It's not often that you come across an anime like Rakugo Shinjū. It's both the story of a reformed criminal trying to become a respected performer, as well as a period piece on a dying art form.
And in all honesty, if this was turned into a movie instead of an anime it would probably be contending for best picture in the Academy Awards. It's this kind of a high-level story.
Well, ladies and gentlemen. Sit down and relax. And let me tell you the story of how Rakugo became the critical darling of the anime community in 2016.
V Reviews: Descending Stories: Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū (Season 1)
Haruko Kumota is a female mangaka who has been active since 2009 as a Yaoi artist... No, really! Most of her stories and manga's to this date are Yaoi and "Boys Love" (BL) stories and are targetted at a specific female audience (you know who you are).
Technically, Rakugo Shinjū is the first "broader" story she has released and has been published internationally. So no longer Yaoi, but Josei: An adult story mainly targetted at a female audience (the female equivalent of Seinen).
And the story has been her first big success. The manga fully ended on March 2016 with 10 volumes, a 2-episode OVA and now an animated TV-series with 2 seasons (second season still airing at this moment). The only thing really missing is a Live Action movie (seriously, make it happen!).
Next to that, she also provided the character designs for the anime exclusive "Fune wo Amu", which aired last Fall.
In terms of sites, you can follow most updates (including some of her yaoi stuff) on her website: http://kumotaharuko.jugem.jp/ . Otherwise, you can follow her on @KUMOHARU on twitter (if you can read Japanese).
Fully understanding the title
In order to understand what this series is really about, you need to understand what the title means. And that is a challenge by itself. The full title "Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū" roughly translates to: "Shōwa and Genroku Era, A Double Suicide through Rakugo".
That's a few different things being combined in this one title.
- First: Shōwa: Japan's timelines are named after the reign of the emperor of Japan. For example, currently we are in the Heisei era, with emperor Akihito at the rule of Japan. Before this era (which started in 1989) there was the Shōwa era, with emperor Hirohito at Japan's helm. And most of the story of this first season is set in this era.
- What the Genroku era means in this title... I'm not quite sure. The Genroku era (1688-1704) has nothing to do with this story nor concerning Rakugo in general. Unless the story wants to use the other meaning of Genroku. The Genroku period was considered the "golden age" of the Edo period. So maybe the artist feels as if the golden age of Rakugo was during the Shōwa era? (*shrugs in confusion*).
- And lastly there is Shinjū, which means a double suicide, or a lover's suicide. It's a genre of Japanese theater that at best can somewhat compare to a Greek tragedy. But in the case of a double suicide / lover's suicide the tragic story ends up sending two lovers into committing suicide together, so that they can live on together in the afterlife.
Together this is thus a "tragedy" about Rakugo, mostly set in the Shōwa era. Keep that in mind when you watch this anime, because knowing it will help you appreciate it more.
This story works in two parts: the present time and the past in the Showa era.
In the present day, the story is about former Yakuza Yatoru being released from prison and trying to reform his life. After seeing the Rakugo master Yakumo Yuurakutei the 8th perform his "Shinigami" play, Yatoru falls in love with both the play and with the art of Rakugo.
He begs Yakumo to become his apprentice, to which the grand master reluctantly agrees to. This surprises everyone, since the master has NEVER taken in an apprentice.
Early on in his training, Yatoru meets Konatsu, the daughter of former Rakugo performer (and friend/rival to master Yakumo) Sukeroku. Konatsu is living in Yakumo's house but hates the master with a passion and accuses him of her father's death and not allowing her to perform (her father's) Rakugo.
Out of interest in this mysterious Sukeroku, Yotaro seeks up recordings of his performances and falls in love with his style of rakugo, which he feels lands closely to his own open and spontaneous personality.
When Yakumo hears Yotaro perform in the style of his former friend/rival, as well as hear him (audibly) snore during Yakumo's performance, the great master is pissed off and kicks the "apprentice" out of his house. Konatsu helps him back in the house and a confrontation ensues between the two parties. Here Yakumo finally reveals the story of Sukeroku and himself to both Yatoru and Konatsu.
And that is where the second part of the story begins.
What follows is the tragic life of both Yakumo (then named "Bon") and Sukeroku (then named "Shin") who train to become rakugo performers under the great master Yakumo the 7th.
This set in the background of the Showa era, which includes World War 2 and the rise of radio and television (and thus the declining popularity of Rakugo).
The story depicts their "daily" life as their personal struggles, their highs and their lows. And this series doesn't shy away from the necessary amount of both humor and drama.
Yakumo Yurakutei VIII: The Rakugo master was born as "Bon" and later given the artist name "Kikuhiku", before finaly inheriting the master name of "Yakumo" himself. He's born as an illegitimate child to a geisha and is being raised at the "inn" of his mother. While he wanted to become a dancer (something which he tragically would never be able to achieve due to him being a boy), his "dream" is crushed due to a knee injury which renders him to walk with a cane for the rest of his life. The mistress of the inn then sends him out to the rakugo master Yakumo Yurakutei the 7th, where he learns the craft.
He is the main character of this story and most of the first season revolves around his entire life from abandoned kid to the old Rakugo master we see in the first episode.
He is a cold person who has clear relationship issues due to the way he was raised as a kid. And I think nobody would be surprised if he would declare at some point that he was gay (*cough*yaoi mangaka*cough*). But his struggle to become a rakugo master makes you want to keep watching.
|Sukeroku Yurakutei II: The Rakugo talent born as "Shin" whom later is given the artist name of Hatsutaro, before adopting the name of his first master Sukeroku. He was first raised in the slums and has an outward personality and great sense of humor. This makes him a born performer, destined to become a rakugo master. He joins Bon at the house of master Yakumo and trains to become a performer. But once he become good at it (he's genius level) he starts to slack off, drinks too much and visits brothels. His attitude often comes into conflict with his own master, the other rakugo masters and even Bon. But there's no denying that he's a gold performer and has a keen sense for what will work.|
|Yotaro: Former Yakuza who's trying to reform and become a rakugo master. He's not the brightest bulb in the box, but he has a charming personality. And by the last episode we see how he's easily accepted by the people surrounding him. He's just really likable.|
|Konatsu: Daughter of Shin who hates master Yakumo with a passion. She has a strong personality and doesn't agree with the "old" rakugo which forbids women to perform (so technically Yakumo forbids her).|
|Miyokishi: Originally Yakumo the 7th mistress who follows him to Tokyo after WW2. She ends up working as a geisha and becomes attracted to Kukihiku. But there's something between the two that just doesn't mix all too well.|
|Yurakutei the 7th: Master of both Bon and Shin. Helps train the two boys and hopes that Bon ends up inheriting his name. He notices that Shin is way better, but refuses to accept his style of Rakugo.|
This show looks visually amazing, and that's mostly due to director Shinichi Omata, who learned this craft at Shaft Studio and applies those "Shaftian" skills to the better anime created by Studio Deen in the past few years. And yes, this even includes typical art focusing, detailed environments and detailed head movement. And by god, that opening feels like it came right out of a Shaft best-of list.
Honestly, if you would've told me this was a Shaft anime instead of Deen, I would've instantly believed you. There's a lot of typical Shaft-tropes that come back in this anime, while it's hard to see specific Deen-tropes in here (like keeping up a constant quality level).
But yes, this is a Deen anime. And I must give credit where it's due. This is probably one of their best animated end results I've ever seen. Yes, I could still nitpick about a few things where it's visible they had trouble keeping up a consistent animation quality. But that would be nitpicking and bullying on Deen's case. Let's have some positive words for them at least once. This is a very well animated series!
Jazz. I expected a somewhat traditional soundtrack for this anime. I expected this soundtrack to be old Japanese songs that support Rakugo performers. The kind of soundtrack that would be painful to my ears (sorry, not a fan). But boy, was I wrong.
The entire OST has a jazzy atmosphere to it. And while it is reminiscent of the Showa period... it's more of an American music style rather than a Japanese one (I think). But no matter its placing in this anime, it's still nice to listen to. And that includes the Opening theme as well (Usurai Shinjū by Hayashibara Megumi) .
This anime is Oscar-worthy in its entire premise. But that is also its biggest problem. A lot of Academy award contender movies (a.k.a. Oscar-bait movies) are not accessible for the larger audience. Usually the story is really hard to get into. It's the main reason why so many Oscar-bait movies end up flopping at the box office (or just break even at best).
The same goes for this anime. While critics of both anime and movies will have a field day analyzing every little part of this anime for years to come, the response of the general audience will be vastly different. They will see it, recognize it's great, notice that it's not their thing, drop it and continue with something else. And that's visible in end-of-year lists. It scores high on the average critics list, but is nowhere to be seen on popularity polls.
My personal opinion and rating:
Personally, I loved this anime, especially the rakugo performances themselves.
It's a strange thing to say, because some of the first full performances they do are not that great. But that is intentional, since the characters who brought the performances were beginners as well (and thus not very good). But the further the series goes and brings you more and better performances, the more I got captured by the screen and hung on the lips of the performers.
No, not every punchline works. Some things get lost in translation. But man, the performances and stories are amazing to listen to.
I'm personally giving this first season a 8.5/10.
If you really like critically praised movies/tv series and movies/series which you can analyze through from top to bottom, Rakugo Shinjū really is that one series you will adore.
However, if you dislike Oscar-bait movies in general or are only into mainstream series, you'd better skip this one. In this case, this anime will annoy and bore you.
Wait, not a 9 or 10?
No. My gripe with this series is the second half of episode 12 and the entirety of the last episode. First up, the second half of episode 12 contains the long eluded deaths of Konatsu's parents. But it's not well handled and it's over before you can say: "Wait, what?". It just feels really cheap when compared to the rest of the story.
But even after I got over that, the next annoying thing happened. The jump-cut from the "past scenes" back to the present in the last episode. This should've been the return to the present time where our characters portray how they felt about the flashback story and reflect on their past lives and emotional bonds. But instead, we cut to several years later... and so many things happen in this jump that just makes you wonder: "Wait, what...?"
While time jumps are frequent in this anime, this is the one time where I really really disliked the jump. It's as if the author herself didn't know what to do and just say: "f**k it, I'll try to explain it along the way".
There's still a chance I might revisit this score later on. I've been recently informed that something happens in the second season which will make me rethink my opinion on what happened in the infamous 12th episode. But until I've seen that one, I'll keep the score as is (I'm kind of behind on the second season).
Sorry for the longer wait. I was actually busy with a review on Erased and I just can't seem to finish it in a way I'm satisfied with. So I thought by myself: "Let's try something else instead as a change of mind". And within less than a day, the complete review of Rakugo was done: typing, format coding, images gathering and uploading it all.
This anime is SO interesting to dig into and uncover. And there are even many things I didn't really cover here (like the constant recurring of the theme of death). I'll probably return to further analyzing this series later on.
But for now that's it. V out.
And hopefully next time, with the Erased review (*scratches head*).