Reading Between Reviews: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu (Season 1)

Do you know what Rakugo is?

Don’t worry, I didn’t know either.

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, a Winter 2016 anime, wasn’t- at least to my knoweldge- a very popular watch.  However, searching around for a new anime to get started on, many people lauded this one as one of the best of the season- so of course, me being me, I started wondering why.  It wasn’t very mystical, it didn’t have any huge action scenes, and definitely wasn’t renowned for being exciting: so, why was it good?

Telling the story of people who love to perform the performing, story-telling art of Rakugo, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu honestly surprised me.  It did certainly live up to the hype: but, it felt a lot different than any anime I’ve watched before.  Unique, touching, and surprisingly simple, this anime was quite the interesting watch: let me explain why.

1. Story 8.9/10 (Great)

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We get a rather simple, yet misleading start: a convict, Yotarou, fresh out of prison, wishes to learn the art of Rakugo. However, the master he goes to, one Yakumo Yuurakutei, is a master for a reason- he has a long past, a simple one, perhaps, but certainly gives him reason to go on, doing the art he loves. Wrapped inexplicably, inexorably, with the life of fellow Rakugo performer, Sukeroku, we learn about this old master’s long history, why he does what he does, and how his name, Kikuhiko, became lost to time.

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The story of an old man, and his journey from youth to masterhood, is in and of itself, a simple story. If you were to write about it, sum it all up, you could probably get it down in less than a page. However, for all this story’s simplicity, it is completely jam-packed with life- real, honest, powerful. With all the pains you’d expect from life, all the different kinds of people you meet, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu addressess them: frames them all, in the context of two men who love Rakugo.

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That being said, I do have to say that, the story relies almost entirely on your bond with the characters it presents, and that takes some time.  Because of this fact, the beginning of the series lags just a little bit, as you learn to grow to like the characters.  Also if you don’t like the characters, then…don’t know what to say, you might not like it as much as the next person.  However, thanks to exceptionally complex, wonderfully crafted characters, I don’t think many people will run into that particular problem.

2. Characters 9.3/10 (Exceptional)

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The characters are complex, all lovable in their own way, but almost certainly flawed. They feel very, very real, and I honestly can’t think of any way I could do them differently. Almost every moderately important character feels hugely developed, given individual motivations, and made to be, if not “relatable,” certainly understandable.

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As said before, season one focuses on the growth of Kikuhiko, and his interactions with fellow Rakugo student, Sukeroku.  Kikuhiko in particular is a straight-edge student with a messed up leg, needing a cane from young age, and trying his best to display good, perfectionist Rakugo.  On the other hand, Sukeroku, beggar off the streets, is a prodigy, naturally gifted with bombastic, exciting Rakugo, but drinks, sleeps around, and disrespects the masters.  These two, however, share their love of the performing art, and together, promise to do their best to carry it into the next generation.

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The contrasting views of the two main characters, Sukeroku and Kikuhiko, are absolutely what make this anime one of the best. Their dynamic is adversarial at times, vitrolic and strange, but it’s so, so, so real. Their care for each other is apparent, their jealousy, their complex relationship was done so, so well.  Even when you consider side characters, they are just so, so well written.  If they’re important to the plot in any respect, you can bet there’s more to them than meets the eye.

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These characters are a huge part of why the world of the anime is so full of life.  Other anime create a world that is full of adventure, full of new things to learn: but, the setting of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu isn’t like that: it’s just old-time Japan.  However, the people that live in this world- a world of performers, a harsh, conservative time, of masters and apprentices- the people that live in that world are dynamic, complicated, and unique.   can’t emphasize enough just how good the writing in this show is, making these characters feel alive- honestly, it’s probably some of the best character development I’ve ever seen in an anime.

3. Art/Style 9.2/10 (Exceptional)

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Artistically speaking, it’s simple, but oddly beautiful. The mood is set with simple colors, that call back to traditional Japanese culture. However, it certainly feels that all the right details are emphasized. It does not have intense, powerful, fast animation, like other great works do, but its use of color, small movements, facial details, is absolutely wonderful.  Add to that surprisingly dynamic, varied camera angles, and you have Rakugo performances that feel alive, and emotional scenes that are given that extra oomph they need to really make an impact.

The music of the show is jazzy, old-fashioned, and honestly rather simple. It sets a great, classic mood, but if you’re looking for stand out tracks, this series does not have it. However, despite being simple at points it definitely does the job when it needs to. Featuring great piano work, wonderful jazz pieces, and elegant string melodies, the series does exactly what it sets out to do.

 

However, the highest point of the show, is almost certainly the voice acting. I do not speak Japanese, nor am I really very good at noticing good or bad voice acting. However, for an anime such as this, focusing on the storytelling prowess of its characters, voice acting is key, and boy, these VA’s strut their stuff. From the Rakugo performances, to the more simplistic and powerful scenes, the performance of the VA’s feel emotional, energetic, and raw.

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Combining all these factors together: art style, musicality, and top tier voice acting, creates one more thing, almost naturally: a distinct control over the atmosphere and tone of the series.  During a Rakugo performance, you can feel energy, hype, and excitement, emphasized by wonderful jazz music, as well as life, thanks to very, very well-done camera angles, which give the performances a life of their own.  But, by the same token, another performance can be hugely different: subtle changes in the music, the voice acting, the perspective; they all combine to create an unsettling, melancholic atmosphere, just as easily as it creates an exciting one.

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This anime, all in all, knows what it’s trying to do: and it does it.  At no point does it feel half-assed, and at no point, is the audience confused about what to feel.  It doesn’t blow your mind out of the water with mind-blowing animation, but it does the job it needs to: which, honestly, was rather refreshing, experiencing such simple, yet well-done storytelling.

4. Personal Enjoyment 9.4/10 (Exceptional)

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You know, I didn’t know what to expect from Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. Just coming off of Orange, I guess I was still riding the mellow feels train, so this is what I decided to watch. Starting the anime, I’ll be honest, wasn’t exactly the best thing in the world- it felt slow, trying a bit too hard to be artsy, and not as engaging as I would have liked.

However, 6 episodes in, and I was hooked.  The stories of the characters just drew me in, as I got to learn more about who they were, why they did what they did, and how they interacted with each other.  From their rakugo performances, to the ins and outs of their romantic and personal lives, these flawed characters created a wonderful, marvelous story: one that feels like a Rakugo performance in and of itself.

And, what do you know: the second season’s final episode is on March 25th.  Just enough time to catch up!  If the second season’s anywhere near as good as the first, then man, I’ll be a happy camper.

Final Rating: 9.2/10 (Exceptional)

Recommended If: You can enjoy and appreciate Japanese culture, or you’re in the mood for a more simple, emotional anime with lots of heart.

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