Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – Blinded by Perfection
February 3, 2016 Leave a comment
Up until now, Shouwa Genrku Rakugo Shinjuu has largely focussed on the early Shouwa period, a period that saw Japan shift towards an authoritarian, and nationalist regime. It also represents a period where Japan was simultaneously an industrialised, and modern country, while also maintaining a direct link to the more traditional past, with dirt roads, and classical architecture in abundance through the last two episodes. It is perhaps important to realise that, unlike many European countries that had centuries of industrialisation and modernisation, Japan took around sixty of seventy. Such a short period, while astonishing, also helps to explain how the old and new can be found in the same space, while further emphasising the importance of traditional arts like rakugo in the maintenance of the countries link with its historical past, something that it, like so many countries today arguably lack. During their early apprenticeship as rakugo-ka, Sekuroku and Yakumo are taking an active part in cultural tradition, with their audience often understanding the stories without the need for explanation or in-depth description. Certainly the early Shouwa period was not the Edo period, and many of the mannerisms and ways of acting found within well known rakugo may have long since disappeared from everyday use. But, there would still be a connection, and stories remained familiar and easily understood.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the post-war period, with its sudden inrush of western goods and ideas, when Japan, and the Japanese go through a period of collective amnesia. There is a saying that the Japanese have a historical memory of fifty years, and that everything before WWII and the American-led occupation has been forgotten about, pushed into the dark corners of the countries memory so it can concentrate on everyday concerns of work, play, and sleep. Tokyo in episode four is very different to the city we saw in the previous episodes, gone are the dirt streets and low, walled buildings. In their place we find cobbles, trees, street lights, and the ever present car; Tokyo looks very much like European cities of the period, demonstrating how much Japan changed immediately after the war, once towns and cities had been rebuilt, as if the older Japan we saw in previous episodes never existed. Of course, that is far from the case, and the constant presence of people dressed in kimono walking side by side with those in western clothes of the period reinforces this. Similarly, the Yose theatres are a reminder of Japan’s past, and although they don’t look quite as odd as they did in episode one, they are still a curious example of how the past can remain part of the present. In such an environment, the traditional arts become something a little more special. They remain the one true link with Japans historical past, and offer an audience the opportunity to encounter something new, something different, perhaps even encounter the true essence of what it means to be Japanese. They are, however, simultaneously out of touch with contemporary society, and the world that rakugo in particular often references, is one that a contemporary audience wouldn’t recognise, much less understand. As such it is up to the rakugo-ka to achieve the dreamlike state that allows the audience to be enraptured by their performance, transporting all those listening to that period and fully appreciate it in all its majesty, or, in the case of many rakugo, for its humour.
This is the world that Sukeroku and Yakumo find themselves as new rakugo-ka who are trying to make a name for themselves in a world that is rapidly leaving behind the period that their art form is associated with. But, that has yet to fully happen, and the packed theatres demonstrates that during these early years, rakugo remained an essential form of entertainment that everybody could enjoy. But, as with their training period, they take very different approaches to rakugo, with Sukeroku demonstrating a greater understanding of what makes a good story teller. While Sukeroku gets numerous bookings, and continues to improve as a rakugo-ka, Yakumo finds himself stuck, figuratively and literally, unable to move on from his training, and perhaps even digressing. They seem to represent different approaches to rakugo, while also offering us a vision of the split within Japanese society as the new tries to push away the old. While Yakumo is in full western dress for most of the time (the exceptions being while performing, or at home), Sukeroku refuses to wear western clothes, complaining that they are restrictive and uncomfortable. Compared to many of the figures around him, he seems backwards, stuck in a past that no longer exists, even a relic, while also conforming to the (stereotypical) image of a traveling performer, somebody who enjoys life, even if he barely makes enough to live on. But, he uses that experience to good effect, allowing conversations, even passing comments to influence the stories he tells, and help him choose which story he might use in any given performance.
As a character, Sukeroku has always managed to do this, taking his experiences and lessons, and using them to inform his story telling, in essence he can adapt old, established stories, injecting life, and energy into them. A good example appears in this episode when Yakumo’s talk of their general lack of money informs his choice of Yumekin for the night’s performance – throughout the story it is clear that his constant interactions with an often all-too-serious Yakumo are working their way into the story, informing his mannerisms and intonation. Yes, the story is set in the Edo period, with samurai and Ryo (a form of gold currency used throughout the Edo period) attesting to that, but he adds his own inflections, his own little mannerisms in much the same way that the best Kabuki actors can take kata, or steps that have been handed down unchanged from hundreds of years, and add their own distinctive take on them (although it is often only the really knowledgeable audiences members who can even see them, much less differentiate them from the kata themselves). So, despite his apparently old fashioned approach to rakugo, and life as a whole, Sukeroku remains firmly situated in the present, and understands what makes a good story teller.
By comparison, Yakumo looks veritably modern, in his well cut suit, and especially in his waiter’s uniform, and yet, there are element’s about his character that makes him more old fashioned and wedded to the past than Sukeroku in his kimono and geta. Perhaps because of his past as the abandoned son of a Geisha, and somebody who was left behind as his master and Sukeroku went off to Manchuria, Yakumo has tried his upmost to perfect the art of rakugo story telling. The key here lies in the word ‘perfect’, he is trying to recite them as they are written, perfecting the stories in the same way that he would perfect particular movements in Odori (a form of dancing that grew out of Kabuki during the Edo period), that like Kabuki have a set form and method of reproduction. As such he remains something akin to a story telling machine, one who can memorise and recite numerous stories, but is unable to inject the little flourishes and other eccentricities that make Sukeroku’s work so enjoyable. As his master points out, Yakumo practices too much, and tries to perfect the form without adding in the imperfections and odd little flourishes that the best rakugo-ka use to conjure up the world that will envelop their audience. The eroticism and subtle, but powerful tension found within Shinigami in episode one has yet to be realised, and its absence is the reason for Yakumo’s currently impasse. It is rather curious given how full of life his storytelling appeared to be during last weeks’ episode, perhaps the absence of Sukeroku allowed Yakumo to release the restraints that had been there, and his return put them back.
The introduction of Miyokichi, a trainee Geisha offers the opportunity for Yakumo to leave behind his perfectionism. He doesn’t have to sleep with her, but she is a seductive presence who seems to live on her whims, an impulsive individual who could potentially offer a release for Yakumo’s tension. Importantly, she represents somebody a little different, who isn’t part of rakugo, although still very much involved with Japan’s traditional entertainment. His current life with Sukeroku is one of constant tension, and while Yakumo may not recognise this, he is driven by Sukeroku’s presence to perfect rakugo, feeling that he is falling behind even further. This is partly true, but as already mentioned, not because he lacks knowledge, but instead simply recites the stories word for word without injecting anything of himself into the telling. He doesn’t necessarily need to live on his whims in the way Sukeroku does, that would simply be copying somebody else, instead Yakumo must learn to let go of his obsession with perfectionism, and enjoy the act of story telling, rather than constantly compare himself to those around him. His current relationship with Miyokichi is fascinating, not least because, despite her best attempts at seduction, Yakumpo clearly isn’t interested in her as a woman. And yet, his expressions suggest he enjoys her company, and the opportunity to teach somebody Odori and Kouta, representing a break from his overly rigorous training.
What this episode does is offer a transition, and presenting the audience with a vision of life in Japan just after the war. It is a society caught between the old and the new, with rakugo, along with many other forms of traditional arts nearly getting left behind as the country begins to modernise and forget ahead to what will become Japan’s Economic Miracle. Through this period rakugo must adapt or perish, and performers have to be capable of injecting little pieces of information regarding current affairs into their introductions or makura, something that can link their stories of an age long gone to the lives of those in the audience. But, they must also be capable of conjuring up the time, perhaps through elements of improvisations, or descriptions. Ultimately it is a balancing act between maintaining the form and adding enough improvisation to make that very story relatable to a contemporary audience. This episode does an excellent job of presenting the delicate balancing act that these older art forms must go through during a period of social, cultural, and political change.