Review/discussion about: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu
I’m lucky enough to still have one of my Grandfathers alive and well.
He has been the best Grandpa I could have hoped for. Showing up to my birthdays, graduations, and sports games. Treating me with both love and respect. Handing me a casual fifty-dollar bill whenever he gets the chance.
Yet his best gifts are his memories, the stories he tells when my brother and I sit close by and ask about another part of his life. Stories about his time as a milk man, ice man, and salesman. Stories about his tattoos and the gangs he associated with. Stories about my own troublemaking father.
I hope to have stories like my Grandpa’s when I grow old; I hope I’m making them now. Until then, the storied Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu proves that, like my Grandpa, the best stories come from the heart.
Rakugo begins by following Yotaro, a convict just released from prison. With no money or family, he makes it his mission to become the apprentice of Yakumo, the greatest rakugo artist of Yotaro’s generation. Luckily, he does, and, following a rather rude mishap, Yakumo chooses to tell both his “daughter” Konatsu and Yotaro his life’s story.
This opening blurb glosses over much of the first episode. That’s not because it’s terrible but because the anime already has in mind where it wants to focus. Indeed, the first episode performs three duties: introduces the audience to rakugo, gives us the current state of Bon’s (Yakumo’s real name) character, and sets the stage for the true story that needs telling.
And what a story is told.
The majority of Rakugo (approximately eleven-and-half episodes) is comprised of Bon’s personal recounting of the life he led and the brother he lost. He goes into so much: where he came from, his first love, living with Shin, his turning-point play, and so on and so forth.
Throughout all of Bon’s experiences, the anime explores a handful of levels.
One level is historical. The audience learns about what rakugo is, how it works, and what it went through during the war and the evolution of entertainment.
One level is romantic. What love does to people, as well as what people will give up to pursue their passions. Shin trying to save Miyokichi, Bon letting Miyokichi go despite loving her so he could reach higher rakugo heights, and Miyokchi basically cursing Bon for his mistreatment of her attest to this romantic notion handily enough.
One level is dramatic. The deaths of certain characters, Bon’s personal struggles, and the smaller moments – like Bon denying someone an apprenticeship or Shin’s expulsion – create drama that avoids being overbearing while simultaneously being interesting to watch.
However, Rakugo is not an intense or thrilling or deep anime. It never tries or claims to be so. But what it does become, through intertwining those three separate levels, is a personal tale told from the heart.
That makes sense because, after all, this story is Bon’s. But it is more than that, especially when considering the rakugo premise. Despite the countless stories he has told, he has never told this one. And, even smarter, it is not just a story about him but from him. In every other performance, Bon must become somebody else. But for this tale, histale, he simply has to be himself.
Writing of this cleverness can be seen throughout much of the anime. Take the rakugo performances themselves. They more or less reflect the state of the narrative at that time. A story about greed and a story about turning over a new leaf have direct ties to the characters and the events that they experience, adding to the show’s writing prowess.
Appropriate enough, Rakugo’s intricate execution can only be understood right before the end while reflecting on the beginning. Where Bon’s story starts with him meeting Shin and slapping the boy’s hand away, it finishes with him desperately clinging on and reaching for the hand of the man that has given him so much. A full-circle narrative whose connecting points (relevantly) speak volumes about the entire tale.
Smaller details also fill the narrative. The parallels in the Yakumo and Sukeroku names. Shin giving Bon his precious rakugo fan. Bon, without his cane, running at Shin to bring him into an embrace.
Throughout all of Rakugo, it focuses on a specific idea: finding a form of rakugo. Initially, that doesn’t seem very relatable – rakugo is quite a niche role. But interpreting this notion in the context of the story, it is not just about rakugo. It’s about finding one’s self.
Obviously, one of Bon’s primary conflicts is this issue. Yet it also extends to both Shin and Miyokichi. Shin has already found himself; it’s what makes his rakugo so strong. And Miyokichi combines them both: She has found herself by not being herself for others.
Ultimately, this theme drives the narrative because it is what drives Bon forward. And through his myriad of ups and downs, highs and lows, the audience as well starts to wonder if they have found themselves, too.
Given this intense character focus, the show does not have a tangible plot. In fact, the audience already knows the ending: Shin dies. The narrative is nothing more than Bon’s story. What he felt, what he did, and what he learned. And that’s the beauty of it all: It is the journey, not the destination, that matters.
Even its potential negatives are covered. An argument against the show is that one does not really get to see much of Shin and Miyokichi’s relationship. But Shin calling out Miyokichi’s real name (Yurie), when Bon was never told, indicate handily enough the connection the two oddballs shared.
Another potential negative is Yotaro’s mob boss appearing literally right after Yotaro mentions him. But this instance has meaning since it follows that ever-present theme of finding one’s self.
The background reveal on Bon’s master Yakumo could also be seen as a negative, but it’s made up for by the harshly truthful nature of the conversation.
The strongest argument against Rakugo happens in the final episode. Or rather, it doesn’t happen. In an interesting move, the immediate aftermath of Bon’s season-long story is not shown. Instead, it jumps forward in time many years.
It seems like a mistake. The anime started off by setting up some intriguing relationships – between Bon and Konatsu, Bon and Yotaro, and Yotaro and Konatsu. Yet the audience doesn’t get to see them unfold, transpire, or change. Again, not even once Bon completes his personal story. It feels like something should have been given.
It’s fine, though, for one reason only: A second season exists (soon). To be fair to Rakugo, this story is Bon’s, not Yotaro’s or Konatsu’s. So while it is not a major problem now, it certainly will be if, later on, the anime chooses to ignore the relationships between the master, the daughter, and the apprentice.
Regardless, Rakugo’s narrative power does not falter no matter what gets thrown its way.
Rakugo’s art and animation are likewise very strong in their execution.
Especially on an artistic level. Despite the frequent visits to the theater and its stage, the anime features many different locations and therefore backgrounds. A street on the eve of its first snowfall. A quaint town surrounded by blue sky, green grass, and yellow trails. A row of lighted festival stalls, leading to a darkened lake. The show constantly switches up its backgrounds, allowing it to thrive on variety.
But Rakugo’s art truly shines in the symbolic techniques it regularly uses. For instance, some of the rakugo performances inject visual depictions of the stories being told, representing just how masterful that particular performer is at the piece.
One of the best examples, however, is Bon’s shinigami rendition. The people being replaced by candles and the reduction in screen-size to include more black space around it, demonstrate the show’s (ironic yet welcome) show-don’t-tell approach.
(The visuals of the opening and ending tracks also deserve a shout-out. The former’s drowning of Miyokichi, and the latter’s colorful shapes, further indicate Rakugo’s penchant for deft symbolism. In this case, a feeling of suffocation and structure, respectively.)
(Also, the ED visuals switching out the main cast for the “new” cast for next season was a nice touch in the final episode.)
Even the animation manages to keep up. Rakugo requires a surprising amount of movement which the characters thankfully adopt. Their different facial expressions and body orientations make the performances come alive as they inject their own brand of rakugo.
Off the stage, animation remains within acceptable ranges, especially considering the art itself and the performances. Bon walking with his cane, Shin jumping into Bon’s arms, and Miyokichi looking down on Bon as petals swirl about her keep the animation and “action” on screen from feeling too static.
The character designs are strong, too. Bon’s sleek physique and handsome face. Shin’s wild hair and loose-fitting robes. Miyokichi’s floral yukata, different hair designs, and attractive assets. They are all not just adults but fitting-looking characters for the time, tone, and type of anime Rakugo happens to be.
Rakugo continues its dominance in the character department.
Perhaps obviously, Bon steals the stage. He’s not just a great character (which he better be, given that the anime is almost exclusively centered on him); he’s a phenomenal character.
His journey spans multiple parts of his life while characterizing, exploring, and developing his character at nearly every junction. He starts off as a cold, crippled boy, not wanting to take part in this weird storytelling art known as rakugo. As he connects with Shin, he also becomes slightly envious of him. All the while, he fails at rakugo, believing himself unable to improve.
He’s abandoned by Yakumo as he and Shin go off to war. During this time, Bon begins the rakugo climb. He falls in love for the first time, he practices daily, and he discovers that he doesn’t just want a simple, thankless life.
When Shin returns, Bon finally finds comfort on stage while crossdressing in a play. Taking up sensual, erotic stories, audiences start to not only listen but get enticed by his rakugo. He discovers that he performs rakugo for himself and nobody else. But his pursuit of even higher heights leaves him unable to see what he truly does rakugo for and leaves his relationship with Miyokichi waning.
After losing his brother and his lover, as well as his master and attendant, he is now alone, abandoned once again. At first, he thinks that this loneliness is exactly what he wanted: more time for himself and thus more time for his rakugo. Indeed, he becomes the poster boy of the art. Yet he cannot forget about the best friend he lost.
So when he finds Shin holed away with his new daughter and Miyokichi nowhere in sight, he chooses to get Shin, the best rakugo performer in the world, to take up the Yakumo family name instead.
His time away from the theater and the city and the bustle lets him understand that what he wants isn’t loneliness – he simply wants Shin. Unfortunately, the conflicting nature of the romance they all share together kills Shin and Miyokichi in a freak accident, leaving Bon alone to fulfill his and Shin’s promise.
Bon had blamed himself for Shin and Miyokichi’s fall into ruin. Their deaths only exacerbated this thought. However, it becomes ultimately evident in his response to Konatsu’s words about someday killing the man who “killed” her parents: “Kill me, then. I’d feel much better.”
That’s the conclusion to Bon’s person (for now). And this investigation does not even cover half of what he went through. Regardless, the execution in his arc, the events he experiences, and the development he goes through make him without a doubt one of the strongest characters in the medium.
A lot of this strength is owed to three different aspects: Shin, Miyokichi, and his theme on loneliness.
Shin was a nice guy. Arrogant (and perhaps deservedly so) but kind. For he had the best of intentions: He wanted to save rakugo, and he wanted to do it all for the people.
The juxtaposition between him and Bon is astounding. Bon is classy, elegant, and straight-laced whereas Shin is loud, energetic, and carefree. Shin’s personal ideals also juxtapose with Bon’s. Unlike Shin, Bon wasn’t sure how to approach rakugo, and he did it all for himself.
But they are also very similar. Both are apprenticed to Yakumo. Both fall in love with Miyokichi. Both are fantastic rakugo performers.
The best example, though, combines both their contrasts and similarities. The promise they make – for Bon to create an unchanging rakugo and for Shin to create an ever-changing rakugo – highlights not only the contrasting personalities and nature of the two men but also the staunch relationship they share as brothers.
Miyokichi brings a different caliber of character. She’s attracted to cold men and not nice guys (as she puts its). In other words, she loves Bon and not Shin. For her, she just wants to be a “good woman” for her man by supporting him. Which is exactly what she tries to do. She teaches Bon about women, dotes on him regularly, and supports him in his endeavors.
Yet she gets dumped hardcore by Bon, leading her to lust after Shin – to the point that they conceive a child together. But, again, her heart is for Bon only. If her sleeping with other men while married to Shin is not enough proof of her fleeting feelings, her only listening to Bon’s rakugo performance and not Shin’s, as well as not caring for her own daughter because it’s also Shin’s, indicates this well enough.
She’s an emotionally complex character to say the least.
Miyokichi’s involvement, however, does not deter the relationship that Bon and Shin share. Indeed, Bon would always listen to Shin eventually whereas Bon would almost never give in to Miyokichi’s demands. And when Miyokichi says she will get revenge on Bon, and somewhat does by “killing” Shin indirectly, she’s not the one that haunts Bon. Shin is.
The contrasts, the relationships, and the layered parallels not only bolster Bon but also Rakugo as a whole.
And connected through them all is that theme on loneliness that propels Bon, Shin, and Miyukichi’s characters even further ahead.
Bon’s loneliness is evident in the abandonment he constantly experiences. But Shin deals with loneliness, too. He believes the best rakugo is rakugo that suits what the audience wants, meaning he does not want the audience to feel lonely. Miyokichi as well. She herself refuses to be lonely, moving from man to man in the hopes of placating her feelings.
Loneliness also seeps into the events themselves. Bon and Shin are at their lowest point emotionally when lonely: Bon is abandoned by everyone while Shin loses his beloved rakugo. Shin and Miyokichi hook up when they both find themselves alone. And Bon and Miyokichi are at their fiercest together when Miyokichi’s loneliness cannot be contained any longer.
The kicker is how this theme ties into the premise. Rakugo is simultaneously a lonely art and a collective one. The performer is alone on stage while the audience supports him or her from afar. Meaning, rakugo itself revolves around loneliness.
Such clever, beautiful writing is simply the norm for this anime.
Rakugo’s strongest outing comes from the music and sound-work it includes.
The OP mixes clock sounds, whispered vocals, and irregular instrumental and lyrical work to make a piece that’s enticing and sumptuous and flavorful. The ending track, in comparison, avoids weird compositions and a singer altogether. The smooth trumpet, accompanied by the violin and piano, craft a peaceful ride at the end of every episode, making it a relaxing, cool ED to hear.
The rest of the original soundtrack contains dramatic, melancholy pieces that fit the mood of the anime. But it mostly goes cultural, incorporating different tunes, instruments, and arrangements that fit the premise and time period well. The foreign feel definitely adds to the overall appeal of the show, but it also gives Rakugo another twinge of peculiarity.
Yet some of Rakugo’s strongest sound offerings are not musical in the strict definition of the word. Rather, the anime’s ability to use sound as a tool to tell its tale once again elevates the show towards newer, more compelling heights.
For example, the use of a grating, brooding sound induces the same feeling of dread that Bon feels when he doesn’t know what will become of him. Or the frantic, overbearing piano during Bon’s first performance makes it hard to hear his words, reflecting his current nerve-racking state.
And while it almost does not even need to be said, the voice-acting performances are simply superb. Akira Ishida and Kouichi Yamadera as Bon and Shin, respectively, demonstrate their range, emotion, and skill both on and off the rakugo stage.
I will admit, when this one first started airing, I was tentative. I distinctly remember (read: there are records of) me not fully impressed with where the story itself was going or what it ultimately wanted to do.
It has been nine months since then. Such time has let me meet different people, let me watch new anime, and let me experience more of what life has to offer. Basically, like Bon, I’ve changed.
And suffice it to say, my perspective has changed, too.
I remember myself laughing while watching. Not because something was funny. In fact, there was only one true instance of comedy (when one of the new rakugo kids had big, frizzy hair). No. It was because I was taken aback by how splendid the anime was.
Multiple moments can be selected to make this clear, but the one that stuck with me the most occurred in episode eleven. For it contains the “best” rakugo performance.
Bon and Shin perform together, showing the strength in their respective approaches side-by-side. Unconventional also in its location; not in a theater or some grand hall, but on the side of Shin’s shack with his daughter being the only member watching the two greatest rakugo performers to ever live.
It’s not fair to say that “there is nothing else is like it in the medium.” Not just because that’s hyperbole but also because other anime have included similar aspects. Japanese-culture premises, wicked symbolism, and strong characters are not something that this one came up with.
And that one scene is not groundbreaking or even stunning. Indeed, I’d argue that nothing in the anime is of that nature. But this is all precisely the point; it’s a simple, plain tale that nails it all.
Its maturity in content and drama and themes. The passionate, realistic relationships held between the characters. An insane amount of execution in nearly every facet of the show.
It was hard not comparing it to other anime because of what it didn’t do. No fantasy. No strangeness. No nonsense. No gimmicks. No conveniences. It was a simple, normal tale that was true, fair in its delivery.
There’s so much more. Bon’s incredible character arc is awesome to see unfold. The sharp writing and dialogue. Konatsu as a kid. Interesting rakugo performances. A juicy, messy romance between the lot.
I debated with myself for a long time over my personal connection with the show. On whether or not this one deserved the highest of honors. I’m talking conversing with me in the mirror and speaking with my mother about it over the phone.
For those that know of my style, I look at every anime on its own. What it did, what it accomplished, and so on. I’m all about fairness. Even so, this one made me question the standards anime should uphold and challenged my usual line of thinking.
In other words, it’s an anime that provided me with a completely new experience, a small story I can later tell to my own grandkids. For this reason and the many previously listed, it earns that top-tier award that’s so rarely given out.
Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu paints a fantastic tale. Its narrative is both wonderful in its message and tight in its composition. The characters are layered with immense care and detail. And the symbolic visuals, amazing sound work, and sheer technical prowess support everything throughout the entire experience. Not as perfect as my Grandpa’s stories but pretty darn close.
Story: Great, history, romance, and drama intertwine to form a personable, well-written tale about rakugo and finding one’s self
Animation: Great, varied locales, symbolic techniques, nice animation, and fitting character designs
Characters: Great, Bon’s character arc is one of the strongest in the medium, with him, Shin, and Miyokichi being connected through stark juxtaposition, complicated relationships, and a thorough theme on loneliness
Sound: Great, good OP, good ED, good OST, nice sound-design choices, and superb VA performances
Enjoyment: Great, the overall “uniqueness,” maturity, and execution are so impressive that they challenge the perception of the medium as a whole
Final Score: 10/10
Thanks for taking the time to read my review. If you want, take part in the discussion below! :3