Note: this essay was written before the release of the second season of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, so I will only be talking about the first season.
I had a phase in high school where I fell in love with Wuthering Heights. I think my teenage self resonated with the angst, the cyclical tragedies, Heathcliff’s singular charisma, and the general wild, tumultuous atmosphere. I’ll admit to devouring essay after essay on critical analysis of the book, and digging deep into the corpus of Brontë’s other works.
When I watched Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu (henceforth Rakugo Shinjuu) this past winter, I was fairly lukewarm about the story until I hit episode 9 and 10, when I saw the same angst and cyclic tragedies that I loved in Wuthering Heights. I instantly warmed up to the show. Suddenly, Rakugo Shinjuu made sense to me. It mattered.
(This is going to be the most far-fetched essay I’ll have written so far, isn’t it…)
Of course the two works are different. Heathcliff stands at the center of Wuthering Heights, motivated by a resentment towards the established families, an obsession over Catherine, and a laser focus on revenge. Meanwhile, Rakugo Shinjuu highlights Kikuhiko’s conflict: an inferiority complex towards Sukeroku borne out of jealousy but also an inexplicable attraction. But notice the similarities in the nature of their tragedies:
Both works take place against the backdrop of old families and traditions. Wuthering Heights features the ancient Earnshaw and Linton families, while Rakugo Shinjuu has the long-standing Yakumo name as well as rakugo itself as an old, fading art form. These lineages establish a generational or cyclic feel to the conflicts, and also weigh heavily on the characters’ shoulders as they contemplate the decisions that would determine their fates.
The major turning point in both works feature a conflict between emotion and reason (in other words: ANGST). In a painful scene in Wuthering Heights, Catherine rejects her heart’s desire for Heathcliff in favor of societal pressures to marry into a well-established family, which sets in motion Heathcliff’s revenge plot. In Rakugo Shinjuu, Kikuhiko snubs Miyokichi for the sake of the rakugo tradition . This sets off the angst-filled scene between her and Sukeroku as they discuss eloping as the “rejected ones”, setting the stage for later tragedies. Both decisions seem logical at the time, yet they are part of many other small decisions that add up to greater misfortune, giving a feeling of inevitablilty to the tragedy.
Both works show the tragedies propagating through generations, with an important cause being the baggage from the previous generation. In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s vengeful nature is a product of his childhood bullying by Hindley and the perceived betrayal by Catherine. He in turn exacts his revenge by raising Hindley’s son Hareton in barbaric conditions and abusing Catherine’s daughter Cathy, setting the stage for the dour household in the present day. In Rakugo Shinjuu, the misfortune is multifactorial, but the baggage from the previous generation plays an important role. The seventh generation Yakumo’s spat with the previous Sukeroku is one of the underlying reasons that he snubs the current Sukeroku as his successor. This rejection in turn sets the stage for Sukeroku and Miyokichi to decide to elope, which, combined with their financial troubles, is responsible for Konatsu’s difficult childhood. Meanwhile, Kikuhiko’s conflicting feelings toward Sukeroku and Miyokichi lead him to visit them, indirectly setting the conditions for the tragic confrontation that leaves Konatsu orphaned. This traumatic event, combined with Konatsu’s distrust for her new guardian Kikuhiko, results in a bitter household by the present day.
In both works, the households are first introduced at the nadir of their unhappiness, but both sets of cyclic tragedies are broken at the end by people deciding to genuinely care for one another. In Wuthering Heights, the younger Cathy decides one day to make friends with Hareton, and their new amity helps Heathcliff realize the meaninglessness of his revenge, thereby liberating the household from misery. In Rakugo Shinjuu, Yotarou and Konatsu are distrusting at first, but by the end of the season have developed a cordial relationship, which, combined with Kikuhiko taking a less strict approach, has resulted in a less bitter household. Both works seem to imply that the key to breaking cycles of unhappiness is to forgive the previous generation’s injustices and reach out in goodwill.
All of the above is to say: I loved Wuthering Heights, I found elements of Rakugo Shinjuu that were similar to Wuthering Heights, therefore I began to like Rakugo Shinjuu. Enjoyment is a curious thing: once I decided I cared about the conflicts, not only did I enjoy the rest of the episodes, but when I rewatched the show, I was able to pay attention to and pick up on a lot more of the earlier details I had missed previously. As a result, I enjoyed the rewatch a lot more. Rakugo Shinjuu is undoubtedly my favorite anime of 2016, and I’m wholeheartedly looking forward to the second season in only a few weeks.
You can read about the 12 Days of Anime project on the intro post here.
 It’s debatable whether Kiku has feelings for Miyokichi, and if so he doesn’t show it, but they did see each other for a long time. I like to think of him as conflicted.