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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!