Sakura Quest – 03

When a television interview exposes Queen Yoshino I’s dearth of knowledge about the very town she rules (mentioning only its natural scenery and manju), Ushimatsu insists she go out into the town and “feel the wind”…which she does, literally, no no effect.

Shiori then accompanies her on a series of increasingly demoralizing interviews with Manoyama’s salt-of-the-earth residents, who either can’t hear what she’s saying, don’t trust her, or say there’s nothing she can do.

However, the bus driver (who was the prince when she was first crowned as a little girl) is one somewhat-heartening voice: if someone’s going to revamp the town, it will either be someone young, someone foolish, or an outsider. Yoshino’s all three, so she should be fine!

She also actually learns a few things about the town. One, it used to be just plain ol’ Kabura Kingdom, without the chupa- , and that Ushimatsu and his tourism board and the board of merchants (led by Ririko’s grandma) have always been at odds with the switch to UMA.

At the apparently super-important mascot contest, Ushimatsu finds his chupakabura mask has gone missing. Little do they know Yoshino’s new friends Shiori, Maki, Sanae and Ririko are ON IT. They put a ridiculous amount of time into tracking down the town’s previous mascot, Kabura Kid, then mending it in time.

It’s a real group effort, though the particulars of their motivation, beyond helping Yoshino out, escaped me a bit. I guess they really did all have a bunch of time on their hands!

They arrive at the contest with the Kabura mask the same time Ushimatsu’s underlings arrive with the chupa mask, soiled by spending time at the garbage dump.

(I’ll mention that I love that Mrs. Oribe takes such pleasure in taking Ushimatsu down a peg whenever possible, talking about how he’ll be saved by the very kingdom he once destroyed. It’s such gloriously big language for such a petty subject!)

But hey, maybe it’s not so petty. As Ushimatsu and the others bicker over which mask he’ll wear, the Queen finally puts her royal foot down, and says it doesn’t matter. (But she choses the kabura mask, since it’s not covered in shit).

In a stilted, serious speech probably not quite appropriate for the audience of mostly kids, she says she doesn’t yet know what Manoyama has that no other town in the world has, but she’ll spend the next year hoping to find out (assuming the entire town doesn’t die of old age by then).

The one condition she gives Ushimatsu is that she be allowed to perform her duties with the assistance of the combined force of Shiori, Maki, Sanae and Ririko, who all agree to be her “council of ministers.”

Again, because I guess they just don’t have a lot going on? It’s not made clear whether they’ll be paid like Yoshino is, but one would hope. What kind of kingdom can’t pay its subjects a fair wage for their services?

Watched with a hearty helping of suspension of disbelief, Sakura Quest is a pleasant enough place to spend time, if pretty much average in looks and sound. So I’ll stick with it for now. Can that sustain me for…25 episodes? That remains to be seen.

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu 2 – 07

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It’s Autumn, and getting chilly, but Yakumo goes out to sit amongst the gingko trees on hospital grounds in thin robes. Konatsu finds him and wraps him in a scarf. He’s in a dark place. When he first collapsed, he thought he wouldn’t “have” to do rakugo anymore.

Now that he’s returned from that hall of candles and from his encounter with Sukeroku…wherever he was, he feels he’s lost both the voice and the desire to ever take the stage again. Konatsu, who still blames him for her father’s death, calls it karmic retribution.

The deep-seated bitterness remains. Yet if anything, Konatsu is even bitterer to see the ultimate antagonist in her life brought so low.

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Konatsu and Yakumo’s meeting among the Gingkos, and the tragic past that binds them, is re-investigated and all but rewritten this week, as Higuchi invites Yotaro and Matsuda to join him in the countryside where everything ended and began: the hot spring inn where Sukeroku and Miyokichi Yurie died.

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It’s where Higuchi, only a boy and accompanying his father, an inn regular, first met (and pretty much fell for) Miyokichi. A few years later he encountered her in Tokyo, and she’d only grown more beautiful and refined.

When Higuchi heard the way she spoke the name Kikuhiko, he had to see what kind of man could snatch this gorgeous woman’s heart. When he went to see the future Yakumo perform, he found himself in awe like many others, and asked if he could be a rakugo apprentice.

Obviously, Kiku refused, and now we know that young man from episode 10 of last season was Higuchi, who since then has immersed himself in rakugo, not as a performer, but a student, and may just be positioned to help steer its future with Yotaro.

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But this episode is concerned mostly with the past, specifically the last days of Sukeroku. Yotaro obviously wasn’t there, but Matsuda was, and throughout the episode Matsuda is overcome with nostalgia for the barely-changed place.

More to the point, Higuchi has brought them here to view film reels of Kiku and Shin’s performances, which despite their degraded quality put everyone right back in that state of awe. The Kiku in the film is younger than Yotaro, and yet he’s so much better, and more to the point, seems so much happier to be performing rakugo. All Yotaro needs to do is close his eyes, and he sees the young master in color, performing all the roles within the world of his story.

Then the innkeeper loads the reel of Shin performing “Shibahama”, the story of the wife’s lie that made her husband’s life better, and there isn’t a dry eye in the darkened room, including my own. It’s a story told and performed so well that it simply gets me every time. And Yotaro can tell how happy Shin was.

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After that, they go to the graves of Sukeroku and Miyokichi, whose happiness—and ultimately lives—Higuchi said were destroyed by Yakumo. But Matsuda knows the truth of what happened that night, and it isn’t the story Yakumo told Yotaro last season. Likely because it was such a good and well-told story, I never questioned whether Yakumo was a reliable narrator.

But overcome by all the memories the town, inn, and film reels surfaced in him, and the sun not only setting on the day, but on his and Yakumo’s lives, Matsuda reveals all: Miyokichi stabbed Shin. Kiku was holding him and got covered in his blood when Matsuda and Konatsu came in, and Konatsu then tried to push her mother out the window. Shin grabbed Miyokichi and the two fell to their deaths, while Kiku held Konatsu back.

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That misleading image—of Kiku holding her father, the two stained in blood, and Kiku wearing a fiercely hostile expression—is pretty much all Konatsu remembers of the ordeal; her memory is hazy from passing out from the shock of the events she witnessed. But it’s an image that still haunts her to this very day, as she smokes alone in her jammies when Yotaro returns home.

When she looks up at him, wondering why he was out late, she sees the tears in the big guy’s face (not an uncommon occurrence) and assumes Yakumo must have done that to him. He did, but not directly. Those are the tears of someone who has heard the truth and come across someone who still doesn’t, and has gone through a lot of pain because of it.

He doesn’t relay to Konatsu what he’s learned on this night. Instead he embraces her…while she keeps smoking. But I imagine the truth will come out at some point, as Matsuda begged Yotaro and Higuchi not to let the master leave the world believing rakugo will die with him.

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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu 2 – 06

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When Yakumo suddenly collapses, Mangetsu is able to administer first aid before the paramedics arrive. Konatsu goes with Yakumo, and Yota is ready to follow…but instead elects to stay behind. The sound of the crowd comes back into focus: the show must go on.

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And it does, as we are presented with Yota’s rendition of “Inokori” (which was performed by Sukeroku in episode 9 of last season). This isn’t another fiasco like the time Yota cast off his robe; he basically knocks it out of the park, proving he was ready to perform it. The only problem is that as good as he was, his master wasn’t there to hear it.

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The moment the curtain falls, Yota, who had been keeping it together splendidly, starts to tear up. Matsuda can’t help but tear up too. The only one who doesn’t tear up is Shin, but he seems on the verge of doing so simply because it’s what the adults are doing. At the hospital, Yakumo remains unconscious. Matsuda takes Mangetsu home, praising his rakugo on the way. Maybe he’ll get back into it?

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A couple of weeks pass, with Yota filling in for Yakumo, all but doubling his already formidable workload and feeling the strain. He continues to proclaim master will wake up and be fine, but not even he is a sure as he sounds about that.

Meanwhile, time goes on, and the proprietor of the Uchikutei theater tells him about plans to “rebuild” it, which one would think would mean demolishing the Taisho-era venue. We get a bit of a tour of the empty place as he runs down all of the little charms and foibles that make it as unique and irreplaceable as, well, a performer like Yakumo.

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On the train to another gig, Eisuke encourages him with two bits of information: that unlike the precise technique of Yakumo and raw reality of the last Sukeroku, Yota has his own kind of rakugo: in fact, he is a vessel for it. No “ego or hunger” on display, Yota fades away, leaving only the rakugo to be absorbed by the crowd. It’s a rare gift.

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The episode ends with Yakumo opening his eyes, and though he still doesn’t look or sound too good at all, he’s still alive, which is surely enough for his family. Whatever happened in that sliver of afterlife he tasted, we see no more of it, adding to its mystique.

All I know is Yakumo looks tired, and while he doesn’t look like he enjoyed what he witnessed, he may not be particularly happy to have not died when he did, taking rakugo as he knows it with him.

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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu 2 – 05

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Yota is stoked. He’s flying high. He’s learned how to command a crowd, the theaters are full, his material is killing. He owes much of this to a lifting of a weight of uncertainty since Yakumo performed “Inokori” for him. Yakumo maintains that mastering that—and in just they way he instructs, by summoning one’s ego—is Yota’s next step.

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But Yakumo is no longer Yota’s sole source of instruction or inspiration. Whether he knows it or not, Yota has also fallen under the influence of Higuchi Eisuke, the outsider who shows Yota the wider world of rakugo, not just the venerable but narrow Yuuakutei canon.

The implication is obvious: like a smattering of gutted clans in days of yore, an alliance must be formed – a new rakugo – in order to survive modern times, and Yakumo’s death.

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Yota seems to rarely leave the open entrance to his home, sitting their first listening to his predecessor Sukeroku, then to all the myriad versions of Inokori provided by Higuchi, no two of them alike. It’s strong enough stuff for him to laugh and react loudly deep into the night. He’s so immersed, Konatsu has to snap him out of it so he can get some sleep for the family performance.

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And it is truly a family performance, as Konatsu will be at the shamisen per her father’s bidding. Of the three family members, she’s by far the most nervous. Performing rakugo for a bunch of kindergartners and a smattering of their parents is one thing: playing pros at the very top of the game in and out to a giant packed theater is another. But Yota (and indirectly, Yakumo) know she’ll be fine.

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Damn…when Yota offered to give Mangetsu an pregame audience with Yakumo and I saw that loooong foreboding hallway, for a few moments I feared for the worst: that Yakumo was keeled over dead in his dressing room, just like that. Blame the seductively creepy OP in which the ghost Sukeroku opens Yakumo’s cloak to reveal nothing but dry bones, and the earlier mention by someone that his voice has lost something.

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Thankfully, Yakumo is fine, but everything I mentioned before still casts a pall on him. Yota’s meeting with him is another great one, as Yota proudly shows what he’s really been up to in the red light districts: getting his carp tattoo finished. This is Yota literally not letting things go unfinished; not apologizing for who he was and who he is.

Yakumo may think rakugo is finished once he dies, but he’s wrong. His rakugo won’t even be finished; it’s not his call, but history’s. So even though he’s pissy about the fact Yota is taking into account other methods for “Inokori” (likely aware this is Higuchi’s influence), you can’t expect someone who claims, and is pretty certain, they don’t have an ego to use that ego.

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Yota warms up the crowd, getting them “laughing like fools”, which might be fine in a solo show, but Yakumo needs to put them in a different, more nuanced mood; Yota’s winding them up makes it tougher. Still, he’s more than up to the challenge, and performs “Hangon-ko” with both musical accompaniment from Konatsu (who he says he’s counting on, and who doesn’t let him down despite her nerves) and an extra prop: streams of incense.

The significance of the titular incense to the story—that it brings back the soul of a dead loved one—is all too apropos for Yakumo’s darkening state of mind as the days ahead of him dwindle. And even though at this part in the story he tells, the widower buys the wrong incense and burns way too much of it, the incense still has the effect of summoning the ghost of Miyokishi before Yakumo, in one of the most chilling and intense moments of the show’s entire run.

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Yakumo manages to finish the story to polite but not raucous applause, and Yota quickly orders the curtains dropped. Yakumo collapses and enters what must seem like the afterlife. Miyokichi is nowhere to be found. Instead there are off-kilter shelves after shelves of countless burning candles – no doubt signifying lives.

Like the end of the deliciously haunting OP, Yakumo’s candle must be burning very low indeed, flickering, and threatening to be snuffed out. Sukeroku also comes before him, as young and vital as the day he was killed. He asked him why he’s there, ignores his questions of whether he’s in paradise or hell, and starts to choke him.

As we ponder what medical malady struck Yakumo on that stage, an attack that will most likely result in the cancelling of the remainder of the family performance, including Yota’s “Inokori”, but more importantly, may mark the commencement of the trial of Yakumo’s soul.

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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu 2 – 04

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After each episode, and after announcing the next, a character thanks us for our “continued support,” and my continued support of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu has never gone unrewarded.

Case in point: another absolute gem, combining lovely family slice-of-life (with a very unique and cool family), the clouds hanging over Yakumo’s head, and Konatsu getting to do something, out of the blue, she never dreamed of actually doing.

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That adorable little kid up there is Konatsu and Yota’s kid. Some time has passed, but not too much: he’s only in kindergarten, and yet, he’s already surprising and delighting all, even his parents, with his nascent rakugo skills. They may have a genius on their hands.

He’s every bit as charismatic as Konatsu was. Even Yakumo can’t stay mad, going quickly into Grandpa Mode. By the way, how often does a show come around where so much time passes, we get to watch both Konatsu and her son at the same age? It’s a generational show.

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It’s generations that Higuchi Eisuke wishes to discuss with Yakumo, who grudgingly gives him a ride home and his ear for the five or so minutes. Eisuke doesn’t waste them, almost going too far in proclaiming he won’t let Yakumo kill rakugo off, or even define it as something dead or dying. With Yota, Eisuke aims to keep it alive, changing to suit the mood of a generation, just as it always has.

Ever the rigid bamboo, Yakumo won’t hear of any of that, nor will he have any part in Eisuke’s project. And when Yakumo says rakugo is dead, he’s not just talking about how it would die with him, but perhaps how it already died with Sukeroku, someone Yakumo has always believed to be better than him.

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Yota is very much the progressive, without even being that aware of it, because he knows how good “Sis” is at rakugo and thinks if she loves it so much she should just do it. What’s the harm in going out there and trying it? Such an idea is unspeakable to Konatsu, however, and considering the man who raised her, her attitude is hardly surprising. Instead, she’s being trained in shamisen, so she can play her husband and others in and out.

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But when they both go to their kid’s school to perform, Yota gets inspired by the scenario, warms the crowd of mostly little kids up, and then…hands the show over to Konatsu. All of a sudden, she’s doing something she hasn’t done since she was a pint-sized urchin, living with her father.

While initially flustered and overwhelmed, a switch flips and all of a sudden Konatsu us that urchin in the bar, without skipping a beat. Scratch that; after years with Yakumo as a father, she’s gotten better, despite having never performed in public. She’s also, in my opinion, better than Yota, at least in terms of better differentiating between the characters she voices (all kudos to the great Kobayashi Yuu here).

“Jugemu” is a simple story that’s not too raunchy or complicated for the kids, and it involves quite a bit of linguistic limberness to repeat the overly-long name of the titular child over and over at increasingly faster speeds. But it’s a cakewalk for Konatsu. She’d have brought down the house no matter what the makeup of the crowd was.

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And holy crap, the surging of emotions going through Konatsu before, during and after her impromptu performance were just a delight to behold, right up until she embraces her hubby with tears of relief and joy, and he essentially says “See? Rakugo’s hella fun, right?”

The next morning, Konatsu’s back to “usual”, and despite Yota’s protests, she still won’t commit to ever doing rakugo again. It just doesn’t seem right to her to crash something that’s been a “boy’s-only” affair for so long.

It’s an old-fashioned view of a very old-fashioned art, but par for the course for someone with her upbringing, which may have been laissez-faire with Sukeroku, but got real conservative real fast with Yakumo. So while, like Yota, I’m disappointed, and think it’s a waste, I understand why she feels the way she does.

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Yakumo, meanwhile, holds Sukeroku’s fan – old Sukeroku’s; not Yota’s. And as he holds it, a figure appears behind him – Sukeroku’s ghost, I presume. There’s no hint of arrogance or superiority in this moment, as Yakumo seems haunted by the fact a someone as loathsome and untalented as he is “all that’s left” of rakugo.

Yota will probably never be able to impress him, just as he won’t be able to impress himself. Eisuke may be right that rakugo needs to evolve, and Yota may be right that someone of Konatsu’s talent should be a part of that evolution. But you’ll never convince Yakumo of that, and Konatsu will never think it’s appropriate to be anything but musical accompaniment.

That leaves the youngin’. Who knows what future he’ll see that no one else will be around to see. What I hope we do see is Yota’s rakugo continuing to be popular, and that rakugo continuing to grow into something his son can inherit. But Yakumo’s warning about how quickly a fall can come makes me weary of too many good times to come.

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Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata – 04

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We open in Utaha’s room, where she’s on the phone with her editor Machida, who tells her something so surprising, Utaha moves too quickly and smacks her foot against her desk, hard. This is a mishap that befalls me all too often, and that visceral bang really brings both Utaha and the scene to life. It’s also nice to see that like “Mr. Ethical”—and myself!—she spends much of her creating time…staring at a blank screen.

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Following the credits is a live taste of her work, in which Sayuka chooses her dreams over tearfully clinging to Naoto, even though she truly love him and always will. It’s a nice segue to Tomoya on the train with Kato, who has just blasted through Utaha’s five-volume Metronome in Love series and is impressed with it.

Tomoya couldn’t be happier, as he utterly worships Utako Kasumi, and isn’t afraid to profess it emphatically on the train (Tomoya does a lot of emphatic professing in this episode, all of it good). Notably, he seems capable of separating Utako from Utaha, with whom he shares a past we only see in brief flashes; a past that may have inspired Utako’s work, as well as the Mr. Ethical moniker.

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Utaha’s foot-stubbing shock was a reaction to the news the inteview she didn’t want to do will be performed by none other than Aki Tomoya (I love how diverse his part-time jobs are). Initially, Utaha comes in and puts up a Beast Mode-esque wall, but Tomoya is able to get her to cooperate (sorta) by telling her he took the job so he’d get a chance to learn more about her next book before anyone else.

The interview takes many twists and turns, including Utaha’s assertion that it wasn’t her that made her books take off, it was him. Machida qualifies that by saying Tomoya’s review caused a spike in interest and increased sales at a crucial time for the novel, but I heard Utaha loud and clear: she wasn’t just talking about the publicity or buzz Tomoya provided. I like to think the novels are based, at least in part, on her experiences with “Mr. Ethical”.

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It’s for that same reason that Utaha agrees to show up for their first official circle meeting to talk about the details and responsibilities. Eriri repeats a misstep by going all tsundere at Tomoya before seeing who’s actually in the room with him: Utaha, as well as Kato. Though Kato is mostly out of the frame, I’ve trained myself to keep my eyes peeled for her.

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That’s the last we see of Kato for 90% of this scene. The rest is dominated by Utaha and Eriri alternating between teasing or torturing Tomoya and fighting each other tooth and nail. They turn Tomoya’s lovely whiteboard diagram of the project schedule into a piece of modern art, while Utaha offers to provide funding in exchange for “favors” from Tomoya, which earns Tomoya some twin-tail slaps from an irate Eriri.

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Eventually, they literally toss Tomoya aside and simply start bickering nonstop, with neither girl prepared to give an inch, although Utaha’s calmer demeanor means she’ll have more stamina. Tomoya breaks them up and gets them to work by again appealing to their vanity. Utaha will write up the plot, while Eriri will get some character designs going.

Tomoya asks them if they’re capable of that, and both girls put down their dagger for each other and grab a laptop and a sketchbook. The success of Tomoya’s dating sim depends on how well he can manage/juggle these two undeniably talented but just as undeniably prickly and emotionally needy artists.

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Of course, it also depends, at least form Tomoya’s perspective, on his ability to transform Kato into the ultimate dating sim heroine. Of course, considering she was in the a/v club room that long without any of the other three noticing her, as well as the substantial talent of said artists, I’d argue Kato isn’t really needed for the circle to belt out a decent dating sim. The one who needs Kato, rather, is Tomoya.

At the end of the day, this dating sim is a way for him to make the world care about and worry about and love Kato Megumi just as much as he does. He’s not going to come out and say it, but his actions and demeanor speak louder than words.

The way she affected him when he first “met” her on that hill (and their other encounter, for that matter); the fun they had simply hanging out in his room all night; the way they talk on the phone; and the jealousy he feels when she walks into the restaurant he’s working at with a tall, handsome young man; it’s all there, plain to see.

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I must admit my heart sank a little when I saw Kato with that guy, but it turns out to be her cousin, and they were simply going out to eat because their parents were at the theater. Being an otaku and thus a consumer of media in which blood is not always an obstacle to romance (his voice actor Matsuoka Yoshitsugu also played Kirito in SAO, whose sister liked him), Tomoya is still worried, but Kato makes it clear in her passive way that this is his problem, not hers.

That means, if he feels threatened by the fact she hangs out with her tall, attractive cousin, it’s up to him to step in and take the cousin’s place. So he does: he asks her he can accompany her shopping instead of her cousin, and she accepts instantly.

At that point Tomoya seems worried that it could be construed as a date. As ever, he’s in surface denial about what he has with Kato, even as he embarks on an incredibly tough road to create a dating sim from scratch in time for Winter Comiket that will essentially validate his feelings for Kato to the rest of the world.

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Stray Observations:

  • “What’s with that reaction, like you’re reliving past trauma?” Kato, hitting the nail on the head
  • I was immensely pleased by the fact that Utaha and Eriri drew on each other off-camera.
  • I also enjoyed how they scared Tomoya by telling him just how much they make off their work, with the actual yen figures censored by tweeting birds and gunshots.
  • “I’m gonna take that utterly moe-less heroine and raise her into the ultimate main heroine that everyone will worry about!” Tomoya, not realizing that if Kato wasn’t moe-less, he wouldn’t care about her so much.
  • “Kato, do you understand your position here?”
    “I’m a second-year high school girl with absolutely no agency who was brought into a game circle by the biggest otaku in school?”
    “That’s your pre-transformation, assumed identity! The real Megumi Kato is a pure beautiful dating sim heroine who makes everyone’s hearts beat faster!”

    All of this.
  • Tomoya’s classmates occasionally stopped talking and looked over in his direction, possibly worried that he was raving at himself, due to Kato’s inconspicuousness. Remember Tomoya himself didn’t know she was in his class for a year!