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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