(13 episodes, at least the first one of which is 46-minute-long)
What’s it about ?
Adaptation of an award-winning josei manga set in the late Showa era (the 1970s) about rakugo performers. In case you’re not aware, rakugo is an old and codified form of Japanese theater that involves a lone actor sitting down and acting out all the characters of his chosen routine.
“Yotaro” (a nickname for a good-for-nothing in rakugo slang) used to be a lowlife and is just now getting out of jail, with nowhere to go. But he’s vowed to go straight, as he’s been touched and inspired by a rakugo act performed during his time in prison. Rakugo is now going to be he way of life, and thus to learn the trade he throws himself before…
Master Yakumo, the unrivalled 18th master of the art. He’s famous and respected enough to have thousand-place venues sell out, and his records are regularly played over the radio. At first he seems like a haughty jerk who only takes on Yotaro as an apprentice as a joke (never bothering to teach him anything), but there’s clearly more to him than that. He certainly can’t have been performing in prisons for the money. Also, he’s acutely aware that he’s not getting any younger, and the artform may die out with him. And then there’s the whole case of…
Konatsu, his ward, and the daughter of his former rival, who died in a mysterious “accident”. While the then young girl jumped to conclusions after seeing a bloodied Yakumo cradling the corpse of her father, there can be more charitable readings of that brief flashbacks. Especially as he took the young orphan in and lets a lot of her provocations go. It’s never explicitly stated, but the obvious reason why he never took an apprentice until now is because he wants HER (despite women rakugo performers not being a thing in this age), but she’s too proud to ask. Heck, taking in Yotaro can be seen as another provocation in that direction, as he won’t explicitly ask her either.
The elephant in the room is obviously Konatsu’s father. A big point here is that he had a completely different style from Yakumo’s, joyful and hilarious when the current master is colder in its precision and awesomeness. Konatsu has trained in that style in secret, and Yotaro is picking up on it thanks to her being the only one willing to help his training so far. (It may also be better suited to his natural talent, however much he admires Yakumo’s style.)
The next episode preview promises a flashback to Konatsu’s father & Yakumo training under the former master, which should both be instructive, entertaining (since it’s Yakumo narrating), and clear the air so that everyone’s character arc can progress further.
Studio Deen has become a bit of a running joke over the last decade, with terrible adaptations marred by poor quality control. The good news is that not only do they have some proper budget for this project, but they’re also using their one good director they poached off SHAFT to do Sankarea. Now, unlike his previous show there’s nearly nothing SHAFT-like here ; it just wouldn’t fit the material.
Rakugo is a very stylised artform ; the performer can’t move too much, and is limited to a few standard props for sound effects. The whole piece must be conveyed through body language, facial expression, and masterful voice-acting as they keep switching between characters. This show manages to reproduce all of this perfectly through exactly the same means. Also, it would be all to easy to depict all the character switches through jump cuts, Smeagol/Gollum style ; that device is used with restraint, and only after the animation has taken the time to actually depict the performers switching characters.
It should also be mentioned that we’ve got veteran voice-actors at the top of their art. Akira Ishida turns one of his best performances in ages Giving the appropriate maturity and gravitas to Yakumo. Tomokazu Seki is well within his usual niche as Yotaro, but performs splendidly. And I just can’t wait to hear Yuu Kobayashi perform some actual rakugo, as she’s one of the finest comedy voice-actresses of her generation.
I expected this to be very good, as a premise so off the beaten path (adult characters, in the 1970s, and all about the beauty and joy of acting) doesn’t get adapted to anime without strong source material and a will to convey it properly. I didn’t expect it to be THIS good and enthralling, to the point that it took me a while to notice how long the first episode was.
By the way, this length was the right choice to start off the adaptation. Not only does it carry the story towards a stronger catharsis, but it also gives ample room to have the characters actually perform rakugo, and show off how awesome a spectacle it can be. Yotaro gets to perform a full “Burglar Goes Straight” routine, and it’s never boring. Ditto for Yakumo’s “Vengeful Woman” skit. (And if the choice of those pieces feels a bit on-the-nose… Well, that’s obviously on purpose from the characters themselves, who put a lot of themselves into their performances and often have a point to make. Ditto for Yakumo’s offscreen performance of a “scare ’em straight” piece in prison, of course.)
This is one of the strongest starts for a show this season, with a depth, a heart and sheer quality of execution that’s to a whole other level compared to nearly everything else. I want to see more of these fascinating, pluridimensional characters and their struggle against the impeding death of their chosen artform, so I will definitely watch this to the end.