Hello and welcome to Why It Works! We’re nearing the halfway point of the season now, and yet I still haven’t dedicated an article to my pick for best show of the season - Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju. It’s time to fix that, I’d say. So grab a snack or take a seat right now, lean back, and let me tell you a story about Rakugo and the river’s pull.
Rakugo is a show obsessed with tradition, and our limited ability to upset the assumptions of the world. The first season’s central character, Bon, is a fatalist essentially from childhood. Having been crippled by a leg injury and forced into a profession he had no interest in, Bon seems to accept that our ability to control our own lives is deeply limited. He accepts his rakugo training with the glum defeatism of someone who sees no other options in life. He is a passenger in his story, and believes he could never steer the ship.
Bon’s travails through the first season of Rakugo only enforce this fatalism. Bon’s close friend and professional rival Sukeroku acts as his foil, embracing life with the enthusiasm of a man who thinks anything is possible. While Bon mutters gravely about the death of rakugo, Sukeroku sees himself and Bon as its saviors. Bon can stick to his traditional rakugo and uphold the medium’s dignity, while Sukeroku can invent new forms of rakugo that will help it carry on into the future. Lifted by Sukeroku’s hopes, Bon seems to find joy in the world for the first time.
Then Sukeroku dies. Caught in a strange love triangle with Bon and the former geisha Miyokichi, the two of them plummet from a high balcony into the river below. Bon’s hopes for the future are swept away by the current, but the current is not through with Bon.
Our very first scene of Bon as a child features a man walking by, hawking goldfish as Bon journeys to his new home. Those goldfish reappear in the show’s opening song, floating calmly in water that moments before signified Miyokichi’s tragic death. The first opening song’s water motif carries over into the second season, where Bon sinks below the surface as his student Yotaro attempts to save him. Surrounded by hopeful hands, Bon surrenders to the water, choosing a peaceful death over the endless suffering of struggling against the flow.
The imagery of the river is ideal for Bon’s character, and for Rakugo in general. Bon sees the end of rakugo as an inevitability, and talks consistently of how he’s ready to let the medium die with him. Tragedies like Rakugo are often centered on such conflicts, where a tragic end feels fated from the very start. The shifting fortunes of rakugo are as unchangeable as the tide, its end made inevitable by the advent of new media. Bon has given up on his own life, and having tethered his identity to rakugo, he sees his own death and rakugo’s as intertwined.
The specter of the river carrying our love out to sea reoccurs not just in Rakugo’s imagery, but in its in-show subject matter. Sukeroku first tells a story of the violent river in the first season, when a murderous samurai conspires to kill a woman being ferried across the waters. And in the second season, Bon returns the favor, describing a ceremony to bring back a lover lost in the river’s pull.
Fate, theater, and vivid imagery intertwine in that second performance. Attempting a story about a drowned woman being mourned with a specific incense, he has Sukeroku’s daughter Konatsu actually light incense backstage, as if he himself is performing the grave ritual. As the story proceeds, the incense wafts onto the stage, tendrils of smoke visually evoking the sensation of Bon being pulled into the current. As his strength fails, it appears is if he’s actually drowning, his breaths becoming shorter and eyes growing wide. At the last moment, the smoke manifests into the lost Miyokichi, appearing as if to guide him beneath the waters. Time is a river for Bon; the harder you paddle against it, the more the current drags. There is no salvation for rakugo or himself waiting at the end; there is only the promise of his absent friends, waiting to meet him when his struggles end.
Fortunately, Bon’s perspective is not the only voice in Rakugo. Bon’s apprentice Yotaro truly believes rakugo can be saved, both through venerating its traditions and infusing it with new innovations. In one final appropriation of the river, Yotaro’s faith is embodied in the carp tattoo on his back. Once a symbol of his gang membership, Yotaro had the tattoo finished and dyed in order to emphasize his acceptance of the past, and his hope for a different future. We may never be able to escape the river’s pull. But we can at least hope to adapt to it, to embrace the perils of time and weather the current together.