Remember 2017 part 10: Rakugo Reborn

Rakugo-Shinju

And moving up one place from last year, Rakugo Shinjuu is my anime of the year. Those 25 episodes of following Bon’s life story, from the lonely child trying to find himself a place in the world, to the Rakugo master who has lost the two most important people to him in the world, and thankfully, through to the gentle happiness that surrounds him at the end of his life. It really stings that I wasn’t able to write a post about it this year—the ideas swirling around in my head require a fair amount of research, not to mention a rewatch, and time is not a luxury that I have right now.

But let me take this opportunity to draw attention to one detail that caught my eye–or rather, my eye and ear–when the last episode dropped. It involves “Shinigami,” the rakugo story that the eighth generation Yakumo was renown for. This story is about a man who makes a Faustian deal with a god of death, allowing him to make money off other people reaching the end of their lives, only for it to eventually cost him his own. For Yakumo and the people he performed it for, the story was a warning about the vice of greed, it ended in a deadening silence into which applause then crept in, breaking the spell.

“Shinigami” is also the last story that we see performed in Rakugo Shinjuu, with Yotaro taking on his master’s signature work just as he takes on his title. And different though his style is, his performance calls to mind the grim atmosphere that his predecessor always conjured…until the last moment, where, instead of keeling over, the man instead gasps and breathes a sigh of relief, “Oh…just a dream?” inviting the laughter of the audience.

Rakugo-Shinju-2  Rakugo-Shinju-1

I noticed this quite a few months ago, when I skimmed through the show again trying to organise how I thought about it. It struck me as a pretty interesting detail, so I was surprised to find that no one I knew had even mentioned it. Hence, I looked up some rakugo performances to see whether the same thing had happened in the real world…and indeed, there are a few variations on the story that turn the ending into an amusing one. When I asked Dr. Till Weingartner about it, he informed me that there have always been performers who tried something new. In fact, there has been something of a divide between traditionalists and modernists for much of the post-war era. The former dominated until two masters passed away at the beginning of this centry, after which rakugo has apparently become a bit freer. Isn’t it cool how so much of this is echoed in Rakugo Shinjuu?

This is how rakugo has survived, as a living, breathing art that has continuously adapted itself for its audiences. And it makes my stay herein Japan even more daunting, for I’ve been seriously considering checking rakugo out this time around. By the sounds of it, this could be a very dangerous time sink! But nevertheless…care to join me at the theater sometime?

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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