A period piece drama about an obscure Japanese performing art, aimed at adults, is not what people have come to expect from anime. It certainly was a change of pace from what I’m used to. Even Anime I consider to be aimed at older audiences are usually action shows, science fiction, or character based deconstructions, but there is a certain class about Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju that I don’t see from a lot of Anime.
This is a show about Rakugo, a performing art where one actor in robes sits before an audience and tells a story, performing all the different characters by changing their voices and body language on the spot. One of the coolest things about this show is seeing this performing art in action. There are extensive scenes in this Anime dedicated to the performances alone and they are a delight to watch.
Given how complex the Japanese language is, I was worried that the humor of these performances would go over my head, but even on the occasions when a reference is thrown in that I don’t understand, there is something magnetic and simple about all these stories that add icing to the main plot. Speaking of which, the plot is a complex character study dripping with drama.
The story begins in the 80’s with a young man named Yotaro being released from prison. Right after getting out of the slammer, he gets a nice suit, a haircut and then heads to a Rakugo theater to see his idol, Yuurakutei Yakumo, a legendary actor who performed for Yotaro and his fellow inmates in prison. Yotaro, now free, asks to be Yakumo’s apprentice.
After convincing Yakumo, Yotaro moves in with him and meets Konatsu, a young woman with a love for Rakugo who has been raised by Yakumo ever since her parents died. She is convinced that Yakumo is responsible for their deaths, and hates him.
After some time wherein Yotaro has begun to perform Rakugo under his master’s tutelage, both he and Konatsu sit with Yakumo, who tells his life story, from early childhood to becoming a shin’uchi, the highest level of Rakugo performer. It is within this story that we also learn the story of Konatsu’s parents.
This is where the second story of Rakugo begins and it is a story that spans the rest of the first season. It tells the story of a young Yakumo before he inherited that name from his master and his friendship with the loud obnoxious and silly Sukeroku, the man who would eventually become Konatsu’s father.
At first, such a sudden change in the story may seem jarring, especially since the show had an hour-long premiere to establish the characters in the present. Never the less, the story that makes up the majority of this show is certainly nothing to scoff at, and it is carried by some stellar characters.
At the beginning of Yakumo’s story, we learn that the life of a Rakugo performer was forced upon him at a young age when an injury robbed him of the ability to become a dancer. His original name was forgotten and instead, his new master gave him the name Kikuhiko (I will be referring to him as that from this point onward). For much of his childhood, he lacks the inspiration to become a good performer, while his childhood friend is the opposite.
Shin is a rather poor child who actually wants to learn Rakugo and even insists that his new name becomes that of the man who taught him what he already knows. And so Kikuhiko and Sukeroku become two disciples ascending up the ladder of this fascinating supporting art, both characters living closely together even into young adulthood. Kikuhiko lacks a style he can call his own early on and looks to Sukeroku as an inspiration if a little bit as a competitor.
Their chemistry is the greatest source of levity in the show. Kikuhiko’s constant straightlaced behavior and studying in contrast to Sukeroku’s drunken debauchery and fooling around with women, yet they both hilariously remain on the same level in terms of talent. Their bond is the thesis behind the shows strongest theme. They both promise each other that they will help keep Rakugo alive.
With the changing times, forms of expression can become less and less popular, and we see first hand the way that the changing times can begin to wear away at the staying power of an art form and the beautiful Rakugo performances in tandem with the narrative help the audience get invested in the fate of Rakugo as well.
Rakugo was produced by Studio Deen, who are recently known for Konosuba and more historically known for shows like Fruits Basket, Vampire Knight, Is This A Zombie and many other shows that are greatly different from the type of show that Rakugo is. The animation isn’t anything too complex but it doesn’t really need to be given the subject matter. The period piece backgrounds and art direction are beautiful. The character designs by Hosoi Meiko capture the souls of these characters very well.
Rakugo isn’t for everyone. The first episode alone is 48 long and some may be turned off by the sudden change in only the second episode. Additionally, the show is primarily about artists trying to keep their art form alive, finding their calling, and the trouble of mixing one’s career with one’s love life. However, those who stay will find a complex character drama that teaches you about an art form you may have never known about.
This show is a much watch for those looking for more mature Anime to watch. The first season is 13 episodes and there is a second season out as well. I intend to review the second season as well. The show is available for legal streaming on Crunchyroll.
If you have any recommendations for any other mature Anime series then don’t hesitate to recommend them. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time.