Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 01 (First Impressions)

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I enter Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu a little late–it almost flew past my radar–until a commenter mentioned it as one of the season’s best – and I’m inclined to agree.

SGRS‘s first episode may be 47 minutes long (and they don’t fly by quickly), but it starts off strong, immersed me in both sides of the obscure world of rakugo – and offered numerous fantastic performances on and off the stage. It’s also the rare show that made me laugh out loud and get me all misty-eyed.

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Recent parolee and former gang member Yotarou begs the great rakugo master Yakumo, who once performed at his prison, to make him his apprentice. On a lark, the initially reluctant Yakumo agrees, and brings him to his house. Which is good, because Yotarou had no Plan B!

Yakumo doesn’t live alone, however: he’s the guardian of Konatsu, the daughter of his late rakugo colleague, Sukeroku. From first glance, Konatsu looks interested in following in her father’s footsteps, but hides her practicing from Yakumo, who apparently doesn’t approve.

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After moving in, Yotarou gets to experience Yakumo live once more, amidst a packed and enthusiastic theater Yakumo has eating out of his hand, and not by any trick. He’s simply extremely good at telling comedic stories with multiple voices that draw the audience in, and you can bet I was drawn right in with ’em.

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But while Yakumo has the adoration of many in this small niche of theater, he betrays his prickly side when he learns of Konatsu studying her father on the sly. Konatsu loses her short temper (it’s clear Yakumo knows exactly how to push her buttons) and is held back by Yotarou in a very theatrical and beautifully-framed shot, seen above.

This is a show whose main characters are all, well, characters, and you get the feeling they’re playing roles even when there’s no audience (other than us, that is). And when these strong personalities clash, like Konatsu and Yakumo often do, the atmosphere crackles with electricity.

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The show puts a roadblock ahead of Yotarou’s journey to become a rakugo star before it even gets off the ground when his old boss from the gang shows up with another job for him. This guy’s a rakugo outsider, for sure: both ignorant to and unwilling to learn about its charms, having already deemed it “tepid rubbish.”

He’s also someone Yotarou was always extremely obedient to, so I was glad when Konatsu spoke up when it looked like he was wavering. Ultimately, it’s Yakumo who resolves the standoff, entering the room and instantly snatching all the authority in that room, sending Yotarou off to practice and inviting the boss to come see his old soldier’s first very show in front of a crowd.

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This long episode’s centerpiece is Yotarou’s performance of “Dekigokoro”, in which he uses his vocal talent with his own crime experience to get consistent laughs out of the sparse but intent crowd. This is a ten-minute long sequence with no interruptions, and it was spellbinding, particularly when accompanied by jazz.

His old boss laughs once he sees the light, and how well-suited the chatterbox is to rakugo. Konatsu also can’t help laughing, though she tries to stifle it. As for Yakumo, he seems proud that Yotarou was able to send his old boss away with his performance, but he also seems a bit miffed that his apprentice is eschewing his tight, precise style for the looser mode of Sukeroku.

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Yakumo takes this opportunity to get another dig at Konatsu, calling her out for what he considers her attempts to “bring her father back to life” through Yotarou, even though he has “no skill” and is only a “passing fancy.” This jealousy, pettiness, and cruelty he displays comprises a “dark side” he shows only to a select few people closest to him, and it’s ugly; he makes Konatsu cry, but to what end? His own self-aggrandizement.

In the episode’s dramatic and emotional apex, a distraught Konatsu visits the friend of her late mother, begging her to tell her the truth about what happened. The friend only tells her what she’s already heard, but can’t accept: her parents died in an unfortunate accident, and no one was to blame.

Konatsu survived the accident, but now she curses she was born a woman, because she’ll never be accepted as Sukeroku’s successor. I hope she’s wrong about that. Both her grief and frustration were strongly felt through the screen; Kobayashi Yuu does stunning work throughout the episode and here in particular.

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After Yotarou stays up too late the previous night listening to Sukeroku (sent to bed by a flattered and concerned Konatsu in a lovely scene between them), Yakumo makes him open one of his own performances with zero notice. The packed crowd only has sporadic polite applause for him, as Yakumo watches him in the dressing room, still not over Yotarou’s apparent obsession with his late rival.

Then Yotarou commits a seemingly unforgivable sin of dozing off just offstage. His snores momentarily interrupt Yakumo’s story, but because he’s a master, he smooths over the disturbance with a little bit of improv. Still, when the performance is over, he formally expels Yotarou, calls a rickshaw in the thick snow, and heads home without him.

The rickshaw is a great touch, as Yakumo is imperiousness incarnate with his wheeled throne and arrogant pipe as Yotarou prostrates himself in the snow to deaf ears. The Winter snow is also an easy way to up the stakes for Yotarou, who will literally be out in the cold if the expulsion sticks.

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I honestly felt really bad for Yotarou, despite pretty heinous screw-up. But the fact his expulsion is as much about Sukeroku as it is the snoring is not lost on me. It’s Konatsu who takes pity on a freezing Yotarou loitering outside her house, and gets him an audience with Yakumo once the latter had time to cool down.

While Yotarou and Konatsu probably won’t ever be a couple per se, their many interactions this week built a solid a foundation for a close relationship hovering somewhere between friends and adoptive siblings.

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After having time to think about it, Yakumo takes a more pragmatic approach to Yotarou, realizing that the rakugo flame will go out when he dies if he discards young people who wish to carry it on. It doesn’t redeem him entirely–he still doesn’t seem open to Konatsu being a rakugoka-but it does paint him as a complex human being, with good and bad parts interspersed in his character.

So he gives Yotarou three conditions for reversing his expulsion and moving forward with his apprenticeship: he must memorize everything Yakumo gives him; he must find and nuture his own rakugo, not merely continue to imitate Sukeroku’s or his own; and most importantly, he must outlive him; which considering Yotarou’s criminal past, isn’t necessarily a given! He also makes Konatsu promise to outlive him.

Yotarou agrees to it all, though he’s not sure at that moment if he’ll be able to follow through, he’s not going to squander his second chance. Then Yakumo tells the two to get ready for a long night, because he intends to tell them the story of a promise he and Sukeroku made. I can’t wait to hear it!

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Durarara!!x2 Ketsu – 02 (26)

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This week’s narrator is Shingen, whose wise, matter-of-fact tone is somewhat offset by the fact his voice is slightly muffled by the gas mask he never takes off (He’d be right at home in a Gundam anime). And what does Shingen talk about all episode? Women. No, nothing so crude as how they be shoppin’ all the time, but how women are women, whether they’re human or not.

Just take Anri and Erika at the hospital when Chikage arrives with his harem in tow. The two girls donning black may as well be sisters, but only Erika is fully human; Anri is a vessel for Saika, her calm, timid facade concealing churning multitudes of power and potential for destruction. By comparison Erika can’t do much besides not call Chikage back after giving him her email.

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Later, then Izaya shows up to have his injuries checked out, he tries to lure Saika into losing her cool and proving she’s not human but just a pretender…and Izaya knows humans, loves them, and believes that gives him leave to mess with them all he likes.

His tortured metaphor of Mikado and Masaomi walking a tightrope with nooses around their necks connecting them, and all the various people trying to help or hurt him, is nevertheless enough to get Anri’s Saika blood boiling, until it’s all she can do to not kill him.

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The whole episode, Manami is walking around with a bag we later learn contains Celty’s head. She’s ostensibly working for Izaya but also trying to hurt him wherever she can after failing to kill him before. But Izaya has made it clear humans who hate him are free to try to kill him, but he’ll never stop loving and forgiving them. But that love means nothing to Manami.

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Erika consoles a very disturbed Anri; after all, it’s plenty human to feel like killing Izaya now and again. And just as Izaya will always forgive humans no matter what they tried to to to him, Erika will always love and forgive Anri, even if she becomes the dark instrument of the world’s destruction.

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As Celty, another non-human whose human friend (and lover) Shinra will always love and forgive even if she destroys the world, is run ragged getting all the freeloaders situated in the apartment, her “still unknown enemy”

Kujiragi Kasane shows that she isn’t always Saika, or the shadowy leader of an organization using body doubles as the now-dead Yadogiri Jinnai to conduct business, or Ruri’s mothers half-sister (as we learn from the gossipy Shingen). Sometimes, she’s just a woman who buys cat ears, takes her shoes off and relaxes in the park, contemplating cafes to try out.

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When Erika sees how Anri smiles and cries and feels such concern for her troubled friends, she can’t help but disregard “humanity” as some kind of requisite for being a good person. Anri is a good person, whatever’s stewing within her, and I think she has a crucial role to play in mediating the war between her two friends soon.

It’s a little heartbreaking, then, that just when Anri is accepting Erika’s words of encouragement (and going to buy cat ears for her, only to find they’re sold out), she runs into Niekawa Haruna in the street, who asks her to come with her, or else.

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As I said, Shinra, like Erika with Anri, sees Celty as a woman first and foremost, but a woman who, due to her non-humanity, is disposed to act even kinder than humans usually act towards one another, aware of the stigma of what she is and how hard it is to hide. Without even thinking, Celty is a passionate, warm, caring, generous woman, and all Shinra asks is that she not think any less of herself.

But like Anri with Niewkawa, Celty has her non-humanity thrown in her face, as Manami took her head from Niekawa and unceremoniously hucked it in the bushes for all to see. It even making the news, which after chatting with the twins is how Celty finds out. And when she sees her head, exposed and vulnerable; the very object she was made the head of a new guild to retrieve, she does something a woman is more likely to do than a dullahan – she faints.

Shingen completes his monologue about “women being women” human or not, telling the women listening he has nothing more to say, but warning the men they “can’t be too careful,” implying the woman you choose may be someone like Anri, Ruri, Kasane, Haruna, or Celty, who are all more than just women.

It’s less of a condescending warning to stay away, and more of a warning to make sure you’re worthy of such women, and are resolved and prepared to stand with them when things get tough.

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Divine Gate – 02

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Divine Gate’s second episode delves further into both Aoto and Akane’s troubled (if very different) pasts, and there’s some okay character work going on as Aoto discovers a way to start moving forward.

But it paints with awfully broad and familiar strokes, and my initial enthusiasm about Divine Gate being an absorbing if imperfect diversion took a big hit when I was introduced to Loki, another very loaded character name.

The idea of a character who’s neither entirely good nor evil is good in theory, but the execution falls short, thanks to his really dumb clown/jester design.  I don’t particularly want this joker pulling the strings. Also, a name like Loki has inescapable baggage attached to it. Like King Arthur or Leonardo da Vinci, if you’re going to use a name, you’d better do something interesting with it.

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Meanwhile, the refreshingly normally-dressed Akane and Midori visit Aoto again, they see he takes care of alley cats, but not all the time, only “when he feels like it”, something Akane thinks is worst than not feeding them at all. But when the hungry creature in need shifts from cats to a little boy, Akane himself can’t help but help, even if he can’t always be there to do so.

When Loki makes a police robot go berserk and the kid ends up in mortal peril, and the father is too terrified and injured to save him, Aoto has to make a choice; like the one he made on the train last week.

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He chooses to help Akane and Midori, who destroy the robot while he extinguishes the fire. While the saved boy initially hesitates going to his inept father, and Akane curses the dad for doing nothing, Aoto can relate to consciously wanting to do something—like move forward—but being hampered by a subconscious that’s not in sync. The father’s fear overpowered his conscious desire to save his boy.

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I know all this because a little boy with white hair and red eyes in Aoto’s subconscious tells him and us, which is a bit clunky, truth be told, like the clowny Loki, the very sight of whom irritates me. But he apparently staged the whole crisis to shake Aoto off the shelf, and he succeeded.

Aoto goes back to the night his parents were murdered, and we learn it was his brother, the favorite son, who actually did it. When Aoto takes his hand, he briefly sees the Divine Gate, but his subconscious delivers a shock of pain to his brother, who separates their hands and walks off, never to be seen again.

So Aoto isn’t the parent-killer. Yet I felt that absolving him so easily was an overly safe choice that sapped his character of darkness and complexity. Being messed up because you killed your parents, and being messed up because your brother did, are two different things.

But it’s because his brother is still out there, and he wants to see him again, that Aoto joins the academy. Also, because Akane and Midori were “annoying”.

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