes you feel like you’re watching from the front row, but the final scenes are almost beyond words. Even after sleeping on it and mulling over the meaning of it all, I don’t know how to tackle it. It’s almost too good to touch, I want to just admire it without dissecting it. The scene where the wisps of the smoke gathered around Yakumo, as he began sweating profusely, and we got uncomfortably close, and then finally, when talking about the dead wife of the man within the rakugo story, Miyokichi appears. I stopped breathing, just staring at the screen, transfixed as Yakumo himself.
I wholeheartedly believe that Miyokichi is the lynchpin of the series in many ways; at the very least when it comes to the personal drama of the main cast. Even in death, her presence is felt through near enough every important character other than Yotaro. He’s a total outsider who has his own journey, but even so, being Yakumo’s master he is affected by Miyokichi’s effect on him in a way he has limited understanding of. Back in the first season she got a lot of hate for essentially ruining everything good that was happening to Yakumo and Sukeroku, but even if she served as a device in that regard, she was still the character that made the most sense to me. She, like the rest, had suffered, but in her own ways. The war had affected her, made her loathe men with a passion, yet long for their compassion. You could argue she was wicked, but what Yakumo did to her was cruel. Sukeroku never gave her what she wanted, and so she became bitter and resentful. And as she said to Yakumo back in episode 9 (which this episode matches in quality), she promised she would haunt him in death and she would wait for him in Hell. Those words sent shivers down my spine when they were first uttered, but seeing the control she has over Yakumo even now, many years later, is truly haunting.
The imagery and flow of the final minutes was utterly gorgeous, from the falling curtains, to Yakumo mistaking Konatsu for Miyokichi, to his interaction with Sukeroku, who finally speaks back after decades of silence. The first assumption to make is that Yakumo has indeed died, or as at the doors of Hell, which is why he can finally hear his friend who has already passed. One of the first things he asks is where Miyokichi is – which cement the love he had for her, which is why she haunts him to this day after his many bad decisions and regrets of the past. But Sukeroku doesn’t have that familiar smile, instead he pushes Yakumo over the edge just like what happened to him and Miyokichi. The preview is full of dark tones and indicates that Yakumo may indeed have had his last performance, but that could be a red herring. If Sukeroku manages to push him back to the world of the living, perhaps this isn’t the end of this old man. It would be powerful and fitting if he died like this, but I also want him to live a little longer. Even after 18 episodes of watching his entire life play out from one tragic act to the next, there’s still feels like so much more to learn.