Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – Seasons of Change
March 9, 2016 Leave a comment
Last week I discussed the importance of tradition to Japanese arts like rakugo, it is something that connects them to their past, and informs their approach to the present and future. Tradition is also an integral part of these arts, and can be found in their very character – the way of teaching, types of stories, even specific movements, and introductions – many stories, or plays have specific kata or forms that have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years, unchanging, and unique. So, if tradition is such an integral part of performance, then those who would challenge or question tradition are seen as dangerous, even destructive, and may often result in their exclusion and ostracisation. Sukeroku is one such performer, a man with charisma and talent, a brilliant storyteller who chooses stories to suit the audience, to keep them entertained, and, in some small way, to keep rakugo alive. He, like everybody else wants to keep rakugo going, to generate interest, and to pass on his stories to others, but, his approach to rakguo ignores the traditions of the art form. He dismisses the masters as old fashioned and out of date, deliberately performs complex stories to spite them, and effectively tramples over the long history of rakugo. Except, he also elevates rakugo, and understands its history and traditions, indeed, he loves, even adores rakugo, and his actions are a result of that adoration.
As with all traditional art forms, they will eventually be supplanted as forms of mass entertainment something new. With Japans defeat in WWII, followed by the American occupation of Japan, the country went through a rapid period of westernisation and modernisation. This is not to say that such things hadn’t happened before the war, but the process during the later 1940s and early 1950s was particularly marked in its speed, and the rate with which culture changed. Previously, art forms like rakugo, kabuki, and anything in the yose theatres were an integral part of social entertainment. The theatres represented an important place to meet, and be entertained – we saw brief glimpses of that in earlier episodes, with men and women dressed in kimono’s and sitting on tatami mats. But, with the increased presence of western entertainment, yose were under threat, and many, unable to keep a stead flow of customers were ultimately forced to close their doors in the 1950s. The presence of television, the cinema, and western jazz bars pulled Japan’s youth away from the traditional, and in doing so, created a generation who showed little interest in comedic stories from the Edo period. Sukeroku sees rakugo as a dying art form, something that lacks any relevance to contemporary Japanese society and culture.
As I explored in previous posts, a good rakugo-ka can conjure up the world of their stories, giving an audience with no knowledge or memory of the Edo period a glimpse into another world. The genius in their storytelling is the ability to pull the audience in, and present something exotic and interesting, something that they cannot experience in everyday life. Such an approach can work now, but during the 1950s, when new, and exciting forms of entertainment were suddenly widely available created a space within which rakugo, like many others simple could not survive without clear links to contemporary Japanese society, culture, and politics. Sukeroku understands this, and his approach to rakugo is an attempt to do just that, but, he also views the masters, including his own, as old fashioned; individuals who are wedded to their traditions and rituals in such a way as to be blind to the problems facing rakugo at that very moment. His uncouth, even confrontational behaviour are partly the result of this, something that ultimately leads to his expulsion from Yakumo’s school, and banishment from rakugo altogether. In many respects his outburst when talking to the 7th Generation is rather truthful, with his willingness to perform complex stories that entertain the audience presented as an essential element to retaining rakugo’s position as a popular form of entertainment. At the same time, he does not, or perhaps, will not acknowledge the importance of traditions within the art form he has chosen as his career.
Many others may agree with his views on rakugo in contemporary Japan, but by trampling over the traditions, and treating the masters as stupid old men who are ultimately beneath him is hubristic in the extreme. He has talked at length about becoming the 8th Generation, something he appears to have viewed as nothing short of a foregone conclusion, but that, alongside his overall attitude towards the rakugo association represent hubris that will ultimately lead to his downfall. While tradition can become shackles, weighing people and institutions down, and resulting in their inability to adapt, it is also an essential aspect of those institutions, and in the case of rakugo, is a direct link with the past. By dismissing all tradition outright, and constantly talking about the audience’s enjoyment, Sukeroku appears to demonstrate an arrogance, as if he is the only individual who can save rakugo, whereas everybody else is old fashioned and doomed to failure. At the same time, his desperate attempts to save rakugo and forge his own path (and at times they truly appear desperate) have their origins in his childhood, and how he views rakugo. Whereas Kikuhiko was officially taken on as an apprentice with proper letters of introduction, Sukeroku barged in and demanded to be taken on. His approach to rakugo is that of somebody who has had to change and adapt to survive, and while Kikuhiko may have effectively been abandoned by his mother, he is still within the official traditions of the arts, and hasn’t had to adapt in quite the same way.
There are a number of rather enlightening comments throughout this episode that help to shed light on Sukeroku’s attitude, and the reasons for his actions. Yakumo in his talk with Kikuhiko about becoming the 8th Generation calls him his son, and in many ways that is precisely what Kikuhiko is. There is a long history in Japan of adopting sons, and also daughters in order to carry on the family tradition – this is also arguably the origin of the brothers and sisters who are not related by blood relationships within anime – they may not be family in a biological sense, but in every other sense that is what they are, and that is how they are treated. Kikuhiko is Yakumo’s son, a son who has diligently trained in rakugo, and, because he is not as head strong as Sukeroku, has been chosen as the successor to his family name, reputation, and school. By comparison, Sukeroku is something of an outsider, and he says as much during the final moments of the episode, talking about Kikuhiko being the son, whereas he is little more than a stray dog. In a fascinating twist, Sukeroku, the talented, and brilliant performer who Kikuhiko has always looked up to, admits that he has always been jealous of the love and care that Kikuhiko has been showered with, something that he has never felt. Such comments force us to re-evaluate earlier episodes during the pre-war years when Sukeroku follows Yakumo to Manchuria, while Kikuhiko stays in Japan. Whereas before we might see it as Yakumo acknowledging Sukeroku’s talent (a fact that is arguably still true), it is also perhaps because Yakumo does not want his adopted son, the son whose talent has to be nurtured to experience the harsh times of occupied Manchuria.
This feeling of being abandoned is an essential element of Sukeroku’s, as well as Miyokichi’s actions and their subsequent attitude towards Kikuhiko. Previous episodes have presented Miyokichi as a woman with a similarly complicated, and difficult past, somebody who needs companionship, and to devote herself to someone, partly out of fear of eventual loneliness. She clearly loves Kikuhiko, but his obsession with rakugo eventually creates a gap between the two that simply cannot be filled. While she may find solace in Sukeroku’s company, there is little doubt that Kikuhiko will forever be in her mind – that she openly talks about her love for his features, and his rakugo, despite being half naked and on top of Sukeroku further reinforces the reality that, despite their current relationship, she is still obsessed with the man who left her behind. It is a fascinating, and deeply powerful scene, with the ephemeral sakura blossoms perhaps symbolising the fleeting nature of their relationship, and the reality that, despite the beauty currently present, all things fade. There comes a point in every man’s life when he realises, often with considerable dismay, that women’s needs and desires go beyond the simply maternal. For much of the series the relationship between Miyokichi and Kikuhiko has been characterised with this same maternal element, with both characters finding solace in each others company, perhaps as an escape from the realities of their world and social situation. The fact that women have sexual desires, for instance, is a delight to some, but a source of intense anxiety to others. Both reactions are of course as common in Japan as elsewhere, but for a country internationally known as a paradise of guiltless erotic fun – geisha, mixed bathing, and so on – anxiety plays a remarkably large part in its popular culture. Women in Japanese popular culture are often worshipped as maternal goddesses, but also feared as demons, and when the material mask is ultimately ripped off, a frightening spirit, an apparition filled with terrifying vengeance, is revealed. This is a common theme found in folk beliefs as well as classical literature, specifically, a famous play, performed both in Noh, and in Kabuki, entitled ‘Dojoji’, about one of these demon women called Kiyohime. She falls in love with a young priest, but since he has taken his vows celibacy, he tries to escape from her advances. Her pursuit gets increasing deliberate until finally she turns into a hissing serpent. The terrified priest then hides under a great bell, but, in the climactic scene, the serpent coils itself around the bell and destroys it, along with the poor prise with deadly flames issuing from her fangs.
Miyokichi and Kikuhiko’s relationship is reminiscent of Kiyohime and the priest – she falls in love with him, and does everything in her power to seduce, and keep him with her, but, because Kikuhiko is utterly focussed on rakugo, he does not, or cannot, return her advances; even mentioning to Sukeroku that he would be happy to live on his own, without a wife or family, much like the celibate prirst. Miyokichi’s vengeance has yet to be truly realised, but, as she stands surrounded by swirling sakura blossom her wrath is clear for all to see. Her later, more seductive appearance, half naked, and with her hair undone and flowing across her shoulders shows how easily the maternal can change into the sexual and erotic. She seeks solace in Sukeroku’s company as much as he seeks solace in her company – both are attempting to run away from painful truths and the reality that the wonderful, joyful days they once experienced have long since disappeared. And both are still fixated on Kikuhiko, Miyokichi still loves, and desires him, the one man in her life who she seemed cully comfortable with. While her more erotic appearance in the presence of Sukeroku demonstrates the different facets of her character, it is arguably the case that this is also part of the act, and that, despite her comments that she was merely acting with Kikuhiko, that may have been her truie self on display.
Ultimately, Miyokichi is a complex character whose existence as a Geisha and a prostitute further demonstrates the darker sides of Japan’s traditional entertainment, elements of which still remain in contemporary society, only in a different form and shape. As we leave Sukeroku and Kikuhiko, there is the realisation that they have both been chasing after each others backs, but for different reasons, and that, like it or not, they are essential to the continuation of rakugo as an art form. Kikuhiko, because he follows and understands traditions, and Sukeroku, because he can create wonderful stories that entice a contemporary audience. Sukeroku still desires to continue with rakugo, given his passion in previous episodes that is not something he would likely give up, and like it or not, the older masters acknowledge his abilities. It is because he refuses to acknowledge some of the more fundamental traditions, regardless of how old fashioned and out of touch they may appear that he is expelled, and reduced to a drunken stupor. And yet, throughout this scene we are acutely aware that the wrath of Miyokichi, the vengeful spirit unleashed by Kikuhiko’s rejection, has yet to be fully realised, and will very likely rob the rakugo world of one of its brightest stars.