The Last Word: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu

It’s time to finally close the lid on Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu.

This post is part of the 12 Days of Anime 2017 project, where anime bloggers post everyday for 12 days leading up to Christmas. Check this post out for more information.

Since I started blogging about anime, Rakugo has probably been the show I’ve talked about most. And for good reason. It was easily the best show of 2016 – and a show I’d easily regard as a masterpiece, for many reasons.

2017 saw the release of it’s sequel, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu Sukeroku Futatabi-hen, or Descending Stories: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu as it was localised by Crunchyroll for some reason.

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I couldn’t make a post about 2017 without making at least one post about this masterpiece of a show. In fact, I could probably spend the whole 12 days writing essays about this show – there’s so much depth and quality to this series that I could base an entire career on it. And maybe I will.

But nevertheless, there are other things to discuss. Many, including myself, back in 2016 were impressed with the first series to say the least, but were sceptical of a sequel. How would a sequel benefit the series? What would it add? As a whole, how could a sequel establish itself as equal or greater worth to the original?

In this post, I’d like to examine the new dimensions added to the story by the sequel, in an ultimately thinly veiled attempt to give the show more publicity and get more people to watch it. To that end, it’ll unfortunately be necessary to deploy spoilers for both series.


Yakumo

Given that the majority of season one was told from Yakumo’s perspective, and that because of this we were able to gain an intimate understanding of his psychology, it was imperative that the sequel develop his character arc in a meaningful way to justify it’s own existence. Moreover, we as an audience had developed a connection with Yakumo, and now had a vested interest in seeing where his story went.

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In this regard, season two focuses heavily on Yakumo’s broken nature as a human being. He is constantly tormented by the memory of Sukeroku, both because he still views himself as unworthy compared to him, and also because of his lingering forbidden love towards him. This torment manifests itself in spite and malice towards others, particularly towards Konatsu, who riles up these feelings inside of him more than anyone since she is the child of the one he is tormented by –Sukeroku – and also the child of the one he could never reconcile with – Miyokuchi.

For the first time in the series, the narrative pulls back slightly from inside of Yakumo’s head and allows us to focus on other characters independent of his own actions and thoughts. Konatsu gets her fair share of screen time alongside Yotaro, Yakumo’s apprentice, and through their experiences and interactions with Yakumo we witness his actions towards others. We are able to understand these actions, furthermore, because we have experienced Yakumo’s story and therefore understand the underlying emotions of these actions.

This portrayal of Yakumo as a spiteful, broken old man is aided further by his brilliant characterisation both on screen and in voice. Studio DEEN once again did an excellent job on the production of season two, definitely producing a season two on par with the high level of quality that we see in season one, and a key element of this is how they portray Yakumo. His thin, gangly proportions are emphasised constantly by framing which reveal his unhealthy physiology. In addition, the detail of the wrinkles and creases on his aging face emphasise his rage and torment – giving him a hellish look, a look close to that of the Shinigami that he is famous for portraying.

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Akira Ishida gives another stellar performance as Yakumo, and alters his performance effectively for the change in age from season one to season two. We already heard hints of this performance in season one, when we meet Yakumo in his 50s, but the full range of this performance comes out in season two with longer scenes with this performance. The raspy nature of the voice gives it an emotional weight that fits so perfectly with Yakumo’s psychological weight, as well as a dramatic nature perfect for a professional storyteller. A retelling of Shinigami by Yakumo in season two in his old age gives us the perfect opportunity to compare both performances by age – and the changes Ishida chose to make perfectly suit the change in the character both physically and emotionally.

Another key strength of season two is that Yakumo’s character development is not placed on hold in the years between the prologue of season one, in Yakumo’s 50s, and the beginning of season two, in his 70s. By taking on Yotaro not just as an apprentice, but as a similar type of personality and style to Sukeroku, many of Yakumo’s repressed emotions towards him until that point have been slowly coming up to the surface. As a result, the Yakumo in his 70s that we see in season two is not the same one we see in his 50s in season one – rather than being calm and calculated, at the top of the rakugo world, we see a frightened old man who feels death approaching, which scares him not just as a gut reaction but also because there are so many things in his life that he still needs to resolve.

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This element not only makes season two immediately engaging for the viewer, but also allows for some much more interesting character development much earlier on. If he had been the same type of character in season two as in the prologue of season one, it wouldn’t have been possible for the writers to pull off a scene such as his attempted suicide without some effective writing that set up such a drastic turn of events in the short space of time that was available.

Plus, since Yakumo has been tormented further by Sukeroku and Miyokuchi through the presence of Yotaro and Shinnosuke, we understand that he has been considering heavily the nature of his sin, his relationship with the past, and the tragedy that occurred. Ultimately, by meditating on the truth – rejecting his falsified story that he killed Sukeroku, and rather accepting that Miyokuchi killed him in an attempt to show her love for Yakumo – he is able to come to terms with both his own sin and their sins also. Realising that his own fabricated story was actually sheltering him from bearing the actual complicated nature of his role in the tragedy, he is ultimately able to reconcile with the past that we saw in season one.


Sin

Yet it’s not a simple reconciliation. Not that it should’ve been either. For the whole of the first season to set up the tragedy only for then to completely absolve Yakumo of sin would be both counter-productive for interesting storytelling and the point of season one itself. By drawing a nuanced conclusion as to Yakumo’s sin, season two creates a unique identity and purpose for itself.

We understand because of the second season that there are no winners in a tragedy. Yakumo’s version of events in season one painted both Sukeroku and Miyokuchi as the unfortunate victims of Yakumo’s own shortcomings – allowing him to avoid any further pain by revisiting the scene and questioning who was at fault. But as we learn, all parties were somewhat at fault.

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Sukeroku never fully gave up on rakugo nor fully focused himself on being a father for Konatsu, despite promising to do so for Miyokuchi. He continued to hold that dream in his mind somewhere, allowing himself to be swayed by Yakumo when he visited him and put on their last rakugo performance and ultimately pushing Miyokuchi over the edge, who was still tormented by her love for Yakumo.

Her role in events was heavily glossed over by Yakumo in season one, who preferred to paint her as a victim of his own selfishness and forbidden love for Sukeroku. In reality, she was as much to blame as anyone else – she became too infatuated with Yakumo, and came to rely on him too much when she was aware that he could never love her. Even though she knew that he would do nothing but hurt her, she kept visiting him and kept hurting herself.

What’s worse is that she decided to elope with Sukeroku and subsequently run away with him, despite knowing that this was simply part of her own petty revenge towards Yakumo – tainting both Sukeroku and Konatsu’s life with a selfish purpose, since Sukeroku did genuinely love her, and because Konatsu was ultimately a child born out of spite.

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That being said, it’s not like Yakumo was completely absolved of sin in season two thanks to these revelations. Not being able to accept his love for Sukeroku, Yakumo essentially played with Miyokuchi by indulging her sometimes, fuelling her infatuation with him that he knew he could never fulfil.

Then, despite being aware of Konatsu’s innocence in all of this, Yakumo took his anger and frustration in not being able to shoulder and accept his sin out on Konatsu – whom he saw as the incarnation of his psychological torment, being a child born because of his own sin. He even went on to father a child with her out of spite – taking full advantage of her dependence on gratification from him to fulfil his own selfish desire – further adding to Yakumo’s characterisation as a broken, spiteful old man.

Season two for the majority of it’s runtime lays bare these sins that had previously been obscured by Yakumo’s own, self-flagellant version of events. Yet how would the show begin to close the curtain on these sins, in order to bring the narrative of the series to a satisfying end?

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It does this by recognising that ultimately, rather than weighing up sin and each other’s blame, ultimately what’s necessary is forgiveness for one and other. Episode eleven of season two is one of the most beautiful episodes of anime I’ve ever seen because of this approach to sin – Sukeroku, Miyokuchi and Yakumo meet once more in the afterlife and reconcile. Each one of them accepts their share of the blame for the tragedy, and they ultimately decide that living a better life in the future is much better than dwelling on the past.

Sometimes in life, counting up your sins and weighing them can take a lifetime – and most of the time, simply recognising them and moving on in such a way that they can’t be repeated is the best way to move forward.


A tale of generations?

Rakugo and it’s culture are very much conditioned by the traditional Japanese reverence for previous generations, in accordance with the Buddhist theory of karma. In accordance with this, it would’ve been simple for the series to repeat many of the same beats and tragedies that the first season showed us. But it did something much more interesting.

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At their core, Yakumo and Yotaro are very similar people. Both of their origins were characterised by their statuses as societal outsiders – Yakumo because of his weak legs which meant he couldn’t become an enka dancer as his family wanted him to be, and Yotaro both because of his kind-hearted nature despite being in the yakuza, and also the stigma attached to him because he was incarcerated for yakuza activities. However, both react differently to their surroundings – Yakumo was much more passive, ending up becoming a rakugo apprentice because it was the only thing left to him besides dancing once that became impossible, and even then never engaging with the art until Sukeroku forced him to. But Yotaro is much more proactive in overcoming his circumstances – he seeks out Yakumo, seeing in rakugo a future for him since he was so affected by Yakumo’s performance of Shinigami, and refusing to give up despite Yakumo refusing him initially.

All of these were events that occurred in the first season, and provide a solid base for which the second season used to further develop this idea of different generational trajectories. Whereas Yakumo wallows in his sadness and self-pity surrounding the tragedy of Sukeroku and Miyokuchi, allowing it to consume his life and continuing to passively react to circumstances; Yotaro instead seeks to overcome his problems, dealing with setbacks and ultimately moving on from mistakes, not allowing them to take over his life. He seeks out and reconciles with his yakuza past; accepts Shinnosuke as his own and forges his own relationship with Konatsu despite her continued emotional reliance on Yakumo; and continues stubbornly in his quest to modernise rakugo and change it for the better.

At the end of their arcs, we can starkly see their differences in trajectory. Yakumo died with many problems in his life, and although he was able to settle in the afterlife his biggest problem surrounding Sukeroku and Miyokuchi’s fate, many things were left on a sour note – his relationship with Konatsu and his selfish refusal to allow rakugo to evolve for the modern era, to name a few. But Yotaro was able to overcome many of his problems – ultimately ending his arc as a happy person, who was able to resolve himself of his past, leading a fulfilled life in pursuit of his dreams, surrounded by a happy and loving family.

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Rather than telling the tale of repeated generational fate due to karma, Rakugo instead opted to show us a positive message about the future. It breaks from Buddhist traditions by telling us that life is ours for the taking – that we should be more like Yotaro and less like Yakumo, move past our problems and towards our dreams. This is one of the biggest aspects in which the second season is able to craft for itself a distinct identity and existence – ultimately making it a very worthy sequel.


The last word

Will this be my last post about Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu? Probably not. But in reviewing 2017, I simply had to return once more to this brilliant show.

It would’ve been much easier for the team at DEEN to simply leave the story where it ended in season one. At it’s finale, it felt complete enough as a story to be able to stand up on it’s own. But ultimately, they were able to see that the rest of the manga had something to add to the series, and could have it’s own unique identity alongside the original.

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One of the most crucial ways that season two succeed in this sense was to further Yakumo’s character development in new and interesting ways. We gained a further insight into his psychological since we saw him interacting with others from an outside perspective, aided immensely by another brilliant performance by Akira Ishida, tweaked perfectly to represent the different dynamics of his character from the first season.

The sequel also addresses the key idea of Yakumo’s sin in season two, but ultimately is able to show a different perspective on it. By showing us different sides of the situation, we are able to understand that in a tragedy, there is no single person to fault, but rather a tragic set of circumstances where everyone is to blame. Ultimately, by showing this, we are able to understand that the best thing to do in this situation is to accept and move on, towards a better life.

Similarly, instead of telling a story of generational folly and sin, season two rejects this Buddhist ideal to tell it’s own, unique narrative. Through the parallel journeys of Yakumo and Yotaro, of master and apprentice, we are able to see the differences in their personalities and approaches, and thus how they were both shackled and able to break free of their sin because of this.

In these three senses, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu Sukeroku Futatabi-hen is able to form a unique identity for itself next to the original, and thus is able to stand tall as a very worthwhile sequel. My, and many others’ fears were thankfully calmed this year because of this – allowing both series to be of an extremely high quality which will most likely stand the test of time for many years to come.


 

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