Every once in a while you get a manga series that’s really different in a great way, whether it be something that goes against the grain or something that’s just tremendously creative in art and story. Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is such a case.
A hapless young man is released from prison with nothing to his name, but he knows exactly what he wants: to train in the art of rakugo comedic storytelling. After seeing an unforgettable performance from one of Japan’s greatest masters, Yakumo Yurakutei VIII, during his time in jail, he will settle for nothing less than to become apprentice to the best. Yakumo, notorious for taking no students, is persuaded to take him on, and nicknames him Yotaro – the fool. Yotaro has no formal training or elegance, but something about his charisma reminds Yakumo of someone from his past.
Having just been adapted into a very popular anime series, Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is very fresh in the mind of manga/anime fans – which makes this timely release of the original source material a great opportunity for fans to revisit this great series.
It immediately stands out from titles today as a period piece set in the 1970s – which is not an era visited often when manga creators look back in time. But there is much more that helps the series stand out beyond the period it is set in. Obviously, the art of rakugo is heavily entrenched in Japanese tradition and is quite a niche topic for even the most hardcore of manga fans. But this opening volume skillfully weaves it into the narrative and creates a mythology for rakugo that crosses generations. There’s several tropes familiar to the manga genre, particularly the master apprentice dynamic. But the rakugo factor helps add some freshness to the series and Kumota’s handling of the time period makes this a truly unique series. This is all supported by some great characters with Yakumo and Yotaro’s master/student relationship anchoring this opening volume.
Kumota’s distinct art style is also a big factor in the series charm. Beyond even the setting, the artwork has a very classical aesthetic that gives the impression that it could have easily been produced in the ’70s time period that the story is set in. The characters have that tall, slightly gangly quality that manga series more rooted in drama usually have and it really fits well with these characters and style of storytelling. It also enhances Kumota’s ability to switch from comedic to dramatic moments seamlessly (the rather volatile interaction between Yotaro and Konatsu being the best example of this).
Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is like nothing else you’ll see on the manga shelves this year and that alone would make it well worth a look. But the great characters and unique plot settings all come together to make something truly memorable.
Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is published on May 25 by Kodansha Comics (£10.99, paperback, 9781632364692)