Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju Volume 7
I was about ready to give up on Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju. It wasn’t what I wanted it to be and seemed to have gotten bogged down in some gangster junk. Then I re-read the series before reading volume 7, and I realized that there were many more connections than I remembered, bringing new depth to the story. This is a series that rewards paying attention to detail as the story sprawls over three generations.
The most important discovery for me was the importance of the story Yotaro (now Sukeroku III) is working on mastering. He has taken the name of his wife’s dead father while studying with Yakumo VIII, because Sukeroku II had a more approachable, audience-focused style of rakugo (monologue story-telling). The two, Sukeroku II and Yakumo, were apprentices together, and Yakumo is the only one left who knows the details of why Sukeroku, the better performer, wasn’t allowed to be the one to carry on the favored name. Yakumo is also the one who raised the wife, Konatsu, when her parents died young.
So, in volume 6, the feeling-his-age Yakumo agrees to perform again with Sukeroku III if Sukeroku learns the story of “Inokori”, about a con artist who winds up living in a brothel instead of paying his debts. It was only during the re-read that I realized that “Inokori” is also the story that Sukeroku II did during his last major performance (way back in volume 3), and it was his choice of that material that ended up causing him to be kicked out of the performance guild. So that’s a particularly potent strand of the family history, and that discovery was breath-taking for me.
I also had concerns about how Konatsu had been sidelined, but looking at her story in a wider scope demonstrates just how much she’s had to fight against and how justified her anger has been. She has found herself recreating her mother’s path, involved with rakugo masters but not as important to them as their art. Now that’s she’s become a mother, she’s mellowed, becoming more accepting of the constraints life puts on you.
Also, now that her child is in kindergarten, she’s able to work with her husband as a musician — and it’s wonderful to see that he still supports her attempts at rakugo. It’s supposed to be an all-male practice, which reinforces the underlying questions of how much and whether an established art form should change to keep up with the times.
I hadn’t paid much attention before to the writer character, but he’s foregrounded here in an argument with Yakumo. He’s trying to write new rakugo stories, an idea that repulses Yakumo, who as an old man is unable and unwilling to change. Their debate is the key question of the series personified. How do we find the middle ground, with enough change to keep the art alive and relevant to the audience of the current age while still keeping it true to what it is?
Yakumo has always seemed resentful, even while being acclaimed as a master of his art. He never agreed to take apprentices, a selfish act that almost doomed the practice. When Sukeroku III talks with him about why they do this, Sukeroku’s description that “this is the most fun for me” is foreign to the old man, who is focused only on technique, but it’s much more attractive to the reader.
This volume of Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju has revitalized my interest in the series, now that I understand how the various threads and histories twine together.