Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinji, Vol. 1

By Haruko Kumota. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Itan. Released in North America by Kodansha Comics. Translated by Matt Alt.

Just as there is a big difference between having the Great American Novel in your head and actually being able to turn it into an actual book, there is a difference between being able to tell a great story when you’re in a bar or with your friends and being able to tell a great story in front of an audience who is there to be entertained by your stories. And in Japan there is a tradition devoted to just such a thing: Rakugo, where the performer sits on a cushion and tells a long, involved story, usually involving multiple people, and has to make sure to differentiate between the characters, not make everything too complicated to follow, and entertain the audience. This is the sort of thing that ex-con Yotaro wants to do, and he persuades one of the last rakugo masters (it’s a dying art) to take him on as an apprentice. But of course, it’s not as easy as that.

The thing that struck me most about this series as I read it is the way that the three main characters are both sympathetic and yet very difficult to like. Yotaro is obnoxious in the sort of way that you’re glad he’s just a character in a story and not your actual friend, and his apprenticeship at times seems like he’s more of a puppy that was picked up off the streets (this is actually lampshaded). Yakumo, the rakugo master, is a cranky and aging man who is upset that his art is dying and troubled by a tragic past, including the death of his best friend, whose art he sometimes tries to show in his own work. He’s unpleasant in just the right ways to make him fascinating yet really irritating, and it’s still not quite clear why he picked Yotaro to be an apprentice when he never has before – I don’t think he really knows either, though Yotaro does have some raw talent.

The third main character is Konatsu, Yakumo’s “ward” and the daughter of the dead best friend I mentioned before. She is deeply bitter and angry about the death of her parents, which she suspects Yakumo was actually involved in more than he admits, and is also deeply angry and bitter about the fact that women are not allowed to perform rakugo – a shame as she’s really, really good at it, and she knows it. She ends up teaching Yotaro most of the basic skills, mostly as his actual master is far too busy using him as an actual dogsbody. The anguished and dark conversation between her and Yakumo, where he wishes out loud that the gods had let her be born a man, and she says she feels the same, is heartbreaking. Basically, Konatsu is a walking timebomb, and I’m curious how many volumes it will take for her to go off.

Descending Stories ran in Itan, one of Kodansha’s ‘sui generis’ manga magazines that, like many other ‘sui generis’ manga magazines, tends to get classified as josei when people try to slap a genre on it anyway. I can see why this story falls into that genre, though – the art style reminds me of Ooku, and not just because of the period kimonos and hair. Descending Stories didn’t bowl me over, but it’s a strong start, and I definitely want to say where these characters go next.

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