Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu Review

This is review number three hundred and sixty one. This anime is part of the Winter 2016 lineup. The anime I’ll be reviewing is called Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, and it’s a weird title for sure. Shouwa Genroku is an era in Japan. Rakugo is a performance art and Shinjuu is “double suicide” in English. I think the meaning is a lot more subtle though, but it certainly would’ve helped if we had a simpler title. Anways, it’s a thirteen episode anime about two dudes performing rakugo and one of them dies. Seriously, someone dies. Let’s read on.

Story

The anime follows the life of a rakugo performer named Kikuhiko. His journey to become a rakugo master is littered with failure, hardships and constant trials but his rise to popularity is always an important goal for him. The story covers his rakugo career alongside his close friend Sukeroku as they live in the Shouwa era of Japan.

Taking the Pants Off

This is one of the notable anime of the Winter 2016 season. I guess it stands out because it’s particularly mature. It’s been a long time since I tried a Josei anime, and I’m a bit torn on this particular show. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a show I really wanted to hate, but I also know that I just can’t help but love it. It’s hard to describe it, really. The story is painfully slow and the focus isn’t really established that properly. The characters are amazing though, and the presentation of rakugo is really intriguing. Rakugo is like a stage play where a storyteller tells a short story, and he acts out the different characters with his own change in voices. The storyteller sits in the middle of the stage and he simply just tells a dramatic form of the story. Begrudgingly, I am familiar with rakugo thanks to Joshiraku. I never thought that anime would’ve thought me something, but I didn’t really know what it was called then. This show rightfully explored the artistic side of Rakugo, and it often has an entire story being told by the characters. Yes, the anime has actual rakugo performances and they’re really fun to watch. It’s captivating in a sense, and it’s really the only reason why I kept on watching. Storywise, the whole thing is a bit of mess. The annoying part is that it’s tediously slow, but the narrative is also pretty predictable. I really only liked this anime because of the wonderful rakugo performances and the fleshed out characters. The way each character is presented is really precise. No trait is left unexplained, and no action is without reason. Every motivation is explained properly, and you really get an idea of how these characters think. Their relationships are fascinating to watch, and how they affect the story is really the best part of the show for me. Again, it’s hard to pin it down. This anime is good, but it also has some flaws to it. Let me just lay it out properly to get my own thoughts in order.

First of all, this is a Josei anime. Its target audience is more on the mature side, and the stories are really grown up. If Shoujo captures the rose colored innocence of falling in love, then Josei features the more sexual side of it. The situations often involve two people than knows their sexual attraction trumps whatever emotional feeling they have for each other. According to spoilers central, AKA Wikipedia, “Josei tends to be both more sexually explicit and contain more mature storytelling, although that is not always true. It is also not unusual for themes such as infidelity and rape to occur in josei manga targeted specifically more towards mature audiences.” It continues, “In recent years, the most popular josei series have featured male protagonists and a main cast of nearly all men and the male characters of a josei series are often quite compassionate toward other men.” This is basically Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu in a nutshell. It features an adult kind of love story, and it follows the lives of two male characters that are really close to each other. The elements of Josei are clearly part of the show, but it’s mixed in with a lot of other things. When you first watch the show, with the first episode being an hour long special, the idea of Josei isn’t present. The first episode featured wonderful rakugo performances and the story of a cold man mentoring a delinquent. I think it ends with a girl accusing the cold man that he killed her father, and she is clearly distraught over it. As it progresses, the cold man eventually tells the story of his journey with the girl’s father. First impression of the show is that it’s a historical drama about rakugo performers killing each other. It’s a solid premise, but things become a bit confusing when you realize the flashbacks lasts three episodes already and no killing is actually happening. As it turns out, the Josei is actually showing its presence at this point.

Sadly, this anime isn’t a historical drama about rakugo performers killing each other. I would love to have an anime about that though, and I hope someone is stupid enough to do it. Anyways, the anime actually chronicles the life of the man, stage named Kikuhiko (their names are never revealed as the strict practices of rakugo dictates that you own the stage name instead), and his best friend in life named, again a stage name, Sukeroku. It starts from the beginning where he became the apprentice of a rakugo performer up until the apparent death of Sukeroku. The anime follows his in life in detail focusing on his experiences growing up with Sukeroku. This is actually where I lost interest in the show. I think at the third episode the transition to Josei has been fully established. At this point though, the anime still doesn’t have a clear goal in mind. If the whole point is to see how Sukeroku died then why the f*ck are we starting at the very beginning? This is like “How I met Your Mother”, where it took eight years to get to the gawd damn point. Seeing Kikuhiko grow up, what exactly am I supposed to obtain here? I don’t understand. I actually stopped watching the anime to really think about it, and I came up with three reasons why the focus is on Kikuhiko growing up.

First of all, his relationship with Sukeroku is important to the story. How, exactly? I don’t know. The anime never explain why, but I am just guessing that it is. Kikuhiko is a strict guy thrown out of his household because he can’t be a geisha, and he grew up with a happy go lucky guy like Sukeroku. They are the absolute opposite, but they clearly have respect for each other. Kikuhiko might seem strict, but Sukeroku is the only individual he ever confides in. All his frustrations and problems in life are something only he can tell Sukeroku about. Kikuhiko also respect Sukeroku. Despite being a dirty slob, he loves the guy and he is willing to take care of him. Growing up together, they really treat each other like brothers and so I’m guessing the loss of the other must be devastating for them. As I said as well, the Josei aspect has come in full effect here and it mainly has one important aspect of Josei really established clearly: the whole compassion towards other men deal. It honestly never crossed my mind, because I just thought that the two are close brothers. With Josei in effect though, the sentiment of their relationship is actually a bit more different. They are actually in love with each other, but not in the weird kind of way. The show never really pointed it out, and I never really bothered to care but these scenes mean what they actually mean:

In a sense, this is textbook Josei through and through. The description in wikipedia absolutely fits the idea the show is trying to convey. I’m a bit confused though, because they never really seem fan service to me. When two guys are naked bathing together, I don’t really think anything of it unless one character blushes and the show point it out for me. Do I applaud the anime for restraining its urge to deliver a more direct element of Josei, or should I hate myself for not letting my dirty mind convince itself that this show shares the same idea as Hakkenden? Hakkenden is straight up Josei though, but I never would’ve thought this anime is right in Hakkenden’s alley. Let this clear up some confusion with people interested in watching this anime. One of its focuses is the rather intimate relationship of Kikuhiko and Sukeroku. It relates to nothing, story-wise, and it’s really just Josei at its best featuring two dudes that loves each other. I think I want a historical drama about rakugo people killing each other instead. This Josei aspect of the anime feels a bit subdued though, because there is really a more important reason for the flashbacks. It’s in the title of the show: rakugo.

One of the reasons we have a long flashback is to track Kikuhiko’s love for rakugo as well. He is a really interesting guy, because he enters the world of rakugo out of convenience. With a bum leg, he was promptly thrown out of his own house. His mother had connections to a rakugo master, and Kikuhiko was taken in as a favor. He absolutely detested his current state, but the show gradually tracks his growth as a rakugo storyteller. He falls in love with rakugo, and he soon finds way to make it part of his everyday life. He practiced nonstop, and he would learn how to create his own style of rakugo that would captivate the audience. This aspect of the story is told in a really intimate way, and you can tell the author himself must’ve loved rakugo with every fiber of his being. I love how he just presented rakugo in its true form. The show doesn’t embellish it, and it doesn’t proclaim rakugo as a superior art form above anything else. No, he wanted the audience to appreciate what rakugo truly is. The different stories the characters would perform on stage where presented as if the audience is truly experiencing a classic rakugo performance, and I absolutely love how stripped down the whole experience is. It’s literally someone on stage just reciting a story he memorized, but the thing that makes it an actual art form is presented by the anime without the show actually pointing it out. The audience is taken in an immersive experience while the show dedicates time to presenting the rakugo performance. It’s enchanting, and it’s interesting to see the characters just tell a story. It’s even more interesting seeing Kikuhiko gradually fall in love with it as well. He started out just doing rakugo because it’s the only way he can stay in his master’s house, but he soon realize that rakugo can be so much more for him. It’s even more interesting because he looks up to Sukeroku’s rakugo the most and he hope to soon be as good as him.

The art of rakugo really trumped everything else in the anime, and it also overshadowed the Josei aspect. It never really crosses your mind that Kikuhiko has different motives for being close to Sukeroku other than admiring his rakugo, so you never expected the show to actually be Josei. The way it presented the rakugo is really respectable. With the characters tediously presented, Kikuhiko’s journey into finding his own style of rakugo is really a wonderful part of the anime. It talks about different styles that suits different stories, ranking in the rakugo society and even the pacing on how you can tell rakugo. It doesn’t go overly technical though, because you’re often just treated to Kikuhiko feeling frustrated that his own style isn’t improving. It’s particularly interesting, because the show always compares Kikuhiko and Sukeroku. From how they live their life to how their own rakugo career progresses, the anime always put them side to side. I think the point is more on how an artist thinks. Some people are methodical and strategic while others are carefree and laidback. Artistic talent can be grown in many different ways. The two has different approaches and the show tracks how their own styles grow overtime. Along with their personal relationships as more than brothers, the show also track their rakugo career and it really just sets up the road to finding out how Sukeroku met his demise. This story starts from their childhood up to their thirties though, and there’s actually another important reason why the pacing is so deliberately slow. Again, like rakugo, it’s also in the title: Shouwa.

I’m not really sure, but some people said Shouwa Genroku is the golden age of the Shouwa era. It’s from the late 60s to the early 70s. The current story where Kikuhiko is an old man taking in an apprentice in the first episode happens in that time. The flashback which covers the entirety of the anime happens before that era though.  The Shouwa period is ridiculously long starting from 1926 to 1989, and it’s divided into the pre-1945 and the post-1945 era. The pre-era concerns Japan as an Empire with an emperor ruling them, while the post-era covers Japan as a state where the country transformed into the modern economic giant that it turns out to be. This transition between the two sides of the Shouwa period is presented in the anime as well. This is actually the tricky part of the show, because you had to experience that change as well in order to recognize it. So, I’m guessing really old people love the manga or something because they understand the changes that happen during the Shouwa era. For people like me that don’t care about Japan or its culture, it’s something that just flies over our heads. It is important to note the Shouwa is in the title though, because Kikuhiko’s life covers a great deal of the important parts of the Shouwa era. It’s told in a tediously slow pace, because the events that occurred throughout the Shouwa era affected Kikuhiko greatly as well. When he was a child, he grew up in a geisha household. Towards the final three episodes of the anime though, a law is put in effect banning geisha and brothels from the country. This final aspect of the anime is the most subtle element to be presented, and the Josei side actually has a more in-your-face presentation to it. The changes in the Shouwa era are gradual and it’s nothing more than a backdrop. If you have ever grown up in the same time as Kikuhiko then this anime is one giant nostalgic bomb for you, and every off-hand remark about how society changes is something you greatly understood. I noticed four notable events that happened in the anime, and this points out why the Shouwa aspect is an important part of the anime.

It starts from their childhood. Kikuhiko comes from a geisha household and he was kicked out because of his injured leg. This is a relatively peaceful time, because rakugo as an art form is thriving. It’s also important to note that people are smoking from pipes in this period, and there is little sign of electricity yet. There are no vehicles as well, because Kikuhiko actually walked the distance to his new home with notable carts passing by while he travelled. The first shift happens when the mention of World War II is included in the story. The absolute dread in the dialogue of the characters is really interesting here, and Kikuhiko’s sudden fleeing from the city to a rural area is intriguing as well. I believe during the war, the major cities are bombed and leaving their homes is just part of the process. Kikuhiko doesn’t join the frontlines though, because he has an injured leg. Instead, he was in an industrial factory. I don’t remember what he did, but it’s important to note that the industrial revolution of Japan is kicking at this point. The railways are running and vehicles are in the street. The hairstyles are different as well, and the fashion sense is clearly injected with western influences. The experience is even stamped with the end of the war with the emperor declaring that it’s over. So the show actually followed the change from pre-era to post-era Shouwa, and it gets interesting from here. After the war, rakugo comes back thriving but also the influence of the western world. More importantly, Kikuhiko would spend his time in a jazz café and he works in a more westernized coffee shop as well. It’s actually interesting that Sukeroku stands out the most when he is wearing his kimono while everyone is in western attire. Sukeroku is also the first to notice the change in society when he mentions that rakugo as a form of entertainment is in danger because of the popularity of televisions. As Kikuhiko learns to rise in popularity though, the era shifts some more. This time, you’ll notice that no one is smoking pipes anymore and almost everyone is consuming tobacco. I’m guessing cigarettes became a huge thing in Japan in the Shouwa era because every character smoked it including Kikuhiko himself. The changes are gradual, but the Shouwa era is presented rather colorfully in the anime as it tracks Kikuhiko’s life as a rakugo performer.

This anime is actually about a Josei story focusing on a guy loving rakugo as he live his life in the Shouwa era. It’s a mouthful, but the show handled the premise pretty gracefully. You’ll love this anime and you won’t know why unless you actually take it apart piece by piece. Anyways, let’s talk about the characters. While the anime’s intention is murky as hell, the characters really made the experience interesting. I love how Kikuhiko is presented in the story. In the current story, he is an intimidating man with a very strict personality. In the flashbacks though, his strictness is explained properly and we also get to see a different side to him. Knowing that he loved people, felt insecure about his own abilities and grew up with a very disciplined mindset really makes him a very well rounded character. Every decision he makes in the story is properly explained in the story. His dedication to rakugo is both a product of his insecurities and his deep love for the art and the people involved. His cold distant personality is brought about by his very rough childhood and his own belief that he isn’t good enough to show content in his life. His cold personality is actually interesting for the Josei side as well. This anime has three main characters and the last one really only made her presence felt in the last few episodes. Kikuhiko fell in love with a geisha, but his state of mind at that point in his life doesn’t really want him to fall in love with the woman. He still wants her though, but it’s interesting how Kikuhiko treats her. He rejects her advances, and he considers her nothing more than a hobby more than anything else. It’s not entirely his fault though, because he has a different goal in mind at that point in his life. The guy is so distant though that it comes to a point where you feel sad for the poor girl just asking for her love to be reciprocated.

Miyokichi, a geisha that Kikuhiko started dating, is my favorite character in the show. In the true Josei format, she thinks like a mature woman seeking love but also flesh. She’s direct with her sexual goals, and she would come onto Kikuhiko trying to get him to love her back. Miyokichi is an interesting character because she is really just feeling vulnerable in her life. At the moment, her life sucks and being a geisha isn’t something she chooses on her own. With her life being a bit of a shamble, she is really only asking Kikuhiko to be a kind of support for her. I think Kikuhiko understands, but he doesn’t want to be that kind of person for her. He stays close but not close enough to make her feel happy. The moments where Kikuhiko would ignore Miyokichi is one of the saddest moments in the show for me. When she would start crying, it really feels like such a heavy scene and I just love how the anime can create such a compelling character that easily. Sukeroku is another wonderfully presented character. He grew up poor, but you can also see how self-destructive he lives his life. His rakugo is really impressive, but when Kikuhiko is trying to hone his craft, Sukeroku would spend his days drinking and chasing women. He doesn’t care about other people, and he doesn’t care what they think of him. He lives life in the moment, and you can really just see him gradually ruin his own life. As he grows up, Kikuhiko is really the only person he can depend on but it does come to a point where even the guy can no longer do anything for Sukeroku. I love characters like these, because they’re portrayed negatively but you can’t really hate him that much. You can blame him for his life choices, but there’s nothing about him that you can really hate. I guess I personally know people like him, and I understand that tolerating them is for their own good as well. Sukeroku is someone that lives in the moment with a laidback attitude about life, and this kind of lifestyle will ultimately haunt him in the end.

I think the story really picked up during the last two episodes. The flashback is coming to an end, and story is coming back around. The introduction of Sukeroku’s daughter really made the story interesting again. After a sad turn of events, Sukeroku would leave the city and spend his day in a rural village. Kikuhiko would look for him, and he found his daughter instead. Konatsu is an incredible character. She loves her father a lot, and she has a sense of responsibility at such a young age. She also has a good grasp of life as well hating her mother but also unconditionally loving her father. Konatsu is the type of person that accepts her circumstance and she tries her best to make a better situation out of it. It’s unbelievably sad, especially when you witness Sukeroku’s state at this point in the story. It does nicely build up the event that leads to his death though, and it brings the story back to the current time. The ending is a bit unsatisfying, but the buildup for another season certainly made me smile. The death scene that has been hinted since the first episode isn’t really that special, but the story seems to have ripened wonderfully after the flashback. In this troubling time, Kikuhiko’s only goal is to make sure that rakugo stays alive as he tries to pass it on to another generation. There is a twist though that absolutely made me smile, and it nicely indicates that Sukeroku is ready to haunt him after all these years. I can’t wait for the next season.

showa14-2

Once again, Studio Deen delivered another solid anime. This is right up Studio Deen’s alley though, because they also gave us Hakkenden. They love stories about dudes that are into each other, and I only recently discovered it’s actually Josei. Studio Deen is adept at doing Josei shows, and it’s interesting how they’ll present them from this point on. I said it before, Studio Deen sucks at storytelling but it looks like things are really changing for this studio. This anime is purely about character development and intensifying the story, and Studio Deen seems to be handling that kind of approach rather decently. It’s funny considering they used to do dumb shows like Meganebu, and their goal is really more fan service than anything else. They’re focusing on the story now, and it really excites me. A story centered fan service heavy anime sounds interesting, and it looks like Studio Deen is really trying to capture that kind of content. This anime is directed by a Mamoru Hatakeyama, and it’s apparently a different name for Shinichi Omata. I think it’s his pseudonym, and he uses it mostly for his directorial works. This guy certainly has talent, because he managed to make a dialogue heavy anime interesting. He is able to capture the appeal of Josei but without being direct. He does subtle storytelling, and he certainly has talent if he can make a rakugo performance interesting. He mostly did a lot of storyboard in his career and his works as a director involves Sankarea and Rozen Maiden. I don’t really notice anything impressive, but he did grow considerably between Sankarea and this anime. It feels like it’s not the same person, and that’s a good thing. I like his current style, because he is able to capture the beauty of the original source nicely. Directors that can give justice to the original material are simply talented, because a lot of people screw up a simple retelling of a story. I’m excited for the second season because I know the show is in good hands.

Sight and Sound

Haruko Kumota did a lot of yaoi in her career, and she only switched it up to a different genre only recently. It’s also interesting that she got heads turning when she departed from the genre she is most talented in. Regrettably, I am familiar with her work and Madobe no Kimi is something I have read awhile back. Anyways, her style is pretty simplistic and yaoi really doesn’t need to be flashy. Her minimalist style makes her manga unique though, because she relies on the dialogue to really carry the story. This is particularly hard when your visual medium is manga. She only uses the panels to create a setting with the facial expressions and the correct tone for the scenario. She doesn’t utilize background, inking and even that much action lines in her design. The Shouwa aspect isn’t really that prominent, and I’m really curious how she delivered that sentiment along. Design wise, it’s really not that impressive but I am strangely attracted to the way she minimizes the presence of the characters. It’s a light on your feet kind of storytelling in yaoi where it suddenly gets heavy when the two characters starts f*cking each other silly. I have to applaud Studio Deen for really making the anime a lot more presentable. They seem to understand Haruko’s vision and they did a more enthusiastic representation of the original source. They also improved on the character design by putting in more details in Haruko’s minimalist approach. It actually makes her design a lot more interesting since the visual experience is the most important factor of the anime. I’ll give points on proportion though. A yaoi mangaka must now how to draw a naked body, and she really knows how to capture an alluring character in their birthday suit. I’m gonna shut up now, because I think I’m veering off topic. I never would’ve thought yaoi would come up when I would review this anime.

Animation is really the one thing that makes the experience one of a kind. For a dialogue heavy anime, the director knows how to make each scene interesting. I love his wide shots of capturing the entire room, because it has a subtle stage-like presence to it. They often end with the characters posing for a few seconds, while the music would die down and move onto the next scene. The camera angle is very much alive as it makes every boring scene interesting. It has close ups, constant angle shifts and strange transitions emphasizing on action. This approach to the scenes makes every single moment really special, and the director’s smart camera work does amazing things for the rakugo performances. I was utterly captivated when Yotarou delivered his first rakugo performance. It’s more than ten minutes, and it’s just one character talking. The camera constantly shifts though. It features the performer on stage, close-up of their faces, a shot of the audience reacting to the story and even shifts towards the hands holding the fan or the feet moving about. Mamoru really had a vision on how to deliver the anime, and it is outstanding. The story might be confusing at first, but visual experience is something that brings you back to the show. It’s an immersive kind of directing that I really admire, because he creates a wonderful atmosphere in the anime that even the manga can’t really capture that vividly.

I also love the voice acting in the anime. In the anime, the rakugo performances are as close to an actual performance as possible and the voice work really made the difference. The constant shift in their tone, the pace of their storytelling and the way they present their rakugo overall is really captivating to listen to. Each character has a different way of delivering a rakugo performance, and the small details that make them unique are entirely in how the voice actors portrayed their characters. It really comes to a point where the anime’s story just stops and it’s asking the audience to enjoy a rakugo performance in its most beautiful form. It’s an amazing part of the anime, and the voice acting really made it a unique anime experience.

The anime’s OP is “Usurai Shinjuu by Megumi Hayashibara. This is a really wonderful song about a woman begging for her lover to love her back. It captures the mature aura of the show, and it also tells the interesting relationship between Miyokichi and Kikuhiko. The way Megumi sings it is really sultry as well, so you’re really just hypnotized by how seductive her voice is. I can’t hear the lyrics well tohugh, because it’s drowned out by the bass and the other instrumentals. I think it’s on purpose because this kind of song is like an old style as well. I’m not really sure what it’s called though, but it’s like a Japanese style jazz. I am genuinely surprised to see Megumi Hayashibara doing voice work again. She is like the KanaHana or the Yui Horie of her time voicing more than a hundred anime characters that I personally grew up with. My favorite is Ranma from Ranma ½, and she is like a voice actress goddess now. It’s a nice novelty to see her voice Miyokichi in this anime. Anyways, the OP sequence features a rakugo performer on stage and a cryptic montage about the story of the anime. It doesn’t really make a bunch of sense unless you’ve seen the entire show yourself, but it does add a mysterious allure to the OP song that I absolutely love. The anime’s ED is “Kawa, Taredoki” by Kana Shibue. This is just a trumpet solo, and it is pretty stunning. It’s accompanied by the ED sequence of the Shouwa Genroku era featured with people enjoying a rakugo performance. It’s a really cool ED with both the song and the sequence working hand in hand to deliver a nostalgic and really special experience for the audience.

Overall Score

8/10 “It’s visual storytelling at its finest featuring Josei at its finest as well.”

The story isn’t that impressive but there’s a lot more to enjoy here. The characters are wonderfully developed, the art of rakugo is faithfully presented, and the Shouwa era is told in a very vivid and nostalgic fashion. It’s a different kind of anime, and I’m sure people will love just how unique this show is. If you like strong Josei anime with real mature materials then you’ll like this one. If you like slow paced stories with a strong pay off at the end, then you’ll enjoy this anime. It’s tediously slow but I think the show really got good at the last three episodes, and the buildup towards it certainly won’t disappoint. I do believe this isn’t for everyone, but I’m sure a lot of people will appreciate this anime as well.

Thoughts~

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