Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – A Different Sort of Rakugo
February 17, 2016 Leave a comment
Throughout the first half of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, Kikuhiko has spent his time trying to come to terms with his life as a rakugo-ka, often musing on why he is there, and whether he can be a true story teller. His uncertainties are contrasted with the absolute certainty of Sukeroku, who neither wavers, nor questions his current existence, always believing in his story telling ability, and knowing that what he truly wants to do, is to entertain people. The uncertainty and doubt of Kikuhiko are juxtaposed with Sukeroku’s absolute faith in his own abilities, and belief in his chosen profession. In fact, much of the tension within the series so far can be traced to their relationship as fellow students and story tellers with divergent opinions and attitudes towards their current life. We see Sukeroku repeatedly returning to their simple room drunk, or with girls, never practicing, but always performing perfectly. These same performances are influenced by the world around him, and many of his characters are clearly based on the sort of people he associates with in Tokyo’s red light district, and other, shadier quarters. His Rakugo is firmly rooted in his everyday life, and is as carefree as he seems, while also existing to entertain those who go to watch. In fact, he says as much during this episode, explaining to Kikuhiko that during his time in Manchuria, he realised that his rakugo must exist to entertain the audience.
By comparison, Kikuhiko is a very withdrawn individual, somebody who is serious about absolutely everything, from his everyday work, to performing rakugo. But, he is also a distant figure, somebody who often appears to exist outside of everyday life, wandering his own path, even if he doesn’t actually know what that path may be. When compared to Sukeroku, his rakugo is fundamentally lacking, and despite his practice, his performances often appear to be a case of presenting a perfect, if also very dull reproduction of the story he has learned. There is little passion, of emotion in his performances so far, which is clearly demonstrated in the lukewarm reception from the audience, especially when compared to the raucous laughter that often accompanies Sukeroku’s stories. In many respects, Kikuhiko’s approach towards rakugo is deeply rooted in his past as the son of a Geisha, and somebody who, despite his dancing ability had no place in the world he was born into. We see as much in this week’s episode, as trainee Geisha (maiko) talk about how unfortunate Kikuhiko was born a boy rather than a woman, because he cannot work as a Geisha, and his practice is therefore viewed to be meaningless. In many respects his predicament mirrors that of Konatsu, who, despite her clearly ability in rakugo story telling, cannot pursue it as a career. It also highlights the closed nature of many traditional arts, and the problems faced by the children of performers, Geisha, and actors – children who may be shut out of that profession due to their gender, and who are forced into other professions in order to survive.
It is something of a cold, even cruel world, and one that has clearly affected Kikuhiko’s approach to life in general at a very young age. Kikuhiko’s existence as the son of a Geisha is fundamental to his character, he is an outsider in society, and given his bad leg, and inability to dance, his apprenticeship as a rakugo-ka is a necessity, rather than a choice. It is also important to note that his talents were not viewed as exceptional, but instead in a sad, almost tragic manner, as they are the skills of a female entertainer, and especially during the Shouwa period, a male dancer would be looked down upon with scorn by all concerned. That is not to say that male Geisha have never existed; originally known as Taikomochi (lit. ‘drum (taiko) bearer’), they were once attendants to daimyo, who advised and entertained their lords, often with extensive knowledge of tea ceremony and other arts. By the 16th century, they became known as otogishu or hanashishu (story tellers), where they primarily focussed on conversation, humour, and story telling, and were often essential as advisers on military strategy, and fighting alongside their lords. During the Edo period many of these skills were no longer necessary, and they became pure entertainers, but by the the late 18th century, and into the early 19th century male geisha were in decline, and were supplanted by female geisha as a form of sophisticated entertainment.
Kikuhiko clearly has all of those skills, especially as a story teller, but he was born into an age where male geisha, or Taikomochi, no longer exist, as such, he is abandoned by his family and forced into becoming a rakugo apprentice. But, in hindsight this was simply a case of pushing him from one place to another, forcing him to take on another profession because his existence within a Geisha household would have become a hindrance, especially given his damaged leg. As such, Kikuhiko has no path in life, and many of his issues are as a result of his drifting listlessly through life, who’s absolute focus on practice, and memorising stories to perfection is an attempt to find meaning in his current existence. Such problems are further exacerbated by Sukeroku’s natural talent, and ability to take his life experiences and use them to further inform his own story telling (which is not to say that Kikuhiko is not naturally talented, but in a very different way). Kikuhiko is always looking at Sukeroku’s back, believing that through constant practice and repetition he can be as good, without ever stopping to think about why he is doing that practice, and what he can achieve himself.
During this episode there are a number of moments when he reflects on his past, and why he is focussing on rakugo, finding the experience deeply frustrating, especially when it appears that Sukeroku had already come to understand Kikuhiko’s rakugo years before, and within apparent ease. Ultimately he realises that whole Sukeroku feeds off the crowds’ energy, using their laughter to further inform his story, his own form of story telling is different. His is a more personal, perhaps even selfish approach, one that is informed by his wish to belong, a desire that has been at the heart of his effort and focus on the perfection of technique. Since he was effectively abandoned by his family, he has had to create a space to belong, a space that has felt under threat even as it was being created. Sukeroku’s natural ability resulted in Kikuhiko focussing on his approach to story telling, and chasing after his shadow since the early days of their apprenticeship, but it is only during this episode that he has finally acknowledged that such effort may be unnecessary. Unburdened by thoughts of besting Sukeroku, Kikuhiko can begin to accept that his rakugo is far more personal, and certainly less brash. The resulting performance is a far more intimate, spellbinding affair than anything that has come before, and while Sukeroku had the audience in fits of laughter, Kikuhiko had them mesmerised, laughing at times, but often just staring into the world he was creating, fixed on his every movement and word. There are moments when Kikuhiko disappears into the background, and we are presented with an image of the Edo period, a demonstration that, while he may still be relatively new, he has begun to conjure up the worlds of rakugo, and provide the audience with a vision of Edo that only the best story tellers can accomplish.
While it could be easy to fixate on the title of his story (Shinjuu, often translated as double suicide), it is a story of a foolish gang member, who, captured by the beauty of a geisha, agrees to her plan without any thought. The various problems that befall him throughout the story are as a result of his unthinking nature, and a willingness to simply follow through with the plan without ever fully taking stock. That he survives, and the geisha in question calls it off, only after pushing him into the lake demonstrates how foolish he really is. In many respects there are echo’s of Kikuhiko’s life a a rakugo-ka – he has been blindly trying to follow Sukeroku, seeing in him some key element of story telling that he currently lacks. But in doing so he never stops to properly think about his own approach, in a sense, he is blinded by the beauty of good story telling, and is thus left dumbfounded, and incapable of rational thought. But, when Kikuhiko does stop to think, he finally sees what a fool he has been, and how important it is to tell rakugo for your own reasons, rather than trying to copy somebody else’s. This realisation results in a wonderful performance, and for the first time we see the seductive nature of Kikuhiko’s rakugo. If we look a little deeper, it is possible to see the roots of his performances within his own upbringing as the son of a Geisha, those perfect feminine movements are from Odori, a form of dancing that originated in the Edo period and grew out of Kabuki. His every movement has a refined, deliberate quality that bear some resemblance to the sort of movements and poses employed by Geisha, and other entertainers. In essence, his rakugo is as much influenced by his surroundings as Sukeroku’s, only he hasn’t allowed those influences to play their role until now.