Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – Questioning Tradition


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Tradition is an essential aspect of traditional Japanese entertainment, with various forms, poems, stories, and even movements, or ‘kata’ passed down from generation to generation, sometimes for centuries. One of the most extreme examples of this tradition can be found in Kabuki, where particular forms and movements have gone unchanged for centuries, and the best Kabuki actors are distinguished by the small, individual flourishes that they add to the basic kata, flourishes that often only the most experienced viewer may notice. The same s true of other forms of entertainment such as rakugo, with stories, and particular makura (the beginning or introduction) being fixed, and following the same pattern regardless of who the story teller is. This aspect of traditional Japanese entertainment is essential, and represents an important continuity between the past, present, and future. It also represents a significant stumbling block during a period of extreme growth and modernisation, where old forms of entertainment are supplanted by the new, the exotic, the different. The post-war period that Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu represents an era of immense cultural and social change, one that offered traditional arts a new start, free from the controls of the immediate per-war years, when all forms of entertainment and media were censored, while also facing significant challenges from newer, western forms of entertainment and music.

Now, the immediate post-war period during the allied occupation of Japan was far from rosy, with significant censorship imposed by he occupying forces, and Japan effectively stripped of control over its own country. However, during the 1950s – specifically from April 1952 onwards – became a time of immense economic expansion, as the country laid the foundations for what became known as the Japanese Economic Miracle. It was also a period of opposites and clashes, with conservative politics centred around the Liberal Democratic Party or LDP (a party that has effectively ruled Japan continuously from 1955 until present, with two periods where independent governments were formed), and a more liberal approach to youth and culture. It was a period of increased westernisation as American troops during the occupation years brought with them American culture, particularly youth culture that made its mark on the country. While it would be wrong to suggest that westernisation was a post-war phenomenon (far from it), it was certainly an important aspect of the period. We have already seen that aspect in Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, as Kikuhiko dresses in western clothes, waits in a western style café, and even meats Miyokichi in a western style bar called Tennessee. With so many others form’s of culture and experiences becoming available, rakugo, alongside other traditional entertainment exists within an increasingly crowded market, and, although we have yet to see one, may be suffering from an identity crisis.

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Central to the many conflicts within the series – some small, others large – is the importance of tradition, and what it means to be upholding the tradition of your art, even when that very tradition may be its downfall. Sukeroku embodies a new approach to rakugo, one that ignores the niceties of tradition (although he certainly doesn’t ignore tradition itself), and focusses exclusively on entertaining the audience. Such an approach results in his butting heads with the masters, ignoring their advice, and often deliberately going against their wishes. We have already seen one such argument in the previous episode, when he is told off for telling an advanced story, one that the masters clearly believe must only be told by somebody they acknowledge as an accomplished storyteller with the requisite rank and status. As it is, Sukeroku and Kikuhiko are little more than apprentices; they may not be living with their master anymore and establishing a name for themselves, but they are still apprentice rakugo-ka.

So, by ignoring their suggestions, or perhaps they are orders, and performing advanced rakugo, by remaining scruffy, drinking, and womanising, Sukeroku dismisses the traditions they uphold as essential elements of rakugo, and rakugo-ka. He loves rakugo, and respects the traditions of story telling, and we never see a single performance where he moves around, but the other forms, or kata of being a rakugo-ka appear as little more than excessive fluff, something that gets between him and the audience. He says as much during this week’s conversation with Kikuhiko, pointing the increasing popularity of western entertainment, such as jazz music and the bar they are occupying. Rakugo cannot get by on the sudden popularity that it encountered during the immediate post-war years, and he argues that it must learn to adapt to stay relevant, or disappear forever. By questioning many of the traditions that the masters hold so dear, Sukeroku is questioning their lax attitude in the promotion of rakugo, not rakugo itself. And his passing comment about Miyokichi being the only member of the audience who isn’t old is also rather telling at the sort of audience that traditional forms of entertainment like rakugo have. Although, given the importance of tradition, and respecting the traditions passed down for generations, it is easy to see why his attitudes are seen as a direct attack of rakugo, and that he is bringing the art form into ill repute. Admittedly, his own attitude, appearance, and love of drink and women hardly does him any favours.

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Kikuhiko on the other hand respects the masters and the traditions, and while he may know many advanced rakugo, doesn’t want to rock the boat, and tells stories that are considered respectable for his current position within the rakugo hierarchy. As such he represents the perfect pupil, and possible successor for rakugo, and the complete opposite of Sukeroku, something that he, and many others are acutely aware of. By accompanying his master, Kikuhiko has been acknowledged as an accomplished storyteller, and somebody who better represents what many consider rakugo to be than Sukeroku. And yet, everybody acknowledges Sukeroku’s talents and ability to entertain an audience, because, despite everything, the rakugo masters understand the importance of entertaining the audience, and know that ultimately that is what rakugo is. Because, once you get past the traditions, the clothes, and the beautifully crafted façade, all of these art forms, regardless of their age, and there to entertain, and without that, they would have disappeared long ago. Indeed, much of the tension between Sukeroku and Kikhuiko stems from Kikuhiko’s acknowledgement at Sukeroku’s abilities, and the feeling that he is forever chasing his shadow, the talented apprentice who has always been better at everything. Perhaps his straight laced personality, and obsession with being neat and perfect has been informed by his replationship with Sukeroku, and the knowledge that he cannot be the drinking, womanising story teller, and must therefore be something else entirely. Of course, as I have discussed in previous posts, Kikuhiko’s past as the son of a Geisha has also informed his approach to rakugo, even setting the foundations for the way he sees himself, and rakugo as a whole. But his relationship with Sukeroku, somebody who should be his equal, apprenticing at the same time, and living through the pre-war years together, has clearly informed his current approach to rakugo, and his other relationships.

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We then come to the weight of tradition, and the pressures that it imposes upon people. Throughout the episode there were moments when characters talked about the traditions of rakugo, and the power that they had, particularly the importance of names and the continuity of a rakugo name and household. Yakumo talks about his family and title, explaining the great weight that a known, and respected name can have; it is not just a name, but a connection with the seven generations of his family, and a representation of the historical past of rakugo. It is a name that he feels has often controlled him, as he has performed under the name that his father made truly famous. In essence, Yakumo feels that many people have come to see the name perform, rather than the person, further highlighting the importance and dangers of tradition within rakugo, as with other similar arts. One the one hand, it is a well known name, something that can be traced back to the Edo period, and yet, that same name can smother the person performing under it, hiding their true self, so that the audience only see the name rather than the person. Sukeroku shows a different side to the importance of names within rakugo however, explaining the origins of his name, and his desires to carry the name of his original teacher and finally bring it into the light where it belongs. His story also serves to emphasise the difficult reality of rakugo, and other Japanese entertainment, demonstrating how easily a respected teacher can fall from grace, and ultimately die in a yose, penniless and alone. His desire to inherit the Yakumo name (something we know he will never do) is firmly rooted in his childhood, and the realisation that without a known name, a rakugo-ka can be forgotten or ignored. His desire reinforces Yakumo’s earlier comments about the importance of the name, and the feeling he often gets that people come to see the name perform, rather than the individual.

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Such pressure influcnes the way Sukeroku and Kikuhiko approach rakugo, it is something they must dedicate their lives to if they are to succeed, especially during a period of social and cultural change, one where tradition must suddenly compete with newer, western forms of entertainment. It also helps to explain why Kikuhiko has been avoiding Miyokichi, a woman he loves, but also a woman who has been a prostitute, and is now a Geisha. His attempts to break up with her are sloppy, and clumsy; essentially he tries to hurt her in order to make the breakup quick, and comparatively painless, despite loving her as deeply as she loves him. His explanation for this sudden turn of events is further linked with the importance of tradition and respectability. Rakugo, like most other old Japanese entertainment, has its origins in wandering story tellers, in the pleasure districts, and other areas of flexible morals. But, as time progressed, rakugo, like kabuki, and noh, started to gain a reputation for respectability, they are forms of entertainment that anybody can enjo, but in the process, those who perform must maintain that image. Kikuhiko is told that he should marry a ‘nice’ girl, in order to have a respectable home life, and that failure to do so would likely result in Kikuhiko’s expulsion from the rakugo association. In essence, by staying with Miyokichi, Kikuhiko faces the possibility of becoming Sukeroku’s first teacher, a penniless performer, without a respected name, and reputation.

Here we see the dark side to tradition and its importance to arts like rakugo. By choosing rakugo, Kikuhiko abandon’s Miyokichi, a woman who has been tricked and dumped numerous times, even selling her body in order to survive in Manchuria, and make her way back to Japan. She is beautiful, intelligent, and above all, loves Kikuhiko, despite the many issues he has faced. In fact, it could be argued that throughout the series, it has been Miyokichi who has supported him, helping him come to terms with his love of rakugo, regardlkess of whatever else he has thought at the time. By abandoning her for rakugo, Kikuhiko demonstrates the selfish reality of performance, he chooses his passion over somebody he deeply loves, even explaining to Sukeroku that he cannot love her enough to be expelled from the association. It is hard to tell exactly how strict the society would truly be in this matter, given that they promoted Sukeroku, despite the many complaints about his attitude and presentation. That the separation does happen simply reinforces how much importance is placed upon tradition, and also how easily a rakugo performer can lose their position. The parting at the end of this episode serves to demonstrate how quickly things can change, and how easily the thought of losing what you hold dear can result in decisions that, while at first appear to be good, may end up being a mistake. It also serves to illustrate the multifaceted faces of tradition, with its ability to create a cohesive framework within which performance can exist, while simultaneously creating friction, and potentially destroying lives.

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

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