Watching Konatsu’s performance in episode 4- which instantly became one of my favorite character moments in this anime- I realized that the rakugo performances in this anime have things to draw parallels to the character writing (the only other anime I can remember off the top of my head which integrates character writing into a performance so explicitly is Yuri!! On Ice).
So I decided to start writing a post in which I will talk about how I felt the performance was integrated into character expression in this anime. If you haven’t watched Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju (the first season)- this is a spoiler post. I will also say that most of this commentary is (sappy) speculative from my part; I haven’t read the manga, so I don’t know whether the manga is framed in the same way the anime was and I am not familiar with Shinichi Omata’s other works (I haven’t watched Sankarea) so my comments on his directing style may not be well-educated.
Well enough of that disgustingly defensive dialogue, the performance that I will be talking (writing) about is Kikuhiko’s (Yakumo’s) performance of “Shinigami” in episode 10 of the first season.
Some information on the Rakugo story performed
The story is written by 19th century author Sanyutei Encho I.
It is about how a Shinigami (a death god) blesses a doctor with the fortune and the power to see shinigami (and know whether his patient could be cured or not) and tells him that he can dispel death gods through magic words; the death god then returns and plays around with his life when the doctor (ironically) becomes bedridden. The death god challenges the human to transfer his life (flame) to another candle but the man inevitably fails and dies. Basically, this story just consolidates the obvious- all humans are doomed and blessed to die. Apparently, this story draws inspiration from a German fairy tale (Godfather Death) and Luigi’s opera named Crispino e la comare (The Cobbler and the Fairy).
The anime heavily distills this story’s length from around 28 minutes (this version is more comedic) to a 3 minute 30 second animation piece. But the outline of the story is still comprehensible and the show made it visually engaging enough to not be overly irked with the jumps in story line. But I feel that this shortening was essential, not only because it is a waste of time and money dramatizing an entire story (this anime isn’t a rakugo manual or any such compilation), but also to highlight Kikuhiko’s sentimentality in this ‘unsentimental’ piece- void of the expected dark comedy; I must say that the animators did a good job in integrating Kikuhiko’s character into this performance.
Episodic background: In episode 10, Kikuhiko’s master passes away, and the mentally strong Kikuhiko goes to perform the day after his funeral.
Breakdown of his performance
For reference, I will be posting time frames (approximate) for the moments I will be commenting on. Even if you don’t want to go through the hassle, I will be posting screencaps to (hopefully) jog up your memory.
(14.10- 15.30 minutes) Kikuhiko gets on the stage with a mind clouded with thoughts about being totally lonely and feels the ‘coldness’ of the audience’s atmosphere (empathy for his loss mixed with curiosity- which, I have to agree, doesn’t amount to a light-hearted and warm effusion). Kikuhiko thinks that performing a sentimental rakugo would be easy, but that wouldn’t be ‘his rakugo’. So, he starts performing “Shinigami”- a rakugo performance he would later be well-known for.
There isn’t much to read between the lines or speculate in this time frame- because Kikuhiko’s thoughts are laid out as bare as they can get- he is slightly nervous and he seems to want to disconnect himself from the audience since his greeting was a short ‘Hello there’.
(15.30- 17.10 minutes) This portion of the performance has pretty much standard shot framing for most of the time (except when the show subtly shows us Kikuhiko disconnecting from the nervous side of him when he was acting as the shinigami).
Kikuhiko leads himself and the audience into the story: he throws himself into the spiral (when he says “Amazing. I can see the shinigami perfectly.. Clear as day… “) but he realizes that he isn’t really alone he is still under the cloud of scrutiny from the audience. Therefore, Kikuhiko’s confidence in his performance seemed to flicker with the candles’ flames and he draws a similar metaphor to highlight the importance of maintaining a critical balance in midst of the audience’s capricious but intense tension. His voice cracks during his incantation but on the next immediate moment, he regains his confidence.
(17.12-19.02 minutes) As Kikuhiko realizes that he threw himself in the ebb and flow of his rakugo- his face cracks a smile. With a clap of his hand after he recites “Pa.” the audience’s tension and presence flicker out; and Kikuhiko attains loneliness with his candles.
His character as the shinigami becomes more sadistic and heartfelt and the tension that Kikuhiko constantly mentions folds into pillars of burning wax and Kikuhiko leaves the audience behind. He continues on his deep frenzy, not giving a care to his surroundings, and the show becomes all about him- just as the death god snatches away the life, Kikuhiko snatches away 90 seconds of airtime- with him being the sole subject of each and every shot. The music helped set up quite an atmosphere, too.
A similar thing happened in his performance in episode 6: he first drew the audience into his performance and slowly he let go of the leash and falls off the stage’s cliff into the whirlpools of his rakugo. But that time, he was being sentimental- he had an air of retribution to the successful performance of Hatsutaro (Sukeroku). I think that was his best performance because he was performing by himself, for himself and since he already pulled in the audience into his story-telling: he was also unintentionally performing rakugo for the audience as well.
So this is the beautiful irony behind the purpose and execution of Kikuhiko’s performance. He starts off his performance aiming to not become sentimental and tries detach himself from the shackles of the audience’s gaze upon him. But in the end, he doesn’t fully succeed- his execution ends up being emotional about his deep want to perform rakugo by himself and for himself. Then again, he didn’t really fail- he was successful in attaining moments of solitude (from the grief of his master’s death and the weight of his master’s name). This shot goes to show that the way Kikuhiko finds consolation during grievance is just by being alone.
I also have to express my (excessive) praise for the simple but layered directing in this time frame. The diminished letterbox frame fits perfectly with the mind set Kikuhiko was in the later parts of his performance. The anime respects Kikuhiko’s selfish wants by not showing us the audience again- but still lets us hear the applause; to show us that the audience wasn’t disconnected at all, they were still watching and they loved it.
Like they say (or they don’t say), if the story is entertaining, you would still enjoy it even if the author doesn’t care whether you did or not. That may be the paradox of story-telling or even writing itself: you do it for others, yet you do it for yourself.