Far and away the best thing this season has to offer.
Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu follows Youtarou, a man freshly released from prison who heads straight for a rakugo theater, determined to get the Yakumo, the top star of the form, to accept him as an apprentice. But as this is a show intended for forty-five years olds and not fourteen year olds, Yakumo turns out to be an asshole who may or may not be a murderer. In the face of his refusals to directly instruct, Youtarou turns to the other man’s ward, Konatsu, herself a daughter of a dead rakugo master, and with her own burning desire to enter the field. Thus our story begins.
First of all, although I did enjoy this opening episode (which is double-length), the pacing is rather out of whack. This is apparently a result of it being a recut of the two OAV episodes that were put out for this series last year, although I think the inclusion of rakugo performances totaling roughly fifteen minutes contributes to the issue. The effect is that this episode feels like a prologue rather than a definitive “start” to the show, if that makes sense. I can live with it, but I do wish it was handled better; the rakugo scenes do an excellent job of orienting the audience to the art form (which, even in Japan, is fairly marginalized at this point – unfortunately, while I like this show, I don’t think it’ll prove the reviver of it like Hikaru no Go did for go), as well as fully introducing the characters, so I’d hardly want them cut. (It’d be wonderful if Crunchyroll, which is streaming the series, also springs to pick up the OAVs.) Ideally, this show would have a longer episode count than it’s managed, which would uncramp the material a bit here.
If a pacing problem sounds like a pretty major stumbling block, well, that’s because it should be. However, with a compelling, adult cast, and a story that shows a lot of promise, I’m very much willing to overlook it as long as it doesn’t prove to be an enduring issue. Youtarou is absolutely not a smart person, but he’s grabbed onto a second chance at an honest life in rakugo, and his passion is clear, even if it outstrips his abilities at points. Yakumo’s act in taking him on as an apprentice is quickly demonstrated to not have necessarily been an act of kindness, as his moments of cruelty aren’t of the sort seen in works with “tough but fair” mentor figures – he’s just being mean and petty. Then there’s Konatsu; we see less of her, but we do know that she wants to go into rakugo herself, and that although Yakumo took her in in the wake of her parents’ death, she despises him.
Actually, this is the one aspect where I think a little context is useful, although I think the necessity of deep knowledge going in has been vastly over-stated. Women used to be informally barred from being rakugo performers, so Konatsu’s wish to be one must contend with this bigoted reality. This fact casts Yakumo’s sneering at the young woman when she asks him to instruct her into an even harsher light. I’m hoping that there’s a chance she’ll get to play more of a role in the story than simply as Youtarou’s true teacher. (Going with the idea of “useful info”, by the way, “shinjuu”/ 心中 is a term which refers to a double-suicide, typically by lovers.)
As I said before, the degree to which knowledge about Japanese culture is necessary to enjoying this show has been exaggerated. Honestly, if you’re been watching anime for a couple of years, you’ll be fine – humor about someone trying to put on over on their landlord is hardly culturally-bound, and you’d have to have watched all that anime while comatose to not know what a Shinigami is. Having some understanding of folklore and of rakugo will help to deepen your appreciation, sure, but a lack of such shouldn’t be considered a bar to viewing. (If you know relatively little about Japanese folklore, by the way, the anime Folktales from Japan is a very accessible way to start, and it’s streaming worldwide on Crunchyroll. At 185 episodes and with two stories told per episode, it covers a lot of ground.)
I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the visuals, particularly as this isn’t something DEEN is known for. This show looks great, and it’s got excellent visual direction – the opening scenes stands out in particular – that is undergirded by really good coloration. I don’t think anything else this season looks as good as this show does.
I’d also be remiss, though, were I to not mention the voice acting. Did you know that the actors for the main cast are, at the youngest, thirty-one years old? (This may, too, be true of minor characters like the women who work in the rakugo theater, but I can’t find a reliable listing of who voiced whom for this, and I unfortunately tend to forget the readings for kanji in favor of hanzi.) Thirty-one isn’t old, really, but this is unusual in an industry where people tend to start quite young and casting tilts in the favor of youth. This is a show packed with seasoned vocal talent, and it, like the visuals, brings the story to life by rounding out the characters from the very start.
As I’m sure you’ve gathered, I really, really liked this show. It’s like nothing else that’s airing, a story about an adult cast intended for an adult audience and with a very old art form at its center. I’m really looking forward to watching the rest of this and hope that it performs well – wouldn’t it be great to have some more shows with similar audience in mind? (The closest to this that I can think of, by the way, are Aoi Bungaku and the maddeningly under-watched Mouryou no Hako.)