Note: As always, this analysis assumes the reader has seen the episodes being discussed.
Rakugo is a traditional form of Japanese theater in which a lone performer, aka the rakugoka, sits alone on a stage with only a small cloth and fan for props. They tell a story, usually comedic, involving multiple people, distinguishing the characters using only their voice and mannerisms. Rather than making up their material, rakugoka have an established body of material to work with but are expected to put their own spin on the story. These days, it’s considered the domain of fussy old people, but it was once populist entertainment.
Like most traditional performance arts, rakugo is completely male-dominated. Once it was the sole domain of men, since most of the characters in the stories were male and it would have been odd to hear women using masculine speech patterns. Nowadays the field has opened somewhat, with women and foreigners (and occasionally both!) among top performers. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu takes place before that shift, however, and the gender dynamic inherent in such an unequal system informs much of the show.
Konatsu was born into the world of rakugo – her father was a popular rakugoka known as Sukeroku, and after his death she was taken in by his associate, Yakumo Yuurakutei. She hero-worships her father’s memory, often listening to recordings of his performance and working to emulate his style in her private moments. However resentment boils within her because she knows she will always be an outsider looking in because of her gender. Considering the manga was written by a woman and is aimed at a female readership, we’re meant to be struck by the unfairness of it all alongside Konatsu. Rakugo is all she really knows. In one scene, she visits a former geisha and friend of her parents’ she calls Okami-san. Okami-san implores her to stop being so bitter and tells her she’s wasting her beauty. Konatsu weeps and curses having been born a woman, saying, “I’ll never be able to surpass him like this!” Like so many women throughout history, she is denied access to her passion. Had she been born a generation or so later, she would have been able to realize her dream, but as it stands, she has nothing.
Further complicating her life is her relationship with Yakumo and his apprentice, Yotaro. Yotaro is Yakumo’s first apprentice, a sweet-natured delinquent fresh out of prison. Yotaro is the impressionable sort, the kind of person who attaches himself to the first strong personality he encounters. Having seen Yakumo perform in prison, he decides to enter the world of rakugo himself. Konatsu, insightful as she is, notices that he’s trying unsuccessfully to ape his master’s style and tutors him on different kinds of performances. She performs the “Shinigami” routine for him, the same one that made such a strong impression on Yotaro in prison, but in a style similar to Sukeroku’s. Her passion and talent shine through as she does the routine with animated expressions and voice. Yotaro compliments her voice and projection, mirroring a compliment her father once gave her. Konatsu, startled at the memory, yells, “You stuck up jerk! Don’t talk like you know!” and throws her fan at his head. When Yakumo comes out, Yotaro encourages her to beg him to teach her.
Poor Yotaro has stumbled unknowingly between a relationship that already carries a lot of baggage, and it quickly blows up in his face. Things go south quickly as Konatsu tells him, “Yota… It won’t work.” Yotaro, desperate to be helpful, shows Yakumo how Konatsu has been practicing on the sly, and Yakumo throws the book of Sukeroku’s material into her face. It seems that Konatsu blames her foster father for her true father’s death, having witnessed it as a child. Her anger at him for that only compounds the resentment she feels toward him for blocking her access to becoming a rakugoka. Sukeroku, while he was alive, encouraged her talent and may have helped her break down the obstacles to creating a name for herself. Instead, she is stuck with the traditionalist Yakumo, who only mocks her for her ambitions.
Instead of becoming a rakugoka in her own right, Konatsu must live vicariously through Yotaro who has an energy and personality similar to Sukeroku. Konatsu coaches him, which suits Yakumo just fine because he “doesn’t like teaching”. We don’t see Konatsu herself teaching Yotaro, but she’s clearly a good teacher, because Yotaro’s first rakugo performance is a rousing success. Afterward in the car home, Yakumo remarks that it was like Sukeroku was back up on that stage. The two of them are both ill at-ease, and Sukeroku’s specter peers at them from the front seat. We don’t know yet what happened between Yakumo and Sukeroku, but the former clearly has his own lingering issues with his old friend. Konatsu, meanwhile, peers out the window without saying much. She has seen the fruits of her teaching, and she should be proud. She is, but that pride is tempered with ambition. The saying goes, “Those who can’t do, teach,” but usually refers to talent. Konatsu teaches not because she’s untalented, but because she’s prevented from expressing that talent. The path to greatness is closed to her, all because she is a woman. It’s unfair, and the anger she’s felt about it her whole life seethes beneath the surface. Still, she offers her support to Yotaro, and the two bond over their shared love of Sukeroku’s rakugo. When the two stay up late listening to old records of his performance, Yotaro falls asleep during Yakumo’s performance and is subsequently expelled. Kontasu finds the young man out in the snow and tells him to talk to his master. With her encouragement, Yotaro tells Yakumo about how he admires both him and Sukeroku, and he feels more at home with Sukeroku’s style. Thanks to Konatsu’s encouragement, Yakumo welcomes Yotaro back.
The second episode flashes back a few decades to Yakumo and Sukeroku’s youth together. Yakumo, the son of a geisha, is known as Bon, trained as a dancer until crippled by an accident. Now with no place in the floating world, Bon is sold as an apprentice to a rakugoka, the current Yakumo Yurakutei. Sukeroku, then named Shin, became an apprentice at the same time when he impressed Yakumo by imitating a rakugo performance he saw. Bon has a serious temperament and no interest in rakugo, so he feels out of place, especially next to the vivacious and outgoing Shin.
The episode sets up Bon in opposition not just to Shin, but to the girl he would later raise. Just as Konatsu is a woman inhabiting a man’s world, Bon was a boy raised in a feminized environment. His speech patterns and body language betray this, especially the way he holds his towel drawn up to his chest in the bathhouse, as if covering breasts. He enters rakugo unwillingly, and lacks much natural ability; his first performance was an unmitigated disaster, with audience members falling asleep as he stumbles his way through what should be a very funny story. He has been pulled into this world against his will, forced into something he doesn’t believe suits him. It doesn’t help that he’s paired with a young man bursting with talent and charisma, as Shin – now Hatsutaro – displays in his first performance. Konatsu, on the other hand, is forced out of that same world that she loves just as much as Bon hated, by something just as arbitrary and accidental as his injured leg: her gender. Their circumstances are so similar, yet completely opposite – no wonder they can never see eye-to-eye.
Next time: More about Yakumo and Sukeroku