Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – Rediscovering The Power of Stories
March 23, 2016 Leave a comment
This week’s episode continued exploring a number of similar themes from last week, as it looked at the importance of memory, and the power that the past can hold over an individual. It is also an episode that touches upon a number of rather interesting themes regarding the importance of family, and the slow collapse of rural Japan during the post-war period. Every aspect of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, from the characters, to the setting, and particularly rakugo as a form of entertainment are wrapped up in the significant changes that Japan went through during the post-war years. It was a period of immense economic growth, with the country finally opening up to the wider world in ways that had arguably never happened before. Yes, westerners, western thought, architecture, fashion, and other goods were visible for a considerable time, going as far back as the Bakumatsu period. Indeed, western fashion was quickly adopted by the Meiji court, with the attitude that in order to become a powerful nation that would never have to deal with the same problems as those imposed by Commodore Perry and his Black Ships appeared to demand a sudden modernisation, or westernisation (both are conflated, and can often be one and the same in this context) of Japanese society.
During its early episodes Shouwa Genroku offered us a glimpse of a country that had become more western, but retained many aspects of ‘traditional’ Japan, with proper thatched houses, and dirt streets. However, over the course of episodes set during the post-war years, specifically the 1950s, those dirt roads and thatched houses have given way to cobbled streets, motor cars, and brick buildings. Neon signs, and other aspects of western culture have also made their presence increasingly felt as the episodes have progressed. Rather than a theatre, Japan’s youth meet in café’s or jazz clubs, they experience a form of culture and popular entertainment that was previously unavailable to individuals like Sukeroku or Kikuhiko during their childhood, but has now become more widely available than any of the traditional art forms. This is the world that Sukeroku and Kikuhiko are part of, a world that is now full of different forms of entertainment, one where tradition can be viewed as old fashioned and out of date. Sukeroku says as much during his rants in previous episodes, as he talks about the importance of audience enjoyment, and that if he followed the master’s wishes, rakugo may die out all together (at least that is his perception of the situation). He is partly correct of course, as rakugo, alongside a number of other traditional forms of entertainment were on the verge of dying out during the immediate post-war period. People no longer held any real interest in, or knowledge of rakugo’s stories; they were from the past, a period that nobody remembers, and has long since become history. Furthermore, without knowledge (either passing, or intimate), of the stories, characters, and period, many of the subtleties and eccentricities within rakugo are lost.
Rakugo needed to deal with contemporary issues, while also retaining its traditions, and forms of story telling, or else it would have ultimately disappeared. That it has not, and is still a thriving art form (even if it is no longer as far reaching as it once was), demonstrates how successfully it was able to adapt to the new world, while also suggesting that contemporary audiences become bored with the new, western culture, and perhaps wanted something to remind them of Japan’s past and traditions. There is another aspect to the Shouwa period that Shouwa Genroku touches upon this week, that of mass urbanisation and the emptying of Japan’s countryside. The hall that the Roukan owner shows Kikuhiko represents a direct link to a past that has only just disappeared – a hall used by Geisha to entertain guests, and a relic of a bygone age. At the same time, he talks about the gradual loss of people in the town, and probably surrounding areas as everybody moves to the big cities in search of wealth and status. In fact, throughout the entire episode, Konatsu is one of the few children we see – the others seen in the background – and the general population is certainly on the older side.
This historical context informs the actions of the series central characters, while also helping to make sense of their decisions, and how their lifestyle fits into their surroundings. Family, and the lack thereof, has also played a significant role in the development of Suku and Kikuhiko as performers, as they both focus exclusively on rakugo, perhaps in reaction to the general lack of family ties. Of course, this isn’t true, and they are brothers, adopted by Yuurakutei, and raised to be his successors, and despite Sukeroku’s claims, Yuurakutei looked on them both as his sons, and loved them equally. It was a father’s anger, and pain, that resulted in Sukeroku’s banishment, an act that clearly ate away at Yuurakutei until he eventually died. The way they interact with one another, and especially during performances gives the impression of watching a family member perform, while encouraging them to improve. It is an intimate relationship, offering the comforts and pressures that they had largely lacked during their early childhood, and remains one that cannot be readily broken. In fact, despite claims to the contrary, Kikuhiko truly needs Sukeroku, explaining that his desires are purely selfish, and that, despite all the annoyances, pain, and frustration that Sukeroku and his rakugo have caused over the years, they are also one of the single biggest inspirations in Kikuhiko’s life. Furthermore, despite Sukeroku calmly dismissing the idea of doing rakugo again, it is clear from his reactions that he also needs Kikuhiko. He could be lazy, but capable of focussing on rakugo precisely because Kikuhiko was there to wrap his knuckles, and help him when needed. They are a family, and regardless of all the problems that they have caused one another, appear to have acknowledged how important their relationship is.
In fact, that is largely what we see throughout this episode, Sukeroku and Kikuhiko acting like a family, and caring for a young Konatsu. Kikuhiko’s attitude towards Konatsu is rather interesting, especially given the way he treated her during the series premier, he shows genuine care and attention towards her. He is the fussy, but attentive old brother who keeps the lazy Sukeroku on his toes, while also helping to care for Konatsu, a girl who has grown up much faster than she arguably should. In many respects she mirrors Kikuhiko, the daughter of a prostitute, and one who has largely been abandoned by her mother, coming to hate her. Konatsu even explains that from her perspective it is Miyokichi who has stopped Sukeroku from performing, making him promise never to tell rakugo again. It is rather endearing seeing Kikuhiko performing for Konatsu, because instead of the serious, professional performer we see in theatres, he comes across as the student who has started to learn new stories, and is simply practicing them in front of his daughter in law. Furthermore, his presence has clearly rekindled the fire that has always been inside Sukeroku, and regardless of his bluster, he still loves rakugo, and would do anything to perform once again. Their double performance brings to mind earlier episodes when they both messed around in their own way, only this time, rather than Kikuhiko constantly looking at the back of one he considers superior, they are performing as equals. It is during this performance that Sukeroku finally realises how much he missed rakugo, and his tears at the end, bowing to Konatsu, and perhaps even, to an imaginary audience further reinforce how important his chosen profession is.
While it would be easy to label Miyokichi as selfish, even devious, and perhaps destructive, she is an equally complex character. Rakugo brought her back from Manchuria, and introduced her to Kikuhiko, yet it also resulted in her continued loneliness, and perceived (or real) alienation. Miyokichi has always been a character who clung to Kikuhiko; partly out of genuine feelings of love and affection for him, but also because he represented the only male in her life who did not desire her purely for her body. He is therefore a somewhat unique individual in her life, and because he was also abandoned by his family, there was an element of common ground within their relationship that allowed Miyokichi to feel wanted, and above all, safe. But, while rakugo brought them together, it also represents a very important aspect of Kikuhiko’s life, something that he wants to dedicate himself too, rather than focussing on his relationship with Miyokichi. Does that mean he doesn’t care for me? Based on previous episodes that is clearly not the case, but his love for rakugo, alongside the dedication that is required to become a master meant that he could not give her the attention he feels she deserves. By running off with Sukeroku after his banishment, and forbidding him from ever doing rakugo again, Miyokichi takes her anger, frustration, and fear of being left alone out on the very medium that brought her together with the men she loves. It represents an interesting scenario that further reinforces the power of stories, and the problems associated with following a traditional profession in a period of drastic economic, political, and social change. That Miyokichi reverts to prostitution, only this time without the culture associated with Geisha further reinforces how easily things can change, often for the worse. Ultimately we know that Miyokichi and Sukeroku must die, perhaps to represent to end of an era, and a change in Japan’s social fabric, but this episode reinforced how important story telling, and rakugo is to the main cast, for better, or worse.