One of the allures of reading manga is how it can transport you into Japanese culture. By reading them you not only get to learn new things but also get a better understanding of what readers enjoy by the very stories being written. Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju was recently released in English by Kodansha Comics and introduces a form of entertainment I didn’t even know existed. Exciting!
Author: Haruko Kumota
Publisher: Kodansha Comics
So what’s it about?
The official summary reads:
A hapless young man is released from prison with nothing to his name, but he knows exactly what he wants: to train in the art of rakugo comedic storytelling. After seeing an unforgettable performance from one of Japan’s greatest masters, Yakumo Yurakutei VIII, during his time in jail, he will settle for nothing less than to become apprentice to the best. Yakumo, notorious for taking no students, is persuaded to take him on, and nicknames him Yotaro The Fool. Yotaro has no formal training or elegance, but something about his charisma reminds Yakumo of someone from his past.
Why does this book matter?
This series revolves around a form of Japanese verbal entertainment called rakugo (落語, literally “fallen words”). A single storyteller (落語家 rakugoka) sits on stage, called a Kōza, and tells a story with only their body language and words so as to entertain an audience. To this American reader, I instantly thought it was similar to standup comedy or The Moth series. It’s all about the art of storytelling and it makes for quite a unique setup.
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
He’s pretty forward eh?
The most amazing aspect of this manga is how it turns a form of entertainment like spoken word and creates an entire world around it that’s intriguing. It’s extra intriguing if you’re at all interested in learning about something unique from another culture, especially since it’s based on a form of art that may just be dying. It’s also a reminder something that is seemingly boring or bland can be a subject that offers plenty of entertainment if done right. If you’re on the fence, pop this book open and turn to the back. In a few pages, Haruko Kumota introduces rakugo and explains how it works and the customs around it. It’s a helpful guide and gives the reader a good idea of what it’s all about.
Kumota introduces this world via a protagonist named Yotaro who knows about as much as we do on the subject. Yotaro is fresh out of jail but knows his new path in life will be to become a rakugoka and learn from a master named Yakumo who he only knows because he performed at the prison. Yotaro is intense, with high energy and a desire to learn quickly, but unfortunately for him it’s not so simple. Not only must he navigate the cultural path to success, but he must also deal with Konatsu, a girl with a complicated past who boards with Yakumo. Yotaro lives with Yakumo acting as a sort of servant so as to learn rakugo which naturally creates moments for Yotaro and Konatsu to butt heads. She too wants to become a rakugo, but unfortunately, the culture dictates women cannot be rakugoka. This adds a layer to the story and gives her character a gender battle to go up against.
Overall this volume develops Yotaro’s place in Yakumo’s house, showcases rakugo in action and sprinkles in musings on how certain forms of entertainment have gone to the wayside. Geishas are brought up for instance, but we quickly learn they’ve died off quite a bit. You can tell Kumota cherishes these older styles of entertainment and in a way this manga serves as a way to remind us of their value.
The most enjoyable element of this series is the dynamic between all three characters. Yotaro is a comedic character who is a bit dumb, but wants to learn and likes everyone. Kanatsu hates Yakumo, who for some reason allows her to live with him, and sets it upon herself to help Yakumo learn so as to show him up. Meanwhile, Yakumo is aware he’s aging and the art of rakugo is dying off. His celebrity is of no interest to him, but part of him wants to foster Yataro and Kanatsu for undisclosed reasons.
The art has a clean look that’s unique with a very thin line. It makes the characters feel delicate and easy to read. Yotaro is quite animated, goofy, and serves as the buffoon of the series while Konatsu is reserved and a character that’s instantly relatable. She may hate Yakumo, but she’s damn well stubborn enough to stick around so she can achieve something from her lot in life. She has talents of her own, which Kumota showcases via lettering when the character practice rakugo. It makes their dialogue feel almost like poetry given the weight and extra purpose.
Yotaro is introduced in a scary sort of way…
It can’t be perfect can it?
There are elements in this volume that are never answered or explained which make them feel less believable. Why Yakumo takes in an ex-convict is anyone’s guess (though he does ask himself the same question) and it’s not explored quite enough to give this decision much weight. There’s most likely an explanation, but Kumota isn’t letting that be known. That makes the entire setup seem rushed and unfinished. There’s also no explanation as to why Yakumo wants Kumota around though one might guess.
The biggest issue with this volume is that it never gets at the heart of who Yakumo or Yotaro are, which leaves them feeling underdeveloped. It instead develops Kumota more fully, though the dynamics between all three are well written. That makes Yotaro’s picking up the craft feel less interesting since we barely know him and don’t know why he’s so good. It also makes Yakumo somewhat of a mystery, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it harder to relate to him. There are elements in this manga that almost suggest there might be a homoerotic element to Yakumo taking on Yotaro–it’s really just a hunch–but not enough is shown either way to make this element stand out. Surely it would make this manga a hot topic, and also much more intriguing, but as it stands the characters aren’t developed enough to understand whether or not this is the intention. I ended up trying to figure out if that was the intention, which did give the read a mystery feel. I could be completely wrong, but given how they look at each other and key bits of dialogue it seems to be implied.
Is It Good?
If you’re interested in learning more about Japanese culture and an intriguing form of entertainment give this a look. Overall the setup is strong, with the dynamic between the three main characters feeling unique and fresh. The setup works well too, as it harkens to a form of entertainment that’s dying, but is still highly respectable. Given how fast technology is changing society, this manga feels topical.