Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju Volume 1
I’ve found the next good manga to fill the gaps between Fumi Yoshinaga releases. (I love her work, but since we’ve caught up with Japan, we’re lucky to get one volume a year of What Did You Eat Yesterday? or Ooku: The Inner Chambers.) Haruko Kumota’s Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju has a compelling cast of characters, stylishly drawn, struggling to keep an historic art form relevant.
Rakugo is a form of storytelling, where a solo narrator performs for an audience, taking on voices and gestures to make his characters come alive. (The modern equivalent might be a single-person show or a monologist, but this art has a lot more history behind it, and the accompanying expectations.) I say “his” because traditionally, only men do it, a restriction that’s part of the plot.
A man just out of prison has nothing left but his love for the form, acquired during his sentence. He demands to become the apprentice of the last, best-known rakugo practitioner, Yakumo, who surprisingly accepts and renames him Yotaro (a generic name for a fool). The other inhabitant of their household, beyond his housekeeper and driver, is Konatsu. She is the daughter of another rakugo artist, now deceased. She wants to carry on her father’s work, but the prohibition against women has stymied her.
To explain the subtitle: Showa was the period from 1926-1989. Genroku was the period from 1688-1704, when urban culture first developed in Japan. Rakugo is the storytelling art, and Shinju, as explained in the book, means “double suicide”. Since Yakumo is the last great storyteller, he intends for it to end with him. So why does he take an apprentice now?
Yotaro’s personality and the resulting changes in everyone’s plans drive the book, but there’s so much more happening, from conflicts with Konatsu to struggles over how much to modernize what they all want to do. Every artist brings his own approach while trying to work within the traditional expectations, putting faithfulness and individual creativity in conflict at times. And that’s all within the knowledge that they may be outliving their audience for the craft, as times and interests change. Since rakugo is an art form most readers know nothing about, that provides a unique way to approach this and other questions of artistic creation.
Yakumo leans more towards keeping things the way they have always been done. Konatsu’s father put his own spin on things. Although this isn’t a ghost story, his presence hasn’t left the lives of these characters, with Yakumo remembering his potential and Konatsu convinced there’s more for her to learn about his life and death. (Makes sense that those working so hard to keep an ancient art alive would have other obsessions with the past.) I can’t wait to spend more time with these characters. Their struggles and interactions are wonderful to read and inspiring to think about.