Thank you to Michelle for your help in researching female rakugoka!
About a year ago, I wrote about Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu’s Konatsu. A young woman born into the all-male performing art of rakugo, she was cursed to be an outsider in the only world she knew. Her bitterness was further fueled by her toxic relationship with Yakumo, her emotionally distant foster father whom she believed killed her biological father. However, the show’s first season focused on Konatsu’s father and Yakumo, so we didn’t get to see how Konatsu’s arc would play out. The show’s sequel, Sukeroku-hen, is running this season. It brings the focus back to Konatsu, her hapless husband Yotaro, their son Shinnosuke, and the bitter, elderly Yakumo. The Konatsu of the second season, thus far, is recognizable, but a major shift in her attitude makes me wonder where the show is going.
The newest episodes as of February 8, episodes four and five, take place about fifteen years after those first few episodes of the first season. Konatsu, now in her early thirties, married Yotaro shortly after having her son Shinnosuke out of wedlock, and the three are living in the Yurakutei household along with Yakumo. Unlike in the first season, this takes place within living memory of much of the show’s audience; this episode takes place in the early 90’s. For context, Sailor Moon had already begun its television run, Star Fox had made its debut, and Mighty Morphing Power Rangers premiered in the US. Japan’s bubble economy popped and the nation is struggling in a recession. Rakugo is aging failing to stay relevant as it competes with television, video games, and other more modern forms of entertainment. The conflict between tradition and modernity is central to the question of rakugo’s fate: left as it is, rakugo will die out very soon. Some people, such as Yotaro, believe that the art form should evolve, that new stories should be added to the canon of hundreds-of-years old stories. He believes they can cast aside outdated restrictions and meet the changing audience halfway. Conversely, Yakumo sees himself as a sort of grim reaper, taking the tradition to his inevitable grave.
The Konatsu of 1993, at first glance, is very different from the younger Konatsu we knew. We first see her playing shamisen for Yotaro’s performance, a frown of intense concentration on her face. Yotaro stops to compliment her performance, but beads of sweat drip down her face and a vein pops out of her forehead as she snaps, “Don’t talk. This is taking all the concentration I have.” Afterward, Yotaro speaks with a man backstage about her performance – apparently, she’s been learning shamisen for a few years now and he’s impressed that she’s already able to play support. “It’s been her dream for a few years now,” Yotaro tells him. This is surprising; the Konatsu we met in the first season dreamed of performing rakugo, practicing in secret, and was unhappy and resentful at being barred from it. When did playing musical accompaniment – the sole accepted way for a woman to be involved in rakugo – take the place of that dream?
Yotaro, however, is well aware of Konatsu’s long-harbored desire. When the two go to Shinnosuke’s school, the original plan is for Yotaro to speak with Konatsu accompanying as usual. At the last second, he pushes her out onstage, forcing her to perform in his stead. After some initial awkwardness, Konatsu recites “Jugemu”, a child-friendly story that I recognized as the basis for the children’s story “Tikki Tikki Tembo,” with great energy and charisma, blushing with joy and tearing up at the end of the performance, practically skipping offstage. Over dinner, Yotaro describes the event to their manservant Matsuda, telling him, “Sis’s voice is so clear and resonant, it’s like heaven to listen to,” echoing her late father’s praise. However, Konatsu replies, “Yota, I keep telling you, I won’t do rakugo. I’ve thought about it sometimes, but it’s just not right. Rakugo is something men have worked at refining through constant hard work, right? I don’t want to stick my nose in and ruin that harmony. It’s better that way. It’s more beautiful that way.” At first, this scene gave me pause. Seeing her perform in front of an audience for the first time brought me such joy, and I’ve been rooting for her to make waves and fight the establishment since her introduction. It confused me why that angry young woman would grow so accepting of the status quo.
However, upon rewatching, I noticed some subtle hints that all is not right for Konatsu. In her speech to Yotaro, she uses the term wa (和). The term is usually translated as “harmony”, and though that may be the closest English term, the concept is so deeply rooted in Japanese culture that it’s impossible to fully localize. Wa is one of the main building blocks of Japanese culture, stressing conformity within the group and acceptance of one’s socially and culturally prescribed roles. It is the valuing of conflict avoidance at all costs and the source of the saying, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” When Konatsu says “その和を壊したくない”, she is saying that she doesn’t want to step out of her place by invading a male-driven world; she would prefer to focus on her societally prescribed roles of wife, mother, and accompanist.
However, as the show has demonstrated, there is no wa in rakugo at the moment for her to disrupt. Wa has led to stagnation as men perform the same stories over and over, and no amount of personal spin and charisma can help as those stories cease to resonate with a modern audience. Traditionalists such as Yakumo would rather see the art form die than be updated, while others, such as the writer Eisuke Higuchi, hope to make it relevant again by introducing new stories. Yotaro is a reformer and annoyance flashes across his face when Konatsu says she won’t do rakugo anymore. He has loved her rakugo since day one, and it seems introducing her talent to the world was his master plan. And in reality, his is the side that won out. Tsuyuno Miyako became the first female shin’uchi in 1991, and now women and even foreigners perform new and old rakugo stories in a variety of languages across the world, even if the majority of rakugoka are still older Japanese men. Higuchi and Yotaro are on the right side of history; it’s only a question of whether or not Konatsu will join them.
I think she will. Konatsu is reserved, and the show has long relied on her facial expressions and visual framing to get across her true meaning. When she speaks, her expression is downcast and her face is in shadow; even as she smiles, she doesn’t raise her eyes. Rather than peaceful acceptance, she appears to be coming from a place of deep resignation. For her to suddenly completely give up on doing rakugo for an audience would be a disruption of her arc, a betrayal to that little girl who wanted nothing more than to be like her father. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu has demonstrated its subtle, thoughtful character writing time and again, and I have faith that Konatsu will find the resolution she deserves.