Hidekatsu ShibataMegumi HayashibaraKouichi YamaderaChafurin
Descending Stories: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu: Season 1
Episode 1 also reviewed here: Anime 1st episodes 2016: D
Medium: TV, series
Year: 2016
Director: Mamoru Hatakeyama
Writer: Jun Kumagai
Original creator: Haruko Kumota
Actor: Akira Ishida, Atsushi Ono, Chafurin, Eri Saito, Fuyuka Oura, Genki Yoshimoto, Go Shinomiya, Hidekatsu Shibata, Hiroki Gotou, Hiroshi Iwasaki, Hiroshi Yanaka, Kappei Yamaguchi, Koharu Tatekawa, Koji Yusa, Kouichi Yamadera, Maki Kobayashi, Marie Miyake, Masaaki Yano, Matsuri Mizuguchi, Megumi Hayashibara, Miki Itou, Nobutoshi Canna, Osamu Saka, Ryohei Kimura, Sanae Kobayashi, Shigeru Ushiyama, Shinpei Hayashiya, Shinya Hamazoe, Shou Sudou, Takashi Matsuyama, Tomokazu Seki, Tomomi Isomura, Tsuguo Mogami, Yasuyuki Kase, Yu Kobayashi, Yui Itou, Yuki Nakagawa, Yuko Kobayashi
Keywords: anime, historical
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Format: 13 episodes, with the first one being double-length
Url: http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/encyclopedia/anime.php?id=16614
Website category: Anime 2016
Review date: 12 July 2017
Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
I'll explain the title.
"SHOUWA" is an era of Japanese history. These are named after emperors, with this unusually long one being Hirohito's (1926-1989).
"GENROKU" is a completely different era (1688-1704), but "Shouwa genroku" means the mid-Shouwa period of the 1960s and early 1970s. This was a pretty good time for Japan, which was at peace and growing very fast economically.
"RAKUGO" is what this series is all about. It's set in the world of professional rakugo performers. It's a one-man show. A performer will sit on stage and tell a story, most of which is dialogue. Characters must be given distinctive voices, mannerisms and facial expressions, but the performer will never stand up and the only props he can use are a towel and a small paper fan. (Yes, "he". Rakugo performers have traditionally been male and even today there aren't many female ones, although that said there's a 2012 anime called Joshirakugo about rakugo-performing girls.)
It's also funny, or at least it usually is. Rakugo is basically comedy, but there are darker rakugo stories.
"SHINJUU" means "double suicide" or "lovers' suicide", just to stop you feeling too comfortable about this anime.
It's a gentle, warm tragedy, or at least it is so far. (There's a second season, which I'll be watching next.) It's also two stories in one. The 1970s one is basically a framing story. An ex-con called Kyoji has just got out of prison and he's determined to learn rakugo from the head of the Japanese Rakugo Association. The guy's name is Eighth Generation Yakumo Yurakutei and he's a dried-up old stick with about as much sentiment as a deep freeze... but to everyone's surprise he says "yes" to Kyoji and takes him home.
A girl lives there. Her name's Konatsu and her parents are dead.
That's the framing story. It's the double-length ep.1, the second half of ep.13 and I'd guess probably also Season 2. The rest of the show is about how Yakumo Yurakutei got that way. At the start of ep.2, he's an unnamed little boy who'll get called "Bon", "Kiku" and "Kikuhiko". He's being sent to learn rakugo in the 1930s. His geisha mother wants him to learn a profession, since a man can't live off geisha skills like traditional music and dancing, even though as it happens Kiku's quite good at them. (He could have been a dancer, but he's hurt his leg and will walk with a stick for the rest of his life.) Kiku is sensitive, thin-eyed and overly self-controlled. He's usually suppressing his feelings and trying to do what he thinks is expected, which will cause immense problems later on.
His other half is another nameless boy, who'll get called "Shin", "Hatsutaro" and "Sukeroku". (I'll call him the latter.) Unlike Kiku, Sukeroku loves rakugo and shows up unasked to beg to be made a disciple. Kiku has no innate instincts for entertaining an audience, but Sukeroku's a natural. He's bawdy. He tells his stories like a runaway train, full of audience-pleasing energy. He'll grow up into a dissolute boozer and womaniser who's always mooching off Kiku, but he's also the kindest, warmest soul you could meet.
Those two are the main characters and they're like a married couple. However there will also be a girl. She goes under the name Miyokichi and she's going to have the painfully bad luck of being drawn to Kiku.
It's very good. It's a quiet, mature story. (It's adapted from a josei manga, i.e. for an adult female audience.) The tragic elements are watchable because we know they're coming, thanks to the framing story. There's also plenty of light here too, partly thanks to the rakugo. It's easy to find yourself sucked into this long-gone sepia era and its culturally specific theatrical world. You'll follow and care about how it evolves over time, suffering under pre-war censorship and then booming again once the war's over and people just want to laugh. Television and the modern world send it into decline, though.
Also, importantly, the rakugo is funny. It's not roar-aloud funny, but there's a charm and a deftness in the telling of these rambling old stories. That's both from the actors and from the animation, since the director (Mamoru Hatakeyama) is doing outstandingly well at bringing rakugo to life. Everyone's different and you can see the subtle differences between all their styles. It'll never occur to you that it might have been challenging to make an animated show about a relatively obscure theatrical form that only has one permanently seated actor with almost no props on a bare stage. If you had to pick one subject that you'd think would be unsuited to animation, you might choose rakugo... but the director trumps any such pessimism.
I admire this show. It took me a couple of episodes to get into it, but ep.3 was a more engaging experience and after that I had no problems at all. It's intelligent and subtle. Getting people to watch this show might be a challenge, given the narrow audience appeal in its premise, but those who stick with it will be rewarded.