One of the many great things about anime is that we get to experience so many different stories, which all affect us in different ways, in both variety of content and what we take away from them. This is one of the major themes of the critically acclaimed anime Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, a series which title accurately describes itself: the eras of Shouwa and Genroku, the storytelling form of Rakugo, and double suicide. Well, the "double suicide" part isn't to be taken literally, but that's not to say that this series doesn't have an immense amount of great drama and character writing to offer. If you're into stories where you get to see characters grow and evolve throughout the course of their entire life, then I can't think of a better series to reccomend you. But first, I need to clear some things: many might see the word "rakugo," look up what it means, and then think: "eh, sounds boring, I'm not interested in this show." And I wanna stop you right there, because you're making a huge mistake. Is rakugo a big part of the story? Absolutely. Do you need to know what it is, or even remotely enjoy it to be able to watch this show? Not in the slightest.
Our protagonist is Youtaro has just been released from prison, and has decided to turn over a new leaf, having recently left the yakuza. While many in a similar position to him may feel directionless or lost, Youtaro on the other hand, has a clear goal in mind: he wants to perform rakugo, a traditonal japanese form of storytelling, in which the story is told with just a paper fan, a small piece of cloth, and without standing up during the entirety of the performance. Having been inspired to go down this path by the famous Yakumo Yuurakutei, who performed in the prison Youtaro was imprisoned in, he seeks him down, in the hope of becoming his apprentice. Based on the manga of the same name by Haruko Kumota, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is produced by Studio Deen and was directed by Shinichi Omata. It consists of two seasons of TV anime, the first one being 13 episodes, and the second being 12.
The character drama and writing in this series is truly superb, and watching as the various characters grow throughout the course of the series is truly a fantastic experience. One of my favourite scenes in the series is during season 2, where one of the newer characters is watching an old recording of the man who bore his name before him. That's a thing worth explaining too. In the series, each rakugo perfomer has a teacher, and when the teacher decides to retire, they give their stage name to one of their apprentices. It might seem like a minor thing, but it carries a lot of weight and is a fairly important thing in the series. In terms of the visuals, the show has a fairly drab and muted colour scheme, and while usually I'd think of that as a negative, the show has a ton of great imagery to make up for it, so it doesn't really matter. It also presents itself as being a very serious and realistic series (that doesn't mean lack of light hearted moments, mind you), so I can see why the director decided to go for this style, even if it's one I don't neccesarily prefer.
The character designs, while simple, are really superb, the visual storytelling in this series is definitely one of its strentghs. I am of the opinon that the Lupin the III and Dragon Ball are home to the peak of character design in anime, and I think that should tell you a lot about what I value in a character design. At a glance, you can tell what this character is about, and this becomes all the more apparent through the series as the various characters age. When their at their low points in life, just seeing the state their in really communicates a lot. I also have to mention the plentiful scenes of the characters performing rakugo. Rakugo itself isn't something impressive from a visual standpoint. They turn their head to signify a change of character, they wave a fan occasionally, it's not that complicated. And yet, the visual direction during these segments manages to be so immaculate. The changes in perspective whenever the performer changes character are one of my favourite touches of this kind. And of course, the voice acting itself. As it a series about acting (mostly) with your voice, the series quality really hinged on this particular aspect, and thankfully, they knocked it out of the park. A big theme in the series is the difference between various performers, and this is all communicated through the voice.
You see, most rakugo performers perform many of the same works, and it's explained in the series that no one was interested in writing new stories, as not only were audienced not interested in it, but the stories that were there were held in such high regard, that no one wanted to try to match it. And because of this, the various contrasts, as well as similarities in the performers style, became all the more apparent. That's not to say the series is completely perfect though, as I did have major gripes with it, plot wise. Mainly being that of the scale of the story itself. I was expecting, or rather wanted, something a bit bigger than what was portrayed in this series. It didn't have to be Rose of Versaille or anything, but I did feel that I wanted something more. The fact that it is such a low scale and personal story can also be seen as one of its strengths though, I've talked with others about the series who found that to be one of their favourite aspects. I just wanted something larger.
In conclusion, I have to say: I highly reccomend this series. Truly. Unlike a lot of my friends, it's not one of my favourite anime, however, it is a great one, and I truly do appreciate the variety works such as this bring to the medium of anime. It's a medium that I love partially because of the sheer diversity and array of different stories on display. Whether it be adaptations of western novels, a drama series set before the french revolution, one hundred episode long science fiction series of epic scale, or a tale of a small handful of people who are really into rakugo.