After his release from prison Yotarou (Seki, Tomokazu) seeks an apprenticeship in Rakugo from Yuurakutei Yakumo (Ishida, Akira), a renowned master of the art who was known as Kikuhiko in his earlier years. After some coercing the elderly master accepts him as his first pupil and through Yotarou’s personality and the style of his developing Rakugo, Kikuhiko is reminded of somebody from his past. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is the story of Kikuhiko’s upbringing alongside his friend and fellow apprentice Sukeroku (Yamadera, Kouichi) and how their relationship with Rakugo and each other shaped their lives.
Where better a place to start discussing Rakugo Shinjuu than with its phenomenal main characters alongside their almost equally incredible supporting cast. Due to the overall strength of the show it is hard to say whether or not its characters are its greatest accomplishment however I think it is fair to say they are its most integral element. The show hosts a great many carefully developed personalities even among its less important cast members and the way it weaves complicated sentiments and emotions together is not only believable but genius. What at first manifests as something as simple as animosity quickly transforms into a mixture of respect and admiration all the while mingling with biting jealousy – the way in which Rakugo Shinjuu‘s characters behave is intricate and conflicting and subsequently are the characters themselves.
The protagonist of the show, though he does not truly appear until the second episode, is Kikuhiko who is a wonderfully compelling character. While at first he dislikes Rakugo because his tutelage under the 7th-generation Yakumo master represented the end of his previous desire to be a dancer, he steadily grows to enjoy performing it over time. He attempts to find his own voice within the medium, competes for recognition and improvement against his friend Sukeroku, and at times feels like he is wasting his time entirely in Rakugo yet proceeds none the less in a manner than can only be described as extraordinary organic. Kikuhiko, along with the rest of the cast, is fantastically authentic as a character and watching them all play off one another is both immersive and entertaining. It is also worth noting that, while Ishida Akira is a voice acting legend by this point, I believe his performance in this role to be his best work by far. The subject matter of the show and its many Rakugo presentations require a very artful and diverse approach and he delivers an absolutely stunning performance.
Sukeroku is a similarly outstanding character who’s characterization further emphasizes the complexities at play within Rakugo Shinjuu‘s cast. Kikuhiko is introverted, self-conscious, and unsure of himself while Sukeroku appeares effortlessly talented yet wild and carefree almost to the point of his behavior becoming hazardous. The two men couldn’t be more different yet they find common ground time and time again not only through their shared love of Rakugo but in other aspects of their lives as well – their relationship is the dramatic meat of the show and it measures up to the emphasis placed upon it by the show in excess.
In the end, practically every notable character in Rakugo Shinjuu is memorable. Roles that may have been left undeveloped in other shows are explored excellently through the subtext of the show’s character interactions and dialogue rendering the entirety of the show’s cast meaningful and interesting rather than solely its powerhouse main characters. People are rarely black and white, they are conflicted and volatile – susceptible to changing in each mood and meeting and Rakugo Shinjuu illustrates this perfectly.
The name ‘Studio Deen’ over the years has effectively become synonymous with art and animation issues due to frequent quality drops and problematic adaptations throughout their history. That being said, I almost find their past missteps entirely forgivable in the face of Rakugo Shinjuu‘s incredible visual delivery. Not only is the art style crisp and consistent but it is particularly interesting because of its imaginative use of colors, expressions, and character motion. The aesthetic of the show is highly reminiscent of shows like Aoi Bungaku which is wonderful for establishing a very authentic-feeling setting.
At premise the idea of Rakugo presents more of a problem than anything else – the orator is practically immobile when telling their story and the length of many of the classic Rakugo narratives means that the situation will be prolonged for quite a while. How then do you make Rakugo visually compelling to watch beyond merely the character’s performance? Deen answers this question brilliantly in a number of ways, many of which showcasing the strength of the medium in regards to exhibiting these performances. The expression work for one fits very well with the idea of a single character portraying multiple roles within Rakugo – the shift in character expression is one of many telltale signs that the orator is switching between characters and the show’s diverse selection of expressions makes these portrayals all the more impressive.
The imagery of the show surrounding its Rakugo elevates its visuals to the next level. Using shot reverse shot of a singular character further illustrates their swapping of roles however this technique is used sparingly enough as not to become one-dimensional or corny. The close-up shots of the character’s expressions during the performance strike a great balance between the slew of differently personalities being performed and the actual mood of the performer. Seeing Kikuhiko and Sukeroku bleed through in their performances without dropping character is brilliantly balanced. Lastly, the show makes use of fictional imagery to accentuate the legitimacy of the performance. Light can be shone through a non-existant window when the character opens a door or peers outside and the environment surrounding the orator may change to different locations yet the performance remains cohesive. Rakugo Shinjuu goes beyond providing incredible visuals and tells the story in a way that could have only been done within the medium at hand.
The narrative of Rakugo Shinjuu is just as impressive as its characters and visuals and plays to its strengths by emphasizing its character drama. The pacing is slow yet never unexciting allowing for it to play out almost full Rakugo performances which are one of the show’s primary means of exhibiting character growth and change. The show itself is quite dramatic however the lighthearted subject matter and punchlines within Rakugo provide the show with excellent flexibility between the two moods.
Alongside presenting highly compelling character chemistry and development Rakugo Shinjuu asks provocative questions through its narrative. Is an art form something lofty and objective or is it something that should cater to the pleasure of the audience? Do you protect tradition or do you venture something new and perhaps save the very art form you practice? Must you practice something in its original form even until it dies away or should you break its conventions and bring to it new life? These queries and themes are explored at length through the interactions and ideologies the show’s characters providing offering an additional intellectual element to the show’s already ingenious design.
Initially I felt that the music of the show was merely a backdrop for the fantastic setting and scenes transpiring however as Rakugo Shinjuu progressed its importance and effectiveness became more evident. While at first unassuming, the soundtrack drums up the pace of each scene. The atmosphere, the mood, the character’s internal thoughts – everything. The relaxed, jazzy influence of the music fits well with the pacing of the show, quickening and swelling at moments of tension or severity to accentuate the attitude of the scene. It is used sparingly and never overwhelms the show’s visuals, providing a fantastic juxtaposition that underscores the importance of each development.
Rakugo Shinjuu is artistic, it is emotional, it is brilliant. Each component of its structure is as strong as the last and it tells a gripping story full of wonderfully written, complex characters set against incredible visuals. Though I made mention of Ishida Akira earlier, the show features a number of outstanding vocal performances as its subject matter lends itself very well to the exhibition of that talent.
I gave Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu a 10 because of its fantastic qualities across the board. Its characters were wonderfully realistic and compelling, the story being told was captivating, and the visual approach of the show was highly entertaining. While not without flaws, the countless successes it enjoys far outshine any of its missteps.
I would recommend Rakugo Shinjuu to anyone interested in character-dramas who aren’t turned off by methodical pacing. The comedy of the show comes secondary to the development of its characters and the drama of their interactions however the show does possess a certain carefree levity that might appeal to people looking for something relaxed yet upbeat.