Owarimonogatari S2 – 03

The first two 40-odd-minute episodes of this second “season” of Owarimonogatari, were good, but seemed to be lacking in something very crucial to an “Endstory” – an ending. So it’s just as well I was mistaken that there would only be two episodes, because this, the third episode, provides that ending.

And what a frikkin’ ending it is! Few series have been so painstakingly fastidious in their careful preparation of a nearly all-encompassing conclusion to the story of its protagonist than Monogatari has been with Araragi Koyomi. It’s only fitting that if indeed his story is over—a story in which he’s helped save so many cute young women, one after another—that the last person left for him to save is…himself.

At Shirahebi Park, formerly the site of Shirahebi Shrine and the town’s god, which was obliterated along with the lake by Kiss-Shot Acerola-Orion Heart-Under-Blade landing there 400 years ago—a site of so many conversations between Koyomi and those girls—Izuko lays out the minimum requirements of victory.

First, that Hachikuji Mayoi be enshrined a the new god of North Shirahebi shrine, so that she has a purpose in the material world and won’t be swallowed by “the darkness”. Second: that Oshino Ougi be eliminated. Mind you, Izuko isn’t certain who or what Ougi is, only what she isn’t (i.e. Meme’s niece.)

That Ougi is a near-total unknown makes her a threat to the spiritual and physical health of the town, so she has to go, just as any of the other harmful apparitions that have cropped up.

As Itsuko convinces Koyomi (and me) of Ougi’s need to go, Ougi picks up Tsukihi (who is actually a phoenix in human disguise) from Nadeko’s house, where it was being underscored how much Nadeko thinks about and is working towards a finite future, whereas Tsukihi is content to simply live with others in an everlasting present.

I must admit, it felt for all the world like Ougi was either taking Tsukihi hostage (out of an abundance of caution in case Araragi didn’t join her side) or attempting to recruit the phoenix as a kind of last-ditch ally. In any case, the person Ougi is with quickly transitions from Tsukihi to Koyomi in that iconic ruined cram school classroom, who tells Ougi he’s ascertained her identity.

Ougi is, and always has been, him. She is he.

Eager to clearly explain everything, Owarimonogatari steps back a bit to the original meeting between Itsuko, Koyomi, Kiss-Shot, Mayoi, and Ononoki, and explains to Koyomi how Ougi is really him (all while everyone plays cricket in the park, after having played baseball earlier).

Ougi, originally introduced to Koyomi as a “fan” of Kanbaru, explains her name Ougi. Itsuko’s older sister (Kanbaru’s mother) faced a similar “unknown”, the “Rainy Devil”, who was the materialization of her self-control, and the left arm of which was passed to Suruga, her daughter.

When that arm came in contact with the First Minion’s energy drain, it connected the Devil, Koyomi, and Kiss-Shot, and by that route Koyomi’s desire to criticize himself for his actions were materialized into Oshino Ougi, or “Dark Koyomi.”

It’s a complex yet surprisingly elegant and satisfying explanation that ties together so many threads of the Monogatari mythos. Ougi is a fundamental product of all of Koyomi’s victories saving the girls in his life; victories that didn’t come without a great deal of self-doubt about the rightness or wrongness of the methods he used.

Itsuko used the immortal Tsukihi as a lure to draw Ougi out so Koyomi could do the same thing he’s done all along: “killing himself for the sake of others.” Ougi represents Koyomi’s adolescence, and it’s time to end it, and her.

It’s no coincidence that Koyomi is faced with having to “kill” his adolescence on the eve of graduation from high school and entry into college and adulthood. But when the true “darkness” opens up and is about to swallow Ougi, Koyomi finally goes against the grain and saves himself. 

He loses his right arm (and isn’t a vampire at the moment, so that’s a big deal), but Ougi is saved, and with it his adolescence (both his doubt, unfair self-critique, and love of young ladies)—even if it makes him “the worst” to put himself first.

Ougi is tickled, but saving Ougi only means he’ll be swallowed along with her by the “darkness”—until, that is, Hanekawa finally comes through, bringing Meme to the ruined classroom with only moments to spare, to declare that Oshino Ougi is his niece, and Koyomi has pushed her down and may not have the most honorable intentions with her.

These are lies, but the acknowledgement, like the words in a spell, are what were needed to legitimize Ougi’s existence in the world, and close the darkness. From that moment on, Ougi is no longer Dark Koyomi, or any part of him.

His adolescence is gone, replaced by nothing more or less than Meme’s ‘niece’. His lesson, all along, was that love isn’t forsaking yourself for the sake of others. He’s gotta think about number one from time to time.

But, as the epilogue illustrates, it’s not the end of Koyomi as we know him. He’s still him, which means if a young woman needs help, he’ll come to her aid and do anything he can. The difference is, that “anything” will now have a limit; “anything” is no longer “everything.” Koyomi can save and protect without sacrificing himself.

This is why the new god of North Shirahebi Shrine in Hachikuji Mayoi bows to him rather than the other way ’round; why an otherworldly powerful, fully-restored vampire in Kiss-Shot decides to return to the form of a far less strong young girl in his shadow; and before the graduation ceremony, Hitagi and Tsubasa let him go do his thing when he spots another young woman in distress.

And that’s it for Owarimonogatari! As I said, quite an epic ending; and one that covered a lot more than previous, “smaller” arcs. Chronologically speaking, Ougi Dark covers the second-latest Monogatari events adapted to TV, with only the already-released Hanamonogatari taking place later on the timeline.

I’ve yet to watch last year’s Koyomimonogatari ONA side-story, or the Shinobu-centric Kizumonogatari film trilogy that takes place at the very beginning of the chronological spectrum. Once I do, I’ll have watched everything Monogatari has to offer; a total span of 97 episodes. Of course, there are many novels that have yet to be adapted, so this remarkable run is most likely not quite finished.

Owarimonogatari S2 – 02

Those ‘battles to come’ Izuko mentioned at the end of “Mayoi Hell”? They weren’t fought or shown in Part Two, “Hitagi Rendezvous”. Instead they remain just over the horizon, foreboding in their present invisibility.

“Rendezvous” is instead primarily interested in re-introducing Senjougahara Hitagi as a prominent figure in Koyomi’s life. Even though she’s kinda always been prominent in his heart and thoughts, we’ve seen so little of her since Koimonogatari that even she seems to be struggling with her character…which is pretty hilarious.

In any case, she’s saved up a ton of “points” that she intends to cash in on with a day-long date with her boyfriend (ending promptly by 7pm so she can have dinner with her father.) It’s also White Day, and they both graduate the day after tomorrow, so now’s the time to enjoy one last gasp of high school romance (before it becomes a college romance).

Ononoki is still hanging out in Koyomi’s house, given the mission by Kagenui to keep an eye on him until ordered to stop (and implying if Kagenui never returns to recind the order, she’ll stay by Koyomi’s side the rest of her life). Tsukihi’s cameo consists of her grabbing and walking off with Ononoki, claiming she’s her favorite plushie.

From then, it’s on to the date! Senjougahara has adopted a Hanekawa-style hairdo, and also acquired a driver’s license having aced her driving test on the first try. She also points out that until very recently (since his “return”) Koyomi has been unable to acquire a license, since as a vampire he wouldn’t show up in photos.

Senjougahara is not your cliched bad driving anime woman; she simply drives Koyomi safely and well without any drama to the first stop on their date: the planetarium. We and Koyomi first learn of her dream to draw the “perfect space map” of the celestial bodies that surround earth on all sides; such maps are shaped like a hand fan, which is also called…an ougi.

Having recently experienced string of action-packed days—dying, travelling to the depths of hell, exams—one can forgive Koyomi for nodding off while lying on the comfy beds below the planetarium dome. When he does, he dreams of Ougi, and Dream Ougi seems to be just as “real” as her physical version.

Instead of Senjougahara, it’s Ougi who shows Koyomi various constellations which match the animals that have represented the oddities/apparitions of his exploits. Shinobu is depicted as a Hydra, Hitagi a Crab; Nadeko the serpent.

Ougi also tells Koyomi she represents “the principles of the universe”, further tying into the fan-shaped map of the cosmos, and tells him of her duty to “eject” those who “break the rules.” They include Izuko, Shinobu, and the newly-resurrected Mayoi. And she hopes, for Koyomi’s sake, he “forsakes” them, thereby assisting her in correcting the mistakes of the universe.

With that, Koyomi wakes up beside Senjougahara (who also nodded off), and from there, they jump from place to place on their date, following up the educational planetarium and science museum with lunch, bowling, and karaoke, with Koyomi unexpectedly beating her in the latter two categories. As “punishment” for losing, Senjougahara walks arm-in-arm and even lets him princess-carry her back to the car.

Finally, after Koyomi admits he hasn’t been able to get Senjougahara a White Day gift, she parks the car by the waterfront and scolds him. But he can make it up to her by taking her hand in his and calling her by her first name, Hitagi, which he does, in one of the most genuinely moving romantic scenes in the entire Monogatari series—and they don’t even kiss! It’s all in the signature closeups and Saito Chiwa’s delivery.

After the credits, Koyomi finds himself alone in another dreamlike dark space with Ougi, who implies his date with Senjougahara was his “last”, or might well be, depending on the choices he makes. If he wants to be Ougi’s ally, he’ll have to help her fight Izuko, “the big sister who knows everything”, and avoid her apparent traps.

Koyomi begain Part Two with a monologue about how his story so far was one of self-preservation; preserving not only one’s life, but prioritizing his love for himself, to the point love with anyone else wasn’t possible. But since he fell for Senjougahara, he feels he’s been gradually losing his narcissism. So has that part of him taken the shape of Oshino Ougi, and is now fighting the “New Koyomi” who has come to love Hitagi more than himself?

Sadly, those questions, and the battles for which Koyomi must choose a side, will not be covered here; this is the end of Owarimonogatari after just two episodes (Edit: apparently not)! But we can be fairly certain Koyomi won’t forsake Shinobu or Mayoi…and we’ll also see one of Koyomi’s inner thoughts—“to win there is an absolute need to lose somewhere along the way”—put to the test. Koyomi’s already lost his vampirism, for good and ill. Who or what will he lose in the final battle(s)?

Owarimonogatari S2 – 01

Owarimonogatari is back, and promises to inch ever closer to the endgame of the sprawling story of Araragi Koyomi and the town “where a white snake once reigned.”

At some point after the “hell” he went through over spring break, Araragi Koyomi visits Gaen Izuko at the North Shirahebi Shrine…and she murders him. He wakes up to find none other than Hachikuji Mayoi (her usual age) there to greet him.

After his customary hug (this one being one of the more elaborate and extreme ones) and a lot of inappropriate contact, Mayoi punishes him with her signature pit bull-like chomp. She informs him of what’s going on: he’s dead and currently in real hell (specifically in Avici, the lowest form of hell, due to his vampirism).

Mayoi is in hell because both her parents outlived her, and so spends eternity stacking up stones by the riverbank. Especially for a little kid, she’s remarkably calm and fine with this, with a “that’s the way things go” attitude.

They then commence an epic, trippy ascent up through the layers of hell so that Koyomi can meet someone. He’s shown all of the moments that preceded his making key decisions in his life, from finding Shinobu to catching Senjougahara to everything else; and the recurring reaction is that if given an opportunity to return to those moments, he wouldn’t change a thing.

His only exception is the incident with Nadeko, but Mayoi assures him he’s being overly tough on himself for not being omnipotent, which no one is.

The long, reminicing journey finally brings him to another iteration of the Shirahebi shrine, where Tadatsuru Teori is waiting for him. It turns out Gaen Izuko’s murder was far from random, but part of a larger plan to exorcise Koyomi of his vampirism. Sending him to hell was merely a side effect.

Teori presents Koyomi with a white snake-like rope back to the world of the living where he belongs, and when he returns, he will no longer be a vampire, which if you as me is huge.

Koyomi worries if he’s really the most worthy person to be resurrected, and Mayoi, punches it into him that of course he is: he loves to be alive, and cherishes his girls and has done far too much for them to simply accept death and a life in hell.

Koyomi turns Mayoi’s own positive vibes onto her, grabbing her at the last minute to drag her back into the living world with him, which she doesn’t seem to have expected, but Izuko is nevertheless pleased he did. Izuko, by the way, is on the cusp of being killed by Shinobu until Koyomi returns; clearly the vampire wasn’t pleased about the stunt the specialist pulled on her master.

Teori also informed Koyomi of the person who requested he exterminate him: Oshino Ougi. Izuko leaves Koyomi, Shinobu and the resurrected Mayoi alone, looking forward to the “battles to come” where she hopes to enjoy a slight advantage.

In the meantime, after a mad, psychedelic metaphysical odyssey through the underworld, Koyomi heads off next for something as mundane as his college entrance exams. 

Planetarian: Chiisana Hoshi no Yume – 05

plan51

If one believes we were made in our creator’s image, we do our creators honor by making robots in oursPlanetarian posits the possibility that we might’ve done a better job, as Hoshino Yumemi exhibits the kind of pure, unswerving selflessness and nobility befitting an angel; a kind not all humans are capable of summoning, for myriad reasons.

Unlike God with us, Yumemi’s makers kept things simple, both due to their limited budget and the more important limits to how human we can make robots. Because of this, Yumemi sacrifices herself to save her customer, following to the letter the Three Laws of Robotics.

plan52

The Customer doesn’t run out to stop Yumemi from approaching the giant battle mech, and you can’t blame him. It’s a miracle he’s managed to stay alive with such an unrelenting mechanical monster firing high-caliber round after round at him, in addition to flinging and armored vehicle in the air as if it were a Hot Wheels.

Yumemi provides a diversion at a crucial moment that the Customer, down to his last grenade, cannot squander. So he fires his last show and disables the mech, but not before the mech opens fire at Yumemi, tearing her in two in a fraught sequence that’s painful to watch in its inevitability.

The balance of the episode is an extended, and at times unbearably sad goodbye, as the halved Yumemi only has 600 seconds of battery life left.

plan53

The Customer weeps for her as he would a fellow human; no, moreso, as her following of her robotic directives bore the sheen of heroism, and at the end of the day it makes no difference whether she was artificial or not; she was a person to the Customer, and to us.

She’s a person because she’s utterly unique in her collected experiences, memories, and the evolution of her programming stretched across over 44 years—29 of them waiting, like Hachiko, for her co-workers and customers to return like they say they would. When they don’t, and she starts to think no one is ever coming back, she thinks she must be malfunctioning.

plan54

The Customer’s arrival reassured her that she was not wrong to trust that someone would return. And while her body goes off-line, and it’s gutwrenching to hear her voice fizzle out and her green eyes go gray, the show fittingly leaves a sliver of hope by having the Customer retrieve her memories.

Perhaps, one day, when…whatever is going on with the world ends and peace returns, those memories can be put in a new body, and Yumemi can continue her job immersing customers in the vast, inspiring sea of stars.

16rating_9

P.S. The stirring piece of music that accompanies the end credits of this final episode is stunningly, hauntingly gorgeous; melancholy and hopeful all at once. If I ever find it, it will surely be included in a future Weekly ED entry.

Planetarian: Chiisana Hoshi no Yume – 04

plan41

Yumemi has followed Mr. Customer out of the Planetarium, but only to escort him to his car. After that, she’s programmed to return and await more customers. If none come, she’ll still wait.

As Mr. Customer walks through the city with her, a part of him hopes her synthetic eyes will become open to the reality of the situation. There is no car, there are no people, there is no power.

plan42

But for much of this episode, Yumemi remains blissfully unaware of the dystopia around her. A bump here, an accident there; the dearth of people can be chalked up to the rain…which will never end.

Customer sees an unbroken bottle of scotch and worries it could trigger a mine. But Yumemi picks it up and offers it to him, (correctly) believing it’s merely a bottle of scotch.

But for every demonstration that Yumemi is a dumb robot, there’s another moment when both I and Customer have to wonder, despite knowing what we know.

She even comes up with a wish to the robot gods: that the heavens be a place where robots can be with the humans they served in life, and can continue to serve in the afterlife. Very Asimov-ian.

plan44

The show likes to play with our sensibilities about humans and robots – one minute showing Yumemi staring into space or falling on her face; the next saying something truly unique and inspiring or even simply flashing a look that suggests sentience.

This is compounded by the fact this is anime, so neither Customer nor Yumemi look all that realistic. But if I encountered a robot that looked and acted just like a human in a place like that, I’d want to get her out of there too.

There’s one last battle mech between him and the way out of the city. He hunts it while he lets Yumemi think about whether to come with him. Leaving means leaving behind any hope that the power will come back on, Miss Jena will operate properly, and customers will return. But she has a customer, right here and now. If they part, she won’t be able to serve him.

Assuming Customer didn’t die in the mech attack, I’m very interested to learn how she chooses…and if Customer’s comrade’s words—“Do not talk to it” were a serious warning the Customer is choosing to ignore…at his peril.

16rating_8

Planetarian: Chiisana Hoshi no Yume – 03

plan31

The Mr. Customer of a few days ago would never have been patient enough to sit through a planetarium projection, much less allow the robot host to recite a spiel about being courteous during the show that he’s already heard several times. But just as the proximity of a human seems to be ever-so-slowly changing Yumemi, the proximity to such a painfully positive, upbeat, oblivious robot seems to be changing Mr. Customer.

plan32

The show finally begins, and it’s hauntingly gorgeous, as planetarium shows tend to be if you’re into that kind of thing. More than a movie theater, having the entire dome above you turned into a screen really gives you the sense of how small and insignificant we are, and how vast space is.

Not only that, Yumemi proves to be a pro at astronomy and the rich mythology tied to it. Mr. Customer sits in awe of her command of the material and the confidence with which she presents it. For a brief time, she ceases to be simply an annoying robot and becomes an omnipotent being even the deities in the stars seem to bow to in deference.

plan33

Then the power goes out, putting a damper on the show. No matter; Mr. Customer asks Yumemi to continue her part of the show without Miss Jena’s help. As he suspected, her language is vivid enough for him to create the pictures meant to be projected on the dome right in his mind’s eye.

Yumemi recites a story about humanity’s persistent, almost instinctual drive to reach the stars, starting with the sky and working their way up with each generation.

She also reveals the ability of the planetarium to serve as a time machine; I myself keenly remember looking up with awe at the starry sky 1,000 years into the future. There is no more basic—or more powerful—way to see that future. Ditto the past; as it takes years, centuries, and millenia for the light from stars to reach us as tiny faint spots.

Yumemi’s optimism and absolute certainty that humanity’s path will only continue to lead upward stands in direct, defiant contrast to the fallen world outside the walls of the Planetarium; a world Yumemi can’t begin to fathom or even perceive.

plan34

Her only exposure to it has been through Mr. Customer, whom she calls because he’s just like any other customer, pre-apocalypse. And when that Customer gets up to leave, Yumemi says goodbye with her usual programmed charm. However, that isn’t the end, as I had suspected.

Almost as if she searched her database for some kind of protocol that would extend her exposure to Mr. Customer, Yumemi asks what transportation he’s using; when he says car, she attempts to connect with someone to take him to his car. Unable to connect (since there’s nothing to connect to), she takes discretionary measures by deciding to accompany the customer to his car. It’s a clever way to humanize her further without breaking her robot rules.

And just like that, leaving the idealized haven of Yumemi’s world isn’t so easy, those robotic eyes start looking more and more misleading, and the reverie continues.

16rating_8

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 07

sg71

Now that he’s found his rakugo, Kikuhiko works like man possessed – or a man who thinks his success will be snatched away if he rests for a moment. He has increasingly less patience with Sukeroku’s easygoing lifestyle (though continues to spend the lion’s share of his free time with him, and seems to enjoy it).

As for poor Miyokichi, every time Kiku is with her he only seems halfway there and in a hurry to get away. It’s not that he dislikes her, per se, just that for all the stories related to romance he knows, he may not realize he’s in the middle of one, and he’s not pulling his weight. Or maybe he’s well aware of Miyokichi’s intentions, and simply can’t devote any time or thought to them, so caught up in his rakugo.

sg72

Of one thing I am certain: Kiku doesn’t notice the hypocrisy he exhibits in spending so much time with Sukeroku (while complaining that he can’t stand him the whole time) while insisting he has no time for Miyokichi. This results in a confrontation when Kiku puts Sukeroku to sleep in his usual way, and Miyo finds Sukeroku’s head in Kiku’s lap.

It’s intolerable to her that these two are so deeply, effortlessly close, but such are brothers. Even if they’re nothing alike, they’re also everything alike in that they need and feed off one another. They are family; she isn’t, and she just isn’t finding any kind of success in squeezing her way into Kiku’s heart or his life.

sg73

Yakumo’s dedication to his professional and artistic success and his unconscious monopolization by Sukeroku is isolating him from everything else out there in life. When his master chooses him and not Sukeroku to accompany him on a sprawling tour, he becomes singularly focused on that. Miyokichi, desperate for his company, asks him to come whenever he can.

Her intense frustration and his cold reaction causes her to break into tears, causing her geisha makeup to run. I’ll admit, I wanted to punch Kiku right in his foxy face for so treating such a beautiful, complex creature with such frosty disdain.

This is who he is, who he’s always been, and shameful displays such as this certainly help his future ward’s case that he’s a prickly, self-involved wretch of a man, undeserving of Miyokichi’s tender love. But there’s a difference between being this way on purpose and not knowing any other way to be.

sg74

Sure enough, the Kiku we see hanging out with an already-drunk Sukeroku probably doesn’t know how cruel he’s being to Miyokichi, who waits all night and probably many nights for him to come, when in fact he’ll be away for a long time. He’s so excited for his trip and pleased that the master chose him, nothing else matters.

Well, not nothing. At the end of the day, Kiku cares for his brother, and clearly worries about what will happen if he’s gone. Without him there to scold him about dressing better and eating solid food and bathing and cleaning up the place, Sukeroku will go full feral on him.

Kiku promises he’ll join Sukeroku in an independent two-man show that will capitalize on their newfound popularity. But that will be later rather than sooner. Deferred, just like his next meeting with Miyokichi, in favor of further aggrandizing himself.

9_ses

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 06

sg61

The play was a sensation, sure enough, but it also awoke something in Kikuhiko; he really liked the reaction of the audience, and wants nothing more than to get that same feeling while performing his rakugo. But at the start of this week, he’s still lacking certitude and confidence, despite the fact he has his own little fan club at the cafe where he works, not to mention the persistent attention of the lovely Miyokichi, who seems to want to be someone whom he can lean on for support.

sg62

Kikuhiko’s latest interactions with Sukeroku involve a lot of the latter stumbling into their apartment late at night wasted, then laying down some uncharacteristic wisdom before passing out. By doing so, Sukeroku inadvertently reinforces Kiku’s frustration with sharing his home and his calling with someone so different from him, who found out who his rakugo was for and how to do it in a way that played to his strengths.

Kiku has had to work hard and struggle and worry his entire life, whether it was when he was struggling to dance before being “gracefully expelled” (with women lamenting he wasn’t born a woman), or struggling to discover who his rakugo is now, when it’s too late to go back, with no other way to survive but rakugo.

Just as Sukeroku sometimes voices characters who seem like him – one bad move away from a sticky end – when Kiku begins a story about a “lover’s suicide” there’s a distinctly personal and dark subtext.

sg63

But one night, with both his fan club, Miyokichi, Sukeroku and a decent crowd watching (and already warmed up by Sukeroku’s energetic performance), Kiku finally figures it out, building on what he learned during the play, but also gaining new insights while he’s performing. As his performance changes – and improves greatly – the audience changes in turn, and he notices it.

Mind you, his method of rakugo is totally different from Sukeroku. Kiku doesn’t try to use a big booming voice. Instead, he plays to his strengths: his femininity, grace, and sex appeal. He makes the crowd laugh, but also has them feeling worried for the would-be suicidal woman, finally rewarding them for following along by releasing the tension at the end, revealing no one died after all.

In his “eureka” performance, we see glimmers of the venerable Yakumo in the young Kikuhiko, finally able to shrug off his inferiority, relax on the stage, and command a crowd with a firm but elegant touch. When he leaves the theater for home, he’s practically giddy.

As a boy he heard words of pity from those who believed he couldn’t cut it. Now, nearly everywhere he looks there are admirers eager to praise him. And this is only the beginning.

8_ses

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 05

sg51

As we return to Yakumo’s saga, which is already suffused with a constant underlying melancholy borne from the knowledge these events have long since passed, a young Yakumo is desperate to be good at whatever it is he’s doing, be it rakugo or a more straightforward play.

To that end, he’s far more concerned with practicing than women, who a drunk Sukeroku brings home one night. It’s just the latest iteration of something Sukeroku has done since he and Yakumo first met as boys: trying to get him to loosen up.

Sukeroku believes you have to be “a little stupid” in order to survive in rakugo, something Yakumo is not only virtually incapable of being, but would be betraying who he is if he tried. The audience will always know if his heart isn’t in it. We’ve seen how bad that can go!

sg52

Speaking of his heart, it’s in a state of turmoil over the prospect of not being “cut out” for rakugo, turning an intimate little make-out session with Miyokichi into a pity party. For her part, Miyo loves Yakumo’s rakugo, which should tell him it’s worth pursuing.

Yakumo remains depressed, but puts his head on Miyo’s shoulder when she offers it. It’s notable that things don’t ever seem to go anywhere sexually between the two, something Miyo herself might’ve confirmed by telling her senpai essentially “it’s not like that;” in other words, platonic.

sg53

Nevertheless, it’s a strong, warm friendship, and Miyo is excited for the lovely, elegant Yakumo to be portraying a man disguised as a woman for the play, and offers her services as makeup artist gratis. She does good work; the transformation is striking.

Sukeroku laughs his ass off when he first sees Yakumo’s somehow even foxier fox face, when he sees how terribly nervous his bro is (to the point of threatening to flee), he tells him to steel himself, knowing full well with his looks and talent he’ll have the audience eating out of his hand.

sg54

Sukeroku turns out to be exactly right, which shocks Yakumo. When he starts feeling the rapt audience following his every move, his confidence builds more and more. His progression from initially jittery suits his role as meek ‘wife’ to the more boisterous Sukeroku’s ‘husband’, and makes it that much more of a shock when the time comes for him to reveal he’s a guy. His change in voice, posture, and level of dress; it’s all pretty much perfect.

sg55

He leaves the stage to enthusiastic applause, a very different man than the one he walked onto it as. He was depressed, but now he’s seen with his own eyes and by his own efforts that there is hope after all, not only in theater but in rakugo as well. His performance showed everyone out there what he’s capable of, and the elegant “racy stuff” he can do so well; as effortlessly as Sukeroku pull of his unwashed galoot bit.

Finally, to once again remind us we’re only looking into the past, of two people who were still so close but whom we know will one day be separated once more and for good, the theater manager takes some candid black-and-white photographs of the two brothers, preserving the joy and victory of that night for posterity.

9_ses

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 04

sg41

This week we stop in on Bon and Shin as they’ve moved out of the master’s house and into their own apartment together. Shin has a job serving women he charms without trying and pinches every penny, while Bon spends all his non-rakugo time drinking away his earnings.

Shin continues to struggle to find his own rakugo, while Shin oozes confidence on the stage and has every crowd before him eating out of his hand immediately, including Bon. He’s even given himself a new name: Sukeroku. These two continue to be completely different in every way, yet they remain friends.

sg43

It’s also this week that one of the few things that could strain their long-standing and deep friendship/brotherhood is formally introduced – by their master, no less. I speak of the lovely Miyokichi, whom the master has taken as a side-project, getting her a job as a geisha, likely in exchange for, ahem…other favors.

Miyokichi takes an instant liking to the serene, doll-like Bon, and isn’t subtle about her desire to meet with him alone, using a dance lesson as an excuse. Even in a show chock full of marvelous voice acting, Hayashibara Megumi (who voiced both Ayanami Rei and Faye Valentine) stands out; every line from those red lips oozes sex appeal.

sg44

I’d say Bon was immune to her charms, either due to having lost his first love many years ago, or due to being so preoccupied with how he’s going to continue to do rakugo whilst his roommate rubs his apparently effortless yet immense success in his face every day. But he isn’t immune. Few would be.

He returns to Miyokichi’s (a rare subject that shuts Shin – sorry, Sukeroku, up), where he gives her a dance lesson, plays the shamisen while she sings (beautifully), and share some sake. Bon becomes more and more desirable as the evening progresses, as Bon’s not the typical kind of man she deals with, which must be refreshing.

Bon leaves before things get that far, but when she insists he promise to return again, he cannot resist drawing her closer. I don’t think the master introducing him to Miyokichi was an accident. Bon needs to learn to loosen up and have a good time if he’s to make any headway with erotic rakugo. What better way to do than in the company of a beautiful, complex, charming woman who may well actually want him?

Miyokichi, like his rakugo, is something Bon is still trying figure out. But if Sukeroku’s reaction to his interest in her is any indication, this is probably going to lead to some conflict between the brothers.

8_ses

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 03

sg31

SGRS has played a clever trick. I thought this show would be about Yotarou, the reformed thief, but he hasn’t been present the last two episodes. Instead, it’s been young Yakumo’s, or I should say, Bon’s show.

And that’s totally all right, as he puts immense craft, care, and detail into his quietly epic life story, a large part of which contained Sukeroku (AKA Shin) who is absent from the present world. In hindsight, that absence and the events that let up to it (which have yet to be told) are given greater weight with each new section.

Bon is struggling with the same boisterous kind of rakugo Shin performs and gets reliable laughs from, and having to balance school means he feels like the gap between them is growing. So Shin suggests he try rakugo that makes the most of his weak voice: bawdy and erotic stories. On that note, Shin suggests they go to a brothel and get laid…once they have the scratch, of course.

In the midst of hanging out offstage with the “house band”, Bon, who had no prior interest in or time for girls, meets Ochiyo, a girl he becomes interested in and spends lots of time with. The warm fondness and melancholy in present-day Yakumo’s voice makes the couple’s inevitable separation really sting.

sg32

That hurt is somewhat mitigated by present-day Yakumo keeping Ochiyo’s promise to never forget her, because here he is telling us about her! The reason she has to leave Tokyo is basically the same reason people start leaving Tokyo in droves: World War II is about to break out. The dread of that fact is underlined by highly effective use of loud white noise, which swells and cuts out suddenly, creating tension and foreboding.

The government starts censoring rakugo just at the time Bon sees the raunchier stuff as his way in, almost as if the universe were blocking his path. Soon it’s just the master and his two students, and he only takes Shin with him to a kind of USO tour in Manchuria, sending Bon and his bad leg to the country with the mistress. But the night before Shin leaves, Bon has his brother pinky-swear that they’ll see each other again.

Bon gets a job in a factory, meets another nice girl, and settles into a provisional life, a life without Rakugo he never thought he’d have to deal with until it came. Sure, he’s not exactly on the front lines or anything, but his suffering is borne of not being able to take the path he wishes due to, well, history itself.

sg33

And yet, he never fully gives up on rakugo. He stuffs the books in the closet, but he still tells stories to himself when he feels down. He finds the rakugo heals and fuels his troubled heart; it gives him vitality and hope. And then, one day, just like that, the war is over.

More white noise, and a few well-chosen sights like a cloud in the sky and the sight of a radio broadcasting the emperor’s surrender mark that new event. When it comes to depicting the parts of the war we know well, the show doesn’t show much, because Bon himself doesn’t see any of the horrors.

More than anything, both Bon and the Mistress miss Shin and the master terribly, and even some time after the war continue to live in a kind of limbo as they await a return that may never come. The good news is, rakugo roars back into popularity, including the kind best suited for Shin, who gets a promotion and gets very busy very fast.

sg34

He gets so busy, he’s totally caught off guard when one dusk, just as suddenly as Ochiyo, and country life, and the war, and loneliness, came and went, Shin, Bon’s brother and other half, returns. Five years had passed mercilessly, heartlessly, but by the end of it their promise was fulfilled and they were together again. They ease back into theater life; rakugo life; and peace. Only now, no doubt, with so much time spent apart, this family understands and appreciates far better what it means to be together.

And speaking of reunions, who should show up at their door but Miyokichi, a beautiful young woman. The brothers have competed in rakugo, and endured separation for an entire war’s length. Will their next trial be a love triangle?

9_ses

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 02

sg21

I was glad for the hour-long first episode that really established a present day for the show; giving it the confidence to go decades into the past in only its second. And while Yotarou was the main protagonist of the first episode, he and Konatsu are entirely absent here, as we have only the old Yakumo narrating the past, and how he met Sukeroku.

sg22

This story explains why the present-day Yakumo has bouts of bitterness and insecurity that can manifest as cruel or petty treatment towards those in his life, be it Konatsu or Yotarou. It all boils down to this: Rakugo was an arranged marriage for Yakumo, while it was true love for Sukeroku.

For Yakumo, then known as Bon, was into a geisha house. He was a dancer until he ruined his leg, and so he got dumped off at Yuurakutei’s house to be his apprentice and learn rakugo. He didn’t even want to get into rakugo, but he had to. His entire future was neatly laid out for him…by people other than himself.

sg23

Sukeroku, then known as Shin, was a filthy, orphaned street urchin, who always used to be able to get into theaters for free. He convinces the master to let him be his apprentice in much the same manner as Yotarou convinces Yakumo: a combination of charm – from his overabundance of enthusiasm, and pity – the implication he truly has no where else to go.

The master can when Shin shows him what he’s got that he’s doing a lot of straight mimickry, but the fact he makes Bon smile and laugh tells him he could be more than just another mouth to feed.

sg24

OH MY GOD LOOK IT’S A YOUNG MATSUDA!!! Holy crap, that’s so cool that Yakumo would not only inherit his master’s title, but his manservant as well. This makes Matsuda the only character other than the narrator Yakumo whom we know form the first episode.

sg25

Oh, but where were we? Ah yes, Bon and Shin. Another reason the master takes Shin in is so that Bon has a foil, and learns to loosen up a little. Sure enough, after Shin says out loud something Bon dare not—they were both abandoned by their families—Bon has himself a cathartic cry and tells Shin his entire story, which Shin earnestly listens to and responds appropriately: basically, “Yeah man, that’s a pretty raw deal.” But it means so much just for Bon to have someone to talk to.

sg26

The two grow up together, alike in how they came to be in the master’s house, but otherwise total opposites, except for their ability to accept one another, much like to very different brothers who still share blood and love for one another, even as they compete for their “father’s” approval.

Once they’ve studied and practices and grown up enough, their master gives them names and deems them ready to open for him at the theater. Bon gets the elegant, refined name Kikuhiko; while Shin gets Hatsutaro, which he feels will sink him before he even jumps in the pool.

sg27

Now we know that Kikuhiko would end up being given the title of eighth-generation Yakumo, but I’m certain the master doesn’t arrive at that decision after Kiku’s first performance, which was an unqualified disaster, though not in any over-the-top or overly cartoonish way (say, he slips and falls or flubs his lines).

He gets all the words out, it just all feels so flat. And he’s super nervous, shaking and sweating from the get-go. No nice way to say it: he bombs. And he knows it, even before he sees Hatsutaro backstage, and dares him to do better in his very first performance opening for their master.

sg28

Hatsutaro does better. Almost too much better. His performance, starting with a loud “HEY!” that wakes up those in the sparse crowd Kiku put to sleep, is far more energetic, warm, loose, and inviting. Rather than no laughs, he gets many, and from a diverse cross-section of people.

Kiku only succeeded in making the crowd almost as uncomfortable as he was. That’s some kind of theater, but it’s not rakugo. Hatsu did some damn fine rakugo in his first performance. He even turns Kiku’s frown upside down. But that’s just it: right now, Kiku simply has no confidence in his future, because he never actually wanted to do this, and still doesn’t. He knew that truth would come out in his performance, and sure enough, it did.

This is only the first part of Yakumo’s tale, which he did fairly warn us was long. We have yet to learn how he clawed back from that sorry first performance to become the living legend he is in the present (and who inspired Yotarou to seek him out), not to mention how his relationship with Sukeroku progressed/regressed; and at some point Sukeroku will meet Konatsu’s mother.

However much more story Yakumo has to tell, I am all ears.

9_ses

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – 01 (First Impressions)

sg11

I enter Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu a little late–it almost flew past my radar–until a commenter mentioned it as one of the season’s best – and I’m inclined to agree.

SGRS‘s first episode may be 47 minutes long (and they don’t fly by quickly), but it starts off strong, immersed me in both sides of the obscure world of rakugo – and offered numerous fantastic performances on and off the stage. It’s also the rare show that made me laugh out loud and get me all misty-eyed.

sg12

Recent parolee and former gang member Yotarou begs the great rakugo master Yakumo, who once performed at his prison, to make him his apprentice. On a lark, the initially reluctant Yakumo agrees, and brings him to his house. Which is good, because Yotarou had no Plan B!

Yakumo doesn’t live alone, however: he’s the guardian of Konatsu, the daughter of his late rakugo colleague, Sukeroku. From first glance, Konatsu looks interested in following in her father’s footsteps, but hides her practicing from Yakumo, who apparently doesn’t approve.

sg13

After moving in, Yotarou gets to experience Yakumo live once more, amidst a packed and enthusiastic theater Yakumo has eating out of his hand, and not by any trick. He’s simply extremely good at telling comedic stories with multiple voices that draw the audience in, and you can bet I was drawn right in with ’em.

sg14

But while Yakumo has the adoration of many in this small niche of theater, he betrays his prickly side when he learns of Konatsu studying her father on the sly. Konatsu loses her short temper (it’s clear Yakumo knows exactly how to push her buttons) and is held back by Yotarou in a very theatrical and beautifully-framed shot, seen above.

This is a show whose main characters are all, well, characters, and you get the feeling they’re playing roles even when there’s no audience (other than us, that is). And when these strong personalities clash, like Konatsu and Yakumo often do, the atmosphere crackles with electricity.

sg15

The show puts a roadblock ahead of Yotarou’s journey to become a rakugo star before it even gets off the ground when his old boss from the gang shows up with another job for him. This guy’s a rakugo outsider, for sure: both ignorant to and unwilling to learn about its charms, having already deemed it “tepid rubbish.”

He’s also someone Yotarou was always extremely obedient to, so I was glad when Konatsu spoke up when it looked like he was wavering. Ultimately, it’s Yakumo who resolves the standoff, entering the room and instantly snatching all the authority in that room, sending Yotarou off to practice and inviting the boss to come see his old soldier’s first very show in front of a crowd.

sg16

This long episode’s centerpiece is Yotarou’s performance of “Dekigokoro”, in which he uses his vocal talent with his own crime experience to get consistent laughs out of the sparse but intent crowd. This is a ten-minute long sequence with no interruptions, and it was spellbinding, particularly when accompanied by jazz.

His old boss laughs once he sees the light, and how well-suited the chatterbox is to rakugo. Konatsu also can’t help laughing, though she tries to stifle it. As for Yakumo, he seems proud that Yotarou was able to send his old boss away with his performance, but he also seems a bit miffed that his apprentice is eschewing his tight, precise style for the looser mode of Sukeroku.

sg17

Yakumo takes this opportunity to get another dig at Konatsu, calling her out for what he considers her attempts to “bring her father back to life” through Yotarou, even though he has “no skill” and is only a “passing fancy.” This jealousy, pettiness, and cruelty he displays comprises a “dark side” he shows only to a select few people closest to him, and it’s ugly; he makes Konatsu cry, but to what end? His own self-aggrandizement.

In the episode’s dramatic and emotional apex, a distraught Konatsu visits the friend of her late mother, begging her to tell her the truth about what happened. The friend only tells her what she’s already heard, but can’t accept: her parents died in an unfortunate accident, and no one was to blame.

Konatsu survived the accident, but now she curses she was born a woman, because she’ll never be accepted as Sukeroku’s successor. I hope she’s wrong about that. Both her grief and frustration were strongly felt through the screen; Kobayashi Yuu does stunning work throughout the episode and here in particular.

sg18

After Yotarou stays up too late the previous night listening to Sukeroku (sent to bed by a flattered and concerned Konatsu in a lovely scene between them), Yakumo makes him open one of his own performances with zero notice. The packed crowd only has sporadic polite applause for him, as Yakumo watches him in the dressing room, still not over Yotarou’s apparent obsession with his late rival.

Then Yotarou commits a seemingly unforgivable sin of dozing off just offstage. His snores momentarily interrupt Yakumo’s story, but because he’s a master, he smooths over the disturbance with a little bit of improv. Still, when the performance is over, he formally expels Yotarou, calls a rickshaw in the thick snow, and heads home without him.

The rickshaw is a great touch, as Yakumo is imperiousness incarnate with his wheeled throne and arrogant pipe as Yotarou prostrates himself in the snow to deaf ears. The Winter snow is also an easy way to up the stakes for Yotarou, who will literally be out in the cold if the expulsion sticks.

sg19

I honestly felt really bad for Yotarou, despite pretty heinous screw-up. But the fact his expulsion is as much about Sukeroku as it is the snoring is not lost on me. It’s Konatsu who takes pity on a freezing Yotarou loitering outside her house, and gets him an audience with Yakumo once the latter had time to cool down.

While Yotarou and Konatsu probably won’t ever be a couple per se, their many interactions this week built a solid a foundation for a close relationship hovering somewhere between friends and adoptive siblings.

sg110

After having time to think about it, Yakumo takes a more pragmatic approach to Yotarou, realizing that the rakugo flame will go out when he dies if he discards young people who wish to carry it on. It doesn’t redeem him entirely–he still doesn’t seem open to Konatsu being a rakugoka-but it does paint him as a complex human being, with good and bad parts interspersed in his character.

So he gives Yotarou three conditions for reversing his expulsion and moving forward with his apprenticeship: he must memorize everything Yakumo gives him; he must find and nuture his own rakugo, not merely continue to imitate Sukeroku’s or his own; and most importantly, he must outlive him; which considering Yotarou’s criminal past, isn’t necessarily a given! He also makes Konatsu promise to outlive him.

Yotarou agrees to it all, though he’s not sure at that moment if he’ll be able to follow through, he’s not going to squander his second chance. Then Yakumo tells the two to get ready for a long night, because he intends to tell them the story of a promise he and Sukeroku made. I can’t wait to hear it!

9_ses