There was a man named Yuurakutei Yakumo, and he lived. This was his story.
I don’t think a single blog post can cover everything this episode offered, but I’ll try my best. First, I suppose I should begin with expectations going into this episode. From reactions I’ve read since this episode aired, quite a lot of people still refused to believe that Yakumo really died at the end of last week. I thought that was telegraphed clearly–from the candle lighting up at the end of the OP, matching the rows of candles of the rickety bridge of the afterlife, to the way it was all set up so perfectly for him to depart like that, as everything was finally resolved–but many held out hope, and I can only imagine they were shocked by this episode. I knew he was dead, but even I was thrown off with this entirely taking place in the afterlife. I expected perhaps a montage of Yakumo’s life to get us emotionally stirred, but instead we were transported to another world that I never thought possible, but that confirmed so many things that we needed to know before the series was truly over.
I feel like it’s worth noting that with this episode, the supernatural does exist. The afterlife does exist. Spirits do exist. The shinigami that Yakumo saw the day he burned the theatre down was really there (and he was apparently a fan of his work), as was the vision of Sukeroku before him. I was swayed against my initial assumptions by commentors, but Sukeroku himself confirmed it all, and I did feel a little bit of satisfaction in that fact, quickly followed by: “Wait, whaaaaaat?”. The experience that followed, with Yakumo and Sukeroku going from youth to young adulthood, exploring the purgatory where he had remained since he died all those years ago, was a surreal one to say the least. It took me a while to keep up with the speed and direction we were going, but once I’d settled in for the ride, it proved to be the most satisfying one imaginable.
There’s so much I could breakdown and discuss, I don’t know where to begin. I suppose it goes without saying at this point, but this episode was especially gorgeous. With this element of supernatural and imagination we got this week, everything was so much more vivid and colourful when it needed to be, yet as dark and moody as the series has ever been. It was like walking through a storybook, and each new development was a wonder to behold. By the end of it all, I was awash with emotion and couldn’t contain myself. But I won’t jump ahead yet. I’d like to talk about a character very dear to my heart, who returned this week and whose appearance surpassed every expectation and understanding I had of her.
I love Miyokichi. Officially. This episode put everything in perspective for Yakumo most of all, but before I delve into his arc, I should point out that Miyokichi is not the evil woman she was painted out to be. Was she ever? It’s hard to say, because now that I think back to the first season, I question everything that Yakumo claimed to be true. I expect we’re meant to take his word for everything up until that climactic night at the inn, but it’s hard to keep trust in this unreliable, masterful storyteller. What I’m getting at here is that even when we found out the truth of that night, we didn’t know the whole story. As I pointed out in that review, we jump midway into what is a highly dramatic scene and aren’t given context for the situation, as this time the truth was told through Matsuda’s eyes. We learn here that Miyokichi did not intend to stab Sukeroku that night. In fact, it really was all one big accident like Matsuda implied. She had that knife, of course, and likely part of her wanted to use it (I’d imagine against Yakumo), but Sukeroku confirms that his wife sliced open his stomach because she simply tripped and fell at the worst time, which explains her profuse apologies immediately after, and why Sukeroku didn’t think twice in jumping after her. She apparently made threats in their time together that she’d stab herself with a kitchen knife, in what was clearly a troubled marriage, but as this episode shows, with time to reflect on past mistakes it’s easy to admit your wrongdoings.
Miyokichi was by no means a perfect person. But I will argue that every decision she made made sense, at least from what she knew at the time. After being rejected and cast aside by Yakumo, she ran to Sukeroku and stole the one person that made Yakumo happiest. We know that she proved to be an awful mother who left her child, which is probably her worst attribute. But perspective changes things, and empathy for the other side of the story makes you second guess; we shouldn’t forget that Sukeroku was a total bum who didn’t work or earn money to sustain his daughter–it was Konatsu who was making pennies for a living. Just as Miyokichi was at her lowest, so was Sukeroku. But clearly Miyokichi feels immense regret in not having that bond with Konatsu. She knows now that humans can’t live alone, that she shouldn’t have been driven by spite and malice for all the destruction it caused. Yet it should be stated that she was not the only one who made mistakes; both Yakumo and Sukeroku made one bad decision after the other, and Miyokichi was caught between them with no real destiny of her own. I don’t blame her for what she did, just as Yakumo and Sukeroku don’t. And knowing now that she wasn’t a heartless killer that some think her to be, I can soundly say she is a wonderfully crafted character; a woman of regret, of every emotion, a terrible mother who gave birth to Konatsu for nothing more than revenge. Yet as she states here, with over thirty years in the afterlife to reflect on her decisions in life, she makes it clear that she cares about her daughter, no matter what. The way Miyokichi of the afterlife speaks of Miyokichi of the living was as if she was a whole other person. Now that she also got a resolved character arc with this episode, I can say that I don’t love Miyokichi despite her mistakes, I love her because of them. Because she–like Sukeroku and Yakumo–is as human as they come.
Seeing the original trio together, walking through the snow, or in the rakugo theatre together, are perhaps the most surreal moments of this episode. The entire first season was established as an inevitable tragedy and plagued every interaction these three had, because we all knew it was going to end horribly for them. Yet there is absolute peace between them in death; none has true regret or hatred for the other. Sukeroku and Miyokichi still refer to each other as husband and wife, and despite everything that happened there is affection in their interactions which otherwise would have just come across as cruel and hateful. They lived together, they died together, and having spent so much time waiting in purgatory together that it appears they’ve grown to finally love each other. The way Miyokichi remarks that her Kiku sounds like an old man, and that she’s happy they never worked out as a couple, puts a smile on my face when I never thought possible. I expected resolution with this episode, but nothing of this level. This wraps up everything.
That brings us to the rakugo theatre, which has also moved onto the afterlife since Yakumo burned it down. How fitting that Yakumo’s final moments here would be with rakugo, and especially with him seeing Sukeroku perform once again. I’ve got to say, this was a real treat to watch, and the voice acting here was superb. It genuinely felt like he was sipping on that sake and munching on those onions–and the delivery of the jokes was spot on. It also allowed little Konatsu to return and finally be with her mother, in an embrace that I never thought the series would offer. Of course, none of this is really happening with the Konatsu we know, but after last week when I expressed how their mother-daughter bond would never be what it could have been, this moment made me so joyous. It was wonderful, made even better when it’s Yakumo’s turn to take the stage.
When Sukeroku holds onto him from the sidelines, and we get transition manga panels, followed by Yakumo counting until he opens his eyes and he’s the old man we’ve come to know. I felt myself get emotional at that point, and it only got worse from there. When the same cushion that brought Konatsu to the theatre showed that Shin was the one person Yakumo wanted to see his rakugo, I started to well up. Rakugo Shinjuu’s story of the generations is masterfully told, and having the entire family, from Sukeroku to his grandson all watch Yakumo perform Jugemu… it’s pure bliss. As we’ve come to expect, Ishida Akira’s voice acting talents flourish, in a story that is meant to be comical and silly; here, the words have a grace to them that it’s hard to explain, but all I know is that I’m consistently impressed with his work in this series–it would be fair to say that Yakumo is Ishida Akira’s best performance in his career.
And then it comes, the moment I was equally anticipating and dreading. I feared the episode wasn’t going to cover it as the runtime grew shorter, but when we cut to Yakumo on the boat, preparing to ‘move on’ from the afterlife, the tears started rolling. As you’d expect, Sukeroku was jovial and upbeat for the majority of this episode, despite the morbid circumstances; but when he really had to say goodbye to his best friend for the last time, it hit hard, as they make that pinky promise, as the boat drifted away, and we were left with that final shot of Sukeroku. And then what happens? I begin legitimately sobbing when Matsuda reveals himself and explains what happened: Yakumo fell into a coma on the porch that spring afternoon, and shortly passed away, but not before Matsuda sat by his master’s bedside, went to sleep, and never woke up. The fact the death of Matsuda is what sent me over the edge, despite him being a minor character in the grand scheme of things, is testament to the power of this series. In fact, Matsuda has always been there, whether in the background, providing amusing commentary or showing dedication and loyalty to the rakugo masters he served. He was older than Yakumo, yet there was a youthful spirit about him. He revealed the truth as he saw it that night, even as Yakumo took the secret to the grave, and with his purpose gone, he quickly followed his master to the afterlife.
Seeing Sukeroku again was a joy. Miyokichi getting the closure I never expected was beyond what I could have hoped for. Matsuda completing his lifelong service even in death was emotional. Seeing Konatsu and Shin as children, enjoying Yakumo’s rakugo together… those moments are what made this episode so special, so warm and beautiful and reflective. But what makes this episode–and the series–a masterpiece is simply Yakumo. I can’t think of a better anime or manga character than Yakumo. It can be hard to identify the difference between what’s your favourite and what’s the best–I for example personally prefer Miyokichi’s character, if that wasn’t obvious already. But if we’re talking about the best-written, most fully realised, accomplished character in the medium? Yuurakutei Yakumo should be considered one of the very best.
We were introduced to him as a resentful and bitter man, who seemed as unfriendly as he was stubborn. We then learned that he was disabled from childhood, that his family abandoned him and he forgot what his real name ever was. We saw that he met a boy who loved rakugo so much that he shared his path, convinced for his entire youth that he would never surpass him. We saw him survive the war, fall in love, and then make horrible mistakes that would lead to tragedies he never could have predicted. We saw the best and worst of him, from a child, to a one eyed old man with a frail voice who could barely move from his chair. We saw how he lost everything in his life, from his master, his best friend, and his once lover. And as we now know, we saw that he wasn’t the cruel adoptive father he made himself out to be; he saved Konatsu that night and he didn’t abandon her like his parents abandoned him. He raised her, holding secrets and allowing his new daughter to think of him as the worst man in the world. We then saw him age, perform, become the master he was meant to be. He took on a foolish apprentice who just got out of jail. We saw Yakumo wrestle with the future of rakugo, caught up in the perverse notion that he would take it to the grave with him; that if Sukeroku–the one who introduced him to storytelling–could not be the one to shape the future, then no one could. But he realised he was wrong, no matter how he felt. He saw his best friend in his grandchild, and softened. He grew old and frail and we saw him consider suicide, dancing with death far too often, leaving him scarred and worn from it. And in the end, we saw him smile. He accepted everything, he was at peace, and he died. We saw his entire life, and I honestly feel like my own has been enriched from the experience. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a story of many things that I will cover in my final post next week, but above all else it was the story of Yuurakutei Yakumo’s life, and what a life it was.
It all ends next week. It’s hard to believe it’s going to be over, but I have every faith it will prove to be as perfect a finale as every episodes that preceded it. From what the preview shows, we see Shin and his younger sister many years later in modern time (probably 15 or so years). We’re jumping way ahead here. This means we’re going to see an elderly Yotaro and Konatsu, their grown up children, and the effects to modernise rakugo. I can’t wait to see what awaits us, even knowing it really will be the end of this wonderful story.