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Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju Episode #03 Anime Review

6 min read

Shouwa3x1Everything changes with the onset of war.

What They Say:
Episode 3 – After their first performance, Kikuhiko sharply feels the difference in skill between himself and Hatsutaro. Hatsutaro recommends he try erotic stories, but Kikuhiko is struggling so hard just to memorize the beginner stories, he can’t even begin to consider anything else. The fact that he has to go to school in the mornings causes the gap between him and Hatsutaro, who can spend the day learning rakugo, to grow wider. Even so, he gradually comes to love rakugo more and more, and to develop something of a normal life. But the shadow of the war approaches, tearing rakugo, love, and friendship apart…

The Review:
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Yakumo takes center stage in this episode and the tale of his development and his narrative is very compelling, but what’s fascinating is how elements of history are woven into the story and add flavor and complexity to his character arc.

Hatsutaro and Kikuhiko continue their apprenticeship, but as Hatsutaro continually improves, Kikuhiko finds himself stymied by all manner of real-life concerns. He doesn’t have Hatsuta’s natural gift to hold an audience captive, and the fact that he spends much of the day at school means that he doesn’t get nearly the same length of time to practice his Rakugo stories. He finds himself struggling to memorize his beginner’s routines while Hatsuta has moved on to more complicated tales that feature his personality more. Kiku is torn between wanting to give up, and being motivated by watching his best friend’s successes. As to be expected, though, his path begins to open as he start to add more experiences under his belt.

A first love (and a first break-up) begin to add nuance to his emotions, but it’s the onset of World War II and the upheaval it causes that eventually leads Kikuhiko to a place where he can flourish. His master chooses to take Hatsutaro to Manchuria to entertain the military, while Kikuhiko takes his master’s wife to the country to avoid much of the violence and conflict that hit Japan’s main cities. As they wait, day after day, for their return, Kiku and the woman who has essentially become his adopted parent begin to waste away. It’s only once they start losing contact with those important to them that they both make the decision to live. Kikuhiko begins performing Rakugo privately in order to make a meager living and begins to develop as a performer, and acknowledging the role the Rakugo has begun to play in his life only drives him further. When his master and his friend return his change in attitude is apparent, and the two students swiftly rise in their rank as a Japanese public hungry to be entertained return to the theaters in droves.

Shouwa3x2Things appear to be going well for the two young men, but as with all things, this perfect time in their lives can’t last forever.

I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop as the conflict between our two central characters starts to develop. It appears that the woman who is likely at the center of it all makes her appearance in episode 4 and I’m already bracing myself to wrestle with how that is all portrayed; while I’m a fan of these tales of friendship between men, it’s often the women in their lives who end up as plot elements rather than human beings, and that’s not fun to watch. But whatever the future holds, that has little bearing on the fact that this episode was very strong and featured several emotional moments that really grabbed me.

I feel a lot of kinship with Kikuhiko, because he exists in a place that I think many of us can relate to. He’s expected to do a job, and it’s not the type of job that he may have chosen for himself in a world where he was free to do what he felt passionate about. He constantly has to watch someone with natural talent outperform him while expending little effort, while he spends most of his evenings working hard to perform at an incredibly basic level. His frustration is palpable, and my heart really ached on his behalf.

I think many of us who have grown up hearing “you can do anything you put your mind to!” and “do what you love!” end up experiencing this same frustration on some level, because the honest truth is that most of us end up having to take into account financial concerns and really can’t sit around doing the things that make us most happy while expecting to get paid a living wage. I’m an artistically-minded person who works in a typical office setting – the discord between what I ideally would want to be doing with my time and what I’m actually doing in order to pay my bills has occasionally caused me some sadness. But I think many of us eventually reach a crossroads where we can choose to embrace what it is we’re required to do and find some happiness and accomplishment in that, rather than choosing to spend our lives depressed about the things we’re not doing. It doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on drawing or writing – those are the things that add vibrancy to my free time. But I also enjoy getting my day-to-day work done and interacting with my co-workers. There is a different kind of satisfaction to be found there.

Watching Kikuhiko as he eventually finds his place within Rakugo is therefore really satisfying, since it suggests that performing a duty that you weren’t “born” for really doesn’t spell doom for your entire sense of self, and that being gifted isn’t the only way to master a skill.

Shouwa3x3

One thing about this series that I’ve been really enjoying so far is its ability to show the complexity in its characters. Mostly this has meant Yakumo/Kikuhiko since he’s had the most screen time and the extended flashback is told from his perspective. What I appreciate is that he comes across as kind of a typical “cold-hearted” guy, one that you’d be likely to find in any anime that featured a cast of many different male characters, and yet his personality and behavior are understandable and he’s definitely nuanced underneath the face he presents to the world. One thing that occasionally bothers me about anime in particular is its reliance on character archetypes as shorthand that doesn’t require any further explanation. Already, though, we’ve been presented with such a clear window in to the character’s life that his coldness makes sense.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the treatment of the War in this episode, in that it’s presented in an incredibly matter-of-fact way. It affects the patronage at the theaters, it draws Hatsutaro away from Kikuhiko, but as the history-altering event that it was, it appears as nothing much but the Emperor’s address on the radio. It’s an interesting way of presenting the event, and it helps to demonstrate the emotional priorities of both Kiku and his master’s wife.

In Summary:
I got teased by someone close to me when I mentioned that this episode had made me a little bit weepy. “It’s just the third episode!” they laughed. It hasn’t taken long to get invested in this story and I’m really appreciating the decision to spend so much time elaborating on Yakumo’s history. It’s surprising to consider just how often this kind of character development goes unsaid until some “important,” over-dramatic point in a story, and how that can make it feel really cheap and manipulative. This way reduces the “cliffhanger” effect, but the story overall feels more sophisticated and I appreciate the opportunity to get to know the characters organically.

Grade: A-

Streamed By: Crunchyroll

Review Equipment:
Samsung Galaxy S5 running the Crunchyroll app at 1080p.