Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
Josei – Comedy, drama, historical, romance, slice-of-life, supernatural
10 Volumes (complete)
A recent parolee has only one goal: to be trained in the art of Japanese storytelling under a certain master, one who has never had an apprentice before. Yakumo, considered the last of the greats, shockingly agrees. But this still doesn’t mean smooth sailing for Yotaro: Yakumo treats him like a pet, the young lady Yakumo looks after resents both of them, and mastering the art is tricker than Yotaro thought.
The anime adaptation of Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju premiered before the first volume of the manga was published in English. While I tried to avoid too many spoilers, I know that Yakumo’s seiyuu (who you may recognize from series like Fairy Tail, Gintama, NANA, Naruto, Slayers, and many others), was highly praised in the role. While a part of me kept going, “Man, I can’t wait to hear Ishida’s voice!”, I really tried to restrict my thoughts to the manga format. Of course, with a series like this one that focuses heavily on sound — specifically vocals — the manga is going to have difficulties overcoming the question of, “Why don’t I just watch the anime?” Especially since, in Descending Stories‘ case, the two anime seasons cover the entire manga, and it’s available to stream for free in most English-speaking regions (and in a few more) versus paying $12.99 a volume.
The manga, quite frankly, is at a huge disadvantage, probably moreso than music-based or acting-based manga. You can’t load up a classical piece in YouTube or download a J-pop song in iTunes and set the atmosphere in music. Rakugo features one sitting man doing a live narration while also playing several characters, and even though there are several talented actors/voice actors out there in all languages, rakugo is a live, limited performance. It’s different than being able to record multiple takes in an animated show or being able to wear different costumes in a play.
So I’m not going to be able to tell you why you should choose the Descending Stories manga over anime. I will hopefully explain whether the story is any good as well as if the manga presentation is any good. Anything beyond that, I can’t answer.
I already explained a bit about rakugo, but like karuta in Chihayafuru, it’s something that doesn’t really have a Western equivalent. The rakugoka — the person doing the rakugo — dons the seiza (sitting on legs) position and tells stories from the many (300+) options. These usually have a comedic, melancholic, and/or ironic ending, and each tale features multiple characters. The rakugoka may only have two props, a folding fan and a cloth, and he can not move from his spot. Like in other Japanese arts and sports, men (and only men) interested in rakugo must train under someone, and very often positions (names) are passed down from master to apprentice. The whole rakugo aspect can be hard on readers, as the manga may only show parts of the skit or a Reader’s Digest version of it. I’m not saying rakugo isn’t interesting or that it makes Descending Stories weaker, but it’s not going to be something that anybody can easily get into. However, there are some English (translated and original) rakugo performances on YouTube, and like other manga about Japanese arts and sports, Descending Stories helps raise awareness.
The man later known as Yotaro in Descending Stories sees Yakumo (technically the eighth Yakumo) perform while the former is incarcerated, and upon his release, he goes to Yakumo to train. Yotaro picks a rather unusual person to train under: Yakumo (formerly known as Kikuhiko) has always refused training anyone before, and even the name he gives his new apprentice (Yotaro) refers to the rakugo archtype of a foolish person. Yakumo does have someone he looks after though: Konatsu, a young lady who believes the rakugo master is responsible for her parents’ deaths. Sukeroku and Miyokichi were both connected to Yakumo: Sukeroku as a fellow apprentice to the previous Yakumo (Yakumo VII), and Miyokichi as a geisha who was interested in Yakumo-Kikuhiko. Konatsu loved Sukeroku’s freewheeling personality and rakugo, but she isn’t allowed to follow in his footsteps because of her gender. So that’s another reason why she isn’t much of a Yakumo fan, and the fact that he takes on the cheerful idiot Yotaro means she isn’t thrilled with Yotaro either.
Descending Stories is the story of these characters and more, and it’s quite an emotional journey. While we are introduced to them because of Yotaro’s arrival at the yose (rakugo house), the true protagonist is Yakumo. The manga covers his life until now in great detail, and a large part of the story deals with how he wants rakugo to be in the future… if at all. Meanwhile, while Yotaro admires Yakumo, their relationship becomes strained at several points, Konatsu is usually antagonistic toward him, and he’s haunted by the ghosts of Sukeroku and, to a lesser extent, Miyokichi.
Literally haunted, as Yakumo sees their ghosts many times. You could chalk these cases up to delusions of an old man, but the ending includes a whole supernatural sequence, so that affirms that these are not fully psychological issues.
For me, this was hugely disappointing, the characters here are so authentically three-dimensional. You may like them at times, dislike them at other times, but their core dynamics play out in households, schools, and workplaces throughout the globe. Yakumo doesn’t want some of his old scabs picked at, but Yotaro can’t help but want to find his own path and be inspired by those who inspire him. Konatsu can’t completely hate the man who has helped support her. And in the past, Yakumo and Sukeroku had different attitudes on life and rakugo. Keeping these visions as illusions would make readers wonder what the deceased truly thought, and it would also make readers hunt for clues that perhaps Yakumo is being an unreliable narrator — or, at the very least, is so wracked with guilt that he’s painting himself in the worst light. Instead, the supernatural aspects take away much of the natural realism Descending Stories has.
Another complaint is the time skips. At points, I did a double-take when the story mentioned that several years have passed since the previous chapter or volume. So Descending Stories, at times, feels more like highlights from Yakumo’s and Yotaro’s lives rather than showing each step. It probably was less jarring when the series was being serialized. A month’s break gives Descending Stories the illusion of time progressing slowly but steadily; marathoning it won’t give that same feeling. Descending Stories could have possibly used a few more volumes here and there (not Glass Mask length), but on the other hand, how much really needs to be shown to show that Yotaro is practicing every day? But jumping ahead several times in a story still is rough. The biggest time skip is halfway through the series, about 10 years after the first chapter, and it represents the biggest shift from the past vs the future.
Still, Descending Stories is addicting because readers will want to see both the past and the future. While rakugo isn’t a sport (obviously), the manga is set up like it could have been a sports manga. You have the naturally gifted newbie, an often-curmudgeonly mentor, a tsundere person of the opposite gender, and a legendary figure. Plus, one of the main questions the manga seeks to answer is a common one in sports title: where the activity is heading into the future. Should it evolve to stay relevant, or should it remain faithful to its historical roots even as other forms of entertainment take hold?
The manga introduces others who share these worries or have their own opinions, like one person who wants to create new rakugo tales. Considering how much time Descending Stories covers, the cast isn’t as large as you might think, as the rakugo world is a closely knit community. This is one of the rare manga without a true antagonist though, and it’s nice to have a story where everyone plays their part, either as an advisor to characters or someone who also wants to change or save rakugo.
Still, though, it’s the main characters who are the draw here. Yotaro will have his fans because of his optimism and passion, Sukeroku for being a clown, and Konatsu for maturing and becoming less prickly. But Yakumo definitely steals the show, even if you don’t necessarily like him. He’s the best and worst of a protagonist and antagonist in one. He’s often rude and standoffish, convinced that his way is the right way. Yet Yakumo still always has a piece of him as the insecure rakugo trainee, and he’s also a man unsure of how to bond with people.
As the years pass by, it is wonderful to watch as the characters and/or relationships change, yet they also stay the same. Balancing the things that change with the things that stay the same is one of life’s greatest struggles, and Descending Stories explores this with such great passion. By the end, not everything is perfect because nothing in life is, but everyone has found a sort of peace, if not happiness. The romance is a perfect example of this. While at first glance, this story looks like the usual “tsundere girl falls for nice guy”, it’s… a lot more unusual than that. Very atypical. Plus, there’s Yakumo’s own love life with its own entanglements. The author did such a great job here (and throughout the manga) that it’s hard not to be emotionally moved by the various journeys of life.
The various rakugo tales serve as both a way to introduce audiences to stories and as a metaphor for what’s going on in the character’s lives. Some are repeated. Again, this probably wouldn’t have been an issue while serializing, but if you’re reading all of Descending Stories in a short timeframe, this might be annoying. I did kind of fast-forward through these segments at times, only reading the characters’ thoughts. Those you can’t just fast forward over; you’ll miss some valuable information.
Speaking of valuable information, there’s a special edition of the Japanese version of volume 10, and it came with an extra bonus story. I do wish Kodansha had charged another dollar or two and included it, as the content is pretty significant in tying to a huge surprise/twist that is hinted in the final volume. This big mystery was mostly intentionally kept secret by a character for much of the manga, and it isn’t 100% confirmed in the final volume. But this bonus chapter strongly supports the theory. After you finish Descending Stories — and only after! — I highly recommend you find a summary. I don’t know how well Descending Stories sold, but man, I wish Kodansha had either pulled a My Little Monster and included it or did like Seven Seas with the first printing of one of the volumes of The Ancient Magus’ Bride and made it a first-press exclusive.
Kumota’s art reminds me of classic manga. It’s not nearly as fast-paced, but many of the expressions (particularly Yotaro’s) look like they’ve stepped out of series from the 70s-80s. This suits Descending Stories so well because rakugo is a traditional, classical Japanese art. Whether it’s the kindly servant, Sukeroku’s wavy curls, or Konatsu’s scowls, I get such a feeling of nostalgia. It’s not often we see the same character in several stages of their life, and it’s interesting to see how the scars of time have shaped Yakumo over the years. As for the other characters, some look different throughout the years; for others, the only clue that time has progressed is the hairstyle. That’s just like in the real world.
Pages can be quite wordy with the rakugo routines, so this is a slower read than most manga. This is despite the fact there are lots of large panels and close-ups of the characters as they hold back their feelings — both to protect someone and to protect themselves. Rather than what they say, it’s what their expression says. I’m sure this will be the type of series I’ll reread over the years and find new hints to discover: “Oh, so that wasn’t just a random grimace!” and “Oh, so this pose was meant to remind readers of this other thing/person!” It reminds me of MARS, one of my favorite manga, in this aspect. It’s one of the advantages of the manga: while the anime is someone else’s take on the imagery and subtlety here, if you read the manga, you get the original author’s vision and can draw your own inferences without a third party’s take.
Honorifics are used, including the less common ones like -shi. The stories are translated, and most of the puns are replaced with English ones that approximate the Japanese. Both footnotes and translation notes are included to explain the stories, historical aspects, and the usual cultural things.
Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is a fascinating, engaging tale with perfectly imperfect characters.
The anime is available to stream on Crunchyroll.