The stage is an act, but even an act can be real.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”
Although the remainder Jaques’ oft-referenced speech in the second act of Shakespeare’s As You Like It goes on to reflect on the stage as a metaphor for the stages of man’s life on the earth, his conception of man-as-actor extends beyond the fundamental arc of human birth, existence, and death; it also speaks to the ubiquitous presence of performance in our relationships with other human beings. While other anime have prompted me to write about the ontologically isolated nature of being human, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, with all its focus on the inherently dramatized art of rakugo, presents an image of the practical effects of our existential separateness. That is, through the very distance its reliance on the elements of stage and performance creates, it conjures up a story that speaks of the grandiosity of human emotion as transmitted through the falsity of the acts we present for each other.
On many levels, the characters of Rakugo Shinju are steeped in performance. Each of the three leads—Kiku, Sukeroku, and Miyokichi—is a performer by trade, and each of them acts into various roles as demanded by their circumstances and their flaws. Kiku dutifully treads the traditional path of the Rakugo Association on his way to becoming a master, while Sukeroku plays in unrestrained self-indulgence to entertain his audience and Miyokichi presents herself as a specific kind of woman to appeal to Kiku. Kiku leads Miyokichi on for months while Sukeroku hides his envy of Kiku, and Miyokichi transforms herself into someone else entirely for Sukeroku in the wake of Kiku breaking up with her. Each of them performs for someone else, just as we all do. As Miyokichi says to Sukeroku in episode 9: “If someone wants me, I can be anything they like.” The acts we put on for each other, while “real” by virtue of being generated out of our genuine need to perform, are deeply deceptive. And when their falsity is revealed, the sudden collision of our realities hurts.
Throughout Rakugo Shinju, the artifice of performance rises and falls, with each successive break in the acting building in both pain and catharsis. As agonizing as the revelation of the truth of Kiku’s jealousy of Sukeroku is, as deep as the wounds of the seventh generation Yakumo’s long deception are revealed to be, as mortally tragic as Sukeroku’s real love for Miyokichi ends up being, there is nevertheless a relief in the release of the act, in the emergence of reality from behind the curtain. The emotions long-hidden erupt in dramatics of the most potent kind as the feelings these characters have been hiding behind their masks reveal themselves to the audience and to each other.
The majority of humanity lives small lives. We wake, eat, work, and sleep to small effect on the overall workings of the vast machinations of the cosmos. But our insignificance within the universal context doesn’t mean that our being alive cannot feel big. The heat of envy, the pain of rejection, and the agony of loss may be but a drop in the ocean of history, but this doesn’t mean they cannot be waves, hurricanes even, in the seas of our own lives. Theater, then, is one art through which humanity elevates our insignificant experiences of the world to a position of significance. By immortalizing emotion, our own stories, on the stage (or in a book or on the screen), the largeness and the fullness of being human is allowed to take on grander role underneath the great umbrella of the universe.
The genius of Rakugo Shinju is in its willingness to grant the immensity of these emotions their due place. In episode 9, as the last shreds of the illusion of Kiku and Miyokichi’s relationship torn away, Miyokichi declares in melodramatic anguish, “I will have my revenge. The next time I see you will be in hell.” Grand, and terrifying statements. And perhaps a performance of a kind, but one that, rather than obscuring her true self, reveals it in the most chilling of fashions. Such tremendous delcarations may not be the stuff of ordinary life, but they are an expression of the real reality of the Miyokichi’s feeling. (The same goes for the impressionistically rendered cinematography of the seventh generation Yakumo’s loneliness, Sukeroku’s pain, or Kiku’s solitude, which are representative of their interior realities.) In the dramatic outpouring of their lines, an explicit acknowledgement of these emotional truths appears out of the facade of performance. There is an unreality about the exterior transmission due to the performative nature of these climactic moments, but it’s in service of a deeper, more personal honesty, one given substance, weight, and validity beyond the immediate moment through the medium of the dramatic theatrical mode.
And so, it’s appropriate that rakugo, a storytelling performance itself, should also serve as a method of communicating for our characters again and again, as it encompasses both the authenticity of the human experience and the duplicity of the performance therein. As Kiku and Sukeroku time and time again choose to tell stories reflective of their own lives, they intentionally enter into the simulacrum of the theater. It’s an act for them, but it’s also a truthful sharing of their experiences with the audience. The performance becomes entangled with the reality of life and, given long enough, becomes indistinguishable from it. As the saying goes, all the world’s a stage.
Where does this desire to perform come from? Where will it ultimately lead us? It’s beyond me to guess at such things, but what I can say with certainty is that it is part of the human condition, both as a form of illusion and as a form of self-disclosure. We speak through words not our own to hide our vulnerability and to share the truths of our deepest selves. And it is here that I find Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju most beautiful and most effective—that in its embrace of that which feigns reality, it becomes a poingnant reflection of the very reality it imitates. Through its embrace of the dramatic, the theatrical, and the performative, it enables itself to channel the unmanagable emotions of the human experience into a form we can see, understand, and feel. As its characters burn with the fires of anger, jealousy, rage, and freeze in the winds of loneliness, doubt, and fear, Rakugo Shinju immerses the audience into the very experience of the feeling. The universality of the strage transcends the specificity of the world.
That’s theater. That’s life. That’s rakugo.
This article was initially published on Crunchyroll.com under the same title as part of the Aniwords column. The original post can be found here.
2 thoughts on “Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju and the Humanity of the Stage”
A lovely piece of work! I enjoyed reading it and it has broadened my understanding of the show. 😊
There’s an aspect of performance that’s not so much about the hiding/revealing dimension, as it is about shaping encounters. If you play one role, you force another person into another role that is compatible with yours, unless they wish to break with the “play” and you call you on it. It’s that aspect that ties performance into everyday life, for example via politeness rules. Sociology, for example, loves that Shakespear quote, I think I’ve read in books by Dahrendorf and Goffman.
For example, there is the scene where Kiku catches Miyokichi in Sukeruko’s embrace. Miyokichi wishes to explain, but Kiku refuses this “script” and feigns indifference instead. It is a performance that takes Miyokichi by surprise. It’s supposed to deceive her and push her away, but it’s very likely also a buffer: Kiku chooses the kind of pain he can control more easily. The outcome of the situation, a formal breaking off, is real and intended and understood by both parties. But to what extent does Miyokichi accept that script as truth? In the situation? On later reflection?
I think, there are different aspects to social performance when it relates to “authenticity” or “truth” in the west and in Japan. I still find myself surprised, sometimes, what sort of declarations can be ignored in anime (I wish I could think of an example). Things that are never talked through. I think it’s the honne – tatemae system: what you’re supposed to want and what you really want. I think honesty is a much more straightforward value in the west; it’s not more important, but there’s a sense that there’s a more conscious expectation of a politeness performence. “Say it even if you don’t mean it,” is an almost cliché line in anime romances; I can’t remember hearing it to the same extent in western romances.
One of the things in the early parts of the show was that when you saw Miyokichi and Kiku together, you’d usually see her in her Gaisha get-up, since he comes to see her at work. The one time you see her without make-up is when she helps put make-up on Kiku. I remember thinking that this shows the kind of relationship they have on a metaphorical level: they’re willing to reveal their private sides to each other (in a measured, careful way), but never both at the same time. They don’t quite connect.
Note that “performance” is also an aspect of socially expected roles: Kiku broke up with Miyokichi mostly because getting serious with her is not in the script of the role for “Rakugo master”, and this is the only role Kiku can imagine for himself. And both Miyokichi and Kiku know that script. Kiku being this cold and cruel to her is part of it on the social level. It’s how Miyokichi should expect to be treated. Her later declaration of revenge is also part of that script.
And this is why I’m not sure whether this performance is more revealing of anything like her “true self” than her other performances. The emotion in the performance, and its force, those were certainly real, but I’d say the same thing about her earlier performances. When Kiku and Miyokichi meet in the latest episode, this performance is all but forgotten. He’s come back, and that means we’re now dealing with a different script.
It’s amazing how interpretable this show is. You get a narrative, you get roles, and it all feels real, precisely because they don’t appeal to something fiction-only, like a “true self”. Instead you get layers and layers of performance and situational framing, like in real life. Sometimes performances are supposed to mislead, but more often than not they’re the tools people use to carve out their place in society; they define themselves more or less successfully. Nobody’s quite what they seem, and sometimes others see through your porfermonce than you do yourself. It’s because I don’t think “true selves” exist that I connect with this show.
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