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On a fictional “Showa” stage, a tale is told of the solitary rakugo storyteller, Yakumo Yurakutei, his sworn friend, Sukeroku, and the relationships enfolding them. What kinds of feelings did the author of this tale nurture as she wove this story together? We reached out by email to enquire about her thoughts on both her work and its anime adaptation. (Interview text by Showtaro Miya)
Manga author. In 2008, she debuted professionally with the short story “You in the Window,” which, in 2009, was included with other shorts in a manga volume of the same name. In 2010, she started drawing her first non-BL work, Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, for the magazine ITAN (Kodansha). [T/N: The final chapter was published in June 2016, about two months after this interview came out.] It was selected as the winner of the “General Category” in the 2014 Kodansha Manga Awards, and became a huge talking point. Currently, her BL manga Itoshi no Nekokke (My Darling Kitten Hair) is also being serialized through Libre Publishing.
—Could you tell us about how you encountered rakugo?
Kumota: Rakugo has long been something I found to my liking—it’s one of the subjects I’ve always wanted to write a manga about. I admired the rakugo of someone very much like Master Yakumo, and wondered what kind of world I would need to create to depict someone like him, and what kind of people I would need to surround him with. That’s how I came up with this story. A rakugo storyteller that normally doesn’t try to put on airs—to have him do so and thus help to convey, gently, the deep “iki (sophistication)” of rakugo…that’s what I hoped to be able to do. Also, back when I often went to see rakugo performances, the big ones with famous storytellers always had a packed house, but most of the rakugo theatres themselves didn’t have many regular customers. So I also thought that it’d be great if people could read my manga and become interested in going to these halls. Great numbers of rakugo storytellers work really diligently to polish their art, so it’s really sad that so few people come to see them perform.
—What would you say is the most fascinating thing about rakugo? What is it about rakugo that you are personally drawn to?
Kumota: How you are able to think “It’s fine this way.” I also like how cute people born and raised in the Edo era are. They’re a bit silly and clumsy and just so adorable. I like how rakugo makes it seem like we’re peeking into their lives. Because they all live however they want, there are also characters I don’t like. The fact that you don’t know if they’re a good person or a bad person until the end is another thing that’s good about rakugo. Furthermore, the way that storytellers depict all the characters that appear with just the minimum number of props, or how they don’t just turn a blind eye to snobs and bumpkins, devoting themselves to a “iki” that makes you think that they’re just pretending to put up with them. I just love how simple it is. It’s a minimalist art bound by certain requirements—that’s what I’m drawn to, and I think that’s where it really matches my tastes.
—Then could you tell us what you thought when you watched the anime adaptation? As the original author, what did you like about it?
Kumota: I got the feeling that the show was crafted with the best techniques, born out of the voluminous experience of the staff, who created something that matched the wonderful performances of the cast. The beautiful background and the detailed depictions of the characters, the incredibly sophisticated cuts in which the cuts are put together, and the clean, soothing sounds. Using this foundation, Director Hatakeyama brings together so beautifully a story that is like a runaway horse (chuckles). He has really created a world without peer. I love how it’s become something that’s separate from the manga, a world that people can only enjoy in animated form.
—The fact that we’re able to hear so many rakugo stories in the show is another thing that makes it stand out. How did you feel about the performance scenes?
Kumota: They were simply wonderful, a magical time that I did not want to end. With the manga, I did all kinds of things, through trial and error, to make sure that readers wouldn’t be bored. In the anime, those scenes have become something quite unique; although they’re abridged versions, the stories still flow logically when you listen to them. It’s incredibly well done. There’s this soul of creative originality. Ishida-san, who plays Yakumo, has really delivered a wide, colorful range of performances—if I had to compare him to someone, he’s like Master Enshō. I’m really thankful that he has succeeded in pulling off something so difficult. In the case of Yamadera-san, who plays Sukeroku, his voice has a really persuasive quality. It feels comfortable, like you can rely on it, and it makes me want to listen to his rakugo forever. On that front, he reminds me of Master Shinchō. I’d go as far as to say that I really want him to become a rakugo storyteller for real. Moving on to Yotarō’s Seki-san—listening to him leaves me with a warm and fluffy peace of mind. It’s the peace of mind you get from Shibamata’s Tora-san, and the way it makes me grin really reminds me of Master Shinchō. We’ve only heard Yotarō during the early, zenza stage of his rakugo career so far, but I really want to hear him do some of the really famous stories. And aside from them, Hayashibara-san, Kobayashi-san and all the other cast members also put their bodies and souls into their performances, and I was simply amazed by how skilled they all are. They made me think that what they do isn’t something you can pull off if you’ve only had superficial life experiences. The number one career that I could never do would be to be a rakugo storyteller, but I’ve added being a voice actor to the list at that same level.
—Next, I’d like to ask about the characters. In watching the anime, have you realized anything anew?
Kumota: My image of Miyokichi, in particular, has changed after watching the anime. Before that, I didn’t really understand her, but it would seem that Hayashibara-san’s depiction of her is correct. It feels like she’s telling me “I’m human, too,” and I found myself regretting that I hadn’t faced her properly. Because of this, I was able to bring my story together really well in the end. Many of the women who appear in rakugo stories are quite pitiable, else they meet with terrible ends—you often feel sorry for them. But that’s not what I wanted for her. Because of that, I aimed for Sukeroku and Miyokichi to end up like the married couple in the story “Extension.” I really love how cute they are.
—And what do you think is the charm of your characters?
Kumota: Yakumo (Kikuhiko)… is a man who won’t bow before a woman. Even though it would be easier if he just succumbs, his pride just won’t let him. You don’t really see men like him these days, so I really want to support him in that. Sukeroku… is like Shinchō-san and Kanzaburō-san, a performer whose early death would leave you incredibly sad, so he’s someone who really should not die so young. Yotarō… he’s got a funny face. Also the fact that it’s easy for him to gain weight. And he’s the one pulling this entire story towards the sun (a practical reason). As for Miyokichi… it’s that gap and sensuality that you can only have if you have it from birth. Beautiful women really are amazing.
—The bond between Yakumo and Sukeroku, that love and hate mixed all together, and the master-disciple bond between Yakumo and Yotarō—what did you pay attention to when it came to depicting these relationships?
Kumota: I endeavored to write jaunty conversations that make you want to listen to them forever, just like when listening to rakugo stories. For that, I felt that the rhythm of the Edo dialect was indispensable, and so I went and studied it by myself. Parents, children and grandchildren, brothers, friends, master and disciple, colleagues, rivals—I have the feeling that the relationships between rakugo storytellers cover all the possible bonds that men can have with each other. And I love how they are all things that are alien to me. Without leaving anything out, I wanted to depict all of these bonds with as few characters as possible.
—The setting of this story is “an imaginary Showa Era” in which, eventually, only one rakugo theater remains in the city. Why did you set it up that way?
Kubota: I thought that such a degenerate state of affairs was the most appropriate in order for me to depict “Yakumo’s rakugo.” To say that you’d commit a lover’s suicide with rakugo just when it’s boasting of its height of popularity—that’s not something that a half-hearted rakugo storyteller would be able to do, even in a fictional world. For it to be believable, I needed to make him an absolute master of the craft. Even now, I tremble at the thought of it: “Just what have I challenged myself to do?” But I’ve slowly come to understand that the real rakugo world was, until recently, in such a bad shape that it could very well have fallen into such a state of affairs.
—Which parts of the story are you particularly fond of?
Kubota: In the manga, I like the beginning of the first chapter in the “Yakumo and Sukeroku” arc. The time where they become the 7th generation Yakumo’s disciples is really memorable for me. I’d had a really clear image of about 10 pages of that chapter right from the beginning of this manga’s serialization, so drawing those scenes was really enjoyable for me. I also love the scene where Sukeroku and Kikuhiko perform “Nozarashi” together in that country town. In rakugo, you often hear the phrase “sun and shadow.” It’s embarrassing to admit it, but even I felt a knot in my stomach when their two different styles of rakugo came together like that in “Nozarashi.” That story is one that is deeply significant for the characters, passing down from generation to generation, so it often appears in the story away from the stage. But I really like all of the episodes in which I’ve used it.
—For those who have become interested in rakugo after reading this manga, what would you recommend they do next?
Kumota: First up, I think the most important thing is to find an active rakugo storyteller who has you going “There’s just something about this person.” It doesn’t matter where you find them—maybe you saw them on TV, or maybe you like their face or their voice. Rather than learning the stories themselves, the fastest way to get into rakugo is to follow that storyteller and their activities in the rakugo world. That’s how it was with me—I found someone I liked and so started going to live performances quite early on. When you first start, I recommend watching DVDs and videos, where you can see their gestures and the details of their performance. After that, please read the “Let’s go to the rakugo theater!,” the little series of extras I’ve included at the end of each volume of the manga. It’ll take some time, but right now, with the greatest number of storytellers we’ve ever had at one time, it’ll be incredibly fun finding the ones that you like. Recently, there’s been a hint of a revival of the classics within the rakugo world, so whether they favor new, individualistic stories or the classics, both groups of storytellers are uniformly excellent. It’s pretty exciting.
—Finally, could you leave a message for our readers?
Kumota: Thank you for choosing to this manga or anime about a subject that is often said to be rather “plain.” But if you actually try listening to rakugo, you’ll find that it’s not plain at all; rather, it’s an incredibly rich cultural legacy that depicts the entire myriad of emotions that exist in our world. A full six years have passed since the serialization began, but every day, I’ve discovered something new. Every day, the story I’ve wanted to listen to has changed. And the more I learn about just how broad and deep rakugo is, the more interesting I find it to be. It’s really quite frightening. It would be absolutely impossible for me to capture everything about rakugo in this manga. And so, if you read this manga or watch this anime and become inclined towards the thought that “Rakugo seems pretty amazing,” and actually go to listen to a live performance and feel on your bare skin just how amazing real rakugo is, that would make me incredibly happy. In drawing this manga, whenever I’ve stumbled upon a road block, I only had to take it in a rakugo-like direction for the path to open up before me. Perhaps it would be possible to apply that even in my own life. Finally, at this point, I’ve also come to see the ending of the manga quite clearly, and I’ll devote everything in my being to ensuring that it is one that you’ll be fully satisfied with.
 The concept of iki is one a number of ancient ideals that underpins what is considered aesthetically pleasing in Japan. In an earlier interview, Kumota contrasted iki with the related concept of miyabi. Iki originated from the common people in the Edo period, and appears to embody simplicity yet sophistication. In contrast, miyabi originated in the upper class from a much earlier time, and seems to lean more toward refined courtliness. You can read another summary of the various concepts of Japanese aesthetics in this blog post. (Thank you to @Inksquid43 for allowing us to use her summary of the two concepts!) ↩
 San’yūtei Enshō is one of the big rakugo professional names. The 6th generation Enshō, Matsuo Yamasaki, passed away in 1979, and the seat has remained empty ever since. Kokontei Shinchō is another professional name, from Tokyo. It has also remained empty since its last holder, the 3rd generation Shinchō, passed away in 2001. ↩
 “Extension (O-naoshi)” tells of a former high level prostitute who married a tout and retired to work as an intermediary. However, her husband’s frivolous partying soon saw them deeply in dept. Upon the recommendation of his friend, husband and wife agree that she’d try to earn the money they need by becoming an unlicensed prostitute, with him acting as the tout that informs customers when each allotment of time is up by calling out “Extension!” She’s prepared for to do it for their sake, but he gets jealous seeing her with her first customer and decides to call it off. The customer comes back wanting to ‘buy her freedom’ (so-to-speak), only to see them ‘making up’. ↩
 Master Shinchō was 63 when he passed away. Kanzaburō Nakamura XVIII was a kabuki actor who passed away when he was just 57. ↩