The ninth episode of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is marked by conflict that leads to separation. It’s also marked by beautiful animation, but I decided to focus on the conflict instead.
[Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched the latest episode yet, I recommend you do, even though the big events in this episode were rather predictable. If you haven’t seen the series yet, either go watch it now (most of you can view it via Crunchyroll), or read this post, figure out how much you’re missing out on, and then go watch it.]
There are three central conflicts in this episode: one between Kikuhiko and his girlfriend Miyokichi. One between Sukeroku and Kikuhiko. And a related one between Sukeroku and his master, the seventh generation Yuurakutei Yakumo. As potent as that first conflict is, though, I’m going to focus on the two involving Sukeroku, since they’re rooted in a single issue: Sukeroku is unwilling to submit to tradition.
Actually, it’s not that simple. Sukeroku believes that the traditions around rakugo threaten its survival in the modern day. He’s focused on having fun and making as many people laugh as possible, but his love for the art is serious. Meanwhile, the elders can’t separate the traditions that make rakugo rakugo from the traditions they cling to for their own sake. Sukeroku and Kikuhiko discuss this in episode 8, shortly after Kikuhiko breaks up with Miyokichi, a geisha, in compliance with his master’s command (which, in turn, stems from traditions and prejudices within the rakugo community):
Sukeroku: “Popularity has made them complacent, even more afraid to change. That’s okay for now. But if we want it to stay entertainment for the masses, things have to change. Look how happy they all are. Rakugo’s not the only entertainment out there. In a world overflowing with entertainment, I want to create a path for rakugo to survive properly.”
Kikuhiko: “Rakugo will survive.”
Sukeroku: “For now, I want to do stories the people will like. In any age. To do that, I always have to change to suit their tastes.”
Kikuhiko: “If you do that, it won’t be rakugo anymore.”
Sukeroku: “That’s true. We need a rakugo that never changes, too. That’s the essence of rakugo. That’s your job. My job is to make a rakugo that changes with the people. Don’t forget, okay? Let’s promise that much.”
That is the promise that an older Kikuhiko told his new apprentice and Sukeroku’s daughter about way back in the pilot episode. This is a monumental moment… and in the very next episode, we learn how hard that promise will be to fulfill.
As honorable as Sukeroku sounds when he talks about keeping rakugo alive, he doesn’t actually give constructive suggestions on how. He can speak to Kikuhiko about balancing unchanging rakugo with popular rakugo, but not to the elders. Instead, he just rebels against tradition. He performs difficult pieces that are traditionally off-limits to futatsume. When he’s promoted to shin’uchi, he performs the rakugo association president’s specialty, even though he’s never practiced it with the president. Such disrespectful acts characterize his daily life—he goes drinking instead of attending practice and spends his money on sake instead of on good clothes for performances. I suspect that, if he’d shown his elders a little more respect, Yakumo at least may have listened to him, even if the other elders weren’t ready to.
To Kikuhiko—and perhaps to most of the audience—Sukeroku seems like a rowdy genius who takes his rakugo for granted and is running himself to ruin. He has the advantage over Kikuhiko in charm and talent, but he refuses to behave well, apparently from arrogance.
Still, for all of Sukeroku’s faults, he’s not the only one in the wrong. Yakumo and the elders are more worried about preserving the rakugo association, maintaining its peace, and keeping their good names amongst each other than meeting their audience’s shifting needs—or even the unique needs of their apprentices. Thus, they scold Sukeroku for performing difficult pieces, even though he performs well and delights the people.
This all culminates in a final confrontation between Sukeroku and Yakumo:
Yakumo: “You are my last apprentice. I want to be especially partial to you. But rakugo is something we all protect together. Harmony is important. It’s a tradition. We inherit it from our predecessors in every generation. Then we pass it on to the youngsters, asking nothing in return. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? That’s harmony.”
Sukeroku: “And you want me to sit quietly while something so beautiful dies?”
Sukeroku explains to his master, like he did to Kikuhiko, that with all the new sources of entertainment at people’s fingertips, rakugo must either change or lose its audience.
Yakumo: “Oh, so you’re saying rakugo’s no good anymore?”
Sukeroku: “No! I’m saying it will die if we don’t do something!”
Yakumo: “That’s the same thing.”
Sukeroku: “No it’s not! Why can’t you understand? I mean, if we only stick with old rakugo, it won’t have a future. That’s why I—”
Yakumo: “You want to destroy it, eh?”
Sukeroku: “Not destroy it, change it!”
Yakumo: “That’s the same thing, you numbskull! No good comes from breaking the mold!”
Sukeroku: “You just don’t get it! This is why your rakugo is old-fashioned and boring!”
Yakumo: “Wh-what is that? Is that how you felt about it? You’ve been telling people you’re going to become the 8th Generation, haven’t you?”
Yakumo: “Like hell I’d ever give you my name. I’m giving it to Kiku . . . It’s not a decision you make by yourself, but it’s clear I could never give that name to a lowlife like you!”
The scene culminates in Yakumo expelling his rogue apprentice. He leaves no room for change or experimentation. He’s advocated for Sukeroku many times in front of the board, but only to get him promoted or keep him out of trouble, not to give voice to his concerns. Now, he’s done waiting for Sukeroku to change. Meanwhile, the younger man, frustrated that he’s not listened to or accepted, insults his master’s rakugo (even though he complimented that rakugo earlier in the conversation, and with apparent sincerity).
Both Yakumo and Sukeroku love rakugo. But they love their perception of it—and how it serves them—more.
It seems that Yakumo forgets the reason for rakugo—the very reason that drove him to risk his life in performing for troops during WWII. Tradition and harmony are beautiful, but rakugo done solely for that purpose is hollow. Like all other art and and entertainment—and particularly all comedy—rakugo requires an audience. If it doesn’t serve the audience, it isn’t entertainment. Sukeroku, at least, recognizes this.
But Sukeroku is so consumed by the way he sees the world, he’s unable to respect even the good (or at least harmless) rakugo traditions. So he is expelled. By the end of the episode, he doesn’t know what to do about his rakugo anymore, and he’s preparing to leave town with Miyokichi.
Meanwhile, the rakugo association remains the same, and Kikuhiko is on track to become like the elders. He has learned so much from Sukeroku, particularly about performing for the people. Yet, now that he’s set to perform rakugo for the rest of his life, he’s retreating back into himself. He pushes Miyokichi away. He tells Sukeroku that he wants to be alone—and on that note, tells him to move out (and for once, Sukeroku actually obliges). While he tries to convince his wayward friend to change, and tries to get Yakumo to forgive him, he never really validates his concerns or brainstorms solutions with him.
The two learned from each other, but each is so caught up in either security or freedom, he is unwilling to learn half as much as he could. Their love for rakugo and for each other is compromised by fear, envy, and pride.
So the victorious embrace at the beginning of episode 9 turns into Kikuhiko crying into Sukeroku’s back at the end of the episode.
Sit for a moment and appreciate the potency of this change.
That potency doesn’t just come from masterful execution. Rather, it’s rooted in the schisms that humanity is so familiar with.
People fight and cut ties with each other for a multitude of reasons, but I’ll focus on traditionalists and rebels for now. They may also be called conservatives and liberals, or perhaps old folks and teens. It happens in every sphere of life, but the most obvious ones that come to mind are politics and religion.
In politics, conservatives and liberals are each convinced the other is the enemy. Citizens on both sides love the same country… but they see the country very differently. And unfortunately, they start to assume that all “conservative” or all “progressive” ideas are bad. Conservatives worry about protecting their country’s foundational nature, as they see it—and they often conflate less important or unrelated traditions with their nation’s identity. In many cases, conservatives who reveal themselves to be compassionate in person come across instead as bigoted jerks, because they’re too worried about protecting their way of life to show love they way they should. Meanwhile, Progressives worry that their country isn’t serving the people the way it should, and are often convinced that big changes are needed—to the point that they may ignore conservatives’ valid concerns as much as they ignore the corrupt ones.
In the religious and social spheres, some conservatives are so concerned about preserving “family values” and their interpretation of “Biblical womanhood,” they’re threatened by feminism in general—never realizing that some feminist ideas are actually quite Biblical.
Meanwhile, some liberals within the church are so worried about “loving” and “accepting” others, they’re offended by a whole set of religious mores—never realizing that some traditional and uncomfortable moral guidelines are just as Biblical (and loving, really) as they are traditional.
On a more superficial note, I’ve heard of older Christians getting angry and leaving a church because they didn’t use the King James Version of the Bible, or used modern worship songs instead of hymns. Other Christians mistrust ritual and assume recited prayers are less sincere.
Folks get mixed up in the difference between tradition and Tradition, just like the rakugo elders in Rakugo Shinjuu. For a Christian, “tradition” might be singing hymns written a minimum of 200 years ago. Meanwhile, “Tradition” would be taking Communion or being baptized—rituals known as sacraments or ordinances, depending on your denomination, and performed by Christians for 2,000 years, as commanded by Jesus Christ. Maintaining harmony among believers? That’s important. But not at the expense of love and truth—both toward fellow believers and toward the strange-looking, possibly even cosplaying (gasp!) non-believers to whom we’re called to minister.
When there are humans involved in structure and tradition, something is bound to go wrong. But that doesn’t mean you have the right to completely disrespect the leaders of those structures or the traditions embraced by them. If you do, you really won’t be listened to (I’m looking at you, chest-baring pro-choicers). Meanwhile, traditionalists who use their opponents’ worst moments as excuses not to listen are in trouble. The worst thing we can do is refuse to listen to unique, uncomfortable perspectives. You don’t have to approve of everything a person does to realize they have some good points.
The rifts in episode 9 of Rakugo Shinjuu hurt so much because they’re so real. It’s not about traditionalism and change, but about people who, like so many of us, experience heartbreak because they are unwilling to understand and respect one another. They didn’t even try to find a way to preserve the rakugo they loved without compromising its essence. So, whether or not they lose rakugo, they lose each other. It’s a preventable, searing break in fellowship.