Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju

In pre-war Tokyo, Kikuhiko is born in a brothel and trained to be a dancer to entertain clients. However, when a leg injury puts an end to his career, he is effectively abandoned by being apprenticed to Yakumo Yurakutei VII, a famous rakugo performer. Rakugo is a form of traditional Japanese storytelling, in which a single performer, without the aid of props or effects, entertains their audience through sheer storytelling skill. Kikuhiko has no interest in rakugo; however, when he encounters the charismatic and carefree Hatsutaro, he is filled with the desire to become a rakugo master and achieve fame. Hatsutaro cares nothing for the traditions and formalities of rakugo; he simply loves the artform and entertaining people. Despite his skill, his disdain for the governing protocols puts him offside with the elders and masters who could determine his future in rakugo. Kikuhiko, despite being less talented than Hatsutaro, has a dignity of bearing that endears him to traditionalists; and through sheer, dogged determination, he develops a storytelling style that wins him a wide audience. Together, Kikuhiko and Hatsutaro grow up under Yakumo’s tutelage, their different styles and personalities creating tensions between them and yet binding them together in a symbiotic relationship that benefits their respective styles as rakugo artists. Together, they vow to help rakugo recover from its post-war slump in popularity by both preserving its traditions and re-creating it anew. But when the enigmatic and fey Miyokichi enters their lives, this sets up a dynamic that not only threatens their relationship, but the very future of rakugo itself…

Based on the critically acclaimed and commercially successful manga by Haruko Kumota, “Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju(“Flourishing Showa – Rakugo Double Suicide”) was produced by Studio Deen and aired on Japanese television across two seasons in 2015 and 2017.  Beautifully animated in a style that combines hand-drawn and computer-generated techniques with a vivid colour palette, “Showa” not only provides a glimpse into life in Japan before and immediately after WWII, but also explores the traditions, shortcomings, and living possibilities of an ancient artform that, despite all the odds against it, continues to survive into modernity. In doing so, we are treated to a subtle and yet penetrating observation of Japanese society itself, and the tension between its culturally ingrained protocols and constraints on the one hand, and the ambitions and discontents of individuals and whole generations on the other. The drama surrounding the main characters is thus the story of modern Japan itself, as it seeks to “find its own voice” amid the pull of tradition and social convention over against the allure of external (especially Western) assumptions and norms. Worth watching for the first season’s haunting and dreamlike end credits music alone, “Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is both astute social history and observation, as well as a compellingly narrated and at times moving (and even tragic) drama whose themes, despite the specificity of their context, are universal in their relevance.

Text ©Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.