Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – Memories of the Past


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The past exerts a tremendous force on the characters in Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, it pulls at them incessantly, reminding them of past slights, problems that they have desperately tried to overcome, while raking up memories that they would have preferred left buried. The past also informs their choices in the present, and in that past we can find the reasons for their focus on rakugo, and obsession with performance. In the case of Yuurakutei Yakumo, his is a past full of regrets and anguish, one that has informed his attitude towards Kikuhiko and Sukeroku, and ultimately helps to explain why he was so strict within them, and particularly with Sukeroku. As the son of a famous rakugo-ka, Yuurakutei clearly felt the weight of his fathers name on him, even mentioning in a previous episode that there were times when he felt the audience were their to see the name, rather than the individual. This offers another link to the importance of tradition in Japan, and how it can cause trouble, while also offering a solid framework within which individuals can work and act.

Passing on a family name is an essential aspect of Japanese society, at least when it comes to well known names, such as those used by famous actors, story tellers, and even businesses. The name is often more important than the individual, it has weight, heft, and history that can directly link the current holder back into the past, to a time that many may consider the golden age of Japanese culture and society. Because these names carry so much significance the task of handing on a name, and continuing the family is an essential aspect of the household and its current head. Many Japanese families adopt children specifically to carry on their name and business – thus the common theme of siblings that are not related by blood – with Kikuhiko and Sukeroku representing the two son Yuurakutei adopted in order to carry on his families’ legacy. But, because a name can have so much weight behind it, there will always be those considered unsuitable of inheriting – Sukeroku for example would likely drag the name through the mud, and sully the history of Yakumo, at least, that appears to be the attitude of many rakugo masters, and particularly the head of the rakugo federation. In fact, Yuurakutei reveals a surprisingly selfish side to his character when in hospital, as he tells Kikuhiko about his past, and his successful attempts to gain the Yakumo name, regardless of his rakugo ability when compared to his fathers’ pupils.

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The revelations regarding Sukeroku, the pupil who arguably deserved the Yakumo name, alongside Yuurakutei’s realisation that he doesn’t want to give anybody a name that arguably has too much weight and history behind it for anybody to ever successfully use it again are fascinating. They also help to explain why Sukeroku was so fixated on inheriting the name, alongside Yuurakutei’s harsher approach to his teaching. Rather than spoil his sons, Yuurakutei seems to care for them and realise that spoiling them would result in the same problems he once faced. It is not that he doesn’t care for Sukeroku, perhaps he cared for him too much, but he couldn’t bring himself to fully acknowledge that the Sukeroku name had appeared once again. His stubborn nature ultimately resulted in the loss of somebody who he holds dear, and yet that same stubborn nature meant that he could only acknowledge his mistakes when he is on the verge of death. That Kikuhiko still refuses to take up the Yakumo name further reinforces the dangers of tradition, and how easily it can drown out individual voices and ideas. Perhaps if Kikuhiko were to have immediately performed under the Yakumo name, his shinigami, and highly distinctive form of rakugo would have been buried forever. A point he makes absolutely clear to Yuurakutei – he is not his master, and wants to develop a distinctive and unique rakugo, one that cannot be replicated. Such an attitude highlights how different he is from Yuurakutei, as well as Sukeroku; while he may be informed by his past as the son of a Geisha, he is not bound by it in the same way that his master, and brother are. He is able to refuse a highly prestigious and recognisable name precisely because he doesn’t need that aspect of the rakugo tradition to perform, and would arguably be swallowed up by it if he were to try. That he performs under the Yakumo name later on suggests that Kikuhiko was able to create something different to add to rakugo, and balance out the importance and prestige of the Yakumo name with his own style, one that could not be confused with the famous rakugo-ka who came before.

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Kikuhiko’s reaction when on stage is also illuminating, and provides some insight into what he as a story teller desires, to be alone, to be isolated, and without worrying about what those around him think or do. In a sense his storytelling is intensely personal, and while he may be performing in front of an audience, he is actually performing solely for his own enjoyment. As his performance progresses the stage is gradually alienated from the audience, until everything else is black, leaving Kikuhiko alone in the centre of the light, simply telling a story for the sheer thrill of the experience. While it may be obvious that Kikuhiko and Sukeroku are very different individuals, it is in this moment that their differences as story tellers become apparent. Sukeroku was only interest in pleasing the audience, he was a pure entertainer who deliberately chose difficult stories because they were crowd favourites and allowed him to feed off their energy. Kikuhiko on the other hand doesn’t seem to care about the audience’s enjoyment, at least not in the obvious way Sukeroku is, and instead performs in a highly personal manner that manages to conjure up the worlds of his stories, without any major focus on whether the audience a truly enjoying themselves or not. Of course, his performances are absolutely captivating in a way that Sukeroku was incapable of achieving (although he was clearly talented and grabbed the audience in other ways), and as such, Kikuhiko is an exemplary performer. But also one who has little interest in relationships, giving himself over entirely to the joy of rakugo, and attitude that ultimately led to the fractious relationship with Miyokichi.

This episode neatly encapsulates the force that the past can exert on the present, especially with regards to an art form like rakugo. Everything from the stories, to the clothes, and even the yose theatres are reminders of Japan’s historical past, artefacts that can still link the present to a period that many will either have forgotten, or have never known. The past, and its traditions inform rakugo, and help individuals like Kikuhiko conjur up images of this period, while also offering a stable framework within which rakugo-ka can perform and entertain others. It is this very framework that has allowed him to apprentice under Yuurakutei, to become his adopted son, and finally have a profession to call his own, even though he was abandoned by his original family. The weight of such tradition can, however, be stifling, and can eventually smother creativity; Sukeroku pushes against the traditions and practices that he sees as old fashioned and out of touch in an attempt to create a modern rakugo that is imbedded in contemporary culture. In this case rigid traditions result in banishment, in forcing out a talented rakugo-ka because he refuses to follow them perfectly, and wants to try something different. Rather than the past informing the present, it controls it, and becomes a rigid framework that restricts all attempts at change, thus stifling creativity. Yuurakutei knows the power of tradition all too well, and has clearly been constrained by the weight of his families name his whole life. With his death, and the rise of Kikuhiko, we see a gradual shift occurring, one that is intimately linked with the historical period, a period that saw significant changes in Japan’s culture, economy, and societal norms. It might be one small part, but the performances of Kikuhiko and Sukeroku exemplify a change in rakugo, one that is informed by the past, and its traditions, but is not constrained by them.

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

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