Today we look at Studio Deen’s surprise masterwork, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu.
There are an endless number of forms of entertainment to be found in this world, from stage plays to big budget movies to indie webcomics.
Each one has its own distinct feel and set of expectations, and even then these can fluctuate from project to project. Today, however, I want to draw attention to an anime that portrays a type of entertainment almost entirely unknown to a Western audience, yet has been thriving for centuries in Japan.
Rakugo — an ancient Japanese storytelling tradition and one of the most important Japanese styles of performance art.
In our story, we follow characters who have built their lives around rakugo, and we see how it affects them for both good and for bad, all as the social and political landscape of Japan changes across the pre, wartime, and post-WWII eras.
The story begins with Yotarou, an ex-convict looking to envelop himself in rakugo after seeing a rakugo master, Yakumo, perform for him while in jail. However, the first episode, while extremely gratifying in its execution of story and characters, serves only as a framework for the rest of the season, as it transitions into a flashback sequence for almost the entire runtime, as we following Yakumo and his fellow rakugo apprentice, Sukeroku, as they strive to find their voice in this medium that they’ve dedicated their lives to.
One of the things that might turn off prospective viewers before even watching this show is that they have no idea what rakugo is and wouldn’t care to find out, to which I say that there is absolutely no problem there.
This unique art style of solo storytelling is presented so clearly and explicitly through the countless performances in the show that you don’t even need someone to explain what it is in order for you to get the gist of how it works. On top of that, the story follows characters that are learning rakugo, so we get to join them as they surround themselves not just with the proper rakugo techniques, but also with the formalities and behind-the-scenes social norms that accompany this art form.
There are also quite a few themes that bind this otherwise unknown art form to ideas that we are much more familiar with.
Throughout the series, there is a very noticeable fear that rakugo is dying out as television and other forms of entertainment begin to emerge, and watching these characters struggle and worry over their precious art dying out is rather captivating, even though we already know from the framework narrative, as well as real life, that rakugo is still around. Despite that, you can definitely feel the urgency that these characters feel in how they have to perform as well as possible in order to keep their audiences’ attentions.
What really struck me about this anime though is that it very rarely has any anime tropes in it.
Even on a visual level, the series hardly ever descends into the stereotypical gags or comedic progressions that are so markedly anime in style. Because of this, the show is allowed to present itself as intensely formal and serious, allowing us to get seriously invested in the characters. When you cut all the fluff and “traditional” tropes that you think you need to have in an anime in order for it to succeed, it surprisingly manages to become even greater than its competition because it actually takes itself and its characters seriously.
As for those characters, pretty much all of them have excessively detailed and well-planned out character arcs that got me extremely invested in their struggles.
Yakumo (formerly Kikuhiko before inheriting the Yakumo name), surprisingly, doesn’t seem very invested in rakugo at first, as he is more so pushed into this art on account of his injured leg keeping him out of his former life in dance. For at least half the series, we watch him struggle with finding purpose in his life and in his art, and hitting that moment where everything finally becomes clear for him has a hugely cathartic payoff.
In contrast, his fellow apprentice and foil, Sukeroku, seems to take on the more lackadaisical and laid-back character archetype we’re used to seeing, with his semi-informal appearance and performance style ruffling the feathers of the higher-ups in the rakugo world and getting on Kikuhiko’s nerves quite often, as he is much more of a “prim and proper” type. It’s a combination we’ve seen a thousand times, yet still feels fresh because these characters feel so real and engaging. I really did care about Sukeroku struggling to have his own style be accepted by his peers, not because of a “fight the system” drive that other shows like this try so often to instill in us, but because Sukeroku is a very sympathetic character and I wanted to see whether he would succeed or not, even though the present-day narrative shown in episode 1 that frames their whole back story already reveals the end result of his struggles. These characters are so powerful and alluring that a lot of the time I would completely forget that it’s a framework narrative.
The supporting cast is just as strong as the main two characters as well.
Kikuhiko and Sukeroku’s master, the former Yakumo, feels very much like the teachers that we’ve seen so often in our own lives and doesn’t feel like the often exaggerated teacher archetype we see in other anime. Miyokichi, the mysterious geisha woman, added a great deal of tension between Kikuhiko and the rest of the people around him while also having her own standalone arc, albeit fairly brief. Even the characters we are introduced to in the present-day narrative like Yotarou are very compelling because of just how deeply they care about their craft and its performance.
The animation, surprisingly, is incredibly solid.
As I mentioned in my review of KonoSuba, Studio Deen has a reputation for making really terrible-looking anime like Pupa and the original Fate/Stay Night. Despite that, Shouwa Genroku has some of the most impressive animation and scene direction this season. Solid character designs, striking visual cues, and detailed backdrops make this series very pleasing to look at. That’s not to say that the animation is perfect though, as there are occasionally a few slip-ups here and there, especially with some of the smoke and incense effects that look very out of place.
The soundtrack, however, definitely makes up for these faults.
The big band style orchestrations combined with traditional Japanese instrumentation creates a blending of classic Japan and the more Americanizing influence that was rapidly taking over during the post-war era, and it fits almost perfectly with every scene.
Shouwa Genroku started off this season with almost zero attention, as more popular titles like Erased and Myriad Colors Phantom World were dominating the charts. Yet, as the season went on, it finally started getting the attention it very much deserved, and I highly recommend it not just to anime fans, but to those looking for a solid piece of dramatic fiction that truly loves its own art.
Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is available for streaming on Crunchyroll.
Final Score: 9/10