Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – The Simpleton and The Master


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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu represents one of the few times when anime have explored the post-war period in Japan, presenting it’s audience with a glimpse into a period of immense change and modernisation, where old is replaced by new, and traditions are either pushed to one side, or forgotten. It is a series about Rakugo, a very Japanese, and highly distinctive genre of comic monologue that can be described as Japan’s ‘talking art’. Rakugo is a kind of yose, a form of Japanese vaudeville – named after the type of theatre in which is it traditionally performed – that also includes other forms of popular comic entertainment like manzai, and juggling. In rakugo, a single kimono-clad storyteller sits on a cushion, legs tidily folder underneath, in the middle of the stage. This performer is called a rakugo-ka, or hanashi-ka (hanashi meaning ‘talk’), and performs numerous stories in monologue on stage. These monologues have a three-part structure, the makura (preliminary comments), the honmon (main body), and the ochi (the windup or punch line, also known as the sage), which are narrated in order with a focus on humour.

Rakugo as a distinct art form emerged in the first half of the Edo period in the three major cities, Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka, reaching its peak during the Meiji period, and continues to be performed today. But, it can trace its origins back to the 9th and 10th centuries, where records show monks introducing elements of humour into their sermons in order to liven them up. There are also links with the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1560-1600), when highly educated men were employed as conversationalists or ‘otogishu’ by samurai lords to tell stories, or simply for conversation. It is therefore part of a long tradition of storytelling and humour found within traditional Japanese arts, and is part of the same tradition as Kabuki and Manzai. That tradition is an important aspect of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, a series set in what looks like the 1970s, a time of great change in Japan, when the new is finally pushing through, and aspects of Japanese culture are deemed to be too old fashioned are gradually disappearing. Throughout the first episode, there are numerous shots of the traditional, kimono-clad Yuurakutei Yakumo, and the wooden yose theatre next to modern buildings and neon lights. While such scenes are not portrayed as a clash of identities, there is still a certain, tension, within them as an older Japan is trying to break through.

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Rakugo-ka deliver their monologue and act out the stories various parts while remaining seated. If he were to use his entire body to act out the various actions of the story, such as running, sleeping, or the use of multiple props, such actions would distract the storyteller, and listener. Instead, he uses gestures and other limited movement to convey various actions, such as hunching his shoulders with his hands on his elbows to convey sleeping, or pumping his knees and clenching his fists to convey running. The very limitations the seating position imposes on the rakugo-ka’s vocabulary of gestures has resulted in a refinement that allows a talented rakugo-ka to express almost limitless motion through minimal means. This first episode further simulates this movement though changes in camera angle to simulate different characters, and relative positions within the story. Furthermore, as another aspect of rakugo’s traditional origins and its complicated place in the modern world, the rakugo-ka always wears traditional Japanese attire. Given the prevalence of western clothing now, and even in the 1970s when this series is set, the presence of a story teller in traditional kimono not only creates a gap between performer and audience, but also invites them into the rakugo-ka’s world, one removed from the present day. We see this throughout the first episode of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, with younger members of the audience in western clothing, while the rakugo-ka Yuurakutei Yakumo in his traditional clothes represents a much older Japan, one before the advent of the Japanese Economic Miracle.

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Another prominent aspect of rakugo in the series is its existence as a male art form, and although female rakugo-ka have emerged in recent years, female rakugo has not yet established itself as a sub-genre – of the roughly 700 rakugo-ka currently performing in Japan, a mere 30 of them are women. Rakugo has evolved over the centuries as a male genre, complete with male habits of speech and mannerisms that would seem incongruous coming from a woman, and to adapt stories and their performance to a woman’s speech and mannerisms also poses major challenges. This helps to explain why Konatsu, despite her clear talent, is incapable of becoming a rakugo-ka, especially given the time period that the series is set in. This sort of male-dominated entertainment has a long history in Japan, and as with many other aspects of Japanese culture today can trace its origins back to the Edo period.

To understand why so much of Japanese traditional culture and acting is male dominated we must look at the intimate connection between traditional theatre and prostitution before the Edo period, with travelling entertainers, often dancers or Buddhist story tellers combining the to in order to make a living. The legendary O-Kuni, the alleged foundress of the first Kabuki troupe, is said to have combined these functions very profitably. She was officially a miko, a shamaness with special powers, but her performances, often dressed as a man, and known for their sultriness and sexual innuendo, were erotic advertisements for further dalliance after the show. The Edo authorities, fearing disorder, tried to put a stop to this by forbidding actresses from appearing on stage. The result of this was that young boys simply took their place, both on stage, and in the favours of wealth patrons – men and women alike. Given the close connection between Kabuki, Manzai, and Rakugo, and the banning of women on stage during the Edo period, their male-dominated forms are a matter of historical circumstances. It also helps to explain why in the 1970s, a character like Konatsu would still be unable to pursue a career as a rakugo-ka.

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It would be easy to suggest that rakugo is a Japanese form of stand-up comedy, one where comedians engage in monologues about themselves, or make satirical reference to current events. But, it is a very Japanese form of comedy that is entirely reliant on the three-part story structure of makura, honmon, and ochi mentioned earlier. For example, the honmon might be the story itself, which is preceded by the makura in which the rakugo-ka leads up to the story with an anecdote, or personal experience directly related to the story, but often entirely fabricated. There are makura so established that an aficionado immediately knows which rakugo narrative is coming, while others are entirely original, and leave even the most experienced listener guessing until the very end. Today, the makura serves an important function in creating a bridge to old Japan, in which most rakugo narratives take place. I remember reading an article a few years ago in which the author talks about Japan having a 50 year memory, and that everything before WWII is largely forgotten about, while the Meiji period and beyond are ancient history, seldom remembered. Since many rakugo stories have remained largely unchanged since they were first written down, they represent a direct link to a seemingly distant past, one that bears little resemblance to modern Japan, and certainly not one that a present day audience can connect with on an emotional level without the aid of an accomplished storyteller.

When one of the audience talks about Yakumo’s narrative conjuring up the Edo period, they are demonstrating the importance of the makura to take the audience to a period that they will neither recognise, nor remember. Finally we have the ochi or sage, the windup or punch line of the entire story, a short section that can make or break a rakugo performance. Yotarou fails during a number of performances because his story-telling ability isn’t sufficient enough to effectively use the makura to conjure up the period, and his ochi falls on dead ears. This is partly because of the collective knowledge at the time regarding rakugo stories, one that arguably still exists now, albeit within certain generations – if enough of the audience know the story already, a poor storyteller cannot add enough of themselves to make it engaging, or unique, so the story just becomes an exercise in repetition. On another note, there are several kinds of rakugo narratives, specifically ninjo-banashi (banashi is a variant of hanashi), sentimental stories that focus on the struggles and triumphs of ordinary people (ninjo meaning ‘human feelings’), kaidan-banashi, presentations of kaidan (ghost stories), and shibai-banashi (shibai meaning ‘drama’, or ‘play’) that attempt to recreate kabuki performances in almost every detail. The story Yakumo performs, ‘Shinigami’ would likely be classified as a kaidan-banashi, there appear to be moments of comedy, but it is similar to a fable, with the main character too blinded by wealth to notice he has been tricked.

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One interesting aspect of this first episode is its use of rakugo, and by extension, kabuki conventions in the portrayal of characters, during, and around performances. Since a rakugo-ka plays all characters they will distinguish between them by facing alternatively left and right. The direction that a character faces is determined by the same conventions as those used in kabuki: characters enter from stage right; characters of higher social status are to the right (from the audiences viewpoint) of characters of lower station; and characters who are indoors are always to the right of characters who are outdoors. This correspondence further points to the rakugo’s close historical connections with kabuki, and demonstrates how conventions and practices are shared across numerous Japanese art forms. As we watch Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu these conventions are frequently used, not just within performances – specifically when Yotaro is performing ‘Dekigokoro’ (perhaps a reference to a 1933 silent film by Yasujiro Ozu of the same name) – but also during their normal interactions. A particularly interesting example of this is evident during Yakumo’s winter performance towards the end of the episode. Initially we see how immature Yotaro is as a storyteller, trying to make his eagerness and energy cover for his woeful lack of storytelling ability in front of a packed hall. But, when Yakumo is performing, Yotaro is to stage left, the student to Yakumo’s master, but, in his tired state he nearly ruins the performance, forcing Yakumo to add extra little elements in order to keep its flow. In this scene we not only see the superior ability of Yakumo, but also Yotaro’s simpleminded nature, and a good example of names and meaning within rakugo stories. Certain names come up over and over again in rakugo and have come to stand for established personalities. For example, in Edo rakugo, audiences know that any character named Yotaro is a simpleton.

Yotaro exemplifies his character type – he is just out of prison, having been involved in gang work – and, he single-mindedly desires to be a rakugo-ka, regardless of what Yakumo says or does. He also fails to appreciate the complexities of rakugo storytelling on a number of occasions throughout this first episode, often falling back on keenness to push him through, regardless of the quality of his art. He freely steps on delicate subjects, such as Yakumo’s relationship with Konatsu, and her now deceased father Yuurakutei Sukerou, and her rakugo ability. And, through his carelessness, forces Yakumo to cover up his snoring through improvisation in order to maintain his audiences attention. By using various rakugo conventions, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu successfully creates a narrative that connects with this past, and uses them to create a story about the importance of carrying on tradition. It also serves as a sort of historical document; one that demonstrates how easily past traditions and culture can be swallowed up by the modern world. Yakumo comes from a past that has nearly disappeared – the architecture of his house, and that of the theatres he performs in stand in stark contrast with the modern, neon lit buildings we briefly see at various points in the episode. Yotaro is just out of prison, and has nowhere to go, his mannerisms and speech are far more modern than Yakumo, but in him we find a student willing to keep the tradition of rakugo going for new generations to learn from and enjoy.

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About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

One Response to Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – The Simpleton and The Master

  1. Pingback: Quick Winter 16 Impressions | Toxic Muffin

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