I was glad for the hour-long first episode that really established a present day for the show; giving it the confidence to go decades into the past in only its second. And while Yotarou was the main protagonist of the first episode, he and Konatsu are entirely absent here, as we have only the old Yakumo narrating the past, and how he met Sukeroku.
This story explains why the present-day Yakumo has bouts of bitterness and insecurity that can manifest as cruel or petty treatment towards those in his life, be it Konatsu or Yotarou. It all boils down to this: Rakugo was an arranged marriage for Yakumo, while it was true love for Sukeroku.
For Yakumo, then known as Bon, was into a geisha house. He was a dancer until he ruined his leg, and so he got dumped off at Yuurakutei’s house to be his apprentice and learn rakugo. He didn’t even want to get into rakugo, but he had to. His entire future was neatly laid out for him…by people other than himself.
Sukeroku, then known as Shin, was a filthy, orphaned street urchin, who always used to be able to get into theaters for free. He convinces the master to let him be his apprentice in much the same manner as Yotarou convinces Yakumo: a combination of charm – from his overabundance of enthusiasm, and pity – the implication he truly has no where else to go.
The master can when Shin shows him what he’s got that he’s doing a lot of straight mimickry, but the fact he makes Bon smile and laugh tells him he could be more than just another mouth to feed.
OH MY GOD LOOK IT’S A YOUNG MATSUDA!!! Holy crap, that’s so cool that Yakumo would not only inherit his master’s title, but his manservant as well. This makes Matsuda the only character other than the narrator Yakumo whom we know form the first episode.
Oh, but where were we? Ah yes, Bon and Shin. Another reason the master takes Shin in is so that Bon has a foil, and learns to loosen up a little. Sure enough, after Shin says out loud something Bon dare not—they were both abandoned by their families—Bon has himself a cathartic cry and tells Shin his entire story, which Shin earnestly listens to and responds appropriately: basically, “Yeah man, that’s a pretty raw deal.” But it means so much just for Bon to have someone to talk to.
The two grow up together, alike in how they came to be in the master’s house, but otherwise total opposites, except for their ability to accept one another, much like to very different brothers who still share blood and love for one another, even as they compete for their “father’s” approval.
Once they’ve studied and practices and grown up enough, their master gives them names and deems them ready to open for him at the theater. Bon gets the elegant, refined name Kikuhiko; while Shin gets Hatsutaro, which he feels will sink him before he even jumps in the pool.
Now we know that Kikuhiko would end up being given the title of eighth-generation Yakumo, but I’m certain the master doesn’t arrive at that decision after Kiku’s first performance, which was an unqualified disaster, though not in any over-the-top or overly cartoonish way (say, he slips and falls or flubs his lines).
He gets all the words out, it just all feels so flat. And he’s super nervous, shaking and sweating from the get-go. No nice way to say it: he bombs. And he knows it, even before he sees Hatsutaro backstage, and dares him to do better in his very first performance opening for their master.
Hatsutaro does better. Almost too much better. His performance, starting with a loud “HEY!” that wakes up those in the sparse crowd Kiku put to sleep, is far more energetic, warm, loose, and inviting. Rather than no laughs, he gets many, and from a diverse cross-section of people.
Kiku only succeeded in making the crowd almost as uncomfortable as he was. That’s some kind of theater, but it’s not rakugo. Hatsu did some damn fine rakugo in his first performance. He even turns Kiku’s frown upside down. But that’s just it: right now, Kiku simply has no confidence in his future, because he never actually wanted to do this, and still doesn’t. He knew that truth would come out in his performance, and sure enough, it did.
This is only the first part of Yakumo’s tale, which he did fairly warn us was long. We have yet to learn how he clawed back from that sorry first performance to become the living legend he is in the present (and who inspired Yotarou to seek him out), not to mention how his relationship with Sukeroku progressed/regressed; and at some point Sukeroku will meet Konatsu’s mother.
However much more story Yakumo has to tell, I am all ears.