Every once in a while, I happen to watch an anime that completely blows me away. I would even go to say that this anime would enter my top 20 anime list, heck maybe even top 10. This anime not only has great writing, characters and presentation but is also so unique and exceptional in its execution that I know it’ll leave an impact on me for a very long time because the story it managed to tell.
And it just so happens that the anime in question: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, happens to revolve around the art or storytelling, or at the very least a certain form of storytelling.
Studio DEEN’s Rakugo Shinjuu is a historical drama that was adapted by the manga of the same name. Its 13- episode long first season which this review will cover, aired in the winter season of 2016, and its second season, Descending Stories is currently airing.
Rakugo is a Japanese form of verbal entertainment that could be compared to a one man play. In Rakugo, a lone storyteller must recite a usually comedic story, using only their voice and a few props all while staying in a sitting position. It’s a very strict and complicated art form that requires plenty of memorization, precise comedic timing and knowing how to portray various characters.
Rakugo is also something Yotaro, a former gang- member and the show’s protagonist, is very passionate about. After being released from prison, Yotaro attempts and succeeds at becoming the apprentice of a veteran storyteller named Yakumo, who Yotaro became a fan off after seeing a performance of his in jail. Yotaro then starts living with Yakumo and Konatsu, the daughter of Yakumo’s dead friend Sukeroku, who was a rakugo genius.
Yotaro quickly becomes inspired by the storytelling style of Konatsu’s father, and his motivation inspires Yakumo to tell the two of them about his long and complicated relationship with sukeroku.
Apart from the first and final episodes, the first season of Rakugo Shinjuu mostly takes place in the past and tells of Yakumo (who was then called Kikuhiko) and Sukeroko’s relationship over the years. I was a little disappointed in the beginning, from the show’s choice to do so, because I found Yotaro’s venturing into the rakugo world very entertaining, thanks to his extremely compelling personality and interactions with the other characters.
But that disappointment was only temporary because the story Kikuhiko and Sukeroku had to tell was one of the best character dramas I have ever seen, AND not just in anime.
Kikuhiko and Sukeroku are characters who couldn’t be any more different than each other and yet are still very endaring and very complex. Kikuhiko is a reclusive yet well-mannered introvert who comes to master the conservative technique of Rakugo. Sukeroku on the other hand, is a big hearted yet brash extrovert who came to develop a unique style of the craft that pushes it forward.
The interactions between the two men were always very entertaining because of how well their personalities complimented each other and how witty their dialogue was.
This well-handled characterization isn’t limited to the its main leads, but also the supporting cast. They all felt like a life and conflicts of their own and their motivations were understandable. The show also handles a love triangle between the two protaginists and a geisha, and it’s COMPLETELY ridden of the bullshit that usually accompanies this accursed trope.
In addition, the show never picks a side when it comes to the approaches of the two storytellers. It could’ve been much for the writers to say Sukeroku’s Innovativeness was superior to Kikuhiko’s method or vice versa but instead it demonstrates the fact that both methods are necessary in order the preserve rakugo, or any type or art form in a constantly changing world.
This maturity and realism the show encompasses also shows up in the way the narrative is told. Seeing the relationship between Kikuhiko and Sukeroku, begin, blossom and eventually decay was an emotional roller coaster ride and the drama wasn’t over the top but still very profound.
Rakugo shinjuu’s animation doesn’t have any exceptional or mind blowing sakuga because of the shows nature. Its very dialogue driven, so most of the animation in the show is very limited. But these scenes still feel interesting to watch thanks to the characters’ subtle and realistic body language as well as the great editing.
These two strengths are shown the best in the rakugo performances.While the show didn’t make me fall in love with the craft of rakugo, it made me understand its fundamentals thanks to the body language and expressions of the different performers, reactions from the audience and the superb voice acting. And a lot the rakugo performances also help to develop different characters, and sometimes even foreshadow key events of the story and that’s just awesome.
The soundtrack of the show also managed to make it even more immersive. It’s mixture of Japanese folk and Jazz really suited this show’s nature even though there weren’t a lot of pieces I would listen to on an individual level.
And then there’s the opening song which is one I rarely skipped. The singer’s hypnotic voice that was accompanied by the jazzy music was great to and the actual lyrics to the song fit the anime so well its was masterful. On the other hand, the visuals of the OP were standard but they still managed to spice in some great foreshadowing and references towards the show.
For all the praise that I have been giving Rakugo Shinjuu, I can still see why this show isn’t for everyone. Although the rakugo scenes are well directed I bet they’d alienate and even bore a fair share of western anime watchers. And even with the exclusion of the rakugo this show is very dialogue heavy and its drama is much less downplayed than what is typically seen in a lot of anime. I can totally understand why this show wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea
I still highly recommend this show. It has some of the most compelling characters and emotional scenes I have seen in a while and even though it revolves around a very foreign art form, the themes and ideas it explores by utilizing it are universal.
The craft of rakugo may be slowly dying out, but this anime still manages to convey a story for the ages even in its first season!
Reccomendation Level: 5/5