I recently saw an anime called Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjou. It’s about the traditional japanese storytelling called Rakugo. I really enjoyed this first season (13 episodes of ~20 minutes), so I thought I’d outline why I think it’s such a great example of what manga and anime do so well.
There’s a lot of excellent manga and anime which focus on one topic or subject and draw in the average reader (with no prior experience or knowledge of the focus). At the top of the list, there’s Hikaru No Go (for Go), Yuri On Ice (for figure skating), a million sports manga (if not for Touch!, I would never have learned the rules of Baseball), and even Bakuman (which talks about making manga). Obviously, these aren’t textbooks or teaching material. There has to be an involving plot and cast to make the skating or boxing or competitive hamster racing mean something. I’m writing this review because I loved the main characters of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjou, and by the end of it, I was scouring Youtube for Rakugo in english or subtitled Rakugo.
Except for the first episode, we follow the two students of the seventh generation Rakugo-ka Yakumo: Hatsutaro and Kikuhiko. They grow up together under the tutelage of their master, complete opposites: Kikuhiko is hard-working, respectful towards his elders, introverted. He shows few emotions and struggles with his own feelings about Rakugo. Hatsutaro is irreverent, wild, and loves Rakugo with a passion. The show is essentially a drama which chronicles their life together, and as they both make Rakugo their life’s work, the segments of storytelling in each episode serve to draw out their differences. The drama gives extra flavour to the performances, as the story means something to the character performing. Similarly, the performances help draw out the character’s growth.
This is where Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjou shines. Even though I don’t understand the language and am relying on subtitles, I loved the Rakugo stories. They manage to convey the specific style that said character is going for and the successes or failures of the delivery. It’s extremely telling that the same story is sometime told several times by different characters, and the retelling is never boring: the nuances between different performers actually gives you more to think about. A lot of them are genuinely funny, and once Kikuhiko finds his voice, his chilling performances are just as absorbing as the silly ones.
The first episode frames the narrative, in a daring 50-minute premier: for an anime without straightforward action, a long episode risks boring the watchers. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I found myself surprised every time the closing credits came around. A sign of a good anime is that they often have no opening, and include the credits in a scene: there’s no filler, no unnecessary material in Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjou.
This brings me back to what anime and manga do so well, which is exemplified in this anime: they know how to show just enough to convey meaning without bogging down in the details of the art, and how to use symbolism to make the focus of the anime completely relevant to the plot. In the end, it’s hard to say if Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjou is a story about two people or an anime about Rakugo. Both captivated me.
I can’t recommend it enough: with no prior knowledge of the art, I was completely hooked. Go watch it, and thank me later. I’ll post a spoiler-filled blog which analyses the plot later, but I’d rather our legions of readers have a chance to enjoy the show first.