Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – The Seduction of Theatre


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So far Shouwa Genroku Rakguo Shinjuu has been a fascinating glimpse at a period when two Japan’s collide, something that I am particularly interested in. As the series has progressed Tokyo, and the world around Sukeroku and Yakumo (Kikuhiko) has changed, with the old world of the Taisho and early Shouwa periods gradually disappearing, or being consumed by the ever advancing economy and society of post-war Japan. Indeed, we now see the old and the new side by side, jostling for space, which ultimately results in the old losing out. There are constant reminders of this tussle between two different Japans throughout the series, and this episode is no different. Quite apart from the obvious use of western clothes next to Japanese, there are other signs that things are changing. The increasing prevalence of neon signs, cars, and overhanging wires are one thing (although it must be stated that these certainly existed before the 1950s, and indeed, existed in the 19th century), but there are also other signs that things are subtly changing. Sukeroku talks about going to Yoshiwara, the famous (or perhaps infamous) pleasure district of Tokyo, a throwback to when the city was known as Edo, and the centre of the Shogunates rule. Part of the floating world that incorporated artists, playwrights, actors, prostitutes, and Geisha, a curious place that existed outside of everyday life, and away from the morals and social sensibilities that are such an important factor of daily life in Japan. Sukeroku makes a fascinating comment when talking to an irate Kikuhiko that, unless he joins them soon, Yoshiwara will disappear, never to return. He also mentions the American’s complaints about Yoshiwara’s existence, and, it ultimately went out of business when the Japanese government (under pressure from other countries) outlawed prostitution in 1958.

While prostitution is hardly a good profession (quite the opposite), and the various issues, and crime that accompany it have caused untold misery to many, many people, the closing of Yoshiwara also signalled an end to an area where so many elements of Japan’s stage traditions were based (at least during the Edo period). This simple conversation can be seen to signal a turning point for these traditional arts (although it can also be argued that such a point had appeared decades before), as they are forced to adapt to this new world, or eventually disappear. A curious little conversation given the professions of the series main characters, two Rakugo-ka, and a trainee Geisha (known as a Maiko), who are intimately tied into an otherwise disappearing world. What is immediately obvious to the viewer is the comparative poverty that Kikuhiko, Sukeroku, and Miyokichi live in, poverty that stands in stark contrast to their general appearance when performing to their audience, or customers in the case of Miyokichi. It is a poverty and lifestyle that Sukeroku successfully used to influence his rakugo – his stories are full of rough, seductive characters that come from his experiences with the people of the street and Yoshiwara. They certainly have the charm, how could they not, but they are very particular characters, and Sukeroku performs his stories in a specific way that others may be incapable of copying. Kikuhiko on the other hand lacks that experience of Yoshiwara and other pleasure areas that Sukeroku uses to inform his performance – although as Kikuhiko points out, if Sukeroku continues the way he is, he may end up dead.

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In fact, Kikuhiko often gives the impression of being uninterested in women, even finding the prostitutes and call girls that Sukeroku is forever seen with a pain, especially when they are brought back to their shabby room. Throughout these past three episodes there has been a certain amount of homo-erotic tension between Kikuhiko and Sukeroku. Not necessarily love, but admiration on the part of Kikuhiko for somebody who he sees as a superior storyteller, somebody who he aspires to be, while simultaneously finding Sukeroku’s existence annoying and aggravating. In fact, Kikuhiko says as much when talking to Sukeroku, explaining that he is aggravated, annoyed, and even a little jealous of Sukeroku’s ability to be a good storyteller with putting any apparent (or at least obvious) effort into his work. His (apparently) natural ability to keep an audience fixed on his stories, make them laugh or cry at his whims, and charm. For Sukeroku’s part he seems to treat Kikuhiko more like a younger brother, although at times that changes to the fussy older brother when he is scolded for his womanising and drinking. It is a fascinating relationship, but one that occasionally seems somewhat hollow, with a certain amount if distance evident between the two main characters.

Kikuhiko may voice his dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, demonstrating his annoyance of the ease with which Sukeroku performs, not to mention his general disgust at Sukeroku constantly bringing girls back to their rooms, but there are also things he rarely says. His interactions with Miyokichi as his stone like defence suddenly slips, and he becomes a far more fragile figure than previous episodes would suggest points to a certain distance between him and Sukeroku. Despite his interest in rakugo, Kikuhiko talks to Miyokichi about feeling unsuitable to be a rakugo-ka, about his lack of charm, and lack of ability. That he even mentions his damaged leg, and freely rests his head on her shoulder seem to indicate that unlike anybody else, he feels safe with her. It is hard to tell if this is because of romantic feelings, although it seems more likely that because she is a trainee Geisha, Kikuhiko feels at home with her. As I have mentioned in a previous post, he seems to be at ease in her presence, and can relax in a way that he is incapable of doing when around Sukeroku, or anybody associated with him or rakugo. A curious idea since Miyokichi is his masters’ mistress, a trainee Geisha, and part of the same world of entertainers that he, and his chosen profession are part of. Indeed, as she points out, there is very little difference between Geisha and actors, they are ultimately performing for their audience, and while that audience may differ, their performances must remain the same, and must be captivating, enthralling, and entertaining.

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This episode also represents a turning point for Kikuhiko, when he finally understands what it means to captivate an audience, and to be the centre of attention. Until now he has been unable to grab the audiences’ attention, and lacks the allure that his performances will eventually acquire. This same allure is something he acquires, or at least recognises during this episodes performance of Benten Kozō, or to use its original name “Aoto Zōshi Hana no Nishiki-e” (青砥稿花紅彩画), a tale in five acts of the shiranamimono (tales of thieves) sub-category of the kizewamono (rough contemporary piece) genre of kabuki plays. The play focusss on a band of five thieves, whos characters were based on real thieves and criminals of Edo era Osaka: namely, Karigane Bunshichi, An no Heibei, Gokuin Sen’emon, Kaminari Shokuro, and Hotei Ichiemon. The name of Nippon Daemon, the leader of the band in this play is also taken from that of Nippon Saemon, who was captured and executed in 1747. Also, the character of Benten Kozō (the main, and most famous character in the play) is said to have been based on a servant of Iwamoto-in temple on Enoshima, an island dedicated to the goddess Benten (thus the name). The play is perhaps most famous for the speeches made by Kozō and his compatriots when they dramatically remove their disguises and reveal their true identities. Throughout the play Kozō takes on the form of a beautiful woman, complete with the movements and mannerisms associated with high-ranking women of the period. One of the most celebrated elements of this play, and one that is key to the development of Kikuhiko’s character, is the ability and acting skills required to act the role of a low-class manly thief who is, in turn, acting as a classy, refined young woman.

Most kabuki actors specialise in acting either the male, or the female roles for their entire careers, and those who play the beautiful women, the Onnagata capable of creating an astoundingly beautiful and captivating figure. Therefore, the ability to successfully pull off the performance of Benten Kozō, the actor must be particularly skillful, with an ability to switch between mannerisms, language, and posture in a moment. Despite his nerves at the beginning, Kikuhiko is able to create an alluring, captivating performance, presenting a female role that is a throw back to the Edo period, complete with verbal inflections, manners of speech, and posture. And he is beautiful, almost as if he is a kitsune as Sukeroku suggests, a shape changing fox that has taken on the form of a beautiful women to bewitch passers by. Indeed, his features when in makeup resemble those often ascribed to the beauty of a shape changing kitsune; a narrow face, close-set eyes, thin eyebrows, and high cheekbones. It is an apt description of course, because in his Onnagata form as Benten Kozō, Kikuhiko has changed shape, and through his performance, he slowly bewitches the audience, becoming the centre of attention, almost as if he were creating an illusion so elaborate, as to be almost indistinguishable from reality.

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As the climactic scene approaches, Kikuhiko has become the centre of attention; as he finally reveals himself to be a young man disguised as a woman we are finally treated to the true strength of his storytelling, and by extension, acting ability. That he manages to act like a highly masculine young man, while in full makeup, wig, and highly decorated kimono further demonstrates an ability to change and shift his appearance in a way that Sukeroku lacks. His allure, his charm is very different from Sukeroku’s, the issue has been that because he has always been looking at Sukeroku’s back, seeing him disappear off into the distance, he has started to believe that he is lacking something as a story teller. In essence he has always been blind to his own abilities, often dismissing them outright as something a rakugo-ka doesn’t need, when the reality is very much different. Actually, this episode serves to illustrate the differences between Kikuhiko and Sukeroku – Sukeroku seems to focus more on his everyday life, with characters largely taken from the sort of individual he interacts with in Yoshiwara, and other red-light districts. By comparison, Kikuhiko produces alluring, seductive characters that you are unlikely to encounter on the streets of Yoshiwara, but instead inhabit people’s fantasies. The episode does an excellent job of presenting his performance in much the same way it presents rakugo, rather than lots of movement from one side of the stage to the other, Kikuhiko performs in one area, with movements, mannerisms, and changes in personality mirroring those we would see if this were a rakugo, rather than kabuki performance.

This episode serves to illustrate the fragile nature of Kikuhiko, and the importance of those who surround him in offering a stable platform with which to develop his performance, and rakugo. The homo-erotic tension between Kikuhiko and Sukeroku illuminates a close relationship that informs their approaches to life and rakugo. It is quite an intimate relationship, but also one that occasionally feels rather distant, as Kikuhiko and Sukeroku approach life from the opposite ends. Kikuhiko in particular is a distant, withdrawn individual, and it is arguably only through his interactions with Miyokichi in recent episodes that have allowed his defenses to slip a little. Despite his grumblings, and comments about being unsuitable for rakugo, Kikuhiko is deeply embedded in the world of traditional arts and performers. It takes some goading from Miyokichi and Sukeroku to push him into the performance, but, it is ultimately the performance as Benten Kozō, as the audience look in in awe, transfixed by his beauty, that Kikuhiko finally realises the power of the performer, and the seductive nature of the theatre in all its forms.

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

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