The innkeeper was careful to explain to them just what kind of show this was, so they listened without getting overexcited.

Today was the day. The day Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju set out to break our hearts and bring its story to its inevitable tragic conclusion. Yotaro and Konatsu knew what kind of story awaited them when Kiku took off his coat to tell them about the unfulfilled promise between him and Sukeroku in episode 1. And we knew it, too. The show invited us into its story like the innkeeper, preparing us for what’s to come. When Kiku took off his coat, we became part of that performance. We are conspirators. Art needs an audience to become art, just like people need other people to reflect themselves in, one of the many beautifully intertwined underlying plot threads of this series that was finally cut today.

Of course, knowing the ending doesn’t mean the audience is going to be less involved in the story or its characters’ fates. Rakugo itself is an art form where the well-known story matters much less than the way it is told by its storyteller. And today, Rakugo asked us if it told its story well, by breaking the fourth wall more immediately than ever before.

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Rakugo is a conversation. If the audience is good, the rakugo naturally becomes good. […] I was able to do good rakugo thanks to them.

As a vocal member of this show’s small, but passionate audience, I find myself humbled by this acknowledgement. Especially since Rakugo delivered so spectacularly on its promise. Even with one episode still remaining, I feel confident to say that it will be very hard to push this show from my top spot of 2016. And it’s only March.

We all knew what would happen, but let’s take a closer look at how it happened to see why this show succeeds as a tragedy.

After a few moments so tender, it was almost too cruel to bear, the foreshadowing continued to stay strong with this episode. Tragedy works best when the audience is aware of what’s about to be lost. And so we see Kiku dreaming of finding Miyokichi for them to live together in their master’s house, leaving Yakumo’s coat to Sukeroku to further encourage him to pursue his old dream of succeeding the name, contrasted with Sukeroku catching the drum sticks Kiku throws out the window, telling him he’ll “pay for that one”. With the river looming below the window, glimmering in the dark, the stage is set, waiting for the final curtain to fall. All of these images and exchanges are powerful and effective, and yet still manage to be subtle enough not to break the immersion.

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Rakugo has always shown masterful skills at balancing subtle characterization and staginess, with one enhancing the emotional power of the other. This is a fine line to walk, and the series walked it with grace and grandeur.

With Sukeroku about to die, his last rakugo, Shibahama, is a poignant one. It’s the story of a poor man who comes into the possession of a treasure, only to have his wife convince him it was all a dream. Scared of his irresponsible nature, she chose to lie to prevent him from ruining himself and their family, forcing him to work hard instead of drinking his life away. The man, aware of his flaws, vows to become a better man.

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It’s all my fault. I’ve finally come to my senses.

Until this point, this rakugo could still have been about Sukeroku getting off his butt and finally back on stage again, even if he might face hardships and rejection and it would be so much either pretending not to care.

This interpretation shifts when the show cuts to a lonely Miyokichi, just as the man in Sukeroku’s story reaffirms his love for his wife.

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I don’t want to make you cry.

Miyokichi, of course, isn’t at the theater to see Sukeroku make this vow to her. She only came to watch Kiku’s earlier performance in secret, not interested in or capable of appreciating Sukeroku trying to make things right.

But the most important part of the story is yet to come. When the wife confesses to her husband, showing him the riches he found weren’t a dream, admitting that she lied to him to make him change his lifestyle and accept responsibility, he isn’t angry for working hard where he did not have to. Realizing the burden he put upon her, he thanks her for enabling his growth as a person – even if it was at the cost of a lie.

It was your lie that made me realize that. […] I could never have grown this way without you.

This is Sukeroku’s own, reversed Shinigami moment, which Rakugo tells us by cutting to a crying Konatsu in the audience. Konatsu, born out of two people’s shared misery, the living lie of what a child should (not) be for their parents. I can’t help but wonder if it would have changed anything had Miyokichi been there to share this moment. Could the impending tragedy have still been averted?

In the story, even when he is tempted to go back to his old ways, the man refuses the sake he has now earned, valuing love more than his personal pleasures.

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I can’t have this becoming a dream again.

Through his story, it becomes clear that Sukeroku knows he has failed his family, and, for the first time, he wants to make it right. Finally, Konatsu might have a reason to be proud of her father. But just like Kiku had to accept his own humanity and need for others to understand what he knew he was missing, Sukeroku’s priorities have shifted. Foreshadowed in his opening lines on stage, where, despite looking comfortable to be back, he casually mentions that something “doesn’t feel right”, going back to who he was before is not an option anymore. His reality has changed, and he finally seems to be able to realize that himself.

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This whole day’s felt like a dream. Getting to do rakugo like that again… It feels like a gift from God.

Sadly, even if we didn’t already know the end of this story, Sukeroku’s earlier conversation with Matsuda leaves little room to hope for a happy ending. This is a story about people realizing the value of what they had only after they’ve lost it.

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To the audience, going to the theater to hear both your rakugo styles was a joy they took for granted. When something you expect to hear everyday goes away, it’s truly a lonely feeling… Without you two there, it’s like the lights in the theater have gone out.

Trying to but scared to find themselves, Rakugo‘s characters ended up playing their respective roles for so long they became real to them, and it will take unbearable loss for them to find out what was truly important and worth sacrificing for. Is it art? Love? Friendship?

For Sukeroku, his relationship with Miyokichi was a consolation price. Trying to fill the hole his shattered dreams of succession left in him, he was too busy mourning his loss of rakugo to see the human jewel he could have had if he had tried.

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Loosing herself in the fantasy of a supposedly perfect love she couldn’t have, Miyokichi spent the past years waiting for Kiku to come and save her from her mostly self-inflicted misery. Elevating her memory of him to imaginary levels, she made herself unable to realize Sukeroku could become the husband she could take care of, in her own, sad little dream.

To be fair, the fact that it needs Kiku’s return and perseverance to reignite Sukeroku’s spark, which then enables him to realize he actually still has something left to lose doesn’t make it easier for Miyokichi to see that possibility before it is too late.

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You and Konatsu are my treasures. If doing rakugo makes you feel insecure, then I’ll gladly abandon that unstable trade. You mean more to me. Let me start over.

Offering up his dream for her happiness is tragic. But Miyokichi has already chosen to rather share a dying dream of love in death with Kiku, and it takes her threat of doing just that to make Sukeroku truly realize what’s at stake for him.

Kiku, having come home, ends up delivering all of them from their cocoons of denial, simply by being Kiku. But where he wished to save them (himself included), his return ends up destroying every possibility of happiness (his own included).

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It’s all because of me. I’m sorry. It’s my fault.

This confession is, of course, utter nonsense, born out of old Kiku’s survivor’s guilt and tendency to take responsibility for the lives of all the fragile and vulnerable people around him who are unable to do so themselves. He might have fostered Sukeroku’s inability to take responsibility by always going the extra mile to take care of and cover for him, and his passiveness certainly enabled Miyokichi to project her misguided dreams upon him, but she was broken long before she met him. But this is Kiku’s version of what happened, and from his point of view, his interpretation is the only one that makes sense.

I was abandoned again. Punishment, perhaps, for my sweet dreams…

Kiku’s impudent dream was to be human, not giving in to the shinigami, but accepting the pain and beauty of human interaction, always so much more imperfect than his rakugo could ever be.

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People can’t understand everything about each other. And yet people still live together. The love of sharing trivial, meaningless things with others is human nature. I suppose that’s why humans can’t stand to be alone.

It’s his choice of imperfect human connection over perfect solitary art, which ends up being the nail in the coffin, returning Sukeroku’s spark not as a God, but as the shinigami who came back because he wanted to change something for the better, because he refused to stay dead. This is the same kind of beautiful tragedy that made another favorite anime of mine so unforgettable.

Where there was forgiveness for lying for the perceived benefit of others in Sukeroku’s rakugo, there is no redemption for Kiku. While Sukeroku forgives Miyokichi for not loving him and causing their death, Kiku, once more abandoned, is condemned to live on, burdened with the responsibility of taking care of others, and prohibited to die in peaceful solitude.

I was so determined to live alone, and yet…

When Miyokichi realizes her mistake of denying herself to be loved, and Sukeroku admits to loving something (or someone) more than the idea of himself on stage, their death turns into a painful moment of truth, and not just because Kiku finally learns Miyokichi’s real name. It’s a form of truth Rakugo has mostly chosen to convey on stage, which is why it comes as no surprise that this scene plays out like the climax of a Greek tragedy, with the laws of physics being temporarily suspended for heightened emotional drama. This is, after all, the culminating moment of Kiku’s story, and I’m sure this is exactly how this moment is etched into his mind – an eerie visual and narrative echo of his breakup with Miyokichi in episode 9.

The show’s setting and way of storytelling make this kind of heightened state of reality possible without ever feeling out of place. The story of Sukeroku’s death isn’t about what happened. It’s the way Kiku, our storyteller, chooses to tell it which makes it meaningful. The ending has to be theatrical, because their death is much more than a tragic accident. It’s the conclusion of the tragedy these people cast themselves in.

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I’ll go with her in your place. I can’t let her fall to Hell alone. – Then take me with you, too!

Part of the tragedy can be blamed on society, but in the end, it’s the characters’ refusal to cope with the reality they’re living in that led them to this fall to hell (which, thanks to Rakugo‘s heightened sense of theatrical reality, we actually get to see on stage screen). If only they could have realized their own emotions, they might have been able to appreciate the small happiness life is capable of offering without having to self-destruct because they didn’t find the main prize right away.

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Why must a person’s nature be so foolish?

Why, indeed.

It’s hard to say whose decisions have been the most destructive. Miyokichi choosing to be in love with the idea of being in love with someone she couldn’t have, pushing away the people who would have loved her, nurturing the theatrical idea of love in death over people waiting for her to love them? Sukeroku’s inability to take responsibility before it’s too late, depending on having his artistic spark (read: soul) reignited by Kiku to be able to express his feelings for Miyokichi? Or Kiku, pushing everyone away in fear of abandonment, justifying it with living for his art before realizing there can only be art when there are others to reflect ourselves in?

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I don’t think it was Miyokichi’s intention to die there with Kiku. She came because she wanted to be saved by him, trying to provoke him into caring about her through threats, guilt, and pity. The problem wasn’t that he didn’t care, but that he didn’t allow himself to explore that frightening emotion when there was still time.

What would have happened had Miyokichi seen Sukeroku’s rakugo? Would she have seen what Konatsu saw, a possibility for a future? Or would she have stayed a prisoner of her own delusion?

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I was able to make it through, knowing that some day, you’d come for me. I know now, the only time I can really be myself is when I’m with you.

Rakugo has been at its best when it left it to the viewer’s interpretation to decide what’s real – and what’s fiction its characters simply choose to believe in.

There is no absolution for Kiku after this fall, which is why he is still haunted by Sukeroku’s memory in the present timeline. How did he cope all these years? We know he has perfected his Shinigami, the grim reaper who has become his trademark and self-identification. But is he truly dead inside? Or is this an act, and if so, for whom – himself or Konatsu? Turning himself into the object of her hate could be an ill-advised attempt at protecting Sukeroku’s memory (the same Sukeroku who Miyokichi learned to hate because of Kiku, so there’s a certain Kiku logic to be found there). We will have to wait until next week to know for sure, or be kept guessing, making up our own version of the story. I do not want physical death to be forced upon Kiku to find redemption, as I do not think he needs to be redeemed. Staying alive, living through the pain and raising Konatsu in her parents’ place are proof of that.

After this episode, I’m secretly hoping for Konatsu, not Yotaro to become Yakumo 9th and fulfill the promise both her fathers made when they were young and still full of hope. And I want Kiku to be alive to see it.

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I couldn’t have done it without you. Rakugo isn’t something you can do alone. So that was enough for me. Thank you.