In an episode that begins and ends with apprentices, it’s no wonder this week’s Showa Genroku is all about inheritance—the legacy we leave, what we try to pass on, and what ends up getting left behind. This is true of genetics, yes, but also of traditions, from religious ceremonies to social norms to scientific knowledge to storytelling and other art forms. Just as the human race depends on progeny for survival, human cultures depend on good teachers and willing students.
The central relationship this week is between the master and Kikuhiko, but it also reaches back in time to the previous Yakumo (the master’s father), and the upstart student who would be the first Sukeroku. There’s a quiet criticism in this back story about two kinds of inheritance—blood and skill—and how the perceived precedence of the former can unfairly overshadow the latter (particularly in societies that place such a high value on filial relationships). The master used his familial ties to weasel his way into the Yakumo title although even he didn’t believe he was worthy of it, causing a ripple effect that would eventually shatter the relationship between himself and his two apprentices.
Perhaps because we’ve seen comparatively little of the master, or perhaps because he was born into a much more privileged position than our other characters (the words “entitled little shit” may have made it into my oh-so-professional notes), I find myself pitying him without being able to truly sympathize. During his last confession, he proves himself to be petty as both a child and an adult, blaming others for his own faults and unable to forgive Sukeroku even as he acknowledges his talent. To twist the knife even further, he confesses that he doesn’t actually want to give the Yakumo name to Kikuhiko. This may be an attempt to spare his “son” the weight of the Yurakutei name, but it sure feels like a rejection, and one Kikuhiko will have to carry with him the same way the master carried his own gnawing sense of unworthiness. And thus the cycle continues?
Well, maybe not. In these scenes, the master remarks that “being too similar can hold you back” in rakugo, indirectly admitting that Sukeroku was right, and change and individuality are essential to the survival of their art. And Kikuhiko, for all that he respects and is grateful to his master in many ways, also has no intention of being a carbon copy of him, either. “I couldn’t become like anyone else, but that’s why I am who I am now,” he says, and it’s one of the few times Kikuhiko has seemed truly comfortable and confident in himself as a performer and a person. So maybe we’ve begun to break the pattern after all.
On that note, Kikuhiko continues to be a brilliantly written, contradictory individual, remarkably self-aware in some ways and endearingly oblivious in others. He doesn’t want the Yakumo name in part because he’s not interested in helping to pass on the legacy, only in performing his own rakugo. You can see that as selfish, or as an acknowledgment of personal limitations: He knows he isn’t suited to be a teacher and thus tries to avoid getting put in that position.
He keeps saying that he just wants to be alone with his rakugo, and this week sees him moving closer toward isolation. His master is gone and he encourages his manservant to take a temporary sabbatical, cutting off his remaining childhood/emotional tie. He also seems genuinely at peace at the end of “Shinigami” (an almost spiteful memorial for his master, particularly given the inheritance overtones present in the “passing the flame from one candle to the next” metaphor) as he sits in the “solitude he’s longed for,” alone in the place he loves and connected to nothing but the performance. Even the audience vanishes when Kikuhiko is on stage.
And yet. The first thing he does after losing his master (and temporarily his manservant) is to take a sabbatical and visit Sukeroku. He claims it’s because he wants to help “settle things” for Miyokichi’s former madame and because he’s convinced the two must be struggling on their own. It suggests a (justifiable) lack of confidence in Sukeroku and a certain arrogance in himself when it comes to practical matters and how much his friend needs him, but more than that, it sounds like the excuses of a lonely person who badly wants to see someone they care about.
Kikuhiko is an all-too-real depiction of the curious blend between loner and caretaker, an introvert who’s convinced himself that he wants to be alone (you can’t be abandoned if there’s no one around, after all) and enjoys his privacy, yet still wants to be with and look after the people he cares about. “Once I see him and know he’s safe, I’ll leave,” he says, but somehow I doubt that’ll be the case.
While personal feelings are a huge part of this trip, Kikuhiko also likely knows that Sukeroku is the last best hope for Yurakutei rakugo’s survival. The leafless branches so prominent in the master and Kikuhiko’s scenes (and so beautiful they were my cover photo for this episode) paint a grim picture of the name’s future, and perhaps the future of rakugo entirely: a “family tree” that looms dark and large, prominent but also barren, producing no saplings.
It struck me this week that the “double-suicide” in the show’s title, while likely foreshadowing Sukeroku and Miyokichi, could also refer to Kikuhiko and Yurakutei rakugo. If he plans to take no apprentices, convinced he has “nothing to teach them,” then he’ll never pass the craft or the name on to others and his “family’s” rakugo will die with him. But then, given the generations-long grief caused over the “Yakumo” title, it’s not hard to understand why Kikuhiko would be uninterested in passing that on to others.
All of which makes the premiere episode all the more important, allowing a glimmer of hope to cut through the gloom of our current story. We the audience know that Kikuhiko will eventually take an apprentice or two (official or otherwise), and that he will entrust rakugo’s future to them in the same way Sukeroku is currently entrusting his legacy to Li’l Konatsu.
Telling his apprentice(s) this story serves as a warning and a plea: The Yakumo name and the traditions tied to it have destroyed relationships, but rakugo itself is still worth saving. Kikuhiko/Yakumo may be pinning his hopes on two outsiders (an ex-convict and a woman) to save the art form without continuing its harmful legacy.
So. You know. No pressure, kids.
This, That, and the Other
- Li’l Konatsu is adorable. More Li’l Konatsu, please.
- As gorgeous as the tree branches were, my favorite shot this week might be of the Yurakutei family crest falling from the master’s shoulders right before he gives his final performance. Subtly chilling, that.
- Kikuhiko viewing his performance from outside of himself is another lovely visual touch that speaks to the almost out-of-body sense that comes when you’re fully immersed in a role, speech, or story. Sometimes I wonder if SGRS is harder to appreciate if you haven’t done a fair bit of public performing yourself, but speaking as someone who has, trust me when I say the show does a fabulous job of capturing the experience.
- This Week in Rakugo: A story about the importance of children in keeping families together, and “Shinigami” again, a tale where you must transfer the flame from a dying candle to a new one, otherwise it dies out. In other words, two stories about inheritance, and the importance of passing something on in order to keep it alive.
Posted by Josei Next Door
Posted on March 13, 2016 at 4:35 pm
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