Annalyn’s Corner: Rakugo Shinjuu’s Traditionalists and Rogues

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?”

Sukeroku: “Master…”

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).

Sukeroku the moment he's expelled. One of many portrayals of new rifts and loneliness in this episode.
Sukeroku the moment he’s expelled. One of many portrayals of new rifts and loneliness in this episode.

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.

Rakugo Shinjuu 9 Kikuhiko and Sukeroku

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.


Lex (Annalyn)

10 thoughts on “Annalyn’s Corner: Rakugo Shinjuu’s Traditionalists and Rogues

  1. Yeah, a majority of this tension stems from either parties unwilling to listen to the other. That exchange Sukeroku and Yakumo had feels rather immature, Yakumo’s especially, though Sukeroku’s partially to blame too. It’s sad because everyone involved here are genuinely earnest-they just have different perspectives.

    1. Gotta agree with you on the immaturity. I blame it partially on the alcohol. And based on what Yakumo’s said about “living in the shadow” of his name, I think that Sukeroku’s insult about his rakugo really hit a soft spot. Though that’s not a good excuse. I also agree that the earnestness adds to the sadness. If they would just listen to each other… but they won’t.

      Thank you for commenting, Kai!

  2. Dang, the points and connections I wanted to raise as I was reading came up in the article itself! Well written and well stated!

    1. Thank you, Japes! It’s good to know I addressed those connections, whatever they were… 😀

  3. This sounds like such an interesting series and the argument between assumed to be more important tradition and new change are very apt comparisons. I won’t argue on the political side, as I have lots of opinions on that – but within the church, we see this often. We see people clinging to the King James Version above all else and others who hate the KJV insulting those who love it’s tradition and poetic language. The vitriol which arises in such battles among people who all claim the same Savior is awful and saddening. It causes unnecessary rifts among people who are supposed to be united in Christ as a family.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Matt. It really is saddening, especially when you realize how easily these conflicts can escalate, even over things that seem small to me. Most of it, I only hear about second-hand. I get that religion is personal, so emotions can run high. But we’re a family, to be united by love from and for Christ and love for each other. Seems like that should be enough motivation to calm down and hear each other out.

  4. I feel that this article is quite timely. I often prefer to stay out of contentious areas because can be so mean to each other, but at the same time, they’re not entirely avoidable. I think, though, people are so adamant about their sides/point-of-views because their personal experiences color their perceptions. They may feel a certain way about something because of what they grew up with; and to see a person who grew up very differently say, “you’re wrong!” feels like a wound.

    Out of curiosity, where on the traditional-progressive spectrum would you place yourself? I’d say that, on a personal, theoretical level, I am conservative, but on a more practical level, not as much.

    You mentioned the topic of “biblical womanhood”. I’m trying to find my place in the world as a Christian woman, and it can be confusing with all kinds of messages from different angles. Gender issues seem to be one of the most controversial.

    1. Personal experience coloring perceptions is definitely a big part of it. But acknowledging how your personal experiences and family background changes your perception (and the perceptions of your opponents) is a huge step to communicating well.

      As far as the traditional-progressive spectrum goes… well, the spectrum can apply to many different things, and I try not to lump them all together. But I generally air on the side of traditional/conservative, I guess. I’m reluctant to speak (or in some cases, even vote) on certain topics until I’ve research them well, so I don’t give much voice on politicalized issues. On matters of Biblical interpretation, I generally find myself agreeing with more conservative interpretations, though that may depend on the passage and what qualifies as “conservative.”

      Emdaisy1 wrote a great article here at BtT about biblical womanhood a few weeks ago, and you might find that interesting to read. Gender issues are definitely among the most controversial—and that’s why I mentioned it. Sometimes, it annoys me, because hyper-focusing on those issues can cause an unhealthy shift in identity, as if our identity as women or men is more important than our identity as Christians (ex: wanting to be gentle and patient in order to be more “feminine,” instead of desiring gentleness because it’s Christ-like). But I know I can’t just ignore the topic, either, because the Bible does address it, and because people have abused the Bible to say what they want to say about gender. I won’t comment much on biblical womanhood here, because this isn’t the place. But I will say this: it’s been an adventure, as a young, single Christian woman, to learn more about who God made me to be. We have a bad habit of defining womanhood based on marriage and relationship to men. Yes, all that’s part of it (just as it’s part of who men are and what they do). But we are more than a role in the family. I point to the women who helped fund Jesus’ ministry and who often sought him out or hosted him, or to Lydia the merchant in Acts 16. Many of these women are mentioned without any mention of a husband. They’re talked about in relationship to their service to Christ and to the Church. I encourage you to look at more than Proverbs 31 and Paul’s letters when you’re considering what it means to be a Christian woman. Perhaps that’s a non-traditional point of view, though it shouldn’t be, since the entire Bible ought to be part of our tradition.

      Whoops, sorry, I didn’t mean to go down that rabbit trail. I may need to write a post about this someday soon.

      Thank you for commenting, anon.

      1. (Super late reply!)

        Thanks for replying, Annalyn!

        I searched for Emdaisy1’s article, but I couldn’t find the one on that particular topic…

        Yeah, through some online browsing, it seems that some Christian circles treat one’s identity as a man or woman as this top thing. (I’m reminded of it again with the controversy regarding the transgender bathroom issue.) Thankfully, my church doesn’t hyperfocus on gender roles. But being the inquisitive person I am, I still wonder when I come across other Christians, from other places, online.

        Thanks for reminding me of those examples. I know that I am made for more than just marriage and family. (btw I am that same anon who commented on your singleness article–I really need to follow up on that one too). I think that by worrying too much about this issue, it takes time and energy away from focusing on Scripture and my relationship with God. If I focus on those instead, then I would be more at peace.

        1. Hi again, Anon! I’m glad you don’t let lateness keep you from replying—I’m happy to see your replies, even if it takes months.

          This is the article from Emdaisy1 that I was talking about, if you still want to check it out:

          *looks back at singleness article* Oh yeah, I remember those comments! I appreciated that exchange, and I’m glad you’ve reminded me of it.

          I think you’re right about the need to focus on Scripture and relationship with God, instead of worrying so much about marriage/family/gender issues. Sure, they’re important, but they’re just one part of the big picture. I’ve surprised myself by becoming rather passionate in gender-related conversations—and ironically, it’s not because I want to focus on these issues, but because I’m annoyed at how distracted and warped we get. I’m also annoyed that it’s taken me so long to really notice the strength of certain women in the Bible (and I still haven’t done a deep study on the topic—I’m just finally noticing more, and realizing what that means for my life). I can’t entirely blame conservative church culture, either. Dreaming of romance and a fantasized household is so much easier than working on my relationship with God here and now—easier, but not nearly so peaceful.

          Thanks for commenting again, Anon, and for sharing your perspective and for being inquisitive. I hope to see you around again in the near future!

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