So, uh… how’s everyone doing out there? Still thinking about That Scene? If you’re anything like me, you haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. You may have had trouble sleeping the night after because you were thinking about it so much, reorganizing events, questioning past assumptions, and feeling oh-so-many feelings for oh-so-many characters. And rest assured, we’re gonna expend some serious word count on That Scene today. But there was some excellent build-up to it as well, so let’s rev up to it by first talking about how Rakugo Shinju set the tone and stage this week for the reveal heard ’round the world.
Yakumo is awake and recovering, but the melancholy from last week is still very much present. Our imagery is saturated with the promise of approaching endings–golden leaves dropping from autumn trees, crimson sunsets staining gravestones–as years and days alike come to a close. The hospital grounds are stunning this week, giving us some of the best background artwork anime has to offer, but that blanket of leaves is also a constant reminder that beauty, like everything else, is transient. The season is destined to end, and so too is the rakugo performer at the center of our tale.
While the final sequences are the most powerful, Yakumo’s scene with Konatsu may be my favorite, a quiet moment between two people who have known each other for decades and have developed a bond of, if not exactly love, then at least a measure of comfort and candor. Konatsu has inherited Yakumo’s prickly kindness, complaining and criticizing even as she gives him her scarf, shares her cigarette, and encourages him to keep doing rakugo. She’s also (maybe the only person) able to see through his “transparent facade,” as she calls it, knowing full well that “embarrassment” is Yakumo’s go-to vocalized concern, but almost never his real one.
And, as we’ve seen before, Yakumo opens up to her in a way he doesn’t for anyone else, revealing the fear and grief behind his grouchy detachment. His desire to perform has vanished along with the strength of his voice (and both Ishida and the animators do an excellent job of imbuing Yakumo with a frailty he’s never had before, by the way). Without that need to perform–to constantly better himself on stage–he feels he’s an “empty husk” now, void of meaning or purpose. This is the plight of The Artist, of the withdrawn performer who pours their entire personality into their work, who only ever expresses themselves on the stage. As he once told us, he’s “long since forgotten” his real name. So if he can no longer be the rakugo performer Yakumo Yurakutei, then who is he, really?
That said, just like the puddles that sit amidst our bed of golden leaves, reflecting characters and sending out ripples, Episode 7 isn’t only about inevitable endings. It’s also about preservation, about the records that remain and the human connections that send out ripples of their own, tying people and traditions together and giving them the power to last beyond one person or era. This is seen most obviously in the literal records of the old rakugo film, giving Yotaro a chance to see two final performances, really, since this also the last time a young man called Bon genuinely enjoyed himself on stage.
Rakugo Shinju‘s recent musings on different performance styles comes to visual fruition here, as Yotaro finds himself transported in two very different ways: Kikuhiko takes him to another world entirely (although Kikuhiko himself is ever-present, infused into every role), while Sukeroku pulls him into the theatre as a part of the audience. Yotaro is impressed by both, but equally impressive is how well he’s able to read the two performers, sensing that Kikuhiko actually had fun and that Sukeroku loved his family. Yotaro may not be the analytical type, but his emotional intelligence remains high, and it’s nice to see it on display even in an episode where he’s largely an observer.
Beyond the obvious film records that tie the dead/past to the living/present, we also have the memories of our cast. Higuchi at long last shows us he’s more than just a mouthpiece for rakugo philosophy, revealing his connections not just to the town and inn, but also his emotional ties to our main cast. Like everything else in this series, Higuchi’s interest in rakugo and simmering resentment for Yakumo has layers, stretching back to his relationship with (and crush on) Yurie/Miyokichi. Not only does he blame Yakumo for rakugo’s slow decline (due to his refusal to take on more students), he’s also convinced that Yakumo is responsible for Yurie’s death.
Which, of course, brings us to our second round of shared memories, as Matsuda reveals the secret he and Yakumo have been hiding for decades: Konatsu was not only present for her parents’ deaths, but played an active role in the accident that took their lives.
Some of you may recall that, for all my starry-eyed love of this series, Episode 12’s tragic fall didn’t much work for me. There was just something off about it–the characters not quite themselves, the actions too grandiose, the final lines too staged. Rakugo Shinju doesn’t mind cutting back on literal reality for the sake of depicting emotional reality, but Kikuhiko holding up Sukeroku and Miyokichi long enough for Sukeroku to make a Final Heroic Speech was just…it just didn’t quite fit with the story and tone we’d seen up to that point. I was able to defend the creative choices, but it left me cold all the same.
Which is what makes this week’s reveal less of a game changer and more of a game fixer. Everything in that scene felt staged because it was staged. Yakumo wasn’t just falling back on his storyteller’s impulse, he was straight-up telling a story, taking fragments of truth and filling in the gaps with fiction in a way that would not only remove Konatsu entirely, but would make Sukeroku and Yurie into tragic figures, people who truly loved each other and would have surely patched things up if only that balcony hadn’t broken–and if only Kikuhiko hadn’t been there to tempt Yurie onto that balcony in the first place.
To save Konatsu from guilt and to preserve the memory of her parents, Yakumo rewrote history, allowing himself to be the villain. It’s a stretch to say I’m happy about this reveal, given the amount of pain it’s squeezed out of me in the past couple days, but I am incredibly satisfied, even relieved, about it. I no longer have any critiques. Only immense admiration and a whole lotta heartbreak.
What’s so brilliant and devastating about the reveal this week is how starkly it contrasts with the fictional version in terms of pacing and tone. Where Yakumo’s story was bombastic and graceful, a playwright’s tragic climax, Matsuda’s account is brief, chaotic, and brutal. There’s no time for declarations or speeches, no elegant falls fading into darkness. There are only knee-jerk reactions, blood and tears and fear and rage and a few hands spontaneously reaching out, shoving or grabbing, everything happening so quickly it’s hard to even see it, never mind react to it.
And through it all, despite his own shock and fear, Kikuhiko keeps trying to protect Konatsu. He begs Matsuda to get her out of there. He tries to reassure her by saying it was just an accident, that Sukeroku would be fine. And at the end, as the balcony snaps and Kikuhiko has just enough time to take one action, to make a grab for either Sukeroku or Konatsu, in that half-second he chooses Konatsu, pulling her to safety. So it’s no wonder that, when everything was over and the traumatized five-year-old was left with only the haziest of memories, Kikuhiko would choose to protect her again.
While this certainly changes our perception of events and will likely affect the way both Higuchi and Yotaro interact with Yakumo going forward (especially now that they have Matsuda’s plea hanging on their shoulders), I’m not sure how much it really changes our understanding of Yakumo and Konatsu (other than hammering home the fact that Yakumo is a tremendously layered character and reminding me why I love him so damn much). (…Ah-hem.)
Certainly it helps explain Konatsu’s fragmented memories of her father covered in blood and why she’s so keen to blame Yakumo for their deaths. And perhaps it helps explain Yakumo’s coldness towards her, too–not because he blames her for their deaths (he wouldn’t lie about it if he did), but because he knows her hatred for him is unwarranted.
But, then again, maybe not. Maybe Yakumo doesn’t see her hatred as unwarranted at all. Ultimately, I doubt the truth changes how Yakumo feels about that night. His guilt is too entrenched for it to be feigned. Regardless of how it happened, the two people he loved fell to their deaths and he couldn’t save them. His storyteller’s impulse tells him it has to be someone’s fault, and he loves this family too much to blame the panicked child for lashing out, the unstable mother for fleeing, or the wounded father for trying to save his wife. So maybe Yakumo’s rewrite is as much about protecting Konatsu as it is about giving voice to the role he already feels he played. Maybe Konatsu just gave him one more reason to blame himself.
This week, Matsuda echoes what I’d argued last season: “It wasn’t anyone’s fault. They were all victims.” I still agree with that. Sukeroku and Yurie’s story remains a tragedy of circumstance rather than a tragedy of hamartia. That said, knowing this version adds a bunch of question marks to a story we’d long thought had been given a final period. What happened before Matsuda arrived? Why did Yurie stab Sukeroku? How much of Yakumo’s account of that night was true and how much was false?
Perhaps Yotaro will be able to get the full version of out of him at some point. Perhaps he’ll even be able to help Yakumo face that night honestly for once. The leaves may be falling, but the ripples keep on spreading outwards, affecting characters and arcs in surprising ways. We’re moving into our final act. Here’s hoping that learning from history means we really aren’t destined to repeat it, and that our cast can still find some hope amidst all this long-buried grief.
This, That, and the Other
- I know that suddenly having an unreliable narrator means it’s tempting to wonder if any of Yakumo’s story was true, but for the sake of our collective sanity I think it’s safe to assume that everything up to Sukeroku’s “Shibahama” performance was basically accurate. Colored by emotion and memory, yes, but not an outright fiction. After that, though? I honestly have no idea.
- I can’t find the tweet anymore, but someone pointed out that when Yotaro imagines himself in the theatre, he’s sitting in the same seat as Li’l Konatsu was in the original. Nice visual touch, that.
- I rewatched Episode 12, and two echoes I loved: Kikuhiko telling Sukeroku not to “embarrass” him on stage, and Sukeroku’s last words to Kikuhiko being “I’m counting on you”–the same words that have become sort of a mantra among our current rakugo family as of late.
- The Sensei Next Door: Some of you probably already know this, but Yurie’s grave says “Namu Amida Butsu,” which is sort of a one-part mantra, one-part prayer directed at Amitabha (“Amida” in Japanese), a Buddha of compassion at the heart of the Pure Land sect. I don’t have time to get into the nuts and bolts of it, but I wanted to give you a quick explanation, at least.
- This Week in Rakugo: Two stories about characters who don’t fully know the truth. This week also slaps an extra layer on the significance of “Shibahama,” as it’s not just Sukeroku’s promise to his family, but a story about someone who lies in order to help a person they love.
Posted by Josei Next Door
Posted on February 20, 2017 at 5:39 pm
Advertise on Anime Evo!
Help us pay the bills and work with us to promote your awesome product, service, website, comic or anything else you want to show off. We here at Anime Evo work with our advertising partners to promote products that are actually relevant to our audience, and give you the best bang for your buck!