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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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu 2 – 03

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The fireworks fly in this episode of SGRS2, both in the night sky and later, in the private room of a restaruant where Konatsu worked before she went on maternity leave, run by a friend of her mother Miyokichi.

But first, we get to soak up a gorgeous, festive night, with Konatsu, the baby, and the mistress relaxing on a bench while Yota practices his ranting on a boat with his patron.

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When the mistress and Konatsu rush to the restaurant Yota follows—as does Eisuke, hungry for details about rakugo life, which he learns is surprisingly similar to thug life. Yota finds his old mob boss, as well as that boss’ boss, who happens to be close to the mistress.

Yota decides to intrude, and after making courteous, verbose apologies, kinda lays into the old man, seemingly unconcerned that he has the power to kill him if he doesn’t like him.

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Fortunately, the big boss is not only a fan of rakugo, but Yota’s rakugo in particular. Even when Yota picks a fight, and even wonders out loud whether the boss is the father of Konatsu’s child, the boss merely tosses him into a koi pond to “cool off”; he doesn’t rough him up.

Yota doesn’t back down, instead belting out an elaborate rant he was practicing before, only customized for the boss, who is entranced and charmed. Yota is starting to realize he’s not just some punk anymore; he’s a shin’uchi…and he’s a father.

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After a night where some doubted if Yota was going to be able to keep his promise to outlive his master, and some goldfish scooping with Eisuke, he returns home, having quite accidentally found “his rakugo” with his elaborate, animated ranting style.

Mind you, Yakumo hasn’t heard it yet,  but agrees to do a family performance, if Yota learns and masters “Inokori,” a Sukeroku classic. To inspire him, Yakumo performs it himself, seemingly flipping a switch and channeling Sukeroku. Yota is spellbound. When he’s finished, Yakumo looks like he’d just climbed twenty flights.

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Yota scared the crap out of Konatsu by confronting the father of her child, but everything worked out for the best. The episode’s parting shot is what Konatsu wants in a nutshell: to live in a comfortable house, to hear Yota’s/Sukeroku’s rakugo, and to have her son hear it as well.

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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu 2 – 02

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Yotarou gets what he wants: the whole family under one roof (a trial period, at least). But he also gets something he doesn’t: a scandal related to the very old news that he once had yakuza ties. The timing couldn’t be worse: Yotarou is already out of sorts due to the pressures of family he put on himself and the burden of having to innovate beyond Yakumo’s rakugo.

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As for Konatsu, she sometimes feels she’s taking care of three children, not just her own. Yotarou means well but he’ll have to deliver or the trial period ends with his expulsion from the house. And when the baby barges into Yakumo’s room while he’s playing music, it’s Yakumo who throws a mini-tantrum with his inimitable Yakumo pissiness.

When he tries to pawn the kid off on Konatsu, he finds her sleeping, with tears streaming down as she dreams. Here Yakumo the Tender comes out, even if reluctantly, reciting one of her father’s stories that always used to put her to sleep (in a good way!).

It’s an especially beautiful moment that isn’t taken away from simply because Yakumo gets more pissy afterwards about having to stay alive so Konatsu’s kid can hear his rakugo (which is also the main reason she hasn’t killed him as she’s promised to do.)

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As for Yotarou, earlier in the episode he seems to be letting all the Yakuzagate stuff slide off his line-tattooed back, but the pressure is clearly building for that back to be revealed to his audience, and after his colleague bombs, the pressure finally bursts.

Listening to an extended scene of rakugo in this show can be an almost hypnotic experience, much like BBC’s Shipping Forecast, but with the added visuals of every little hand gesture, shift of a foot, bead of sweat on the head, or other ways humans try to stay sitting in one place.

In this case, his story, which isn’t going over that well with the paltry crowd anyway, builds to an exceedingly misguided attempt to diffuse the tension by stripping to reveal that tattoo, getting up, and dancing around. This wasn’t just bad rakugo…it wasn’t rakugo.

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When Yotarou and Yakumo cross paths with Higuchi in the middle, we learn that the writer, like Konatsu, wants Yakumo to stay alive, so that they can work to keep his rakugo alive. It’s stiking to see the lengths to which people go for a true master’s own rakugo, contrasted with just how damn far Yotarou has left to go.

But rather than pile on, Yakumo takes a more gentle tack, forgiving Yotarou for his impropriety and advising him to embrace his past, and not try to hide it, with or without outlandish stunts. The more pressing problem, however, is whether doing that will bear fruit.

Yakumo is, to be blunt, on the way out, and seems content to let rakugo die with him; at least the rakugo he knew. But Yotarou needs to find a way to get the crowds to trust him again; to see the character he plays and not just an ex-yakuza. Because he’s got a family to provide for now. Breadwinning must come before soul-searching…unless you can get one with the other.

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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu 2 – 01

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SGRS doesn’t miss a beat in its return after a year, recapping its first season in a very clever and entertaining fashion: rakugo-style, with Yotarou as the storyteller. His enthusiastic description of events are as vivid as any montage of footage from those events would be. While it certainly stood on its own outside the framing of the present day, last season’s epic flashback is essentially serves as a prologue to this one, imbuing it with emotional weight and significance.

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It’s been ten years since Yakumo VIII took Yotarou under his wing. Now Yotarou is a shin’uchi, the third Sukeroku, and wants to be a father to Konatsu’s newborn son, something she’s reticent about, since Yotaoru is “poor, stupid, an entertainer, and has no future”. The future of rakugo itself is in doubt too; Yakumo is seemingly the last extant great master, and the theater in Tokyo is also the last, with Kyoto’s last having closed.

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One could call these “Dark Times” for rakugo, but Yotarou/Sukeroku has other ideas, thanks to a productive encounter with cultural writer Higuchi Eisuke, who is eager to back him as a patron. The catch? Be open-minded to the fact that for rakugo to survive, it must change, and Yotarou must be the one to change it. Higuchi clearly expresses his passion as the two drink together, and much of what he says makes a lot of sense to Yotarou, who needs only to clear it with his master.

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Yakumo has, like a fine wine, only gotten better at rakugo in the twilight of his life. That’s not too surprising, as rakugo is about gaining and maintaining empathy. It’s a live performance in which the teller must draw the crowd in by turning words, voices and gestures into images in their minds. He’s been in front of crowds most of his life, and knows instinctively how to utterly capture them…and me! Both performances and conversation in this show is simply a joy to watch, especially when the jazzy score kicks in.

Yotarou, who became Yakumo’s apprentice out of adulation, naturally believes he will never surpass his master even if “hell freezes over”, but for rakugo to survive the future – and Yakumo’s partially-hearted efforts to snuff it out lest it become “corrupted”, Yotarou will have to think beyond surpassing his master, and find out how rakugo will have to change.

Yotarou believes fulfilling the “3 conditions” Yakumo gave him requires that he not only learn all of his master’s rakugo, but also find a way to keep rakugo alive, all while taking care of Konatsu and her child by moving in with them to create a family. It won’t be an easy path, but it’s the one Yotarou wants to be on, and I look forward to watching how he walks it.

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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 13 (Fin)

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After a dominating emotional one-two punch of the last couple of episodes, the last episode of Shouwa Genraku Rakugo Shinjuu was bound to be quiet and uneventful by comparison. The first half or so is the aftermath of the death of Sukeroku and Miyokichi. Kikuhiko takes Konatsu on as a ward and after making arrangements for the internment of her parent’s ashes, he takes her to Tokyo.

There, he’s officially named Yakumo, since, well, there’s no one else to take it. No matter how good I or anyone else think he may be, he’ll never believe he deserved the title. Were it not for the war, or the events that led to his brother’s death, someone better would have inherited it. That being said, he knows someone has to take it, so he accepts.

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After we witness a smidgen of Yakumo’s (lack of) parenting skills, as a young, grieving Konatsu soothes her heart with rakugo (in spite of her guardian’s displeasure with the practice), we return to the present, with a futatsume Yotaro getting a haircut as penance for letting slip that he’s to be promoted to shin’uchi soon.

The now-grown Konatsu is proud of the lug, and probably a little jealous too (what with her wish to do what he’s doing). At the end of the day there was no need to go right back to that night Yakumo forgave Yotaro and started his long epic tale that came to comprise the lion’s share of the series. Suffice it to say, Yotaro did what was asked of him, and is on the cusp of making it in a world many have now forgotten.

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Sharing some congratulatory tea in the doorway of their home, Konatsu asks Yotaro to do some rakugo for her. Not just any story; the same one she tearfully performed to herself years back, which led to Yakumo’s scolding. It brings tears to her eyes again, surprising Yotaro, and she suddenly tells him she’s preggers.

What she won’t say is who the father is, only that she wants to carry on the Sukeroku bloodline for her father’s sake. Yotaro, saying the first thing to come into his head, offers to be the kid’s father; she reacts with anger and exasperation and storms off, but notably without outright refusing the offer.

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As for Ol’ Yakumo, he’s washing the family grave on the anniversary of the seventh generation’s death, and pondering his own eventual demise as disconcerted Matsuda stands by. Yakumo can’t believe Yotaro is about to become a Shin’uchi, but like his masters before, he has little choice.

It’s as if the deterioration of rakugo has only accelerated, with Yakumo only being able to carry it on in its purest—but least flexible—form. Only one theater remains open in Tokyo, and it’s rarely full. With someone like Yotaro under his wing, rakugo’s future is that much brighter. But then, Yotarou asks to inheret the Sukeroku name, not moments after Yakumo saw the ghost of the man himself.

So ends the first act of Shouwa Genraku Rakugo Shinjuu. There would seem to be plenty of material for a second, for which this episode serves as a kind of entre’acte. And indeed, after the end credits, Yotaro apologizes for not being able to tell more, but they simply ran out of time. If and when an Act Two comes, I shall emphatically seek it out!

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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 12

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The day of the dual performance arrives, and the atmosphere is fizzing with anticipation. Sukeroku is noncommittal at first, even when Matsuda arrives, lonely after the passing of his wife. But Konatsu is super-excited at the prospect of getting to watch her dad do what he was meant to, while Kiku sees this little makeshift theater as the venue for re-stoking Sukeroku’s fire and enticing him to come back to Tokyo with him.

Matsuda isn’t the only lonely one. Miyokichi may be with Sukeroku, and Konatsu may be their child, but one gets the idea only one thing—one person—is on her mind, and that’s Kiku. It’s ironic that this theater was once a place for geishas like Miyokichi used to be. But now she’s in Western clothes and sneaking in incognito, and the room is now a place for a different kind of performance.

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We only see and hear snippets of Kiku’s whole performance rather than a single continuous story, as if to underscore the point that this episode isn’t really about Kiku’s performance He’s become one of the best performers alive; his talent is undisputed, and he’s a consummate professional. There was never any doubt he’d knock it out of the park. 

The real question is how a rusty Sukeroku will fare. He becomes more motivated after Kiku goes first (Kiku’s intention, no doubt), because by watching Kiku he was able to observe the quality of the audience, about whom he was initially dubious.

But Kiku’s rakugo was good not just becaue Kiku is good, but because the crowd is good. Rakugo is a far more collaborative process than it seems, with a performer feeding off the crowd as the crowd gets sucked into the performance. Notably, Miyokichi leaves before Sukeroku begins, and there’s never a shot of her listening in the hall, so I assume she really left.

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No matter: with Matsuda, Konatsu, Bon, and a good audience at his disposal, Sukeroku goes all out with a rare (for him) sentimental tale about an alcoholic fishmonger who finds a purse of cash washed up on the beach. He celebrates with a lavish party, but awakes from his stupor to learn he only dreamed of the purse, but not the party.

The contrite man promises his wife he’ll quite drinking and pay back all the debts he has, in addition to the added debt from the partying. For three years, works his ass off, until every debt has been paid off. Then his wife confesses the purse wasn’t a dream after all; she merely gave it to police, who held it for a year with no one claiming it before passing back to her.

The wife is beside herself with guilt for deceiving him for so long, but he’s not upset. In the past three years, her lie made him a better man, and when she offers him sake to celebrate, he puts the cup down without taking a sip, lest everything that happened turn out to be a dream.

The crowd leans in, laughs, cries…and leaned in, laughed, and cried. It was a powerful, mesmerizing performance, and at its heights gave me the same chills and goosebumps as the musical performances in Shigatsu kimi no Uso.

When it’s over, Kiku and Sukeroku spend some time relaxing like they used to do in their little apartment, only this time the latter’s daughter is sleeping on his chest, and the two brothers actually deign to agree on something Kiku says:

People can’t understand everything about each other. And yet people still live together. The love of sharing trivial, meaningless things with others is human nature. I suppose that’s why humans can’t stand to be alone.

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Being in this small, close-knit town, being with Sukeroku again, meeting Konatsu, and Sukeroku’s latest and maybe most soul-bearing performance—it’s all had a profound effect on Kiku. He once thought all he needed in his life was rakugo, but he’s human, and he doesn’t want to be alone anymore. Their late master’s house has fallen to him, but it’s too big for just him. He wants Sukeroku, Konatsu, and Miyokichi to move in with him.

But when Kiku is summoned to a room at the inn where Miyokichi meets him, we learn that all she wants in that particular moment is Kiku…and only Kiku. In all the time they’ve been apart she never stopped pining for him, and the fact he’s there gives her cause to believe he wants to change things, perhaps even make amends for knocking her and Sukeroku’s lives off track with his shortsighted insistence on solitude.

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Kiku can’t quite resist Miyokichi’s embrace, but things take a dark turn when she leads him to the open window and starts to push, contemplating both of them dying together.

That’s when Sukeroku barges in, and in a gesture that’s appreciated but perhaps too late to be worth much, promises Miyokichi he’ll get a real job, that he’ll do right by her by abandoning the rakugo that makes her feel so  insecure. He wants to be the husband in that tale he told with a happy ending, in a dream he doesn’t want to wake up from.

If he has to choose between Miyokichi and rakugo, he’s choosing Miyokichi. But the wooden balcony gives way, and Miyokichi starts to fall. Sukeroku dives after her, leaving Kiku to grasp him to keep the two from falling. But Sukeroku breaks his grip, and he and Miyokichi fall to their apparent deaths together.

Now Kiku is alone, and so is Konatsu—though we know he’ll end up taking her in. While it wasn’t as if Kiku took a gun and shot her parents, he most definitely played a role in their demise. No wonder he’s so bitter in the present day, and that Konatsu has always doubted his car accident story.

Yet, even without Sukeroku or Miyokichi, Kiku was able to continue performing excellent rakugo and being adored for it over the years. After all this talk about not being able to do it alone, one could deduce that it was the presence of Konatsu in his life that kept him going. And now, as we know, he has an apprentice, who brought back all these memories of Sukeroku in the first place. I’m eager to see how this ends.

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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 11

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What started out as a simple errand (retrieve Sukeroku and bring him back to Tokyo) becomes much, much more for Kikuhiko, due in no small part to Sukeroku’s daughter, Konatsu. The girl is pretty hostile to Kiku right up until she learns who he is, and then her demeanor rapidly shifts to tearful veneration, and she insists Kiku come with him to see her Dad.

I’ve always loved Konatsu, and lamented how little of her we’ve seen (albeit out of necessity) since Yakumo’s story began. Kobayashi Yuu isn’t quite as convincing as a five-year-old as say, Kuno Misaki, but it doesn’t matter: by the end of the episode, I was in love.

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On the way to her Pops, we learn from her that her mom has run off, abandoned them, and I take her at her word (we later learn Miyokichi does this often, but always comes back eventually). She also says her mom forbade her dad to perform rakugo, and when we arrive at Konatu’s domicile, we see just how well Sukeroku functions without it.

I mean, a frikkin’ five-year-old is the breadwinner here! Things are bleak. The only thing that rouses Sukeroku from his mid-day nap is Kikuhiko’s voice, which sends him flying out of the filthy house. In a perfect reunion moment, Kiku smacks him in the face with his bag, but Sukeroku pounces on him anyway.

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Kiku gets down to brass tacks, but Sukeroku is initially unwilling to hear him out: he’s done with that part of his life; rakugo has gotten “boring”; he’s out of practice; the raft of excuses is almost unending. But Kiku cuts through all that with one simple fact: ”

If people want you, you have to do it.” And Kiku is one of those people. After hearing and being envious of Sukeroku’s rakugo—and being unable to replicate it—Kiku needs it back. He’s starved for it, and wants to hear it again, and continue striving to match it, even if he never will.

Kiku doesn’t come out and say he’s been gliding along without Sukeroku around, because he hasn’t—he’s been working his ass off—but when his brother compares how he looks to a shinigami (which sends a shiver up a listening Kona’s spine), it’s clear he’s missed him.

Until Sukeroku reconsiders, Kiku is staying. He fronts cash for Sukeroku to pay off all his debts, but fully expects him to repay him by acquiring jobs in town. He’ll live with them, but insists they clean the house thoroughly. In this manner, Kiku is like a stiff, purifying breeze that blows out the cobwebs.

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But Sukeroku and Kona aren’t the only two benefitting from Kiku’s stay. Kiku decides to do small performances at dinner parties and the like to pay for food and his fare home, and gets really into it. The master of the inn even presents him with a more formal performance space (ironically formerly a geisha prep room).

In a bath scene that hearkens back to one of the first between the two brothers (something Sukeroku points out but Kiku claims not to remember), Kiku does confess that he’s never felt this way abotu rakugo before; this good.Sukeroku knows why: Kiku can see his audience; there’s less physical and emotional distance between them, motivating him to strive do his best.

At times it seems like Kiku himself could settle down here as Sukeroku did, and if not thrive in the upper echelon of his craft, at least lead a happy life.

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But that’s not really the case. Kiku still wants to return to Tokyo, with Sukeroku taking his rightful place as Yakumo. As always, Kiku is looking out for Sukeroku, striving to put him on the path he thinks is best. That means getting him out of debt, cleaning his house, and cutting his little girl’s hair so it’s out of her face.

In one of my favorite scenes of the whole show, Kiku scolds Kona for badmouthing her mother, then discourages her from taking up rakugo, since he earnestly believes it’s a man’s job to be on the stage performing. He then goes into a pretty woman’s crucial role as the rakugo performer’s muse, drawing out their best performance.

Konatsu then puts Kiku in checkmate by getting him to admit she looks pretty with her new haircut, so now he has to do rakugo for her!

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If Kiku was enjoying himself at all the small informal gigs in town, he seems even more at ease and in the zone with an audience of just one. The story Kona makes him do—an at times creepy, at times hilarious story involving sexy ghosts or some such—is one of the best I’ve heard, and it’s made even better when Sukeroku, who can’t help himself, joins in and turns the solo performance into a duet; their first.

These are two brothers who haven’t seen each other in five years, and yet here they are, a perfect comedy duo. Perhaps the performance is technically a little rougher and unpolished than it sounded like, but who cares? Konatsu is over the moon, and Kiku is hopeful he’s shown Sukeroku why he can’t give up on rakugo. It’s not just Kiku who needs it, it’s his daughter too.

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We don’t hear Sukeroku’s answer, but their performance, and Konatsu’s elation, clearly has a powerful effect on him. Then Miyokichi enters the picture, at the very end of the episode, having been handed a sign announcing a public dual rakugo performance starring Sukeroku…and Kiku-san.

Miyokichi’s reaction suggests she’s still carrying a torch for her old boyfriend after all this time, which goes a fair way in explaining why she’s not home with Sukeroku or Konatsu; perhaps the former reminds her too much of the man she really loved. The question is, will she attend the performance?

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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 10

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Five years have passed. Sukeroku and Miyokichi are long gone. They don’t even appear this week at all, and their absence is felt. I missed them, but whatever Kikuhiko feels about this, he’s soldiering on during these years.

He’s gained fame as a Shin’uchi, with the power to make total strangers leave their families and homes and burn bridges behind them just to get a shot at begging him for an apprenticeship, which he always refuses.

He feels he has nothing to teach apprentices. The successful formula he’s grasped and run with, he still scarcely knows what to make of it himself, let alone how to pass it on to others. It, being the rakugo business, is like a soap bubble; he daren’t disturb it.

However, Kiku cannot stop the march of time from taking its toll on his master Yakumo, who isn’t taking his wife’s death well. One could say she’s calling to him, and now that he has a reliable successor in Kiku, there’s little point in keeping her waiting any longer.

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On his deathbed, Yakumo confesses to Kiku something new, but something that in hindsight makes sense: the “old man” who taught Sukeroku (and had that name before him) was a rival of Yakumo’s from his youth; someone he knew was the better talent, but used nepotism to snatch his father’s name from the interloper.

Obviously, Yakumo managed to become a great and revered storyteller, worthy of the name, but it’s clear, especially after taking in the young Sukeroku, that the possibility of blocking a greater talent than himself for the sake of his own pride, weighed on him greatly.

After tearlessly leading his father and master’s funeral ceremonies, Kiku gets back to work the next day. Taking the stage to new, gentler (and thus more suitable) entrance music, he eschews a sentimental story for one about an old man meeting a shinigami, who says magic words and shows him candles that represent lives, including his own, which eventually goes out.

The peformance ends with Kiku literally sprawling out on the stage as if he himself had died. And in a way, a part of him did die with his master: the part that was tied to others. When lying there soaking up applause, Kiku isn’t tearful or distraught, but relieved and elated by his new-found—and in his mind, hard-won—solitude. It’s a solitude he’ll use to hone his craft and become someone he believes worthy of being the Eighth Generation.

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Before that, however, he wants to see Sukeroku. Not just to inform him of their father’s death, and recover the money Miyokichi stole, but to see how his brother doing. Kiku never had much faith Sukeroku could take care of himself, and didn’t think running off with a woman and raising a child would suddenly make him more capable of doing so.

So soon after achieving clarity through complete solitude—no master, no rival, no apprentice, no family—Kiku sets out to find old connections once more, no matter how briefly. In a town far from Tokyo, he asks an old man where rakugo is performed, and gets a predictable answer: strange for a young person such as himself to be asking about rakugo; there are far fewer such venues in town; television has taken over the hearts of most, making the world more boring.

Kiku probably agrees with all of that. But the old man also steers him in the direction of a soba restaurant, where he finds something…not boring at all: the entire crowd of diners is being entertained (and later squeezed for change) by a five-year-old girl with fiery red hair who is performing rakugo that Kiku immediately recognizes as Sukeroku’s. A little girl named Konatsu.

I loved Kiku’s little eye twitch upon their meeting. His late father believed young Sukeroku came to him as “karmic retribution” for maneuvering the older Sukeroku out of his father’s favor so many years ago.

Kiku may not know it yet, but Konatsu will end up being another kind of retribution: the kind that not only deprives him of the solitude he yearned for so dearly (not that being alone was what was best for him), but serves as a daily reminder of the brother he always believed was the greater talent. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 09

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Things move fast this week, but most of the things that occur are basically foregone conclusions. Kikuhiko and Sukeroku both become Shin’uchi, but in his debut, Sukeroku sticks it to the association president by performing his specialty, “Inokori”, in which he must embody multiple sides of one character, Saheiji, depending on who else he’s talking to. It’s a challenging story, but Sukeroku pulls it off and gets the only approval he needs: that of the crowd.

Now a Shin’uchi, Kikuhiko is committed to shedding a woman he feels someone of his stature can no longer be with. It’s not pride so much as obligation to the structures he was raised into, which demand that a man put things above his own personal feelings. His breakup with Miyokichi had been telegraphed for some time, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking when the hammer comes down.

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Miyokichi, as it happens, isn’t the only one who gets dumped: as a result of his insolence in his debut, Sukeroku is taken aside by his master, who informs him Kiku, not he, will be the Eighth Generation Yakumo. Again, the writing was on the wall. As well-intending as Sukeroku is, and no matter how much practical sense it makes, he was never going to be able to successfully convince the old guard of his “change or die” views of rakugo.

For the elders, including his master, change is death; there is no difference. Oral tradition cannot truly survive if it becomes a game of Telephone. Tweaking tradition is a slippery slope, one that the elders would rather fall to their death by clinging to rather than allow it to be propped up with new ideas.

Furthermore, Sukeroku was always hampered by his modest origin; he was always an interloper, a “stray dog” who clawed his way into this world. There’s no way the master would allow such a person to succeed him, no matter how unassailable his talent. There may be TVs now, but castes still matter.

When Sukeroku argues too forcefully, Yakumo expels him, throwing him out of his house. And that’s how our two dumped and dejected people find and comfort each other.

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Speaking of comfort, Kikuhiko isn’t experiencing it just because everything seems to be going his way. In his mind, Sukeroku is still better at rakugo than him, no matter how many elders or syncophants say otherwise. He’s particularly irritated when a dilettante-ish rakugo critic tears down Sukeroku in an apparent effort to curry favor. Kiku ends the interview right there.

Then Master Yakumo’s wife dies, and with mortality on his mind, he informs Kikuhiko that he intends to give him his name. Kiku’s initial reaction is that it’s a mistake; Sukeroku should get the name; he’s more skilled; he doesn’t have any skill compared to that raw talent. But Yakumo reproaches his apprentice.

It’s not Kiku’s place to tell him who he should give his name to, nor to say whether he’s better or worse than Sukeroku. Just like his brother, Kiku spoke out of place, but out of humility and inferiority, not arrogance and outsize obligation to take rakugo upon his shoulders and “save” it, as Sukeroku wants to do. There’s more to being Eighth Generation than being The Best At Rakugo. 

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As Kiku continues to thrive but derive no joy from anything other than doing rakugo, Sukeroku and the scorned Miyokichi quickly shack up together and become an item. Just as Sukeroku and Kikuhiko must embody different people to perform their stories to suit their audiences, so too does Miyo, a skilled and experienced geisha, know how to be exactly the woman a particular man wants. She could be classy and prudish for Kiku, whom she loved, but knows Sukeroku less propriety.

I’m glad Miyo doesn’t waste any more time than she needs to worrying about Kiku; what’s done is done, and she’s moving on with someone who actually wants to be with her. Sukeroku doesn’t know if he’s quite that person yet…but he does like boobies. There’s something sad and close-looped about the two being depressed about the same person—Kikuhiko—but they must make do with each other.

Also, she doesn’t have time to wait around or worry; she has a baby on the way, and wants to raise it in the countryside. Her geisha house is shut down, so she steals the till with the intention of running off with Sukeroku.

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He stops by Kiku’s not for money or a place to stay, but to say goodbye, even as Kiku urges him to make peace with the master so he can give him his name. Sukeroku knows what he has to do to get back in the good graces of their master, and he can’t do it. He tells Kiku about Miyo and the baby and the country, and Kiku is not happy.

What is Kiku going to do without Sukeroku around annoying him and challenging him to be his best? What is he going to do with Yakumo’s name when he’s certain his drunk, uncouth, stray dog of a brother deserves it more? Someone he wants to punch and embrace in the same moment?

These unanswerable questions (which must attempt to be answered anyway, one day at a time) sow the seeds of a bitterness and regret that will stay with Kiku for years, then made worse one day when Sukeroku loses his life in his prime. That bitterness will come to define the man telling this story to Yotarou and Konatsu in the present.

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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 08

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As we return to Kikuhiko’s tale, he’s just finishing up his tour with Master Yakumo, having steamed up many an audience in Kyoto with his seductively funny rakugo. Talk of making him a shin’uchi is no longer presumptuous; as even his own master was too enthralled both with his performance and the reaction of the crowd to notice the mistakes he made.

Kiku is rapidly progressing on the steam locomotive to greatness, but there are sacrifices that need to be made on the way – both those imposed upon him, and those he imposes on himself.

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Back in Tokyo, Miyokichi sits in the back of another full house as Sukeroku performs and effortlessly drawing huge laughs. But she’s not laughing; she’s there to catch a glimpse of the man she loves who’s currently giving her the cold shoulder.

Her presence didn’t go unnoticed by Sukeroku (she was the only one there who wasn’t “ancient”), and he proposes a commiseration session: she gets to vent to him about a subject he’s very well versed in – Kiku-san – in exchange for buying him a drinkypoo.

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Their ensuing conversation, a thing of beauty, offers many insights into Miyokichi’s character and the nature of her love of Kiku. She doesn’t even like rakugo; she prefers movies. Hearing his voice is the only reason she goes to the theater. She endures the stodgy, old-fashioned practice she wouldn’t otherwise give the time of day…for Kiku. She also endures his constant brush-offs, including this most recent unannounced trip of his.

Miyo can endure this because she’s strong. She had to be. Abandoned by a man when in Manchuria, she had to sell her body to survive, until Master Yakumo brought her home. But because she’s become so tough, neither the good Master nor Sukeroku are her type. She doesn’t go for nice guys, she likes cold guys, and Kiku has certainly been that to her.

Miyo doesn’t want the moon; she just wants to be able to stand beside the man she loves and support him as a woman. But she suspects, and Sukeroku can’t convince her otherwise, that Kiku intends to break up with her. When she takes her leave on that somber note, Sukeroku, ever the nice guy, can’t help but draw her into a hug.

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It’s while she’s struggling to get out of that hug that Kiku appears, suddenly back as quietly as he left. His exchange with Miyo is brief and probably the coldest yet, but there’s a reason for it; Kiku indeed intends to break up with her, and doesn’t want to be cruel by being kind beforehand.

Kiku can admit to Sukeroku that he loves Miyo, but the Master has told him he needs to find a “proper woman” to settle down with a family. Disobeying would mean expulsion from Yurakutei, and in this case, with his rakugo future so bright and his identity and place in that world so clear…Miyokichi is second fiddle to all that.

In fact, Kiku would rather simply be alone than be with anyone, a sentiment that quickly evolves into an agreement for Sukeroku to move out of his apartment. Kiku relays to Sukeroku all of the flaws their master mentioned that are making it hard to promote him, but Sukeroku is in this business because he loves rakugo, and he has bigger plans than the Yurakutei orthodoxy could ever accommodate.

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His position is legitimized by the simple fact they’re in a packed jazz hall filled with Japanese in Western clothes, listening to American music. The times they are a changin’. He acknowledges that a part of rakugo must always endure, but that’s Kiku’s duty. Sukeroku intends to be the part of rakugo that evolves by changing to suit whatever the people want, which is never fixed.

Kiku is a traditionalist; Sukeroku the innovator. But they are alike in two important ways: they both love rakugo and they both respect each other’s place in that world. At the same time, Sukeroku didn’t want to end up like his previous “master”, the one from which he took the name Sukeroku, who ended up dying penniless.

That night, Master Yakumo celebrates with Matsuda his hard-won success in getting both Kikuhiko and Sukeroku promoted to shin’uchi, he takes the Yurakutei family record from the alter to let the past generations share in the celebration, even as he laments he wasn’t quite able to achieve what his forebears did.

Unaware of his promotion, Sukeroku roams the streets, gently kicked out of Kiku’s place, backlit by the bright lights and the winds of change. Kikuhiko, also unaware, but now alone in his apartment like he wanted, pauses his practicing to inspect the old fan Sukeroku gave him. They’ve started on very different paths for the same love of rakugo. It was an amicable parting, but that doesn’t make it any less sad!

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