Studio: Studio Deen
While serving time in prison, our leading man Yotaro witnesses a rakugo performance and instantly falls in love with the art form. On his release with no money, family or job to speak of, he sets out to track down the master rakugo performer Yakumo in order to become his apprentice. Taken in on good graces Yotaro is able to enter the world of rakugo, but can he survive the challenge of being the apprentice of an age-old master whose life may be darker than it first appears?
This was a late pick-up for me as I don’t have much interest in rakugo but this was a surprisingly good first episode. Studio Deen appear to have taken an old and out-dated form of theatre and given it a stage to show off its best points around a rags-to-riches story of a lowlife who breaks his duck.
Rakugo, an old form of theatre were one performer tells a story using an array of vocal changes to represent different characters, is always going to be a hard-sell, particularly with a younger audience (in Japan it is seen as something for the old and retired). Joshiraku managed to turn it on its head a bit with the cute young girl factor, but with this being aimed more at adults the crass otaku fan-pandering isn’t going to work here. Instead what we have is a cast of very endearing and genuine characters that really light up the screen. Yotaro’s babbling voice is provided by Tomokazu Seki, who should be applauded for firstly getting across the character’s obsessive enthusiasm and for then translating that into an intense rakugo monologue. While starting off as a bumbling fool, Yotaro grows impressively in this first double-length episode to the point of which he is pushing past the phantoms of his old life of crime, with Yotaro and his old gang leader bouncing rakugo and laughter off each other in a breathtaking performance.
There’s some interesting plays between the old gruff mentor Yakumo and his two lodgers as Yotaro begings to drift towards the style of Yakumo’s old performance partner Sukeroku. Introducing a grizzly subplot about Sukeroku dying in an accident is probably going to work as a smart move, as with such a visual medium you can’t drive this with endless rakugo performances. Sukeroku’s daughter Konatsu seems to pin the blame on Yakumo, and with the two living in the same house there’s already sparks flying – hopefully Yotaro’s involvement can whip that up and reveal what actually happened. It’s probably going to be nicer than this is all making out, but there’s certainly some excitement in there as you have to question if Yakumo really did kill his partner as the opening scenes would suggest.
The plot’s not all it has going for it though, as Studio Deen pulls off some good achievements to get this looking visually impressive in a show about, well… sitting down and making gestures occasionally. Camera angle switches are paced and timed with the storytelling, facial emotions are vivid, wild and changing, and there’s an incredible amount of detail as beads of sweat run down the neck. They are trying to make these performances as tense as possible to capture your attention and they do it well.
Calling this “Showa Era Rakugo” is a bit of a stretch in representing that period due to its length (mid 1920s to the end of the 80s) in which Japan was still culturally in the midst of its catch-up to the west. The prison in which Yotaro was incarcerated is fairly contemporary and westernised, but as soon as we turn into the city we have traditional wooden buildings and carts. It paints a contrast that works really well as it transports you into the past.
It’s certainly something different from your usual anime fluff, and seems like it is going to be a proper adult-oriented piece of animation. It is going to be very difficult for it to get past rakugo’s boring old-world stigma, and from this first episode I don’t think younger anime viewers would have the patience to sit through the routines, but for an older audience with an open mind this is a solid piece of entertainment.