Here it is: The moment we all knew was coming. Showa Genroku’s tragedy-coaster reaches its summit and drops us straight down in more ways than one, fulfilling its first-episode promises in dramatic fashion. There may be a small light at the end of this tunnel, but it’s an awful long way off. For now, we need to talk about our cast and our story, and about why things happened the way they did–or, rather, about why that “why” remains so elusive in the first place. It’s another essay, this one in four parts. Get comfy. It’s a long way down.
Let’s start with an ongoing topic: The framed narrative and the limits of perspective (and forgive me if I repeat myself a little here). This is Yakumo’s personal story, which means that (1) it’s less about how events happened and more about how he remembered them happening; i.e., it hinges on memory and emotional reality rather than “objective” truth; and (2) that, as his younger self admits this week, we’re limited in what we can see of other people, so that everything we know about Sukeroku and Miyokichi is filtered through Kikuhiko’s own experiences and assumptions.
This narrative decision both helps and hinders SGRS, I think, granting our story an intimate immediacy and artistic freedom (since it can still be “realistic” even when it’s using swathes of black or minimalist still frames), but also leading to some (melo?)dramatic staging and seemingly abrupt declarations. That’s because, to Kikuhiko, these events are drenched in darkness, happening in excruciating slow motion, and full of sudden paradigm shifts because he doesn’t know enough about Sukeroku, Miyokichi, or the years they spent together. Heck, he doesn’t even know Miyokichi’s real name (Yurie) until just before she dies. All he has are his own relationships, memories, and the personal hopes that he projects onto them.
While Kikuhiko paints an idyllic picture of them all (including Miyokichi) returning to Tokyo and becoming one big happy rakugo family, note how Sukeroku never actually agrees to this arrangement, and Miyokichi outright rejects it. There’s so much more to the story than what we’re able to see, although we can read between the lines: How Miyokichi’s fear of instability (coupled with her feelings for Kikuhiko) led to her rejecting Sukeroku’s rakugo; how Sukeroku’s alcoholism led to increasingly dire conditions for his family; how the two ripped into each other both emotionally and practically; and how, in spite of everything, neither is entirely willing to let the other one go.
Once we put aside Kikuhiko’s assumptions about what his friend wants, Sukeroku is fairly easy to understand, seeing as how he declares his feelings and intentions through his rakugo piece, “Shibahama.” It’s an apology and a promise–to Konatsu, obviously, but to the absent Miyokichi as well–that he’ll (as he tells Miyokichi later) reform and live a “right life” earning “proper” money for the family he loves. The piece speaks for itself, and even Li’l Konatsu understands that this rakugo is as much a personal narrative as it is a fiction. Her father’s promise to do better (coupled with the implication that her mother leaving was just a “trick” to get Sukeroku to change his ways) moves her to tears.
There’s a question–and one we’ll never properly know the answer to–of whether Miyokichi was as emotionally abusive as Konatsu tells it, outright forbidding Sukeroku from performing rakugo and causing his spiral into depression, or if she was just a desperate woman trying to make a new start for herself (free of the performance arts that reminded her of her own unstable life as well as the man who rejected her), driven to sex work to keep her family afloat, and eventually cracking beneath the weight of becoming the very person she was trying to avoid. When she meets Kikuhiko, she can see no future for herself. She’s manipulative and defeatist, blaming him for her situation and suggesting death because it’s the only truly secure option she believes is available to her. I’m honestly not even sure if she loves him anymore or if she’s just grabbing on to the only person she thinks can keep her afloat.
And then Sukeroku bursts onto the scene, providing a streak of light across the dim room, seemingly prepared to give her what she wants–and shatter Kikuhiko’s own dreams in the process. Whether Miyokichi would have accepted, or how Kikuhiko would have reacted–these, too, are things neither we nor our narrator will ever know.
Everything to Everyone – Redux
And speaking of our narrator, we should probably spend some time with Kikuhiko this week. In addition to projecting his own desires onto the other characters (and being abandoned by them even before that final fall), he’s also falling into his old pattern of trying to be what he believes they need the most. Miyokichi says she and Sukeroku are similar, but she may actually have more in common with Kikuhiko, as both are willing to change themselves so that others won’t abandon them. He becomes a model student for his master, a dutiful rakugo-ka for the Association, a mother for Konatsu, a caretaker and brother and talent agent for Sukeroku–whatever they need, he’ll do it for them.
This trait has always been with him, has driven him and molded him and exhausted him, coming out of selfishness (“don’t leave me”) and altruism (“I want to make others happy”) in equal turns. It’s also the best way to explain his sudden, borderline out-of-character aggressive behavior and about-face with Miyokichi. She’s drowning and he knows it, and in spite of his aloofness he does care about her, even if he’s never quite sure how to express that. He’s never been able to understand her–he doesn’t even know her real name–so his efforts are likely doomed from the start, but he still wants to help her, and so he does what he can to be what he thinks she needs him to be. She wants someone to blame and so he’s the villain. She wants someone to hold her and so he’s the lover. She wants someone to die with her, and so…?
Again, we’ll never know how things might have ended had Sukeroku not shown up, but there’s a hesitation in Kikuhiko’s eyes that suggests Sukeroku may have saved his friend’s life twice that night. Although, in so doing, he left Kikuhiko nearly as battered as that broken balcony, “abandoned again” and convinced he deserves it.
The Storyteller Impulse and the Tragedy of Circumstance
Kikuhiko is a storyteller, not just by trade but also by nature. It’s a very common, human impulse to try to ascribe meaning or determine causality, and Kikuhiko’s own role as a narrator–his desire to tell stories that proceed from Point A to Point B, allowing the audience to connect the dots between one action and another and see how “Once Upon a Time” became “And They Lived Happily Ever After,” so to speak–makes him even more inclined to find The Reason for events in his own life.
So when he finds these two people he cares about in such a bad situation, he struggles to understand why. And because he can’t understand everything about them, he finds the only answer he can, blaming himself for leaving them alone in the first place. He does the same thing at the end, deciding their deaths were “punishment” for his own “sweet dreams” of a family, for daring to believe he was deserving of happiness and human warmth. (Geez, just writing that sentence made me sad all over again.)
It’s a complicated impulse, motivated by ego and love and self-hatred in equal turns. Despite admitting he can’t understand everything about another person, he still assumes an awful lot this week about both Sukeroku and Miyokichi in a way that’s rather patronizing, absolving them of all blame as if they weren’t capable of making their own decisions (and mistakes). But it’s also about wanting to believe the best in the people he loves, too. He can’t imagine faulting either Sukeroku or Miyokichi for what happened, for how their lives reached this dismal point. And since he’s the only other person involved, it stands to reason that all of this is on him, either through direct action or divine retribution.
I suspect this impulse will be common among audience members, too: To expect or want someone to be “guilty” for these deaths, to assign blame and therefore find meaning in the tragedy we knew was coming. And it’s true that all of our characters are at fault. They’ve all made mistakes, been selfish or cruel or just plan oblivious, and the decisions they made up to this point led them to this room and the events that played out there. And, boy howdy, would it have been easy for them to pin this on the “evil woman,” to have Miyokichi force this climax through violent or manipulative means.
But, as I’ve discussed before, SGRS is less a tragedy of individual fatal flaws and more a tragedy of environment: Of people struggling to swim against a strong tide of cultural expectations and social mores, tangled up in forces far greater than themselves. So it’s really no surprise that these deaths aren’t caused by any one person, but by an old, rickety balcony–an unfortunate accident of the environment. Choices do matter. Individuals and their relationships do matter. But, like so much of the art and fiction present in this postwar setting, Yakumo’s story is fiercely postmodern, rejecting tidy, cause-and-effect conclusions in favor of focusing on relative truth and the sad absurdity of circumstance.
Kikuhiko will blame himself because he needs there to be some meaning or moral to this awful event. For similar reasons, we at home may assign fault to any one of our characters for any one of a dozen slights or flaws, saying that Moment X is really what made the whole thing go to hell. But what it really comes down to, SGRS suggests, is that sometimes terrible things happen to undeserving people, and while, yes, there are ample reasons for this, often those reasons are so tangled and convoluted, tied to so many individuals–some you know, some you’ll hear about, some you’ll never even know existed–and so many forces both cultural and environmental that there is no single, objective answer to the “why” of it all. And the fact that Kikuhiko will spend decades believing otherwise, bearing all the guilt, convinced this is something he deserves, may just be the real tragedy of our story.
Blogger Hat Off: A Personal Post-Script
And yet, for all those words of analysis and interpretation, you may be surprised to learn that I was personally left rather cold by the episode’s ending. Not that I don’t appreciate it in a lot of ways. I’m actually super-pleased that SGRS resisted the easy tropes–there was no violent love triangle, no jealous passion crimes, no “hell hath no fury” moment–and I applaud it for committing to its first-person narrative structure, imbuing its sympathetic characters with all-too-human contradictions, and having the courage to end in a very literal representation of a broken world destroying individual lives.
And I had strong reactions to about 90% of the episode, too! Sukeroku’s rakugo performance was tremendously affecting, and the quiet moment after the show, with Kikuhiko confessing his new outlook and mapping out his ideal future was a beautiful gut-punch made all the more painful by those premature ending credits.
#rakugoshinju Oh cool, ending credits with 8 minutes left in the episode, that's not foreboding at all. pic.twitter.com/zguRkGWp7o
— Rock Chalk Joseihawk (@joseinextdoor) March 25, 2016
Even the early moments of his confrontation with Miyokichi were tense and riveting, cloaked in hopeless shadow as Kikuhiko tried in vain to take on her burdens the way he (thought he) did for Sukeroku. But then things got…weird, tonally inconsistent from what had come before, replacing understated emotional beats with loud declarations and melodramatic staging in a way that didn’t quite feel earned. Kikuhiko licking Miyokichi’s tears felt bizarrely out-of-character for someone who’s so uncomfortable with sexual physical contact; Sukeroku’s interruption was too convenient for a story that’s done a generally good job of introducing events naturally; and the physics of that final scene–Kikuhiko holding up both of them, the lengthy conversation, Sukeroku’s calm decision–pulled me out of the moment, leaving me with my eyes half-rolled instead of filling with tears.
I can explain why I think these events happened the way they did. I can talk about visual presentations of first-person reality; about Kikuhiko’s limited perspective naturally leading to characters acting off-screen and thus surprising us the same way they do him; about how it was more metaphor and emotion than literal truth. I get that. I can even defend it. I just found it so overwrought that I can’t get myself to really feel it. Which means that, ultimately, this episode failed me. And that’s a damn shame.
That said, I know this ending worked very well for plenty of people, and this little addendum isn’t intended to take any of that away. I hope it did work better for you, and I’m glad that it succeeded for others even if it didn’t so much for me. For now, though, I’m left a little empty, and hoping the finale can bring me a conclusion that’s as emotionally satisfying as it is intellectually fascinating. Flailing around in Feels is half the fun of fiction, after all.
This, That, and the Other
- Yotaro’s cheerful voice breaking through in the preview was a wonderful reprieve; a breath of fresh air to remind us that Showa Genroku may include a tragedy but doesn’t have to end in one. Thank goodness for framing devices.
- Lot of slow fades in the first half of this one, perhaps to foreshadow that Sukeroku is himself intending to fade out of rakugo, the audience’s memories, and Kikuhiko’s life. Also a nice use of light and shadow to depict life (rakugo, family, Konatsu) and death (solitude, guilt, Miyokichi) as Kikuhiko sees them.
- This Week in Rakugo: Kikuhiko and Sukeroku both talk of indulgences/vices, with the few snippets from Kikuhiko’s piece focusing on “the love of women” and a rather cutting line about how “soliciting sex is the night duty of the rejected.” Sukeroku’s “Shibahama,” in addition to the obvious personal connection mentioned above, also speaks to a tension between dreams and reality, truth and lies, and how blurry the lines are between the two. Life imitates art–or is it the other way around?
- Personal discontent aside–damn, those final shots were gorgeous ones, weren’t they?
Posted by Josei Next Door
Posted on March 27, 2016 at 3:20 pm
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