Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – The Captivated Audience
January 26, 2016 Leave a comment
To be successful, rakugo must captivate the audience, taking them to a time and place that has long since passed, and one that often deals with mannerisms, etiquette, and social issues that are largely irrelevant to modern society. The majority of these stories are set in the Edo period, and are therefore bound up in older traditions, ones that may well be passed on in other art forms such as kabuki, noh, and tea ceremony, but have long since disappeared from everyday life. As such, central to a rakugo performance is the ability of the rakugo-ka to successfully conjure up these periods, twisting space and transporting the audience into his world. Yakumo’s performances during episode are prime examples of a story teller with the ability tod raw in his audience, transporting them to the Edo, without ever having to go into long winded explanations of the etiquette, social niceties, and the little details found within the story. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu takes this central element of the rakugo-ka, and uses it to great effect, providing a modern audience with a glimpse into the early Showa period, one of great social, political, and cultural change.
Often any mention of the Showa period may emphasise the Japanese Economic Miracle, that record growth which led Japan to become the worlds second largest economy by the 1960s. It is the period people want to remember, whereas the early Showa period is one to forget, to brush under the rug, and perhaps even pretend didn’t exist. It is a transition period, one marked by a move to political totalitarianism, ultranationalism, and fascism, culminating in Japan’s invasion of China, and by 1945, defeat in the second world war. Episodes Two and Three of Genroku Showa Rakugo Shinjuu offer us the audience a glimpse into one small aspect of Japanese society during the 1930s and 1940s. We see a society that, while modern, holds on to certain traditions – streets are still made of dirt, telegraph and power lines stand in stark contrast to wooden and bamboo building, complete with proper tiles, or even thatching. This is before the sudden, and perhaps, dramatic change to metal rooves, and prefab buildings, concrete, glass, and neon lights. The world we are presented with in these past two episodes is one that has since disappeared, a past age that is held aloft as something to be proud of, a traditional Japan without western influences, before defeat and social upheaval. Of course, the period was anything but rosy, and, as already mentioned, was a period when conservative elements within Japan’s ruling classes imposed their wills, and greatly restricted the rights of Japans citizens.
Now, for much of the episode those effects aren’t felt, or even mentioned, this is because the entertainment industry, of which rakugo was one part can often be closed off from the outside world. During the Edo period the world of Geisha, dancing, music, story telling, and plays was known as ‘The Floating World’, and was a realm unto itself, where members of the court, nobles, and other officials would go to escape from the intrigue and other issues of their positions. Naturally, for such an enclosed world, it had its own intrigues, cultural niceties, and problems, but, it remained an enclosed space, largely cut off from the outside world. Indeed, Yoshiwara, the pleasure district of Edo (present-day Tokyo) had its own gates that were closed at the end of everyday, and was surrounded by walls. It was a town within a city, and was physically segregated from the rest of society, truly a world within a world. While the yose theatres within the series aren’t walled off from the outside world as Yoshiwara once was, they are still part of a self-contained world of entertainers that by and large were able to remain separate from various social issues of the early Showa period. But, as the episode progresses it becomes increasingly clear that the stresses of the period, one marked by increasing nationalism, and uncertainty has started to take a toll on the traditions of rakugo, and other forms of entertainment. As we watch from backstage, Sukeroku and Yakumo talk about declining audiences, and the effect it is having on their chosen profession.
During this period a number of laws, and actions by the Japanese government and military made it increasingly difficult for traditional performers to continue with their profession. During the Showa period a number of laws, including the Public Security Preservation Law (known as the Peace Preservation Law) of 1925 were enacted, anti-radical legislation that curtailed individual freedom initially only slightly, but as the years went by to a much larger degree. The Japanese state (until the end of WWII) never clearly defined the boundary between public and private matters, thus, it demanded loyalty in all spheres of life. Subsequently, any ideological attack, such as proposals for socialist reform, was seen as an attack on the very existence of the state itself, with the meaning of this law gradually stretching into academic spheres and beyond. This was further enhanced by increasingly strict guidelines on what was considered moral, and immoral forms of entertainment – with rakugo, and other traditional art forms often labelled as immoral, partly because they were considered as prime places for political gatherings. Yakumo’s narration talks about the rakugo world self-censoring, burying stories like ‘Akegarasu’, and ‘Miyatogawa’ that would be labelled as inappropriate by the state, and potentially result in the rakugo-ka ending up in jail, or worse. Much of this was due to the new 情報局 Jōhōkyoku, or Information Bureau, which, from 1940 had complete control over all news, advertising, and public events, and from 1941 began to blacklist writers who’s work was not to be advertised.
These social, and political issues, coupled with the very nature of Japan’s artistic world, and the knowledge that, unless you were successful, you may well be barely craping a living from performances in yose theatres, and in private resulted in a drastic decline in the number of people willing to choose either rakugo, or any other traditional art form as a profession, regardless of their background. As Yakumo points out in his narration, as the war began in earnest, the number of people living in Tokyo gradually decreased – it simply became too dangerous to remain in the city, partly because of the totalitarian nature of Japan’s ruling classes, and the ever present threat of arrest by Kempeitai if they suspected you of anti-state practices. In many ways we can view the immediate pre-war period, and the early 1940s as a time when traditional art forms in Japan were on the verge of dying out, simply because they were no longer capable of fully maintaining their traditions and practices due to the ever growing number of barriers put in their way. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu does an excellent job of presenting the ever present threat of conflict through the use of sound; what might be a touching farewell between Yakumo and Ochiyo-chan set against the sunset is overshadowed by the rumble of warplanes, as Japan gears up for war, not only in China, but with America and the allied powers. In this, and subsequent scenes we see how tenuous the world of rakugo is, and that despite its long history, the nature of the Japanese state during this period threatens its, and other traditional art forms existence.
Against such a backdrop, the characters of Sukeroku and Yakumo take very different paths to becoming rakugo-ka. Whereas Sukeroku is a natural, able to pull the audience into his world (or at least he is partially able to), who is working at rakugo full-time, Yakumo attends school, and learns rakugo in his spare time. Of particular note is the way Yakumo finally accepts his love of rakugo, and starts to perform in earnest – not because he studies and practices harder than Sukeroku, but because he tries to throw rakugo away, pushing it into the corner so that he can get on with working to provide for himself, and his master’s wife. Perhaps the lack of pressure with Sukeroku and his master in Manchuria entertaining the army helps Yakumo come to terms with his own individual rakugo, a rakugo that is sensual rather than energetic, drawing in the listener for different reasons, and producing an entirely different form of story telling. His persistence, even obsession in learning rakugo is framed against an uncertain future for the art as Tokyo empties, and all the old masters and their pupils scatter to the wind, spreading out across Japan, perhaps never to return.
It can also be viewed in relation to his masters plans to entertain the troops in Manchuria, taking Sukeroku with him for that very task. For much of episode two Yakumo’s bad leg and limp are an understated aspect of his current position as a trainee rakugo-ka. As I mentioned in a previous post, as the son of a Geisha his skills in dancing are largely useless – as Yakumo’s own narration points out, nobody wants to pay to see a Geisha’s son dance – so the damage to his leg is both a blessing, but also a hindrance. We should perhaps view Yakumo as being pushed off to one side by his mother, abandoned to another form of entertainment because she cannot, or simply will not take care of somebody with a disability. But, while this is evident, it also remains in the background, informing Yakumo’s approach to rakugo and life in general, which also helps to explain why he is inferior to Sukeroku as a rakugo-ka during these early years. The issue initially takes a more central role when Yakumo’s master, Yurakutei talks about going to Manchuria with Sukeroku to entertain the troops, explaining that Yakumo cannot come because of his bad leg and should look after the master’s wife, safe in the countryside and away from the problems of Tokyo and beyond. In essence Yakumo sees himself being abandoned once again, and this time there is nothing for him to do.
Yakumo’s life is set against an uncertain, and increasingly dangerous period, where his treasured art (and towards the end of episode three it is clear that he cannot escape his love for rakugo) is considered dangerous and immoral, along with many other traditions and forms of entertainment, at least in public displays. The life we see in the countryside seems so far removed from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo during the 1930s, with barely a telegraph or power line in sight, an old fashioned hearth, and rooms that could easily be from the 19th century. Naturally it is not entirely removed from modern life, with western clothes prominently displayed, and the existence of munition factories an ever present aspect of countryside life during the 1940s. As such, it was one particular version of tradition, a vision of a country caught between the older past, before westernisation, and one that has firmly embraced aspects of wester culture, making them its own. But, next to the busy life displayed in Tokyo, the countryside appears far calmer, and more straightforward. Indeed, Yakumo points out that he began to think about the possibilities of settling down and enjoying a ‘normal’ life, further drawing attention to the more complicated nature of his life as a rakugo-ka.
In many respects this demonstrates how precarious a position rakugo found itself in. Its stories are rooted in the past, one that, immediately after WWII effectively disappears from living memory, and as such needs to adapt to survive. Furthermore, the lack of any formal teaching almost leads Yakumo to abandon what would become his great passion, while simultaneously offering the spark of creativity that would allow him to develop his methods, and begin to conjure up those sensual, inviting, and addictive worlds that only a true rakugo master could accomplish. The end of WWII, accompanied by the haunting sound of what can only be the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima represents a generational shift, with the old, established masters, rooted in the traditions of the Taisho, Meiji, and perhaps even earlier periods have to give way to the stories of Yakumo and Sekeroku, young rakguo-ka who’s stories are informed by the difficult times they lived through. The survival of their Master’s house and the yose theatre’s are perhaps symbolic of the enduring nature of tradition, and the importance of recognising the links with the past. As such, the title of the series Shouwa Genroku alludes to a coming golden age (Genroku meaning golden age) for rakugo during the later Shouwa period, suggesting that, despite the near collapse of traditional art during the late 30s and early 40s, these forms of story telling were able to endure, partly because of passionate individuals like Yakumo, and Sukeroku.