This post for Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is filled with major spoilers for the series. If you haven’t seen it or want to avoid spoilers, I recommend coming back to this article afterwards.
Gather around my little eager kiddies, Papa Doaki has a little story for ya. Anime has been around since the dawn of time, possibly even before. Your local watering hole was packed to the brim with discussion. Everyone from the Futalognkosaurus to the Woolly Mammoth was arguing heatedly about best girl, the use of proper CG, and of course if you should go read the manga. Things have not changed much since then, and one of the most consistent parts of any anime is the narrative. The plot is more often than not, the core of all things the anime thrives off of. This is the part that resonates with the crowd the most passionately, and forges a bond between the viewer and the medium. So when an anime is about the very art of storytelling, you might think something special could occur.
Shouwa Genroku revolves around the classic Japanese entertainment of Rakugo. If you aren’t privy to what this is let me inform you. Rakugo is a performance of a person going on stage, with only a few basic props like a fan and such, and telling a story. These are all classic stories of Japan, and the storyteller must know it by heart. Without a ton of memorization, dedication, and talent, rakugo is nearly impossible to do well. You play every single character, and attempt to draw out their emotions of the story as you interpret and feed it to your audience. The anime is all about the history of rakugo in the Shouwa era in a slightly fictional setting. What makes the series stand out so much is the idea that it is a story about storytelling. Full rakugo is done in many episodes, and many of them have thematic implications on top of the basic story itself.
One of the more notable factors of Shouwa Genroku is how the stories it uses imply more than they let on. Things that seem irrelevant can be subtle foreshadowing for future events. Such as, Kikuhiko telling a story about a lover’s double suicide correlating to a key moment in the first season’s finale. The best underlying theme though by a country mile for me was how the stories the characters excelled at the most told so much about who they were. I want to zero in on two specific characters and the rakugo that defined them. Those two being Kikuhiko and Sukeroku. They are the most important performers in the entirety of Shouwa Genroku, and their magnum opus is the pinnacle of thematic development for each.
First on stage is Sukeroku the 2nd. His rakugo story is Shibahama, a story about a man who often drinks/gambles away all his money who discovers a coin purse filled with money. The night he discovers it, he brings it home to his wife and throws a grand party filled with alcohol and fancy food for his friends. He drinks himself to sleep and remembers everything that happened but to his surprise he can’t find the purse. His wife tells him it was all but a dream, and the drinking is destroying his mind. Afraid of the consequences, he decides to become clean and work his hardest to pay off all of their debt. After the success of doing so he shares that with his wife, and she tells him how proud she is and that the coin purse was in fact a reality. She just wanted him to get his life together, and told him how the money had become theirs since no one had claimed it. She offers him sake in celebration which he slowly takes to his lips and then politely rejects it. He didn’t want it to become a dream again.
Sukeroku is a man plagued by an addiction to alcohol, and it frequently was the prominent factor in why his life was always going downhill. He was poor, dirty, and considered disrespectable despite being a talented artist loved by the crowds. His biggest problem was how alcohol influenced his life. This never stops being a pressing issue until he is taking care of his daughter alone. Kikuhiko comes back into his life as the one who, like the wife in the story, manipulates the drunk back into responsibility. Sukeroku begins anew, and rakugo is once again at the heart of his life. Then notably, after one of his big coming back performances he is offered alcohol and rejects it to stay on the proper path before him. Similar to the story he expertly told, Sukeroku was at his best when the addiction was removed from his life. With a helping hand, his future no longer clouded with debt and judgement. He could finally make his chosen profession a reality and support his family. The idea wasn’t a dream, but a possibility.
Kikuhiko, on the other hand, was most famous for a story aptly named Shinigami. A very simple and short rakugo about a man who meets a death god and makes a bet with it. The Shinigami is in full control from the beginning, and slowly installs fears into his opponent. With an eerie air, and desperation running rampant through his heart, the man never once stood even a ghost of a chance. His death was certain from the moment he succumbed to the looming mortality before him. A story of life and death but clearly the latter of the two was the most pivotal.
Two distinct halves make up Kikuhiko’s lifespan, before Sukeroku’s death, and after. Prior to Sukeroku’s passing, Kikuhiko was always searching, looking for his purpose in life. He did rakugo but it never really catered to his desires. Even after finding his own skills at it, he still was longing for something constantly. When he lost his best friend, the one he made a bet with to change the rakugo world, everything was turned upside down. Suddenly he always longed for his own time to come. He pleaded to the world for his death to come quickly, and painfully. Like the story, Kikuhiko’s arc is centered around the thin line between life and death. A single conversation that couldn’t be fulfilled was the distinction for when he shifted between the two. The final time we see him even indicates this relationship, when he is shown reminiscing about the past in the afterlife. Life and death are the basis of Kikuhiko.
So what does it all mean? Well, the major takeaway here is, for both Rakugo performers, the stories they were best at were ones that directly correlated to them as a person. Sukeroku and his alcoholic dilemmas, and Kikuhiko with his outlook on life. This rings true for pretty much every character who does Rakugo in the series too. The stories they are most attached to or shine at, are those that say something about who they are on a personal level. They understood the stories and told them so outstandingly because on a deeper level they were connected.
Being connected to anime and the stories they tell is easily one of the most enticing things about the medium. Like the characters in Shouwa Genroku, I think there is something there worth looking at. The anime you most identify with and relate to may hide some fascinating secrets. The key to that mystery lies within you though. Like Kikuhiko and Sukeroku, if you get to know the stories you adore the most, you may reveal a part of yourself unknown. I believe the anime we are most attached to are the ones that say something about us. So next time you are happily looking over your favorites and how they tug at your heart strings, ask yourself a question. Why do I love this anime on this level? When you find some of those answers, maybe, just maybe you will discover a little bit more about who you are and who you can be.
Well that is all for today folks. I thank you for reading and joining me on this introspection of storytelling. I found Rakugo to be particularly incredible for this little factor it had. If you want to experience some other anime with spectacular narrative structure then I’d recommend the following!
The Tatami Galaxy spins the idea of fictional stories in a fun and artistic manner. The idea of desiring a perfect college experience seen in an almost Groundhog Day fashion that all culminates in a cleverly woven package.
Baccano! is atypical as the entire plot is spread over 3 times lines. This 1930’s romp is filled with gangsters, immortals, and a Pulp Fiction-like arrangement to it’s story. It’s wild, fun, and full of memorable characters with no single main lead to be found.
Until Next Time my Little Wanderers!!!