Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – Past, Present, and Future


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The flow of time and its influence on everyday life has been a constant theme throughout Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. As Yakumo narrated his life story, dealing with the complexities of his relationships, and the problems that faced rakugo during the pre, and post-war years, we as the audience saw how quickly things can change, and how easily the past can be forgotten. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu represents one of the few times when anime has explored the post-war period in Japan, presenting its audience with a glimpse into a period of immense change and modernisation, where old is replaced by new, and traditions are either pushed to one side, or forgotten. As the series ends, we can see how much has changed, and how far rakugo, alongside every other traditional form of entertainment has fallen since its peak years before WWII. Rather than the mass entertainment it used to be, rakugo is now part of the past, and those who go to hear these stories are going because it is a tradition. If they wanted pure entertainment, they would likely go to the cinema, or, given the period, a disco, or bar. That is rakugo’s strength, and weakness – it offers a contemporary audience a glimpse into the historical past, a past, that in Yotaro’s time has long since slipped out of living memory, and has been confined to the history books, and traditional art.

I remember reading an article a few years ago in which the author talks about Japan having a 50 year memory, and that everything before WWII is largely forgotten about, while the Meiji period and beyond are ancient history, that is seldom remembered. Because many rakugo stories have remained largely unchanged since they were first written down, they represent a direct link to a seemingly distant past, one that bears little resemblance to modern Japan, and certainly not one that a present day audience can connect with on an emotional level without the aid of an accomplished storyteller. Yakumo has remained unchanging since the death of Sukeroku and Miyokichi, he represents a direct link to this historical past, and to a time when there were numerous theatres, and any number of potential disciples willing to learn rakugo, or other forms of entertainment. And yet, now there are so few rakugo seems set to disappear – that it hasn’t further remonstrates its importance, and the importance of tradition within contemporary Japanese society. Yotaro is the new generation, a small group of people who like rakugo so much they are willing to train in an art form with an uncertain future. His promotion helps to illustrate that, despite his objections during episode one, Yakumo realises the importance of teaching new rakugo-ka, and understands that since there are so few people available he cannot be picky.

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As the episode progressed we begin to see why Yakumo was so harsh with Konatsu. She is the living embodiment of Sukeroku and Miyokichi, people he loved and cared for; he certainly cares for her, in his own, gruff way, but her existence arguably reminds him of all the mistakes he has made during his life. That he was with Sukeroku and Miyokichi, yet utterly incapable of rescuing them has clearly left a deep scar, and further enhanced his feelings of inadequacy as a rakugo-ka. He may have taken the Yakumo name, but, as we have seen throughout the series, always felt that it was Sukeroku who should have inherited it as the superior rakugo-ka (at least from his perspective). He has always been an awkward character, never really capable of opening up to people, other than Sukeroku and Miyokichi, and always feeling somehow inferior and unloved. This awkwardness informs his approach to raising Konatsu, an independent girl who has ultimately grown up far too quickly for her age given her parents backgrounds, and untimely deaths. The historical circumstances surrounding rakugo, manzai, and kabuki help to explain why women like Konatsu cannot perform rakugo. At the same time, her particular methods of story telling, even the stories she chooses, along with the language and specific voices she uses are all direct links to Miyokichi and Sukeroku. She embodies the constant reminder that two dear friends, and memebers of his family have disappeared, and he has been left to maintain rakugo during an ever changing period of industrialisation and economic explosion. That he cares for her is certain, otherwise he would have quickly kicked her out, or forced her onto some other, far more distant relative. Perhaps he views taking care of Konatsu as a form of penitence, an act of good will that can save him from the wrath of their spirits.

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This then helps to explain Yakumo as a character, more than simply tethered to the past, he embodies it – his style of rakugo is old, and traditional, it lacks the eccentricities and contemporary elements that defined Sukeroku, and more recently Yotaro, but remains popular precisely because of the link it offers with the historical past. By inheriting the Yakumo name he has accepted that in order to carry on the will of Sukeroku he must help to maintain rakugo for contemporary, and future audiences, regardless of his own personal feelings. By suggesting that he has long since forgotten his original name, and has simply become Yuurakutei Yakumo, he demonstrates that while rakugo is his life, the sheer joy he encountered when telling stories with Sukeroku has long since disappeared. And yet, he cannot entirely change, he has to continue down the path he has chosen, not merely for himself, but because he owes it to Sukeroku, and also Miyokichi. As he is attending to the Yakumo family grave, his vision of Sukeroku suggests that he is still incapable of entirely escaping from the past, and the pain he feels at his families passing. By talking about becoming the Rakugo Association’s president, he also reinforces the importance, and problems that accompany seniority – he is now the oldest rakugo-ka, somebody who has to lead rakugo through a difficult period and allow it to survive. As the last of his generation he must ensure that rakugo can be passed on to younger generations who have no memory of the pre-war years, and can therefore continue to tell rakugo unencumbered by the problems of the past, while still understanding its importance, and acknowledging that it is part of their craft.

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In the case of Yotaro, while we haven’t had a chance to really get to know him (at least yet), he ahs clearly grown, and changed since Yakumo recounted the story of his, and Sukeroku’s early life. As a rakugo-ka he represents the future, a story teller who was born after the war, and can embody particular elements of contemporary Japanese society that somebody like Yakumo would be incapable of achieving. As an ex-convict he is also from outside of ‘normal’ society in much the same way that Yakumo and Sukeroku were when they originally apprenticed. Watching his somewhat cruder, but also very approachable way of introduction and audience interaction puts me in mind of Sukeroku; whereas Yakumo is cold, and sensual, Yotaro is engaging and energetic, qualities he puts to good use during his performances, and everyday interactions with other people. As for Konatsu, her insistence of having a baby seems reminiscent of her mother Miyokichi – although it almost seems to be partly out of spite for Yakumo, and to make sure that Sukeroku’s bloodline continues. Her relationship with Yotaro is a curious one, part older sister, but perhaps even closer given her reaction when he offers to adopt her child and become its father.

Ultimately this last episode demonstrated how important the past is on individual’s actions in the present and their choices for the future. The main cast are influenced by the decisions made in the past, and their choices are informed by their circumstances and livelihoods. The past still exerts significant influence over the world of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, which is further highlighted when right at the end Yotaro asks to inherit the Sukeroku name. Perhaps then the Yakumo name has finally had enough history and tradition funnelled into it, thus making it far too heavy a burden to bear, whereas the Sukeroku name is something different, something new. In this very decision, Yotaro has decided to make a definite break with the past, or at least one past, and choose a new, relatively unknown name to carry forward with the future of rakugo. As a final scene it is a rather interesting one, and its impact is further enhanced during the end credits, when we see Matsuda, Konatsu, Yotaro, and Yakumo all sitting in an empty theatre. This final image mirrors the one used throughout the series, only characters are older, they are fewer, and rather than sitting in a traditional Japanese room, they are in an empty theatre, with the seats covered in protective plastic. It is an image that incorporates sadness, and hope – Yakumo and Matsuda are the old generation, who must continue to support the younger generation as the grow and change, but Konatsu and Yotaro are the younger generation who are tasked with the continued survival of rakugo as an art form. As such it is an interesting image to end this first season on, and is rather fitting for a series that deals with the golden age of post-war rakugo, and ultimately touches upon the very reasons for its ultimate decline and near destruction.

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

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