Winter 2017 First Impressions: Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu – Episode 01 Review

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is back, as Yotaro is excited to tell you: “Of course, I’ve been sitting here with my head down the whole time,” he explains, engaging the viewer in a private fourth wall breaking performance that brings the viewer up to speed in the episode’s opening scene.  Ten years have passed since he was first accepted as Yakumo’s apprentice and he is now a Shin’uchi who wants to inherit the Sukeroku name.  Konatsu has had her baby, Yakumo is now the head of the Rakugo Association, and popular writer Higuchi Eisuke is here to shake things up by joining forces with Yotaro to create new rakugo to revitalise the dying artform.  But how will Yakumo, who wishes to take the art of rakugo to the grave alongside him, feel about this controversial idea?

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This first episode reminded me exactly why I loved the first season of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu so much.  The characters are so deep and compelling, the visuals and shot composition enhance the mood of each scene perfectly despite the limited animation, and the rakugo performances tie so perfectly into the plot and can entrance viewers who had never even heard of rakugo before watching.

Rakugo’s dwindling influence is made clear across a number of scenes in this episode.  Mangetsu, a former rakugo apprentice, realised that there was little future in the art and once his father died gave it up to pursue television acting instead, presented as another casualty to the dying artform.  After Yotaro’s first performance as a Shin’uchi, shots of his subsequent performance later in the episode ensure that you notice the dwindling crowds from Kikuhiko (now Yakumo) and Sukeroku’s days as Shin’uchi.  Eisuke references that he himself had wanted to be an apprentice to Yakumo but had been rebuffed, and laments that if Yakumo had taken more apprentices earlier rakugo wouldn’t be in the sorry state it’s in now.  This sets up what is set to be the driving narrative force of this season: revitalising rakugo in the way that Kikuhiko and Sukeroku never could due to their tragic circumstances.

Each of the rakugo performances during the episode are very engaging.  Yakumo’s was as polished as one would expect from a master and the subject matter is especially interesting considering the scene that comes almost directly after it.  The performance is about a man named Ippatsu, an entertainer, who is trying to seduce a woman named Omae.  Omae expresses reluctance to marry Ippatsu in the beginning, but eventually relents despite admitting that she could feel little passion for him because of his profession.  In a subsequent scene, Yotaro follows Konatsu out into the night and again offers to be her baby’s father and to marry her.  She refuses, one of her reasons being that he is a broke entertainer with no future.  However, she softens somewhat when Yotaro talks of his love for her – not necessarily a romantic love, but he is desperate to be there for her and recognises her deep importance in his life.  I’m interested to see how the relationship between the two will be explored in later episodes.

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The shot composition is flawless as always, and there is one specific moment that blew me away: Yotaro is kneeling at a table while he talks to Eisuke about rakugo.  The camera pans down and we see Yakumo as his reflection in the table’s surface.  Yotaro, Sukeroku’s spiritual successor, being shown here as another facet of Yakumo highlights his role as the new torchbearer for the dreams of the older generation of performers.

The music in Rakugo Shinjuu is beautiful and understated, which isn’t a surprise coming off last season.  Although the opening didn’t play in this episode I have to bring it up – it was posted on Youtube before the first episode aired along with the full video that will accompany it.  The song is even more hauntingly beautiful as the first season’s opening and the visuals are especially melancholy after watching the first season for their portrayal of Yakumo’s pain and regret.  My favourite shot: When Sukeroku’s ghost appears behind Yakumo and literally strips him to the bone.

There was basically no chance of me not loving this premiere.  Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu was my favourite anime of 2016; if it keeps this up, it will likely be my favourite anime of 2017 as well.  If you haven’t watched the first season already, what are you waiting for?
10/10

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