I watched that one rakugo thing.
Kyouji, in prison after taking the blow for his yakuza senior, watches Yakumo, the “last grand master of Shouwa rakugo”, perform the “Shinigami” (Death) story. He’s drawn in by the old man’s dynamism. The master’s hands move like they’re possessed by the characters he’s playing; his eyes contort with such comic exaggeration that Kyouji can’t help but laugh. The ex-yakuza decides: once he gets out of prison, he’s going to learn rakugo; and from Yakumo himself.
That’s the premise Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu (lit. The Lover’s Suicide of Mid-Showa Rakugo) begins with. Currently, only the first OAD has been released, with a second coming in August, after which the TV anime series is set to begin. Shinichi Omata (alias Mamoru Hatakeyama) holds the directorial position for both works. It’ll be the third work of which he’s taken a directorship, after Rozen Maiden — Zurückspulen and Sankarea. From the first OAD alone, it looks promising.
Rakugo Shinjuu noticeably departs, both in aesthetic and narrative detail, from the material one might expect from a manga adaptation. Over the course of its forty-three minute running time, the narrative complexifies in dramatic bounds. Yakumo accepts Kyouji as his apprentice, granting him the nickname Youtarou (“dim-witted man”), only for the latter to find out that the master has no intention of passing on his craft; he plans instead on taking the art with him to the grave in a “lover’s suicide”. Konatsu, a young lady in Yakumo’s care after the death of her father—another rakugo performer—and who wants desperately to practice the male-dominated art, accuses Yakumo of “killing” her father. Youtarou and Konatsu form a teacher-student relationship as the latter reluctantly agrees to teach the apprentice what she learned from her father. And one of Youtarou’s old yakuza pals (the same one he took the blow for) comes around to try and rope him back into crime. Some number of developments later, the episode reaches its climax with Youtarou’s first successful performance: “Dekigokoro” (passing fancy).
It presents all of this with a kind of subdued, almost unnoticeable deliberateness. Shots rarely take on dramatic angles, the majority of them are medium shots with characters blocked into the center of the shot. Jarring contrasts, abstractions and juxtapositions are exclusively reserved for Yakumo’s performances, and even they’re rather tame. The OAD’s depiction of the rakugo stage is clean and symmetrical, free of any heavy shadows or major points of visual attention save for the actor.
But this unpretentiousness serves a purpose. It separates the world of the performance—characterized in Yakumo’s performances by stark contrasts, in the comic material by simple archetypes, and in other performances like these by simple lighting—from the messier real world, which is marked with heavy, dramatic shadows and high degrees of visual clutter.
Equally impressively, the camerawork accentuates both Youtarou’s and Yakumo’s performative strengths. When Youtarou tries to practice Yakumo’s “Shinigami” routine, Konatsu walks in and tells him, “The shinigami persona doesn’t fit you. That kind of dark Death personality only works because the old man does it.” (A statement which, satisfyingly, is also informed by Konatsu’s intense dislike of Yakumo.) Accordingly, Yakumo’s performance constantly draws attention to his frail frame, with his thin hands and aged, sexy eyes. The camera acts differently for Youtarou during his (twelve minute long!) “Dekigokoro” routine: his silly, expressive face is constantly in view, and as he warms up to his routine, the camera begins to take on more dynamic angles.
Thematically, perhaps it’s too early to speak. There are ideas, in their nascent stages, here and there. The influence of one’s life on their art—Youtarou picks the “Dekigokoro” story because it involves an ineffective thief, reminding him of his own time as a petty gangster. There’s the idea of the “right role”—Konatsu’s comment about Youtarou’s “Shinigami”; Konatsu’s inability to break into rakugo because she’s a woman. It just remains to be seen whether these seeds, and a couple of unmentioned others, sprout into anything worthwhile.
I think Rakugo Shinjuu is worth giving a try, when it airs in the fall. Or whenever this OAD gets subtitled.
Coming Up Next: some notes on Shinichi Omata’s style.