The time is the 1970’s. A young man is getting out of prison, with nowhere to go. But he does have a desperate plan. So he goes to the theater door of a man he saw perform only once before – at the prison – and pleads to become his apprentice in the art of rakugo.
Rakugo is usually described as a form of Japanese comedy. As this show points out early, that’s not entirely true. It’s more a blend of storytelling and acting, where the storyteller takes on all the parts. It is now regarded as high culture and performed in theaters, but it started out as just storytellers in the marketplace, sitting on mats. So the storyteller doesn’t take up much space or move around a lot, but he strives to create a whole world. Many of the stories are funny, but there’s also a tradition of scary stories.
So it’s an audacious career idea for a young man who’s totally inexperienced, but it’s not impossible. The master storyteller renames him “Yotaro” (an old-fashioned expression for “fool” that apparently shows up a lot in rakugo), but he accepts him as an apprentice. Yotaro turns out to be a hard worker and to have a good heart, and he openly supports the people around him. One of these is Konatsu, raised as a daughter of the house but actually the orphaned daughter of a famed rakugo storyteller. Although once it was just not done for women to do rakugo, Yotaro straightforwardly recognizes her skill and learns from her, while also asking the master to make her an apprentice too.
But it won’t all be that easy for Yotaro. His past follows him and causes him trouble, just as their pasts follow his master and his sempai, Konatsu. Somehow, they must reconcile the past while finding their own paths into the future. Because the problem with a traditional artform is that it has to stay enthralling to audiences in order to survive….
Visually, this show is gorgeous, albeit done in muted tones. The voice acting is also tremendous. (I’m pretty sure that the guy who plays Nyanta in Log Horizon is playing one of the small parts.) But even though it’s a “cultural” show, it’s not inaccessible to us Westerners; and it’s interesting that the anime art seems to be pointing out the debt that anime owes to traditional Japanese storytellers as well as to Japanese drama conventions. (As apparently the josei manga it’s based on was doing for manga art.) It will also be very interesting for anyone who’s ever performed in public, because it catches that feel very well. But as is fitting for a show about storytelling, it’s just a darned good story!
Episodes of this show are 47 minutes long, so you get a full drama-length TV show every week. That’s needed, because each episode apparently covers a lot of ground!
I recommend this show. Like Yotaro, it has a good heart.
Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju* is available on Crunchyroll. The first ep will be available to non-subscribers (free with commercials) starting next Friday.