Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju (Crunchyroll) is the second most impressive new anime of this season, after ERASED. Both are serious dramas but with very different tones. ERASED begins on such a dark tragic note that it pretty much has to have a happy ending. Showa-Shinju has a much more whimsical tone, but we can be pretty sure that we are going to see some tragic events.
The story revolves around the Japanese art of Rakugo (traditional storytelling.) The artist, or rakugoka, sits on a bare stage and acts out the parts of all the characters in the story while remaining seated, using only a fan and a small cloth as props. The stories are long and whimsical and often somewhat bawdy.
At the beginning of our story, in the 1960s, a young man gets out of prison and takes it into his head to become the apprentice of the world’s greatest rakogoka, a man called Kikuhiko Yakumo. (“Kikuhiko” is his stage name and “Yakumo” is a title, which he is the eighth to hold. He is usually addressed as “Yakumo,” but I will refer to him as “Kikuhiko” to avoid confusion.)
Our hero goes to the theater and accosts a man cleaning a car outside, demanding to know how to meet the great artist. (This guy turns out to be Matsuda, Kikuhiko’s faithful servant.
Matsuda tries to discourage him, saying that the Yukumo is unavailable and in any case would never take on an apprentice.
At this point Kikuhiko appears. He is a cantankerous older man with a cold manner who walks with a cane. He uses male speech with some definite feminine overtones, which I take to mean either that he is gay or that years of voicing female parts have affected his speech.
Our “hero” begs Kikuhiko to accept his as his apprentice. Finally Kikuhiko grudgingly agrees, giving him the name Yotarou (“fool”.)
When they return to Kikuhiko’s house they are greeted by a young woman who is obviously not pleased about Kikuhiko bringing another person into the household. This is Konatsu. She is Kikuhiko’s ward, or at least he invited her to live with him after her parents were killed.
She is the daughter of Sukeroku, a former colleague and close friend of Kikuhiko. He was quite popular 20 years ago. The circumstances of his death are somewhat obscure. At one point Konatsu angrily accuses Kikuhiko of killing him.
Konatsu has a huge collection of records and films of her father’s performances and she studies them obsessively. She would love to perform Rakugo herself but feels it is impossible.
There was no law in the 1960s that said a woman could not perform Rakugo, but Rakugo, like most traditional Japanese art forms, is hidebound and slow to change. The traditional stories were all in the masculine dialect. A woman who performed them in male speech would sound ludicrous to the audience. On the other hand, if she recast them in female speech, then they wouldn’t be traditional, would they?
Today some women have won acceptance as rakugoka but they remain a small minority in a male-dominated craft.
Since Kikuhiko has little interest in teaching most of what Yotarou learns is from Konatsu.
At the end of the first episode, after an evening filled with emotional conflict, Kikuhiko agrees to teach Yotarou more seriously. He also agrees to tell Yotarou and Konatsu the full story of his relationship with Sukeroku since that is the key to his dream of restoring the art of Rakugo to its former glory.
Thus begins an extended flashback sequence that will occupy the next few episodes.
The story begins back in the early 1930s. Kikuhiko, then known as Bon, was the son of a geisha and had been studying traditional music and dance. A leg injury that would leave him dependent on a cane for the rest of his life put an end to that career before it had even begun.
His mother decided that he should become a rakugoka and arranged to apprentice him to the great master Yuurakutei Yakumo (the seventh to hold that title.)
On the way to his house they are accosted by a dirty little street urchin named Shin who has been sneaking into Rakugo performances and wants to become a rakugoka himself.
While Yuurakutei and Bon are sizing each other up Shin bursts in and demands to be accepted as an apprentice as well.
Surprisingly Yuurakutei sees promise in the uncouth little boy and agrees to take both of them on. He gives them the stage names Kikuhiko and Hatsutarou. (As his apprentices they will perform as “Yuurakutei Kikuhiko” and “Yuurakutei Hatsutarou.”)
Hatsutarou proves to have a natural gift for the art. The audiences are amused by his easygoing, unpretentious and often uncouth style.
Though he is a more serious student Kikuhiko has much more difficulty. His stiff and formal delivery does not engage the audiences.
By 1941 times had become hard for the art of Rakugo. Wartime privation (and the fact that the military government had banned all but the cleanest and most innocuous stories) caused the audience to disappear.
Yuurakutei decides to take a job entertaining the troops in Manchuria. He takes Shin with him, but he sends his wife to the relative safety of the countryside and orders Bon to go with her.
After the war they all make their way back to what is left of Tokyo and start the difficult task of rebuilding the art of Rakugo. Bon and Shin (who has changed his stage name to “Sukeroku”) are now considered futatsume or journeymen performers. They live together in a small apartment. They bicker constantly since their temperaments are so different.
At this point the last of the major characters finally shows up. She is Miyukichi, a young woman who met Yuurakutei in Manchuria and (now being a refugee after the expulsion of the Japanese from their mainland colonies) has followed him to Tokyo. (It is implied that she and Yuurakutei had an illicit affair.)
Yuurakutei gets her a job as a “geisha.” She would not, of course, be accepted as a real geisha which takes many years of training. Presumably she is one of the fake geishas who used to entertain American troops who couldn’t tell the difference.
We must keep in mind that Kikuhiko is telling this story to Yotarou and Konatsu and he has reason to be discreet.
Yuurakutei encourages Miyokichi to try to seduce Kikuhiko, hoping that an affair with her will loosen him up. Kikuhiko resists her charms but agrees to tutor her in traditional music and dance.
This will have to be a sufficient introduction since this is all I know so far.
I do want to note that the production values in this anime are surprisingly good. It’s surprising because this is from Studio DEEN, a studio I associate with cheap crappy animation. In this case they clearly regard this as a prestige show and are willing to pay for high-quality animation and artwork.