A Performance to Feel

A Performance to Feel (A Shouwa Genroku Analysis)

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu (from here on: ShoRoku for the sake of my hands) shows only as much, says only as much, and does only as much as it needs to. Like the rakugo it depicts, ShoRoku allows us to understand a complex story despite comparatively minimalistic storytelling. As quickly and implicitly as we learn the characters of a rakugo performance, we’re able to make meaning from the smallest of hints in the show. ShoRoku asks us to let up on our imagination’s leash and experience the details of the story for ourselves. Let’s explore Episode 6 and figure out how this series is a rakugo performance all its own.

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If we’re going to compare to rakugo, of course we need to start at voices. Kikuhiko and Sukeroku can be viewed as two characters in a skit, and their voice acting as two separate voices from the same rakugo performer. Kikuhiko’s voice is always controlled, like he’s holding it tight in his chest and only letting words escape once he’s carefully chosen them. Sukeroku’s voice bounces from quick and high to rolling and low, instantly informing us of his mercurial personality—goofy one second, but serious about rakugo the next. This is voice acting, and every show is going to have its voice actors portray the characters’ personalities, but the difference in these particular characters’ voices plays directly into the plot.

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Sukeroku tells Kikuhiko his voice isn’t suited for some stories and that he excels at “sexy” ones. Kikuhiko becomes frustrated upon realizing that the solution to his long struggle to find “[his] rakugo” was as simple as playing to the strengths of his voice. He simply can’t act out characters his voice isn’t suited for—the two have to match. Just as in a rakugo performance, the characters and the voices have to match, as their voice is their most (really, only) defining feature. Given that we’ve seen Sukeroku play a range of goofy (such as Goemon from Episode 6’s skit) and serious (such as the King of Hell) characters, we know how well a performer’s voice can be utilized. It comes as no surprise that the geisha-trained Kikuhiko finds his footing in stories about geisha courtesans. We can feel him settling in.

But, of course, we’re watching something here. How do the visuals touch our imagination?

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Being that rakugo is a live performance, we ought to have some understanding of the audience. ShoRoku wastes no time in using the fictional audiences exactly as it needs. Beyond necessary realistic elements like laughter, we’re sometimes treated to shots of audience members whispering to each other or leaning forward to show their interest. Yet, that all seems basic.

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An interesting example, an example that stirs our imagination and makes us feel the rakugo, comes during Kikuhiko’s performance. As the geisha character decides on a partner for a lover’s suicide, Kikuhiko draws his eyes across the audience. We then see a man in the crowd snap to attention.

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By the layout of the theater and the details of Kikuhiko’s performance, we can begin to imagine what’s happening. Kikuhiko is bringing the audience into his performance by making eye contact with the man, suggesting he’s the geisha’s choice for a partner. Nothing in Kikuhiko’s head tells us this is true. No obvious edit or shot tells us this is true. But just enough info is present for us to let our brains imagine that that is what’s happening, and that imagining is how we can feel Kikuhiko’s performance come to life.

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And it does come to life. The story begins to invade the stage, but never fully, never so much that we’re able to forget that this is a performance. At one point, make up and a screen overlap and veil Kikuhiko’s face. Later, we see a normal Kikuhiko, but the stage has transformed into a geisha parlor or a dock. ‘Reality’ never fades away entirely because this is a show about rakugo, not the stories rakugo tells. When we see the docks and then return to the rakugo stage, we continue to imagine Kikuhiko’s skit playing out at those docks we just saw. We don’t just watch on him onstage, we take his performance and project it onto the scenery lingering in our memory. We’re pulled into the skit much in the same way the audience member was. One brief suggestion starts our imagination, and we have a hard time stopping that imagination.

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Details like this extend beyond enhancing the rakugo skits. There are many gaps in every episode that we as viewers are left to fill in.

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When the lighting centers on Kikuhiko’s eyes and then the show cuts to a similar lighting effect on Sukeroku’s acting, we can bridge that gap by inferring exactly where Kikuhiko is looking, and how focused on that point he is.

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When Sukeroku leans back and puts his hand on his chin, we can imagine what he’s thinking about. Kikuhiko has just gotten the crowd to respond to his rakugo, and some tantalizing music has just begun to play. We can imagine he’s impressed/proud of his friend, and is contemplating their futures in rakugo and perhaps the roles they will play in rakugo’s future.

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When we see this kettle about to drip water, we can imagine Kikuhiko is on the verge of tears. Kikuhiko has just realized how to come into his own as a rakugo performer. He’s frustrated he couldn’t see the answer right in front of him, and jealous of Sukeroku for knowing that answer so long ago. Yet, the show doesn’t want to push the drama. ShoRoku wants us to think about tears without seeing or hearing Kikuhiko cry. Even if he doesn’t actually cry, we can see the kettle and bridge the gap to reach that subtle dramatic feeling.

That’s what this all comes down to: subtlety and feeling. By informing the viewers at an angle—by suggesting and not outright showing or telling—ShoRoku can portray moments of subtle emotion. By directing viewers to the road, but letting them walk it, ShoRoku can make viewers feel the pebbles underfoot.

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While there’s so much more to say about this show and rakugo, I’ll leave it at that for now. While Episode 6 is full of romantic symbolism and grim foreshadowing, I’ll leave it at that for now. Our imaginations can discover the rest.

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