Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu 2 – 12 (Fin)

Its first season shows us the past, and most of its second season showed us the present. This week is all about the future, both of the Yakumo and Sukeroku names, the families connected to them, and of rakugo itself. In all cases, that future looks bright, thanks to the inspiration of those who came before.

First, we have a Shin in his late teens or early twenties, and he’s the spitting image of his grandfather Yakumo, even though they’re not related by blood…or are they? The resemblance is uncanny, Konatsu is committed to taking the truth to the grave, as is her prerogative.

In other news, Konatsu has become the first female rakugo performer in history, which is awesome, because it’s something we know she’s always wanted to do, and she’s also very very good at it (sadly though, we don’t get to see her perform).

Interestingly, it doesn’t seem her and Yotaro’s daughter (and Shin’s little sister) Koyuki is interested in following the path the rest of her family has walked, and is content to listen to them work their craft.

As far as Shin is concerned, Yotaro, now the Ninth Generation Yakumo, is his Dad—he helped raise him, after all. That is very clear in a quiet, private scene between the two. As it’s very possible he carries both the blood of Sukeroku and Yakumo, Shin seems to strike a nice balance between their two extreme styles. And the little boy Shin we’re accustomed to comes out when his dad encourages him before one of the biggest performances of his life.

That performance is part of the grand re-opening of the Uchikutei theater, which had burned down years ago but now has been completely rebuilt (only now, no doubt, is up to code). Seeing the new Yakumo IX on the stage with his wife and son (and Master Mangatsu) is a triumphant moment, and the full crowd suggests Yotaro has succeeded in restoring rakugo from the brink it was dangling from when Yakumo VIII died.

Now it’s a more inclusive, less stodgy, and more welcoming place, without sacrificing the things that made it unique. Even Konatsu realizes she was foolish in her earlier thinking that she’d upset some kind of “harmony” by entering the world of rakugo.

It must be that much more encouraging for Matsuda, the only character to inhabit all three timelines. He’s 95 and wheelchair-bound, but seems as warm and cheerful as ever.

After Shin opens with a very good performance that demonstrates why he will be an excellent Sukeroku and/or Yakumo one day, Yotaro performs “Shinigami”, a Yakumo VIII original, as a tribute. And what do you know, the old man visits him at the climax of his performance, leading me wondering momentarily if Yotaro had been taken to the far shore himself!

Thankfully, Yotaro is fine, and he and his family and friends celebrate after the show with a flower viewing by the riverside. Matsuda mentions how he saw his master to the far shore (apparently during a near-death experience of his own back then), and Higuchi waxes poetic on Yotaro’s contributions to helping prevent rakugo from dying with Yakumo.

Yotaro, however was never concerned that rakugo would go anywhere, with or without his help. It’s too good for that. And I tend to agree: various humans can argue over whether the art of rakugo is something that must be vigilantly protected from disappearing, like tending a delicate fire.

But fires can be rebuilt and reignited, and there will always be those who want to sit in an old theater (or a newly rebuilt theater) and hear someone tell a funny, raunchy, or moving story that will transport them somewhere else. Rakugo is eternal.

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu 2 – 11

For all the sorrow and tragedy and pain in his life, things turned out pretty well for Yakumo, AKA Bon, and as it turns out, he really did die under ideal circumstances: he died in his sleep, peacefully, painlessly, surrounded by those who loved him, listening to his grandson doing rakugo.

This episode, perhaps the finest in the entire run of the show, takes place entirely in the purgatory-like place the recently deceased go before crossing the Sanzu River to the hereafter. This requires a fare, which, big surprise, Sukeroku hasn’t been able to afford yet.

The show had always teased an interest in depicting a more fantastical world than that of the living, and in this place people can change their age at will, time is kinda hard to put a finger on. Yakumo is initially annoyed that once again Sukeroku is sponging off him, even after death, but once he’s a boy again, he quickly falls back comfortably into the very deep brotherly bond they shared.

The afterlife is suitably lush and otherworldly, but also borrows heavily from traditional Japanese aesthetics, which makes sense considering the characters we’re following. Sukeroku makes sure Yakumo understands how grateful he is for raising Konatsu.

The reunions don’t stop with Sukeroku, as Miyokichi died at the same time. While she’s cast away the “role of a woman”, she and Sukeroku are still a married couple, working together to earn fare across the river. It feels like, from their perspective, they only recently got here, just like Yakumo.

Yakumo wanted more than anything to apologize to Miyokichi for dumping her so heartlessly, but she holds no grudges in this place. In fact, she can now reflect on the mistakes she made in life, namely latching onto one person rather than rely on, and be there for, others. She’s also amused to no end by Yakumo talking like an old man, since he died as one.

The three travel together for a bit along that seemingly endless scaffolding, and Yakumo mentions the food is tasteless and unsatisfying. Sukeroku says it’s because they’re dead, but if he wants to be satisfied, he knows just the place: the very theater that burned down two episodes ago has arrived in the afterlife as well. It had a soul, after all. Even better: it’s a packed house with the biggest billing ever: All the masters of all generations…and Yakumo is on the bottom. He’s gone from grizzled old master to fresh new arrival in this place.

Sukeroku decides to warm the place up with a performance that really does seem to give flavor to the sake, meat, and onions he pretend-drinks and eats (never has his jaunty entrance theme, which Yotaro inherited, sounded better or more significant). “You can’t take this taste with you when you die!” also has new meaning. He’s still got it, in this place, which has gone back to exactly the same as it was in the old days.

There’s also a magic cushion (I’ll allow it) which brings the person from the living world the performer wants to listen the most. In Sukeroku’s case, it’s his daughter Konatsu, who appears the age she was when he and Miyokichi died. For Yakumo, it’s his grandson Shin, about the same age as his mom, and just as enthusiastic to hear Yakumo’s rakugo.

Yakumo takes the stage as his old self, but has never looked happier, beaming at his reunited family and full of energy. In a playful mood, he performs “Jugemu”, and Miyokichi and Shin “sing” along the comically long name. His story continues as the camera leaves the old, drafty, but brightly glowing theater, which slowly fades out of focus.

Yakumo then finds himself in a fine boat, packed and ready for his journey across the Sanzu. Sukeroku sees him off, and Yakumo makes him promise he and Miyokichi will join him soon, once they save up enough for their fare (the one thing he apparently can’t share with his friends, even if he wanted to). That could be a year from now, or it could be yesterday.

While en route, the ferryman reveals himself as Matsuda, who may have followed his master into death after nodding off himself, and he couldn’t be happier to be by his side again, chaffeuring him to the very gates of heaven.

It’s a fitting end to Yakumo’s story, and a achingly gorgeous episode full of joyful and tear-jerking moments, from Miyokichi first seeing Yakumo, to Konatsu hugging her mother, to Yakumo taking the stage one last time and meeting Matsuda on the boat.

The preview indicates the last episode will be an epilogue that jumps forward in time, perhaps to an older Shinnosuke with a red-haired young woman who may be his younger sister. That should be fun, even if it doesn’t come close to approaching the greatness of this, Yakumo’s farewell.

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu 2 – 10

While there are certainly important stories to be told, the true genius of SGRS is the realism and intensity of the world in which those stories take place. While there was a soapy vibe to Yakumo’s inadvertent arson, this week grounds the even for what it was: something that was likely to happen to the tinderboxy theater sooner or later, regardless of who or what started it.

Even if Yakumo was trying to deal a blow to rakugo by sending the place up, the fact is, the theater is just a thing. You don’t really need it to perform rakugo. All you need is people to perform, people to support those performers, and an audience. And those things can be found anywhere. They’ll be okay…even the kid who worked at the theater to try to get closer to rakugo.

When we see Yakumo in the hospital, Shin and Matsuda are crying by his side, but Konatsu is sitting off at a distance, with a look that conveys both suspicion (both she and Yota had to stop him from jumping off a bridge, after all) and uneasiness.

As much as she has always hated her adoptive father for killing her birth parents, the window for hashing things out with him once and for all is quickly closing. Sooner or later Yakumo, like the theater, is going to go up-either by his own hand or by nature.

Still, even as Yakumo lies there in bed with a hell of a face burn, we know that when it came down to it, he’s terrified and not at all interested in dying. He’s not ready to leave the family he’s made, which we learn is about to get larger: Konatsu is pregnant again, and this time it’s Yota’s.

Since Yota is always calling Konatsu “nee-san”, its easy to forget that these two are married, let alone sleeping together. But I loved the way Konatsu drops the news—by mentioning how she craves sweet things when she’s expecting. I also loved Yota’s total obliviousness until she actually spells it out for him too.

You can feel the love and joy in this little scene. The RABUJOI, if you will ;)

As for her scene with Yakumo, it’s steeped in a combination of loathing and tenderness. It’s not the same love that she has for Yota at all, but it’s still love, and arguably a deeper one. As she helps him into the sun and combs his hair, he tells her how his mind wanders to things he never thought about when rakugo was his life, like how he never planted a cherry tree in his garden, or all he missed out on for rakugo.

Konatsu doesn’t let the opportunity to ask him why he never followed her parents to the grave, and there’s no need for any more pretense: Yakumo was too busy raising her to think about killing himself, and in any case, being a parent has a way of simultaneously overwhelming and soothing you. Raising Konatsu kept his regret at bay, and made it possible to live as long as he did.

Upon hearing all this, Konatsu softens, her eyes well up, and she does something it’s probably been very hard for her to consider doing: thank Yakumo, for not abandoning her.

Of course, she’s very welcome, and doesn’t even have to thank Yakumo, since she did as much for him as he did for her by being in his life. It’s a marvelously executed and acted scene; the epitome of bittersweet-ness.

Then Yota comes on the radio, Shin pops out of the bushes and recites the story Yota is telling (while tossing sakura petals in the air), Konatsu asks Yakumo if she can be his apprentice, and he says “yes” without any pushback whatsoever.

Yota and Shin’s story is accompanied by a montage of imagery that matches their words, though that imagery is coming not from the imaginations of the listeners, but in the city and world living and breathing around them during a warm, pleasant sunset. It looks like a moment of almost perfect contentment for Yakumo…

Which also makes it the perfect time to leave that world, if he was going to do so. When petals on the floor are suddenly picked up by a sudden wind and dipped into darkness, Yakumo wakes up on the planks of zig-zagging, seemingly endless boardwalk flanked on either side by countless candles. Sukeroku greets him, and this time welcomes him to the land of the dead.

Tellingly, Sukeroku doesn’t tell him he’s not yet supposed to be there. So is this it for Yakumo? Did that perfect moment signal his exit from the living world? Did he agree to train Konatsu to avoid stirring rancor so close to his end?

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu 2 – 09

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When his former big boss goes away for six years’ hard labor, Yotaro has a notion to do a prison show, which is incidentally how he first heard his master. Yakumo performed “Shinigami” at that show, because he liked the chilly, somewhat hostile atmosphere.

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This time, Yakumo performs “Tachikiri”, and he moves many inmates and guards alike with the sad tale of a geisha who died because the letters from her lover stopped due to incarceration.

Of course, after last week’s outburst, part of me was weary of Yakumo being interrupted once again, perhaps this time by an unruly convict. That doesn’t happen, but the sound of Konatsu’s shamisen and voice remind Yakumo of Miyokichi, and she haunts his own visuals of the story.

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After Yakumo tries to see Yotaro’s big “Inokori” show, but leaves because it just…isn’t very good to him (no matter how entertained the crowd is), the old master clears out the old theater and performs “Shinigami” alone by candlelight, in the creepiest scene in the show since he saw those rows of candles after his collapse.

When he completes his tale, one person claps, or rather, one ghost: Sukeroku himself. It isn’t long before his youthful, vital form gives way to the skeleton, revealing a real shinigami has come for Yakumo, and he may get his wish: to die doing rakugo. “Sukeroku” compels Yakumo to toss a candle into the seats, and the whole theater goes up like a tinderbox.

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This would certainly be the end of Yakumo if it weren’t for Yotaro and good timing, who just happens to come by the theater after his performance. Upon the burning stage, with a death god pressing him down, Yakumo admits he doesn’t want to die, and Yotaro stretches to reach his master’s hand and pull him out of the inferno.

Yakumo may not succeed in “taking rakugo with him” when he dies, but he did manage to claim a theater rich in rakugo history in an attempt. What else will he destroy, whether he wants to or not, prior to exiting the stage for good?

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Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu 2 – 08

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After a taste of Kyoto-style rakugo (which has a lot more props than Tokyo style…not sure I like it) courtesy of Mangetsu, who is trying to make a comeback after ten years out of the game, We see a frail and withered Yakumo showing his grandson one of Sukeroku’s albums.

Higuchi and Matsuda then come in to show Yakumo the veritable bonanza of recordings and memorabilia the professor has collected over the years. Higuchi leaves it up to Yakumo whether the recordings and such were ever to be released to the public, or destroyed. Yakky says he’ll think about it.

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In a really, really lovely scene, we see the happy couple of Yotaro and Konatsu relaxing on a warm night, and Konatsu rests her head on Yotaro’s broad back and asks him to perform some rakugo, and is no doubt soothed by the vibration of Yotaro’s voice as he does so. It’s personal rakugo; not for a crowd, but for someone close.

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Yotaro can’t get far in his story before the couple notices Yakumo walking onto the nearby bridge; he feigns a desire to get out and about and a bout of sickness, but Konatsu knows what he’s up to: he was trying to off himself, something she won’t allow until he “atones.”

Or at least, that’s how she chooses to label her love for the man who brought her in when she lost both her parents and raised her into the fine woman she is. Yakumo concedes that fate may not be ready to let him die.

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Yakumo visits Kido Isao, an old friend and who owes him a “debt that can’t be paid”, knows how to keep quiet, and longs to hear Yakumo perform again. Then, one night, after seeing a play with Matsuda, Yakumo finds himself the victim of his loyal servant and family’s machinations.

To wit: he’s being forced into a performance before a small, select audience of old friends, colleagues, and patrons. When he threatens to leave, the lady of the Yanashima Inn “insists” by hilariously shoving him onto the stage.

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But before Yakumo has to perform, he yields that stage to his “dunce” of a student, who performs “Shibahama” to his master’s shock. When asked how he learned it, Yotaro confesses to having watched the film, though doesn’t go so far as to hear the truth of what happened at that inn so many years ago.

As for his “Shibahama”, Sokuroku’s was, in my opinion, far superior. But to Yotaro’s credit, he uses his tendency to weep easily well here.

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When it’s finally Yakumo’s turn, he introduces himself with an air of “whelp, I guess I can’t rest easy yet, so despite my dry tongue here goes”…only to be rudely interrupted by a police raid that has come to arrest Kido Isao. Have those coppers no decency?! 

One also wonders if, like when his suicide was thwarted by the sudden appearance of Yotaro and Konatsu, if there’s something to the fact that he was so harshly silenced just when he was about to do rakugo again.

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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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