Have you ever engaged in conversation with people who really love what they do for a living? They’re radiant, passionate, outright crazy. Perhaps ‘doing what you love’ is one of the most used clichés in the history of good-willed (and often unsolicited) advice, but there is a truth in its simplicity that Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu explored in Episode 4.
Set roughly 5 years after the last episode, the episode kicks off with the protagonist of Episode 4: little Shin-bo. Yotaro and Konatsu’s son is as charismatic as his father and as stubborn as his mother. Genetics is to blame for a lot of things, but clearly this kid is not his real father’s son, but instead he is as charming as the kind man who raised him. A man who managed to build on his art and enjoy some momentary success.
It’s the mid-90s and Japanese television is at its best. Yotaro is trying to balance his television performances with his theater appearances, since the theater is going through an unrepresented period of fully-booked nights. Rakugo, one of the two most traditional stand-up comedy forms of Japanese storytelling (the other being manzai, the one Yotaro jokes to Konatsu about) is experiencing a popularity boom that makes Yakumo doubtful:
Popularity is something that can come overnight, and a fall just as quickly
While that scene inside the car is important for its own reasons (part of the plot is the creation of new rakugo stories) its significance can only be spotted in relation to the rest of the episode. The reason that Yakumo doesn’t want new stories to be created is part because he believes that ‘rakugo is dead.’ We already know that his reasons for believing that are mostly egotistical and not based on rational thought, and that’s partly why sensei, a turned-down disciple who turned into a writer, wants to create rakugo stories for a new age and a new audience. He wants to create the classics of tomorrow. His rationale is sound: ‘Unease is the seed of creativity’ he says, only to continue with an explanation of the nature of a classic, and the conclusion that all classics were once contemporary. Stories change. People change. And if rakugo wants to survive, it must change as well.
That new audience is indirectly represented by little Shin-bo’s kindergarten. Yotaro has been successful in reciting rakugo for children programs, and one of the most melodic stories, Jugemu, is extremely popular. When Yotaro gets an invitation from Shin-bo’s kindergarten to perform for them, he takes the chance to give to his wife the opportunity she has been secretly desiring from when she was a little girl listening to her father reciting the story: the opportunity to perform. Konatsu is the daughter and wife of Sukeroku, and the disciple of Yakumo. She was raised in rakugo. If anyone deserves a chance at performing is her. She delivers an outstanding performance, like she’d been doing this for years, and in one sense she had.
People are always happiest doing what they love for a living
Shin-bo: The little rascal was definitely the star of this episode. He is the future of rakugo and I’m certain that he will play a very important role in the following episodes. He has already demonstrated his ability to memorize stories, a trait that he has inherited from his mother’s side and cultivated being raised in a house that breaths rakugo. This is a child, after all, that goes to sleep listening to rakugo stories. Bonus: Yakumo really loves the little guy.
Always remember your manners.
Themes & Trivia
Manzai: The art of manzai traces its origins back to the Heian period. During the Edo and Meiji periods, rakugo was still the most popular form of entertainment, but manzai had already started reforming in a style that would later prove successful all over Japan. Manzai and rakugo are the two most traditional Japanese styles of stand-up comedy, the main difference of manzai being that it usually involves two performers (manzaishi), a straight man (tsukkomi) and a funny man (boke), trading jokes at great speed.
It would have been a shame if a story about stories failed to deliver on its narrative. Episode 4 of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu was a nice and emotional interlude that set the tone for the rest of the season. Not that the series needed any tone set; the concept was not in any way novel, the joy of doing what you love and the satisfaction you get from it, but the way it engaged Konatsu and the kindergarten was fresh and sentimental. The purpose of this episode was to introduce us to little Shin-bo and the dynamics of the family 5-6 years after the last episode. So I guess these are the mid-90s and I am somewhere in my room playing my Super Nintendo unaware that rakugo even exists.
Kudos to Shibue Kana and his sound team for keeping up the realistic sound effects that have characterized the series since the beginning. The kindergarten song was amazing, and the way that the rumbling and the giggling never ceased, but only when Konatsu started the story, were indicative of a true kindergarten. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu may be an animation, but it prides in its steady foot on reality.
Isn’t Rakugo fun?
We’re heading for some serious drama in the next episode. Yakumo is going to be haunted by his past, and it’s possible that Sukeroku (the past Sukeroku) wants to have a few words with him. If he wants to let rakugo die, then maybe both the living and the dead will have to take action in keeping the art alive.