I am sitting comfortably on my favorite couch, having just poured a hot cup of instant coffee (I broke the jug to my cafetiera – don’t judge), and listening to an instrumental piano version of Imawa no Shinigami (the opening theme). I could have cried a lot on Episode 11 of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. When it comes to death, you couldn’t get a better representation than this.
Episode 11 was a tribute. A eulogy to the person around whom everything circled, not because of his importance or his superiority to the rest of the characters, but instead because the series successfully focused on a sun so that the rest of the planets could orbit freely. But every journey must come to an end. At the happiest moment of his life, Yakumo left this world a man fulfilled. Every single image, every word uttered by him and the faces that his psyche decided to take, was directly linked to his past. This is, of course, not the only interpretation. Many would argue that since Matsuda appeared in the afterlife, this was the actual thing. Judging from how heavily the series relied on metaphor, I have to disagree with that assumption. In my eyes, this were the last moments of his conscious mind, a short parabolic trip to his past, to the people he loved most of all, and to his final journey to the place of eternal rakugo. This interpretation would explain why he didn’t see Yotarou in his dream, at least not directly. And it would also explain why he went through all stages of his life, from childhood to old age. Not to mention all the imagery, from the fans to the omikuji on the trees and from everyone’s quotes to atoning for past regrets. This was a man reliving his life in a his own meta-rakugo story (since there was rakugo inside the rakugo).
Being human means not getting the things the way you wanted
This episode was one beautiful scene after the other. A masterful direction that portrayed the end of a life that lived to the fullest. The journey of a flawed man who dedicated his life to an art, a woman, and a brother.
You loved rakugo and you loved people. You lived a full life.
Reunion: This was the sweetest reunion ever. No grudges can be held in the afterlife. No sad feelings and no regrets. No death and no harm. This was a reunion that ended with a promise: This is our afterlife and we are going to spend it together. Pinky promise.
We were all wrong, weren’t we?
Themes & Trivia
Sanzu River: The River of Three Crossings is the Japanese equivalent to the Greek River Styx. Similar to the Greek mythology, the Buddhist tradition believes that the dead must cross the river to go to the afterlife. They must also pay for the ride, so in Japanese funerals, six coins are placed in the casket with the dead. The Sanzu River is popularly believed to be located in Mount Osore, a suitably desolate and remote part of Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan.
Oiran: I am sure that if you are not proficient in Japanese history (I am not) you were puzzled when Sukeroku and Yakumo called the geisha as oiran. Well, oiran were indeed courtesans in Japan. They were a type of yūjo, a ‘woman of pleasure’ or prostitute. They were not on the lowest level of prostitution as they were also entertainers, and many became celebrities in their districts. Due to their distinct fashion and art, some of their traditions are still preserved today. So, what’s the difference to a geisha? An oiran is a professional prostitute who is also an entertainer, while a geisha is a professional entertainer who sometimes slept with her clients. A geisha is a trained entertainer in song, dance, and instrument. Their primary role was to entertain guests. There were also male geisha during the Edo period, and many chose to sleep with clients they liked, or clients who could ensure their retirement.
Firefly: Fireflies, known as hotaku in Japanese, play an important role in Japanese imagery. As seen in the popular 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka) fireflies are thought to be the form soldiers take after they fall in battle, of innocent people who die during the war, and in general a metaphor about souls.
Yubukiri: Here is something interesting: Did you know that the pinky swear originated in Japan? At least, so they presume. It’s called yubikiri and it means ‘finger cut-off.’ There is a vow that comes with the promise that goes like this:
Yubikiri genman uso tsuitara hari senbon nomasu
It means: ‘Finger cut-off, ten thousand fist-punchings, whoever lies has to swallow thousand needles.’ There is a belief in Japan that soulmates are connected by a red string of fate attached to their fingers. That gives the connection between Yakumo and Sureroku an extra layer of meaning.
Somehow it feels like this was the last episode. I know that we still have one to go, and that we will finally get to meet the two youngest members of the Yakumo household. I can’t wait because I feel that Shin-chan’s resemblance to a certain someone was not drawn that way by mistake. I have a feeling (backed up by the insistence of friends who have been spoilt and friends who have read the manga) that the last episode is going to be bittersweet.
Sometimes I share Christina’s (fellow writer here on MANGA.TOKYO) opinion on the state of anime lately: wherever you turn there seems to be either a fan-servicy romance or a kid’s show with super-powered heroes. There is nothing wrong with that; after all anime is an industry that fulfills a need. But there is a minority that wants a small portion of the anime pie to be thoughtful, well-written titles like Onihei, 3-gatsu no Lion, and of course Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. Do we ask too much? I hope not.