Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu may be the best anime airing this season. The art is beautiful. The characters grab your attention with extreme goofiness or coldness, but as the story unfolds, their complexities begin to show. The background music complements the art and screenplay wonderfully. Rakugo Shinjuu is art about art, story about storytelling, and I am enthralled. More than that, as a consumer of stories and a storyteller, I am provoked to thought. Why am I drawn toward these modes of entertainment? And why do I hope to entertain others? What is the purpose? Rakugo Shinjuu‘s characters ask the same questions.
After the first episode, the story focuses on Kikuhiko (aka Bon or the eighth generation Yakumo). As a child, he is apprenticed to a rakugo artist because he has nowhere else to go. Even after he learns to enjoy rakugo, he does not have a driving purpose to perform. He doubts his abilities, especially compared to Sukeroku, a fellow apprentice who is passionate about rakugo from the beginning and has a knack for making people laugh. Kikuhiko is both inspired by and a little jealous of Sukeroku.
In the sixth episode, a conversation with Sukeroku prompts him to think more about why he performs rakugo. Sukeroku talks about his time in Manchuria during the war:
“I came close to death, but when I was doing rakugo for the soldiers, I could see the way it filled them with joy. There was no radio out there, and they were starved for entertainment, so they were happy to get it. They looked just like the people today. I love seeing faces like that. And that’s when I made up my mind: I was going to do rakugo for the people.”
This isn’t the first time a character mentioned people’s need for entertainment. Kikuhiko and Sukeroku’s master talked about how people would come back to rakugo as soon as the war was over and they could afford it. Back in the first episode, rakugo so inspired a convict, he sought to study it as soon as he got out of prison. Rakugo is a valuable part of both the audience and the storytellers’ lives. But why?
After his talk with Sukeroku, Kikuhiko wonders, “Whom is my rakugo for? I never had time to think about that. After all, rakugo was the only thing I could do to survive.”
During Kikuhiko’s next performance, the audience responds more positively than ever—largely because he chose a story that fits his skill set. As he performs, he realizes, “I understand now! My rakugo wasn’t for anyone else. I’ve been doing it for myself. To make a place for myself. So that I’d feel comfortable staying here. So I could be myself.” He always wanted the audience to respond, but he wasn’t really performing for them before. Now that they have responded, he begins to understand his purpose. He can be himself and perform rakugo that best uses his skills, because that’s the best way to serve the audience. When he tried to do rakugo in another’s style, he didn’t have the same success. He practiced constantly, but that yielded little and did nothing to allay his insecurities. Performing for the sake of his audience, on the other hand, is far more valuable.
But how important is rakugo, really? It’s comedy. The audience comes to laugh, not to learn. Isn’t entertainment like this pretty low on their list of needs? Sort of. It’s true that they should and do prioritize food when their wallets are near empty. But that doesn’t mean that laughter is unnecessary.
Sukeroku said that soldiers were “starved for entertainment.” Human beings weren’t designed to robotically eat, sleep, and work. We’re given the capacity for joy, and we’re meant to use it.
Now, as much as I love anime and other entertainment, I must note that it’s not the ultimate. This capacity we have for joy can be used on entertainment, but there’s a longer-lasting source of joy, one that does not rely on specific circumstances. That source is God.
For example, when I was depressed, anime made me feel happiness and excitement. When other noises made me cringe, the future intimidated me, and it was hard to see or enjoy much light in the world, I could turn to anime for laughter. In many ways, that was a good thing. But it didn’t sustain me—it only reminded me that I could laugh and stopped me from dwelling on twisted, negative thoughts. Like pain medicine, it addressed the symptoms—sometimes even grounded me enough to let me get something else done.
Anime isn’t what kept me from full despair, though. Its positive effects faded, leaving me in reality with the same feelings I battled before. At worst, anime masked symptoms, allowing me to push them down until they exploded in anxiety, and I finally had to face each twisted thought. At best, anime reminded me of the ultimate Source of joy and hope: God. There was a paradox within me: I felt so much darkness, and I couldn’t find an answer, yet I couldn’t stop believing in the Light. There was too much suffering in the world, but I knew God was good. I felt broken and nearly useless, and I wanted to disappear from existence. But I also knew God had a plan, and I was part of it. This wasn’t just head knowledge that sustained me, but something in my heart, a hope I’ve had since I was a toddler. The hope in the kingdom to come is planted firmly in me. I couldn’t shake the sense of God’s goodness and love, even when I tried to be mad at him. He gave me a joy that’s often quiet and sometimes forgotten, but never fades completely, because he’s given me hope and faith as well.
Laughter, rakugo, and anime are like pain medicine: good and necessary, but not to be confused with a cure. If you bury yourself in these and never confront what is crushing your spirit, you’ll never truly heal. Instead, the sickness in your heart may continue to build, until it’s out of control and a little entertainment isn’t enough to keep it hidden.
The joy and hope that come from a relationship with God? This medicine sustains you, and you can never overdose. The more you learn about God, the more you delight in him, they more you’ll find that your hunger for entertainment comes mostly from your hunger for joy.
The words “starved for entertainment” are apt. Bear with me for one more analogy. In the Bible, Jesus got a huge crowd of people who were interested in his teaching (well, more interested in his ability to heal the sick, but the teaching was a bonus). Eventually, they needed to eat. So he took five loaves and two fish, split them up, and fed 5,000 men, plus the women and children. It was a miracle, and certainly an appreciated one. People need to eat, and it’s hard to listen when you’re hungry. But eventually, they’d get hungry again. They needed to eat and drink in order to survive. Jesus, being too natural a teacher to let an object lesson pass him by, used this opportunity to talk about himself as the Bread of Life. “Do not work for the food that perishes,” he told them, “but for the food that leads to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal” (John 6:27). He offers something eternal—not a magic starch that turns you into an immortal, no. Christians can and do physically die from hunger. Jesus’ definition of eternal life is different: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3, Jesus speaking to the Father). He gives himself to us, as “bread,” with everlasting effects. Because I know Jesus, I know God, and I will live with him forever.
Similarly, Jesus offers a joy that is eternal. Christians still suffer. We still deal with depression. But in the midst of suffering, we can turn to Jesus. Meditate on God’s Word. Obey it. Pray. In God, we find eternal, sustaining, joyful hope. (See Cutsceneaddict’s recent post for more about this.)
And those of us who lead others in entertainment? Whether we write, act, perform rakugo, initiate a card game, write a witty Facebook post, or just tell a good joke, we have the ability to make others smile. That’s good and worthwhile. We don’t have to be talking about God constantly to do good. I really believe that entertainment often reflects true joy. It provides some rest. It even has the power to point toward truth that heals. But it’s not the cure itself. Our audience may gain from us, but we can’t offer them the fulfillment they long for—and their praise won’t give us what we truly long for.
So if you entertain or even just converse with anyone, it’s worthwhile to ask, like Kikuhiko did, “Why am I doing this? Who am I doing this for?” Similarly, as a consumer, ask “Why am I watching or listening to this? What do I hope to gain from it?”
Don’t mistake your starvation for joy as starvation for entertainment. When you approach entertainment with purpose, in perspective of a great eternal joy, I think you’ll find it more satisfactory than ever.