Annalyn’s Corner: Giving Rakugo Shinjuu a Chance

It’s easy to get in a rut with the kind of anime you consume. I entered the fandom in a pre-made rut, applying the same prejudices I had about live action movies and YA fiction to animation. If there weren’t explosions, sword fights, martial arts, or some similar form of excitement, I wouldn’t give the show a shot. Thankfully, my voracious appetite for anime forced me to consume whatever anime sounded halfway decent, even if it didn’t have explosions. Eventually, Prince of Tennis proved that sports anime could hold my attention. Now I actually have an appreciation for sports, and I can hold a decent conversation with the athletes among my family and friends. Eyeshield 21 even took away my disdain for football—I still don’t love it, but the characters do, and after seeing it from their perspective, I can better respect the sports fans in my life.

Every anime—every story, really—has the power to give new perspective, if you let it. Granted, no matter how open you try to be, sometimes the only perspective you get is “some people actually like this… I guess I can almost see why.” But other times, you can gain great insight from anime you wouldn’t normally watch—and have some unexpected fun along the way. You might even find your tastes expanding.

No matter how well-crafted a story is, two things are required from us if we’re to gain anything from it. First, we must give it a try. Second, we must keep an open, humble, but discerning mind as we watch or listen to it, and be open to learning about people with very different experiences, ideologies, and interests.

I should know all of this by now, but I’m still hesitant to approach any story that doesn’t promise excitement. And if it could be sad or thought-provoking? Well, I prefer to limit my thoughtful anime intake to one per season, thank you very much. The real world provides plenty of deep thoughts without anime invading my mind with its own issues. And yet… Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu and Boku dake ga Inai Machi (ERASED) are on track to be my favorite shows this season.

An image from the ending sequence. The two characters in the center are Sukeroku and Kikuhiko (later Yakumo).
An image from the ending sequence. The two characters in the center are Sukeroku and Kikuhiko (who became the eighth generation Yakumo we see in the first episode).

Let’s focus on Rakugo Shinjuu, since, at first glance, it’s the least likely title to make it on my watching list (and because I think you should try it, too).

Reasons Rakugo Shinjuu shouldn’t be on my watching list:

  • There are no fight scenes, tournaments, or training camps.
  • There are no smooth-talking, squeal-worthy charmers.
  • So far, no giggle-worthy romance, either.
  • It’s a historical drama.
  • The first episode is 47 minutes long. There are times when I can’t even sit through 24 minutes of my beloved Haikyuu!!, let alone a historical drama!
  • Large portions of that first episode (and later episodes) are dedicated to straight rakugo, a Japanese art in which a single storyteller sits on stage, narrating and acting out a humorous story without standing or using any props besides a fan and a cloth.
  • Some parts, like Kikuhiko’s painful performance in the second episode, are way too real. Largely thanks to the music, I can feel what he feels, and I do not like it. I started watching anime partially to escape from this feeling.

Reasons I decided to try it:

  • The description said Rakugo Shinjuu focuses on an ex-delinquent who wants to become a rakugo. Delinquents tend to be interesting.
  • My more critical co-bloggers had positive things to say about the first couple episodes. I look to them for an opinion before I spend time on anime outside my usual genres.
  • I’ve surprised myself by enjoying tame-looking anime before.
  • I forgot how long the pilot was until I was halfway through it

Three episodes later, I’m hooked. I can’t sit through an entire episode without multitasking, pausing, and/or rewinding to catch something I missed (all of which is pretty normal for me, regardless of the anime, since my thoughts wander). Still, it’s worth it.

Rakugo Shinjuu lacks explosive excitement, but there are other details to keep my attention: lovely animation, fantastic background music, and well-rounded characters with backstories you sense even before you hear them. We get to learn about rakugo, too—and if traditional Japanese culture doesn’t interest you on its own, the role rakugo plays in the characters’ lives is bound to. After the first episode, which is set in the 1970s (I think—I’ve had trouble confirming that), we go back to the 1930s and ’40s to learn about the current rakugo grandmaster Yakumo, starting with the beginning of his discipleship as a youth known as Kikuhiko. We’re shown his most important moments and performances over the next few years, all the way through the Pacific War (known to the West as WWII). We see how the economy was down, and how that affected the rakugo industry.

The history and tradition are great, but there’s more to learn from the characters. In the first episode, I was struck by ex-delinquent Yotarou’s determination to be apprenticed to Yakumo, as well as by his dedication to his study. He benefited from Yakumo’s rakugo when he was in prison. Now, he wants to be a rakugo artist himself—to experience the art he so respects on another level, and to make others laugh in the process. So he buys himself nicer clothes, shows up at one of Yakumo’s performances, and begs to be taken on as an apprentice. He’s willing to do whatever small tasks are required in order to be at Yakumo’s side and learn from him, and he spends his spare time studying and practicing. I watched that and was reminded, “this is how I should seek to better understand God and the Bible—and, to a lesser extent, to get into the art of writing. Eagerly, determinedly seeking mentors, listening to them, and studying on my own.”

Yotarou begs the current Yakumo to take him on as an apprentice (ep 1).
Yotarou begs the current Yakumo to take him on as an apprentice (ep 1).

But this show is more than tradition and good morals. The characters are fallible and relatable, and they often make me smile. The pacing is great—it smoothly transitions between scenes across the years, never dwelling a moment too many or too few on any one event. My empathy for the characters does make certain scenes difficult, but I have fun, too. I’ve especially enjoyed Kikuhiko’s friendship with his fellow disciple Sukeroku in the second and third episodes. They’re very different, and the reserved Kikuhiko is put off by the exuberant Sukeroku at first, but they’re able to encourage and learn from one another, and it’s a delight to watch.

So if, like me, you’re an excitement junkie, I hope you’ll consider slowing down to try Rakugo Shinjuu. You might need to multitask at first—I like to do dishes, braid my hair, or take notes for a blog post while I watch—but I think you’ll find it more intriguing than you expect, once you give it a chance.

Whether or not you try Rakugo Shinjuu, it’s a reminder of how it’s worthwhile to watch or listen to stories you’d usually avoid—and to really listen, with an open attitude. This doesn’t just apply to anime like Rakugo Shinjuu, although I certainly recommend that show. It applies across the board, to everything from your mom’s favorite movie to your oldest professor’s memories to an angsty Tumblr post.

There are many reasons to miss out on a good story. For me, fear of boredom and a dread of paying attention top the list. But sometimes we avoid watching, listening, or reading because of different political or religious views, time commitment, or required brainwork. Maybe we do watch and “listen,” but our defenses are so high, we’re unable to really sympathize with and learn from another perspective. Or our minds are elsewhere, on something we deem “more important.” (Students with old professors may know this feeling—I learned that when my oldest professor veered “off topic,” he usually had something even more valuable to share than what was listed in the syllabus. Listening to him wasn’t just a matter of respect and love, but of gathering wisdom.)

There are two main reasons to watch, read, or listen to a story you would normally pass by: to expand your perspective and to build community with others. I’ve only touched on the second reason, but it’s really an extension of the first. If you keep a narrow perspective, it’s difficult to have compassion for others. You have to be willing not only to hear their stories, but to hear the stories they’re interested in (which is one reason why I’m willing to watch an episode or two of Gossip Girl with my sister). Love and honor people enough to watch and listen, and you’ll find new ways to communicate with each other along the way. That’s a large part of why we have Beneath the Tangles: anime provides us with ways to communicate across religious and cultural barriers. We’ve found common ground in a beautiful storytelling form, and because of that, we’re better able to listen to one another’s stories. The better you get at listening—whether to a comment on a blog, Rakugo Shinjuu, or maybe even a rakugo performance—the more common ground you’ll be able to find. And chances are that you’ll enjoy an enriching experience along the way.


9 thoughts on “Annalyn’s Corner: Giving Rakugo Shinjuu a Chance

  1. Yes, yes, yes!! So glad you’re enjoying Rakugo Shinjuu! I have so far loved every minute of it, especially those extended rakugo sequences!

    Oh, and nice article 😛

    1. Those rakugo sequences are surprisingly fun to watch, even though they’re the very parts I doubted I’d enjoy.

      Oh, and thanks. ^_^

  2. This is on my watch-list because of you (the BtT staff) all, haha.

    Definitely important to give things normally outside of your “top interests” list a chance. You really never know what you may be missing until you’ve tried it. Then, if you tried it and just can’t get through it, at least you tried it! But if you don’t give it a shot, you may have just passed by a possible new favorite anime!

    As a side note, I think this also applies to the Bible. For some of us, reading that is natural, For many, it’s not something we really put on our “top hobbies” list. But I think that, even for the ones who enjoy reading the BIble in general, we all at least have certain sections of the Bible that just aren’t really our thing, so we sorta’ breeze over that chapter/book. The other year, I made a point of doing a 365-day reading plan, and forced myself to read even those passages that didn’t immediately catch my eye. Goodness knows, I learned a lot, and some of those things are now bookmarked in my BIble! If I hadn’t taken the time to pay attention in my reading and studying those sections, though, I’d never have known what I was missing out on in some cases (some just still aren’t my thing, lol).

    1. Great extension of the topic there! The Bible—especially certain parts of it—sometimes fits under the “I’m reading this because it’s highly recommended, I want to know God better, and I know I’ll be better for it” category. But the more I read it, the more passionate I become about it. Even Leviticus and the various genealogies are interesting in context of the entire Bible. ^_^

      Also, yay! Try this show! Maybe we’ll get everyone on board by the time the season’s over.

      1. Thanks! I confess I doubt I’ll ever find the genealogies interesting (with the exception of the symbolism of Jesus being the 7th son of a 7th generation or something like that), but maybe some day!

        Yup. I didn’t figure it WOULD be an easy watch. However, I enjoy anime once in a while that’s got some deeper matter and isn’t all just laughs. 🙂

  3. Annalyn,

    Many times I find myself staying within the bounds of what feels comfortable, never going above and beyond. Only recently have I decided to pursue writing and blogging through prayer and pressing from the Holy Spirit, and God has worked wonders through it! What I’ve discovered over the past two weeks is that God does not call Christians to the comfortable lifestyle, which is defined by Christian rapper Andy Mineo as, “…love nobody, be selfish, and never sacrifice.” Christ has so much more planned for us, and we just have to be willing to embrace it, even if we don’t to. And of course this applies to anime too, and I have been planning to give ERASED a try!

    Micah Marshall

    1. Thank you for your comment, Micah! You’re right that we’re called outside of our comfort zones in many ways, and what I’ve mentioned in this post is just a small example of how to apply that.

      I hope you enjoy ERASED! Just know going in that it’s not an easy watch. There are some dark topics addressed—topics we can’t ignore, of course, but some people might not be ready to watch an anime about them.

  4. When I first started watching anime, I barely gave anything without a samurai a second glance. But, it’s amazing how getting hooked on anime will cause one to broaden one’s horizons! ERASED and Rakugo are also my two favorites from this season thus far with Active Raid having a chance of overtaking them. I am also surprised that two rather thoughtful shows are my favorites this season.

    1. Active Raid… I haven’t tried that one, or even heard much about it. Maybe I’ll give it a shot. It does *not* look thoughtful, which is a good sign. I might really enjoy ERASED and Rakugo Shinjuu, but I can only take so much seriousness before I need something more playful. ^_^

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