Unfinished business is a common theme in two anime from the current broadcast season that have caught my interest.
Satoru Fujinuma, an aspiring manga artist who makes ends meet by delivering pizza, has a singular talent…or perhaps the talent has him. At unpredictable moments, time rewinds for him by about 5-10 minutes, and he has an opportunity to avert some mishap in his vicinity, if he can figure out what’s wrong with the situation. He’s had some modest success preventing auto accidents, petty crimes, and such, but it’s a delicate thing, and he’s failed more often than not.
Then he stumbles into a very deadly and personal calamity, and when time rewinds, he finds himself 18 years in the past, in his middle-school-age body. What happened this time is bound up with some stray baggage from his younger days—with an abducted girl who might have been saved if he’d only paused to talk with her, with a friend wrongly convicted of the crime, and with a faceless killer still on the loose. Can Satoru solve the mystery and set things right? Only time will tell, and the clock is ticking.
This is a gripping, high-stakes mystery with a supernatural twist, and it also wrestles with some deeper underlying issues—how we often miss what really matters in life, how small decisions can have huge unforeseen consequences, and how regret over lost opportunities in the past can haunt and cripple us.
Rakugo is a Japanese style of formal comedic storytelling, performed by a single individual on a bare stage with only a piece of cloth and a paper fan for props. The performer assumes the personae of multiple characters, employing skilled nuance of voice, posture, and facial expression, something like the one-man shows we see on Broadway from time to time. Rakugo masters have passed on their training, heritage, and often their stage names to a succession of apprentices across several generations.
Small-time gangster Yotarou witnesses a rakugo performance in prison and is so entranced by it, he decides to pursue rakugo as his life’s vocation. After his release, he goes straight to rakugo master Yuurakutei Yakumo and begs to be taken on as his apprentice. Yakumo simply doesn’t take apprentices, but something in the young man’s manner and desperation speaks to him, and he accepts.
Yotarou doesn’t realize he’s stumbled into a very complicated story involving Sukeroku, a friend and rival with an unorthodox style who once shared an apprenticeship with Yakumo. He died in tragic circumstances, and his daughter Konatsu is under Yakumo’s guardianship. Konatsu aspires to take up her father’s legacy and become a rakugo performer, but traditional convention forbids a woman performing rakugo on stage, Yakumo refuses to teach her, and she’d rather not have his help anyway—she blames him for her father’s death. It doesn’t help that Yotarou spent a lot of time in prison listening to Sukeroku’s performances, admires his rakugo style, and bears more than a passing resemblance to him.
Encompassing a time period from mid 1930’s to early 1970’s Japan, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu moves at a measured pace and devotes much time and attention to the rakugo performances, some of which are presented in their entirety, using a variety of visual techniques to pull the viewer into the audience’s mind to witness the imagery created there by the performers. It may tax some viewers’ attention span (as one of Yakumo’s performances does to Yonatsu at a key moment of the story), but it generously rewards careful and patient focus on the dialogue and visuals, and I’ve not seen anything else quite like it. The characters are complex and interesting, and the story seems to be as much about Yakumo’s shared history with Sukeroku (and together with Konatsu, coming to terms with his death) as it is about Yoterou’s journey to become a worthy successor to the rakugo master.
Both these anime are currently available for viewing at Crunchyroll.com, with new episodes releasing weekly.