Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – Fleeting Memories
March 29, 2016 Leave a comment
As with all tragic stories, whether they are written by Euripides, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Marlowe, or a more modern story like Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, the main character’s actions are either directly, or indirectly related to the eventual tragic events that transpire. Now, it would be wrong to suggest that Kikuhiko is solely responsible for the tragedy in his life, in much the same way that blaming Miyokichi, or Sukeroku for their own stupidity and poor choices would be wrong. But, his choices in earlier episodes, and the path he had to take to discover the true joy of rakugo, and the importance of the people in his life have played a significant part in the deaths of those he loved. At the same time, we must also consider the circumstances of the series main cast, and the role they played in their lives leading up to this moment.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, the central characters have all come from particularly difficult, even troubled backgrounds. Kikuhiko is the son of a Geisha, and was abandoned at a young age to apprentice as a rakugo-ka; in his actions we see a child who feels he needs to prove himself constantly in order to maintain his position within the house. That might mean constantly practicing, and obsessing over every little detail of rakugo, or simply following the orders and will of his, and other masters, perhaps fearing that to ignore them would mean expulsion. There is a necessity, even desperation in some of his actions, that makes his eventual obsession with rakugo fascinating to watch. Furthermore, throughout Shouwa Genroku, Kikuhiko has often felt inferior to Sukeroku, even admitting to the latters importance to him as a story teller, somebody to look at and to inspire him. In fact, such obsession ultimately stifled his own form of rakugo, resulting in a perfectly told, but emotionally stunted form of rakugo, that may have been perfect in form, but lacked the eccentricities, and nuance that would later come to define his, and all of the best rakugo.
Similarly, Sukeroku initially saw rakugo as a way of survival, he has to perform, in fact, his direct survival appears to depend on Yakumo adopting him as well. Whereas Kikuhiko had an official letter of introduction, and was being officially adopted, Sukeroku used his force of will, and exiting knowledge of rakugo to become part of Yakumo’s household. He loves rakugo, while also seeing it as a way of life and survival, but his absolute and unrelenting passion for the art form are clearly brought across during his performances. His energy and eccentricities are part of the performance, they are the little flaws that make a good story teller, and allow the audience to engage with the material. Again, I have previously talked about the importance of the rakugo-ka in transporting the audience to a time and place in the distant (or sometimes, not so distant) past, a period and culture that may have its familiarities, but also differences to contemporary Japan. Sukeroku achieves this at a very early point, whereas Kikuhiko is left to tell a perfect story that may be absolute in form, but is cold, uncaring, and may well be rather boring.
Furthermore, these two individuals must grow up learning a traditional profession during the immediate pre-war years, when Japan was becoming an increasingly authoritarian state that was gradually reducing or destroying the rights of its citizens. Within this context, a traditional art form like rakugo, one that freely makes fun of its characters, be they from a poor, or wealthy background was clearly a difficult prospect. Ultimately they are training in, and performing an art form that has to adapt to an ever-changing society, particularly during the post-war period, while also dealing with the everyday problems of relationships involving them, their master, other masters, and Miyokichi. In fact, the eventual deaths of Sukeroku and Miyokichi arguably mark the end of an era, and represent a shift from the old, traditional arts towards newer forms of entertainment in Japan. Rakugo will remain, but rather than a main form of entertainment, becomes something more unique, something a little special akin to going to the theatre to see a play in the west. Kikuhiko, because he incorporates elements of the past, and acknowledges its traditions, alongside a more modern outlook remains, while Sukeroku, the quintessential vagrant performer has to die.
As the episode unfolded, we are confronted with a group of people who have finally found happiness. Sukeroku is being bossed around by Kikuhiko as he once was, and can finally perform rakugo again, his actions and words demonstrate how much he has missed the theatre, while also showing us how important rakugo is to him. As Kikuhiko and Sukeroku perform, we are finally treated to the sight of an audience enjoying their distinctive, but very different forms of rakugo, complete with the little moments, personal touches, and unique qualities that differentiate them from other performers. Konatsu’s reaction to seeing her father perform in front of a proper crowd for the first time helps to reinforce the importance of the scene. A scene made all the more poignant as Sukeroku tells a very nostalgic story about love and the power of relationships, the message of which is clearly not lost on either Konatsu, or Kikuhiko. It is an interesting moment, partly because Sukeroku demonstrates a different approach to rakugo, telling the sort of story he has never told during the series, while also reinforcing the importance of Miyokichi as he sees a brief vision of her turned back while starting his story. In essence it is Sukerok utelling himself, his audience, and those he loves that he will start afresh, change his ways, and finally work hard, sentiments he repeats when kneeling in front of Miyokichi as tears stream down his face.
For her part, Miyokichi is a troubled woman, somebody who desperately craves warmth and attention, and clearly views rakugo as a danger to those wishes. Throughout the series Sukeroku and Kikuhiko have put their love for rakugo before her; in the case of Kikuhiko, he clearly cares for her, but cannot simply abandon the profession he has come to love, a simple fact that Miyokichi cannot accept. Her past as a prostitute, a Geisha, and a woman who has been forced to use everything at her disposal for survival inform her decisions. To be abandoned again by the ones she loves would be unbearable, and yet, she appears to acknowledge the importance of rakugo. Indeed, she is absolutely in love with Kikuhiko as he performs, coming to see his performance, and then leaving as soon as Sukeroku appears. It is this complicated relationship with rakugo, along side these two men that has resulted in so many of their issues, a complicated relationship that Kikuhiko truly wants to repair, to start a fresh with everybody together. His talk of relocating everybody to their master’s house, and very likely giving the Yakumo title to Sukeroku – which is further reinforced when he gives Sukeroku a Hoari with their masters Mon, or crest on display – demonstrates how much he has matured, and how much he cares for every one of them, regardless of past deeds and misunderstandings. Similarly, Miyokichi loves both rakugo-ka, but for different reasons, although her tendency to jump into the arms of one of them when things are tough makes this fact difficult to accept at times. Ultimately her attempts at suicide, and the eventual death or her and Sukeroku are the result of years of misunderstandings, and their individual circumstances. In many respects, because Kikuhiko has always been the more respectable of these individuals, he had to be the one to survive and take care of Konatsu.