In Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju (Rakugo Shinjū), a small time crook down on his luck named Kyoji gets out of prison in 1973 with a single-minded mission: seek out rakugo master Yakumo Yuurakutei and become his apprentice. While the 8th generation Rakugo master had never taken on an apprentice before, ghosts of Yakumo’s past seem to draw him to Kyoji (whom he renames Yotarō), and together the two embark on a journey to continue the time-honored tradition of Rakugo.
For the uninitiated: rakugo is a form of storytelling in Japan which features a solitary performer. Armed with only a fan and a small cloth, and maintaining a kneeling position throughout the story, the rakugoka transforms into a one-man sitcom. Performing various roles with changes of pitch and other uses of body language, they tell tales of horror, comedy, and more. Some of the nuance is lost in translation; the jokes are largely a result of puns or other wordplay within the Japanese language. Still, the majority of the tales are accessible to many, and the skill of the rakugoka helps to draw in unsuspecting viewers and construct an elaborate world of vibrant characters. What makes this show so interesting is viewing this art-form through the lens of another art-medium.
Within the first few minutes of the Rakugo Shinjū, I got a distinct Mushi-shi vibe. Not that it deals with the supernatural in an overt manner, though there are some hints of those elements early on, but that it doesn’t necessarily fall within the wheel-house of 95% of anime out there. As I mentioned in my review of Erased, I appreciate that the hero isn’t a meta-human high schooler with an ever-growing harem. Something about it feels distinctly “adult”, and not in the graphic sense. Yakumo carries an emotional weight wherever he goes, Yotarō has buried feelings of guilt and regret from his life of crime, and Konatsu is constantly battling feelings of envy, anger and gratitude from the start. It’s not that there can’t be solid heroes or villains who are younger…but the power of age and experience isn’t easily overcome.
Perhaps the most impressive and interesting element of Rakugo Shinjū is its presentation of different rakugo performances. In episode 1 we see Yotarō deliver a rakugo performance with the hopes of showing his former crime boss why he chose to abandon his life of crime for the theater. Where most shows might highlight specific parts of the performance laid out in the form of a montage, Rakugo Shinjū shows the entire performance from start to finish. It is able to communicate, rather effectively, what makes a rakugo performance powerful and memorable. It shows Yotarō’s subtle movements, such as his pantomime of walking by shifting from one foot to the other while in a kneeling position, his movements of opening drawers and doors, and the way that he’s able to create the numerous characters in his story with distinctive voices. (While I’m thinking about it I just want to say that Yotarō’s voice actor, Tomukazu Seki, does an exceptional job in this respect. It’s one thing to be a skilled voice actor. It’s another thing altogether to create different voices and characters within that role.) Needless to say, by the time the performance is over the crime boss sees that Yotarō is serious about this venture, and the viewer has a newfound appreciation for the medium. This trope is utilized again in episode 2, to arguably greater effect in that it demonstrates the difference between a poor rakugo performance and a good one.
Rakugo Shinjū is a masterful work. It succeeds in transporting you to another world…one not so distant from your own. It’s a reflective and culturally rich series that is quickly gaining steam as this season’s dark horse. Don’t miss this one…you’ll regret it.