Since last week saw the end of our central story, this week is by nature a more subdued epilogue, a comedown from the peak we hit before. While it didn’t have quite the emotional punch of recent episodes, it’s still essential to the story Rakugo Shinju wants to tell, which is largely about Bon, yes, but also about history, traditions, and the interconnected nature of individual narratives. Bon is gone but the world is not, and it would be a disservice to that world and the other narratives within it not to see how they’d all grown.
Happily, our rakugo family seems to be doing well. They’re all forwarding their careers and have maintained an easy closeness with one another (which does sometimes involve Mom chewing her son out for skipping a meeting). This finale does a smart job of avoiding an overly idyllic epilogue by offering us enough glimpses into our characters’ internal lives to know that not everything is perfect, and that there will certainly be challenges in the future. Shinnosuke keenly feels the pressure to live up to his legacy and find his own voice, and Yotaro is reminded that there’s always a shinigami waiting at the end of every story, including his own. But they all clearly love and look after each other, and that bodes well for them and rakugo itself. The future will have its share of storm clouds, but it’ll have its share of sunny days, too.
“Changing narratives” (or “descending stories,” as our translated title aptly calls it) has been a large part of Rakugo Shinju from the start and is the central theme of this finale, although the topic often splits into an examination of either change or narratives. The “change” angle is the easiest to discuss, as it’s embodied in our central story and characters: Konatsu is a professional rakugo performer, Yotaro is officially becoming the Ninth Generation, Shinnosuke is now a futatsume, and they’re all celebrating the grand opening of a new theatre.
As always in the world of Rakugo Shinju, this is very much about balancing tradition with movement. All three of our rakugo-ka are taking on old names (Yakumo, Kosukeroku, and Kikuhiko) but bringing their own personalities and performance styles to those titles, creating something new from something familiar. Similarly, our “new” theatre is a replica of the old Uchikutei. It’s not that they’ve resurrected the old world (as the theatre manager told us weeks ago, “even if you rebuilt it to look exactly the same, it wouldn’t be the same”), but they have found a way to reincarnate it, preserving and progressing in equal turns. The old coexisting with the new. Like cherry blossom viewing and rakugo itself, some traditions are worth hanging on to.
At the same time, though, there are signs of significant change as well, most notably in Konatsu’s presence on stage (yay!), but most importantly in the way the current leaders of the rakugo world encourage open-mindedness and change. In Yotaro’s opening speech at the rebuilt Uchikutei, he talks of the “new things we’re trying” and focuses on the importance of the next generation. He describes the rakugo world as one of welcoming and renewal: “a place where old people like me, young people, men and women, easterners and westerners, can start from zero with no barriers around us.”
Compare this to the Seventh Generation (Bon’s master), who got the ball rolling by taking on apprentices who weren’t related by blood but still actively discouraged changes to the performance style itself; or to the Eighth Generation (Bon), who grumbled about change but passively allowed it (“do as you like”) and eventually accepted it. We’d never have heard this speech from our previous Yakumo masters, but those past generations nevertheless laid the groundwork for this moment through incremental shifts in perspective and behavior.
Maybe this, then, is how Rakugo Shinju reconciles its complicated relationship with the ideal of wa (“harmony”; 和). Way back in Season One, the old master used wa as an excuse to expel Sukeroku. Earlier this season, Konatsu used wa as her reason for not pursuing a rakugo career. And it’s true that change can disrupt wa. But wa, our cast have shown us, isn’t about rejecting change, either. A rigid adherence to traditional values in the name of wa is what hurt Shin, Bon, Yurie, and Konatsu. With his criminal past, it could have hurt Yotaro if Bon hadn’t stood up for him. Refusal to change is not wa; in fact it’s just the opposite, because it creates discord by forcing individuals to conform to roles that make them miserable.
To create “harmony (wa) in the hall,” as the sign in Uchikutei constantly reminds us, there must be a willingness to grow. Rakugo Shinju understands that this can be a long process (especially when people like the old master are digging in their heels), sometimes requiring decades of work before, for example, women can be “a part of the wa” in the rakugo world. Even so, it’s insistent that such change is not only possible, but absolutely essential in order to create a world where wa extends to everyone, and not just those benefiting from the current system. At the end of our tale, perfect wa still hasn’t been achieved. But they’re moving towards it even so.
Amidst all these changes, there’s also the somewhat sad recognition that Bon is fading from popular memory as new performers arise and his “hard to understand” stories (as Koyuki puts it) resonate less with younger audiences. He strongly influenced the rakugo world and will continue to do so, but those echoes will grow fainter as time passes, each generation adding their voice to the chorus so that his becomes harder to pick out. Thankfully, he won’t disappear entirely (at least not for a very long while), thanks to his rakugo family’s legacy as well as Higuchi’s exhaustive research. The records will be preserved, and Bon’s story will be told.
Which brings us to the more complicated half of our overarching “changing narratives” exploration: The “narrative” part. Through their interpretation of events, storytellers have a unique power to shape the narratives that influence entire cultures. Audiences possess a similar power, as they can decide which stories to consume, pass on to others, or ignore altogether. As such, history and tradition are as much about the stories we do share as the ones we don’t. And, when it comes to our own stories–our personal narratives–we rarely get the opportunity to decide which is which.
The question of “who controls your narrative” has been with us for a while, ever since Bon first told that altered version of his own history. It’s a crucial question in this episode, one that I think goes a long way in explaining the most off-putting conversation of the entire anime, and the moment that threatened to genuinely derail or outright wreck a fantastic series.
I am of course talking about Higuchi’s fan theory that Shinnosuke is Bon’s son, a headcanon that I s’pose you could cobble together from a few lines of dialogue and a vague physical resemblance, but would be hard-pressed to back up through, you know, Bon and Konatsu’s actual personalities or interactions with one another. It’s a jarring story beat and I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed it (I very much did not), but I do think I’m starting to understand its purpose, at least.
To talk about this, we need to start from the assumption that Higuchi is wrong. This is a safe assumption not just because of textual evidence strongly suggesting that either the gang boss or his son are the father (why would Konatsu take Shin to visit them if they weren’t involved?), but also because Higuchi is always wrong. Higuchi being wrong is a running joke. The rakugo performers are never impressed with his long-winded philosophical musings, and his theory that Yurie was an innocent victim in Bon’s murderous schemes was laughably off the mark. Higuchi has an active imagination and has never liked Bon. He wanted Bon’s life to be full of sordid soap opera details. So of course he came up with this scandalous headcanon. Of course he did.
Higuchi is in many ways an audience stand-in, the outsider with the limited perspective trying to explain the complex, often unspoken worlds of rakugo performers both on-stage and off. The fact that he gets it wrong so often is perhaps a reminder to us at home not to be so quick to slap Definitive Answers onto everything. Circumstances are more complex than we think, people don’t fit neatly into boxes, and there are often multiple interpretations, none of them wholly untrue. (And yes, I realize the irony of my saying that as I tell you that Higuchi Is Wrong, but for what it’s worth I do acknowledge that there are alternate interpretations; I just don’t subscribe to them.)
So if Higuchi is wrong, then why doesn’t Konatsu tell him that? Because Konatsu is a storyteller herself, and a fiercely independent one at that, and she isn’t about to relinquish control of her narrative. She refused to tell her own husband the identity of Shin’s father, neither confirming nor denying anything. She’s sure as hell not going to give Higuchi anything more.
Her body language says a lot here: When he first brings it up, she glares at him, annoyed that’d he broach the subject at all…but then she smirks, as if she’s enjoying watching him scramble around trying to find an answer she’s never going to give him. In this one instance, she has total control over her own narrative, and she intends to keep it.
I don’t think she’s necessarily lying about her complicated feelings for Bon when she was younger (feelings are hard when you’re a teenager), but I do think she shares that information to intentionally obfuscate the truth even further. When she initially refused to talk about it, Higuchi probably assumed he was wrong. Now he’ll never know for sure. And thus Konatsu maintains complete access to the truth, neither confirming nor denying once again.
This provides an important power balance to another controlled narrative: The lie Bon told about what happened the night Konatsu’s parents died. In rewriting the past, Bon thought he’d taken control of the narrative, but the story lived on through first Matsuda and then Yotaro and Higuchi. (Presumably it will die with them, but who can say, really?)
Even so, Konatsu herself still has no idea. In a world of storytellers, not having access to a story puts you in a position of weakness. No access, no control. I think it’s vital that Konatsu have this secret of her own–this “thing you can’t say,” as Yotaro puts it–in order for her to wield power in her own right. She’s a storyteller too, after all. It’s only fair that she and Yotaro be equals in all things, including the tales they keep to themselves.
It’s also another reflection, as Bon lied to Konatsu and now Konatsu and Yotaro are lying to Shinnosuke. Older generations withholding information from the younger in an attempt to protect them from trouble or pain. (Whether they should keep those secrets is debatable, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue it doesn’t come from a place of love.) All adults are storytellers, holding the power to shape the narratives that children live by. Through these difficult familial secrets, Rakugo Shinju argues that it’s sometimes kinder to let certain stories be lost to time so we can free the next generation from the weight of a past they cannot change. Better to encourage them to look forward and write their own stories instead.
On a brighter and thoroughly heartwarming note, the series itself makes an important decision about the narratives it chooses to share as well, giving 95-year-old Matsuda a chance to at last tell his own story. While he couldn’t make it as a rakugo-ka himself, he has in many ways become the keeper of its history, a compassionate sentinel who’s stood watch over three generations of Yakumo masters, collecting stories both public and personal.
He chose to become a somewhat literal supporting character, but that doesn’t make his life any less fulfilling or his story less important. Matsuda was the unsung hero of the series, loving and steadfast, helping to hold things together when he could and to pick up the pieces when they fell apart. He deserves to be remembered just as much as our performers. Through this final tale, Rakugo Shinju reminds us that everyone has a narrative worthy of sharing. It’s just up to them to tell it–and up to us to ask.
And so, as Higuchi is wrong once again, Yotaro optimistically assures us of rakugo’s survival, and the voices of performers both living and deceased echo on through the star-strewn sky, we come to the end of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju. I don’t think there’s any way for me to neatly summarize my feelings for this show except to say that it’s a modern masterpiece, a nigh-perfectly crafted series featuring some of the most impressive direction, writing, acting, and cinematography that visual storytelling has to offer.
It was a love letter to the performance arts, a thoughtful exploration of storytelling, a powerful meditation on the inevitability of change, a quiet challenge of gender norms, a beautiful tale of found families and forgiveness, and a nuanced character study featuring an array of complex, contradictory figures and a fascinatingly layered protagonist. It was an analytical feast and an emotional haymaker, warming and breaking my heart in equal measures. Director Hatakeyama has proven himself one of the standout talents in the industry and Akira Ishida gave the finest performance of his already splendid career.
Simply put, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is a phenomenal piece of fiction and easily one of the top five anime I’ve ever seen. More to the point, it made me care deeply for its cast and I loved the hell out of it. I’m thrilled that I was able to watch this as it was airing, honored that I had the chance to talk about it for 25 episodes, and beyond grateful that Kumota Haruko and Studio DEEN gave us this incredible series in the first place.
This one is going to stay with me for a long while. With luck, it will be remembered within the medium as well, passed down and echoing through the years just like Bon’s rakugo. After all–something this good should never go away.
This, That, and the Other
- This is an excellent place for this story to end and I am thoroughly satisfied with it…but I’d happily watch another season about Shinnosuke and Koyuki, no question.
- Timeline check-in! Thanks to Higuchi’s notebook and Matsuda actually telling us his age (unlike everyone else in this show), we know that Matsuda was 72 the summer before Shinnosuke was born (1988) and is 95 now, so we’re at about the spring of 2011 (with some wiggle room depending on when Matsuda’s birthday falls). Admittedly, there are some references that don’t quite gel with this (mostly surrounding the “big quake out west” and when Shin enters elementary school), but I’m not going to nitpick ’em over that.
- I will nitpick ’em over this, though: It’s an odd choice to declare Konatsu the “first female rakugo performer in history” given that the first women achieved the rank of shin’uchi in the early 1990s. I guess they wanted to make her accomplishment more of a landmark moment, but I’m not keen on the idea of erasing 20 years of professional female rakugo performers for the sake of a narrative beat that would’ve been just as satisfying without it.
- This Week in Rakugo: Shinnosuke begins with “Hatsutenjin,” the story of a child demanding to be taken along, and Yotaro ends with “Shinigami,” the story of an adult begging not to leave just yet. A promise that the eternal conflict between generations will continue, both on the stage and off of it. Some things really never do change, huh?
Posted by Josei Next Door
Posted on March 26, 2017 at 7:57 pm
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