Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – Different Worlds
January 20, 2016 Leave a comment
I briefly touched upon the conflict between periods in my first post on Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, pointing to the tension between the new, modern period of economic success, and the traditional, even old fashioned image of Rakugo, complete with kimono and classical architecture. These moments are brief, but important, representing a split within the culture and society of Japan. These rakugo stories may be popular, even well known, but the period that many of them reference, and the situations and ideas that they deal with are so far removed from the period that this series takes place in, as to be almost mystical in nature. Perhaps this is part of the allure of rakugo, an opportunity to gaze into the distant past, to discover a Japan that no longer exists, one filled with gods, youkai, and all manner of wonders. Through these stories of the Edo period and beyond, told in a classical theatre, by a storyteller in traditional kimono, the audience can be transported back to a period no longer in living memory. This is where a good storyteller comes in, a fact already evident in the different reactions to Yotaro’s stories, and those of Yakumo.
In many respects that is the central theme of this weeks episode, one that focuses on the pasts of Yakumo and Sukeroku, two boys from different backgrounds, who approach the task of rakugo storytelling in different manners. Importantly, they both come from an older period, a theme that is immediately obvious in the way they act, not to mention the look of Tokyo during this period. Yakumo is the child of a Geisha, and while clearly cultured and refined, he comes from the red light district, a place that exists outside of society, a floating world where people go to escape from daily life, and one that is real, while simultaneously, a creation of the imagination. The floating world of Geisha, prostitution, plays, story telling, and other forms of entertainment and revelry was once a place called Yoshiwara. As mentioned in the first post, prostitution and theatre are intimately linked, with one following on from the other. It’s very nature forced the Edo authorities to ban women from the theatre, although many would eventually find work either as Geisha, living, doll-like works of art, or prostitutes. But the link between theatre, story telling, and the seedier side of society remains a strong, and important one. Rakugo-ka, while holding an important link with powerful, and well-respected conversationalists, or otogishu, is still part of this culture.
As such, Yakumo’s existence as the son of a Geisha is a particularly important one, he is already an outsider in society in many respects, and given his bad leg, and inability to dance, the only option would be to apprentice as a rakugo-ka. It is important to note that his talent for dancing is not viewed as an excellent skill, they are those of female entertainers, and especially during this period a male dancer would be looked down upon with scorn by all concerned. By abandoning him, Yakumo’s family are ruthless, seeing a disabled child (at least one who has a limp and is therefore less mobile) as a hindrance, and one that cannot help with the business, while also exhibiting a kindness in pushing him into a different career path, one that is no less outside of ‘normal’ society, but one that he can pursue without worry of his disability. It is a sad moment, but not unusual during the period, when children who couldn’t help out the family directly, either through inheriting a business, or labour, may apprentice with a performer, craftsman, or become a monk.
While Yakumo is effectively forced into becoming a rakugo-ka by his family, Sukeroku makes a conscious choice to become a story teller. Admittedly he doesn’t have much choice, with no parents, and nobody to look after him he would be homeless, and probably with very little chance of survival without help or work, an unlikely prospect given his age. His energy and desire to tell stories resemble Yotaro’s (or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Yotaro resembles Sukeroku), and stands in stark contrast with the withdrawn, well mannered Yakumo. His willingness to push ahead without any formal introduction (even for an art form that was often on the peripheries, it would still be important to acquire formal introductions before approaching the master), using his rough, but energetic story telling to convince the master that, despite his current image, he has a lot of potential.
To go back to the theme of the story teller and what they can bring to their stories, the polar opposite natures of Yakumo and Sukeroku are an essential element in highlighting why Sukeroku is, at least initially, a far superior story teller. Yakumo is forced into his position, and doesn’t really want to become a rakugo-ka, at least, he isn’t as enthusiastic about it as others, perhaps viewing it as little more than an occupation that offers the opportunity to change his circumstances. He is the reluctant story teller, one who, despite a fairly colourful background that could easily be used to inform his stories and add further depth to already well known characters, seems to be sleepwalking through his training. Sukeroku, however, is forced into becoming a rakugo-ka through absolute necessity (although there is also a conscious choice there, because he enjoys rakugo), and is somebody who, as Yotaro showed us in episode one, freely uses his background, and rough nature to his advantage. By infusing his past, circumstances, and experiences into his characters, Sukeroku produced a unique variation on well-known stories, making them approachable, interesting, and different. He conjures up these characters and situations, telling the story in such a way as to transport the audience to that time and period, to be sitting there listening to the conversation about noodles in person. Yakumo on the other hand is simply reading the story, memorising it and reciting what he as learned – his performance is flat, without emotion, or charm, the complete opposite of Sukeroku.
The differences between their performances in this episode are obvious – Yakumo is stoic, even detached, reciting a script from memory, and without much feeling, Sukeroku on the other hand is passionate, engaged, and clearly enjoying this chance to finally tell a story to a live audience. The audience’s reactions, as in episode one, are a good indicator as to the competence of the story teller, Yakumo has an audience that lacks of emotions, or engagement, Sukeroku on the other hand elicits mirth, and enjoyment. Although we only know of Sukeroku from this, and other flashbacks, he clearly embraced his background, and the chance to become a rakugo-ka, using his experiences to produce wonderfully crafted, intelligent, and above all, enjoyable stories that entertain those who hear them. Yakumo, at least as we see him in this episode, is far more restrained; he is from a world that has influenced rakugo, and could happily inform his own story telling, but he chooses to cut himself off from those experiences. It is an interesting relationship in many respects, partly because they are polar opposite, whose approach to life and rakugo differ so widely that their ability to live in the same building is rather remarkable to say the least. Sukeroku’s lighthearted, even dismissive attitude towards practicing rakugo compared to the studious, but forced approach that Yakumo takes may help to illustrate why he was often dismissive of Yotaro during the series premier, he is just too similar to Sukeroku for Yakumo’s liking.
Now, to expand upon a couple of points regarding tradition and its role within Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. As previously mentioned, rakugo has a long history, tracing its origins to the 9th and 10th centuries, when wandering monks would infuse humour into the sermons, to make them more entertaining for those listening. Rakugo as an artform has only existed from the Edo period, when its form and presentation was further refined, eventually becoming the rakugo we see in the series. Throughout this rather extensive period, much of the teaching and training between masters and pupils (or perhaps it would be better to call them disciples) was verbal, with the pupil watching, and learning from the master as they practiced and performed. This is reminiscent of the teaching practices found in other Japanese arts like Kabuki, whereby the student must learn kata (the form) that have been passed down from generation to generation, often unchanged for centuries. By learning these movements, positions, and modes of speech, the student is taking an active part in a very old tradition, and helps to demonstrate why rakugo can fascinate people as a direct link to the past they have no living memory, or knowledge of. But, the story teller cannot get by on pure repetition alone – with Yakumo’s first performance illustrating this point – they must take the forms they have learned and add improvisation, incorporating their own lives and experiences into the characters and word play. Kabuki actors also do this, but their inflections are often so subtle that only the most experienced viewer will be able to differentiate between the kata, and the performance. In comparison, the rakugo-ka must put their own distinctive form of story telling on display, visibly, and audibly differentiating themselves from those who have come before, and after. In essence, the art of the rakugo is a combination of tradition and improvisation, something that Yakumo, cannot quite grasp until later in the episode, whereas Sukeroku has.
A final comment about the role of tradition, and the difference between Yotaro’s period, and that of Yakumo. During this episode we are introduced to a Tokyo that in many respects remains in the past, with phone and electricity wires against the background of distinctive architecture, wooden buildings, and dirt roads. This stands in stark contrast to the images from episode one, where Yakumo’s house, and the yose theatres look out of place, hemmed in all sides by concrete and glass, street lights, and cars. This period informs Yakumo’s rakugo, and emphasises why Yotaro cannot hope to tell a story like Shinigami in the same fashion, he simply lacks the same upbringing and past that would help to inform his stories in the same way. It may be still minor, but the tension from episode one remains; a tension between the old and the new; between a society that is modernising at an alarming rate, sweeping away everything that it now considers to be old fashioned and unnecessary, and an art form that is absolutely reliant on the past in its form and structure. The flashback also further reinforces how curious rakugo as an art form is – it often appears old fashioned, kimono clad story tellers wielding nothing but a fan and a handkerchief, telling stories from a period that is now firmly in the past to people who might work in offices or supermarkets. And yet, rakugo endures, a tradition from the past that succeeds because it is able to incorporate the traditional practices and stories that have been created and refined over centuries, with observations and improvisations from the present. This episode helps to demonstrate how important these two aspects are to the practice, while also fleshing out the back story between Yakumo and Sukeroku.