How long has it been? How long ago had I last seen an anime of such class and depth that I could not help myself be swayed by anything else until I saw through the journey to its end? It has been a while. Yes, quite a number of moons have passed since the last anime I wholeheartedly gave a perfect score to.
Bluntness is required for an anime like ‘Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu’. The reason for this being that just reading the synopsis of the show is, sadly, not enough to garner an interest. Most people have watched this show out of boredom and being recommended it by the very same folks who gave it a chance. I reckon very few people actually read the synopsis and went, “This is pretty damn interesting. I should watch it!” As saddened as I am when I say this but the Japanese animation industry is not known for the kind of maturity ‘ShouJuu’ displays. Instead, it goes for unnecessary eroticism and heavily relies on telling the same story with a slightly different coat of paint. The main reason I go for anime and manga as my main source of entertainment these days is that despite these factors, and many others, they are still one of the most risk-taking outlets of visual presentation. It’s a double edged candy sword dipped in lemon juice. Ahhhhhhhhh! So that is why I’ll try to keep my obvious bias towards the show in check and go purely for selling it to you as objectively as I can.
Before I begin, let it be known that I’m reviewing both seasons together. The seasons, by themselves, still stand proudly as high tier works but it is best to watch both seasons in one go as that is how they truly reach another level altogether.
The first season starts off with a 47 minutes pilot that introduces us to recently released ex-con, soon named Yotaro, and his new found love for the art of stage storytelling called ‘rakugo’. He forces a master of the art, Yurakutei Yakumo (eight generation), to take him on as an apprentice. A while passes until Yotaro commits a huge blunder and is expelled until he begs the master for another chance. Thus, Yakumo launches into a tale of his past that spans the rest of the season. The second season then deals with the aftermath of that tale and how Yotaro uses the personal history lesson, of hope and inevitable tragedy, to become a master of a dying art in the modern world of television and radio.
As I just mentioned, the first season deals mostly with Yakumo’s past. The second episode begins with him, called Bon at the time, being abandoned by his mother, a geisha, into the hands of the seventh generation Yakumo. He is joined by Shin, a street rat, whose talent for rakugo makes him get accepted into apprenticeship alongside Bon. Bon and Shin are then renamed to Kikuhiko and Hastuta respectively. As time goes by and Hatsuta becomes popular, he changes his name to Sukeroku. From this point on, I will refer to these two leads as Kikuhiko and Sukeroku to avoid confusion.
As expected, the plot of ShouJuu is straightforward. What was surprising was the subtle depth to this story. The drama is not your usual run-of-the-mill stuff. It has layers to it that is usually left to the viewer to cut into. The confrontations and conflicts aren’t of the cheap sort where they could be simply resolved with a sidelining girlish giggle and pat on the back. No, the characters are written so well that instead of ending up as mere roles in a narrative, you see actual live human beings with complex emotions going about their lives of struggle and rivalry in the cut-throat world of stage performance.
Kikuhiko, unlike Sukeroku, wasn’t very good at rakugo for around half a decade. He also had his leg injury and school life to look after. Feelings of envy towards Sukeroku keep piling up even after Kikuhiko comes into form. The back and forth between the rivalry between these two both a treat and suspense to watch. You never know exactly what might happen considering the quality of the characters in the show. Then comes along the romantic interest for Kikuhiko in the form of an extremely flawed yet headstrong geisha known as Miyokichi. She serves as the main source of inner conflict for Kikuhiko. Many interesting questions pop up on our screens. Will Kikuhiko go for the woman or is the stage more important to him? What about Sukeroku and his wildness that constantly upsets the Rakugo Association? How will rakugo survive? And many more.
This outline of the first season that I’ve laid out is quite heavy on the art of rakugo itself as well. Many stories are told and you may even recognize some yourself if you have watched enough anime – Assassination Classroom saw class 3-E doing a hybrid performance. It’s great to see that a show about storytelling tells its own story in a masterful way. Failing to do so would have been very ironic indeed. This is precisely why ShouJuu is such a damn good show. It respects both the subject material and the audience by giving clear explanations and also refraining from needless exposition. Unlike many anime, we don’t get a couple of obvious frames that a character is scheming or depressed: we get seamlessly interwoven scenes that lightly tap our noggins using behavior and thoughtful dialogue to tell us that maybe a character is feeling blue. It’s like your gossiping friend with the power to possess people telling you about their lives for his own amusement. This is actually quite hard to pull off.
Now we move onto the second season. The second season starts off its train with Yotaro being one rank away from a master. It deals with him finding ‘meaning’ for his own rakugo, the future of the art itself, and answering the questions brought up by the past that haunts Kikuhiko. There’s a stark contrast between the two seasons in terms of both tone and the force that drives the narrative. Season one is basically about love for rakugo and its history while dealing with the rivalry of the leads who link to the second season. Season two is a cordial battle between two hearts on how they define rakugo and the relations it forms. Kikuhiko wants to burn the stage for the art he so dearly loves and take it to the grave with him. Everyone else, from the daughter of late Sukeroku to a prolific writer who wants to write new works for rakugo (an art that has been much too cautious when it comes to straying from its classics), is heavily against this. Yotaro takes the lead for them all in this pursuit. Yotaro prefers Kikuhiko’s rakugo but he himself performs more akin to Sukeroku. Considering that he acts a lot like Sukeroku, the relationship between Yotaro and Kikuhiko becomes even more peculiar.
I’d love to talk a bit more about the second season but that would mean spoiling a fair bit and I do not want to do that. Since I’m trying to convince others to watch this anime, giving away most of the major plot points of the second half of the story would be a bad move. Though, I will say this though: the second last episode of season two is literal perfection. The animation, the voice acting, the music, the idea behind the episode, how it deals with a major plot point that is often dealt with badly, and also the message it conveys. That episode is what cemented ShouJuu into my mind as an anime that will surely become a classic in a few years if it gains enough of a following. Even if people fail to give it the attention it so rightly deserves, it will still at least become a cult classic. Christ, that episode should be a used as a lesson to teach aspiring writers and directors on how treat your characters right. Saying anymore about it would spoil the show so I will stop typing about it now. But, still, damn!
A couple of final things to note before I get into the technicalities is that the supporting cast is just as superb as the leads across the two seasons. Even those who we get brief glimpses of (in what seem like insignificant scenes) turn out to be major catalysts in the advancement of the plot. It is clear that the writers took great care when bringing them to life and ensuring they aren’t just plot devices but also human just like the leads. The other point is that for an anime that spans almost eighty years or so, the pacing is just right. The show doesn’t advance too fast nor does it come to speed bumps when coming up to key scenes. It’s like a leisurely drive out on the country roads to the places where the story belongs.
The director, Shinichi Omata, has done a wonderful job with ShouJuu. I haven’t seen other anime directed by him but I will sure be sure to check them out. Studio DEEN done a superb job with the animation as well. Yes, that’s right. That Studio DEEN which is known for heavily cutting corners in the animation in almost half of the anime they’ve worked on. I was shocked when I found out they were behind ShouJuu. But, hey, kudos to them. Rakugo requires one to be extremely expressive in order to do justice to the stories the rakugako tells. Even the slightest of facial movements are highly detailed and fluid. The wonderful directing easily puts a spotlight on the animation and increases twofold the captivating effect on the audience.
Speaking of captivating folks, the voice acting is marvelous. The anime needed it to emphasize the importance of nuance, tone, and pitch along with other particulars for the rakugo performances. The voice actors go above and beyond the standard established by the already competent voice acting industry of Japan. Yamadera Kouichi, the voice behind Spike Spiegel and Kenshirou, has done a fantastic job with Sukeroku. I am kind of disappointed that Kikuhiko had two voice actors seeing as I was mightily impressed with how the voice also changed minutely with each progression in the age of the character. One of the voice actors, Kobayashi Sanae, is female so I guess she was Kikuhiko’s early childhood voice. Despite my disappointment, the two voice actors gave an incredible performance for Kikuhiko throughout all stages of his life and it had been a treat to listen to them. I thank them, the writers, and the mangaka (Kumota Haruko) for carving Kikuhiko into my mind and soul as a sullenly flawed yet irresistibly charming and respectable man. Oh and the performance given by Yotaro’s voice actor, Tomokazu Seki, is just nigh impossible to not enjoy. He’s the voice behind Kougami Shinya from Psycho-Pass and Daru from Steins; Gate (which people seem to hate for some reason).
Finally, the music. Background music is used sparingly in ShouJuu but when it does play, it sure does sound pleasing and adds extra charm to the scenes. Funnily enough, though, the background music is used so well in especially intense scenes that you’re left on the edge of your seat. In one particular scene, aged Kikuhiko hallucinates and begins seeing the late Sukeroku in the middle of a performance. The music starts playing. The scene goes on with the beat. It has a tight grasp on your eyes making sure that you don’t even blink. I actually sweated a little. That was one hell of a scene. Another great use of music is the jazz in the opening and ending songs. The songs are great and going straight into my music folder (as usual). The grim imagery in the sequence for the second opening is particularly astonishing. For an interesting read on how it incorporates itself into the anime, check out this page.
I’ve already stated at the start of this review that I’ve given ShouJuu a perfect score. Anime of ShouJuu’s caliber that also don’t rely on fanservice are quite rare. This is one of the few shows I will gladly recommend to those who haven’t watched much anime or don’t watch it at all. It is a superb gateway drug into the bottomless pit that is the medium. This especially proves useful if the person isn’t really into action or comedy shows and wants a mature thought provoking experience that they themselves can push forward to others. Honestly, ShouJuu was a 9/10 show for me right until that flawless second last episode. So, without further ado, I give this a whopping