Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – A Change in the Wind
February 24, 2016 Leave a comment
Much of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu has been about following Kikuhiko as he struggles with his feelings for rakugo, feelings that are complicated by his past, and the existence of Sukeroku, a seemingly untouchable rakugo apprentice. He is an uncertain character, one who continuously questions his own choices, and whether he is even capable of truly telling food rakugo. This contrasts with the absolute certainty of Sukeroku, an individual who never practices, and yet continuously produces exceptional performances that have the audience rolling with laughter. His is a natural talent, and one that for the first half of the series largely overshadows Kikuhiko, pushing him into the corner where he continuously struggles to come to terms with his current life. And yet, during the last couple of episodes there has been a sudden, dramatic shift in Kikuhiko’s approach, as he has finally reconciled his own view of rakugo with those around him, and realised that despite everything, he truly enjoys performing for the audience. In fact, during the kabuki play from two weeks ago, there are a number of moments with he is utterly thrilled with being on stage, and having the audience’s stares fixed on his every movement. The result is a realisation, and the rediscovery of his love for rakugo, culminating in last weeks’ spell-binding performance.
Now we are presented with two very different approaches to rakugo; Sukeroku offers a rough, but engaging form of story telling, one that uses his vast experience in the less salubrious areas of Tokyo, alongside the other aspects of his daily life to inform his characters and approach to storytelling. Kikuhiko on the other hand has a far more sensuous performance, one that doesn’t elicit the same guffaws as Sukeroku’s, and yet has the audience hanging on his every word, transfixed by his movements, his mannerisms, and his very presence. These two could not be more different, and perhaps because they are so different they have managed to create divergent styles of story telling, all while studying under the same master. The Kikuhiko of this episode is fully immersed in rakugo, and, alongside Sukeroku, performing on a regular basis at a number of different yosei, although, as we discover later in the episode, his love of rakugo has largely taken over his life, with little time to see anybody else. In fact, the changes that Kikuhiko has gone through over the course of the last couple of episodes, coupled with the almost static nature of Sukeroku are major themes within this week’s episode.
Whereas Kikuhiko has had to struggle with rakugo, often questioning his commitment, and getting increasingly frustrated with his apparently inability to interest an audience, Sukeroku the ability to perform and capture the interest of an audience seem to come naturally to Sukeroku. From the early moments of the series it is clear that to Sukeroku, rakugo is an essential element of his life, not least because it is an effective means to survive the pre-war years when Japan was becoming increasing militaristic. Sukeroku fully embraces the chance to study with a master, even going so far as to barge in and impressive with his rough, but good rakugo considering his young age. That he does this without a formal introduction, something that is still important for traditional arts and long, established schools in Japan, is nothing short of a miracle, and a testament to his ability at a young age, and certainty that he will become a proper rakugo-ka. In comparison, Kikuhiko is pushed into rakugo because his geisha mother effectively abandons him, especially after he damages his leg. 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.
Both are forced into rakugo for different reasons, and their personalities and attitudes to life inform the way they approach rakugo and their current lifestyle, with Kikuhiko the serious and studious pupil, whereas Sukeroku acts entirely on instinct. For the first half of the series that instinct works for Sukeroku, and he is shown disappearing off into the distance, first with their master on a tour of Manchuria, and then in post-war Japan, where he has bookings to tell stories, while Kikuhiko has to serve at a café in order to make ends meet, and support Sukeroku. But, over the course of these latest episodes there has been a gradual shift, with Kikuhiko finally coming to understand why he wants to do rakugo, and beginning to acquire more appointments to tell stories. We see Kikuhiko maturing as a rakugo-ka, keeping his audiences spellbound, and continuously attempting to improve, whereas Sukeroku seems stuck. He is certainly still a good story teller, and the laughter of the audience in this episode attest to that, but he hasn’t matured in the same manner as Kikuhiko, because he has rarely had the same work ethic. Partly this is because of his natural ability, but also because he is a layabout, using the excuse that he is a performer to enjoy all the pleasures that the cities red light districts, and other pleasure quarters have to offer.
The struggle and diligence of Kikuhiko pays off, with his master offering him the opportunity to take part in a tour of the Chubu Region (located directly in between the Kanto and Kansai regions), thus mirroring the offer that Sukeroku had to tour Manchuria. But, while there are clear similarities, Kikuhiko has had this offer when he is beginning to mature as a rakugo-ka, and starting to make his own impact on the rakugo scene of Tokyo. It therefore offers him the opportunity to be known further afield, and perform to a variety of different audiences, thus further forcing him to improve and tweak his style. Sukeroku’s chance was in Manchuria, to the occupying soldier’s, a different set of circumstances entirely, and one that is arguably not as useful as Kikuhiko’s, although they are both important opportunities for the two characters. Importantly, by asking Kikuhiko to accompany him, and especially in relation to the constant complaints, and other issues surrounding Sukeroku’s general behaviour, habits, and appearance, their master seems to be acknowledging that Kikuhiko is the better suited of the two to accompany him.
Their relationship is a rather curious one, with Kikuhiko and Sukeroku acting almost like brothers, or exceptionally close friends. There are also moments within the first half of the series with significant homo-erotic tension, with the two of them bickering like an old married couple, only for Kikuhiko to turn into the fussing mother (or perhaps father), scolding Sukeroku for his manners, slovenly behaviour, and appearance. If anything, it is because of Kikuhiko’s more serious personality that Sukeroku has been able to continue with rakugo, despite his less than productive lifestyle. The suggestion is that he spends his days in a constant state of dishabille, either drinking, womanising, or sleeping, with rakugo serving as the one true point when he becomes absolutely focussed. There are also hints, or the suggestion of hints that he is involved with a shadier aspect to the red light district and other pleasure quarters, nothing explicit, but the suggestion that his constant drinking and playing around may be leading him into trouble in the future. Their relationship also strains the somewhat brittle relationship between Kikuhiko and Miyokichi, with the latter seemingly abandoned so that Kikhuiko can take care of Sukeroku. In this respect it is difficult to determine the true feelings between the two, with Miyokichi clearly attracted to Kikuhiko, whereas he seems at ease with her, perhaps even reciprocating the feelings, and yet his life is entirely consumed by rakugo and those who are a part of that world.
Perhaps he felt at ease with Miyokichi because she reminded him of his childhood, and offered a space where he could retreat from the world of rakugo, that, at least early on, appeared overly complicated, and even scary. The various scenes with the two appear to show a carring couple, and yet, Kikhuiko constantly mentions rakugo, leaving little space for his (apparent) feelings for Miyokichi, something that she is acutely aware of. The sinal scenes between the two characters show a fraught relationship that cannot progress because Kikuhiko is so consumed by his newfound love of rakugo, and desire to improve as fast as possible. Miyokichi’s tears come across as those of a women who has lost a companion, somebody who didn’t view her purely as a beautiful entertainer, but as a companion with a shared background and love of arts. Ultimately the episode leaves us with the knowledge that the relationship between Sukeroku, Kikuhiko, and Miyokichi is far from simple, and while it certainly isn’t a love triangle (and will unlikely ever be one), it is also something of a triangle, with Kikuhiko at the centre of it all. It further reinforces the complex nature of traditional arts within the period, a time when many aspects of Japanese society was changing, and these traditions were coming up with new means with which to survive the post-war period.