Rakugo Shinju’s just aired its final episode, and I’ve never been more upset with a series I myself has confidently heralded as one of the all-time best shows I’ve ever watch. Those who’ve seen it know exactly what I’m referring to, those who haven’t should check the series out on Crunchyroll before continuing with this piece. Massive spoilers ahead as I attempt to come to gripes with that one scene.
Full disclosure, this is not the essay I planned on writing for Rakugo Shinjuu. After seeing the penultimate episode, I was compelled to write about Bon’s swan song, and particularly how the episode initially conflicted me with the confirmation of the supernatural elements. I had previously viewed those scenes as insights into Kikuhiko’s tortured psyche, physical manifestations of his regrets and suicidal thoughts. But that episode presented the afterlife with so much intricate detail that a few moments broke immersion for me. But the interpretation that this could’ve been a dying dream for Kikuhiko still seemed valid to me. I was intending to argue both sides before landing on the decision that it ultimately didn’t matter because by the end of the episode the pure catharsis of the scenario is what’s important. I’ve scrapped this idea for two reasons. Firstly, Matsuda’s recollection of the event in the finale kinda disproves the dying dream theory, thought that the time-gap between events would mean they could ignore that and leave it ambiguous but that’s a different story.
The second and more important reason is that the finale brought up a legitimately uncomfortable prospect on the table, Kikuhiko is Shinnosuke’s father. I can’t begin to describe how much this assertion dampened the final episode, which outside of that scene was everything I expected and better from Rakugo Shinjuu. Anyone whose had their pulse on the discussions surrounding this reveal are already aware of its controversial nature, but I do think it’s important to explain why outside of the icky sleeping with somebody you raised element. The main issue is that this recontextualizes one of the most well-developed relationships in the show that previously didn’t express this possibility. That’s not to imply that there weren’t subtle hints that in hindsight seem to foreshadow the reveal, and I’ll address those later but on the whole, the portrayal of their relationship has always been presented without those romantic (and sexual) connotations. Instead of representing them as a damaged foster parent/daughter dynamic. Their strained relationship was one of my favorite aspects of the series, and the resolution we received in episode 10 was one of the series finest scenes. The heartwarming reconciliation between the detached foster-father and the bitter Konatsu, one that caps off beautifully with Yakumo finally agreeing to support her pursuit into Rakugo, which one was of the biggest conflicts between them. Not that it completely sullies that moment or anything that drastic but the new layer added alters the context of the entire relationship we’ve seen up to that point, and clearly not for the better in my perspective.
However, this doesn’t exclusively pertain to their relationships but the individuals themselves, particularly Kikuhiko. There’s no denying that Rakugo Shinjuu was the Eighth Generation’s story, we’ve gotten a grand look into practically his entire life. Ever since Rakugo was thrust into his life following a leg injury preventing him from continuing dancing (not that he ever could truly succeed as a geisha dance during the time period) we’ve had a window into every major event in his life. He’s one of the most impeccably well-written characters in any medium, and this reveal seems like a betrayal to the character. Now to provide some context, one of the most debated aspects of the show in the community during season one’s airing was Kiku’s sexuality. The show never explicitly stated whether or not he was gay, and only really alluded to the possibility with one line in season one but I think it’s impossible for anyone to deny the amount of affection he had for Sukeroku either. It’s not that I think him sleeping with a woman is a crime against his characterization, for starters I’ve always read Yakumo as trans instead of gay with how much traditional gender roles had shaped his life and how his performances seem to flourish while portraying female (or male disguised as) characters and more importantly I don’t think he was ever capable of truly parsing his feelings, always framing his feelings towards Sukeroku as admiration for his Rakugo. The betrayal is that it’s such a leap to suspect that Yakumo would have sex with Sukeroku’s daughter after raising her. It feels like a betrayal of his love for Sukeroku, perhaps that was why he was so anguished overseeing Sukeroku but the text doesn’t really indicate that prior to this scene. It may take on new meaning on repeat viewings, but on the first watch-through none of seems to signal to this direction.
Which is honestly the worst thing about this whole thing, we aren’t given a lot of context to process this information. The series may have several clues scattered throughout to suggest this but it’s such a dramatically different interpretation of their dynamic than we’ve been presented. One of my favorite moments from the previous episode was the low-key reveal of what truly happened that tragic night. Miyokichi didn’t intentionally stab Sukeroku, she tripped while waving around a blade threatening to kill herself. I loved this for so many reasons, but the most pertinent to this piece is that it fit perfectly within the narrative. We’ve been presented with two distinct versions of what happened, arguably three, but it was the amount of time dedicated to the build of that scene that made the true version being revealed as impactful as it was. It also benefits from the fact that we caught a glimpse of the truth in the first episode. If the two big mysteries surrounding Rakugo Shinjuu are what happened on that night and who the father is, then the former succeeds because we’re giving loads of surrounding information and context and the latter fails because we’re not even presented the time-frame leading to it. The series returns to the present when Konatsu is already pregnant, and while the father is certainly addressed, we’re not presented with any of the facts leading up to it sans Konatsu’s own motivation. If this possibility had been more thoroughly presented my reaction to it might have at least been less severe. Though it could’ve had the opposite effect, at least it wouldn’t be as shocking at the moment.
Thankfully, the show left things ambiguous. Having just spent a thousand words describing why the twist bothered me, I’m now fully prepared to explain why I don’t believe it. As I’ve alluded to multiple times in this essay, there are several clues doled out throughout that I’ve heard people express as evidence to Higuchi’s theory. This isn’t meant to dissuade others from forming their own interpretations, having an individual perspective in art is important, which is why I’m personally going to address all the reasons I’ve heard and express my own interpretations.
The most prominent verification I’ve seen is in Shinnosuke’s physical resemblance to Yakumo, something that doesn’t honestly hold a lot of weight for me. Mainly because the series has previously used facial characteristics to tie two non-blood related characters together, Sukeroku and Yotaro’s nose having ichthys displayed. Granted Shinnosuke’s resemblance is a bit more realized than a singular distinguishing feature but my point is that series has used their visuals to convey attributes beyond genetics. The resemblance operates as a reflection of Yakumo’s influence on Shinnosuke’s life as his idol.
The final three hints I’ve most frequently seen broached are scattered lines of dialogues from several episodes. The first comes from the first season finale and is the easiest to ‘discredit’, Yakumo’s thought that Sukeroku was angry over what he did to his daughter. The timing matches for the reveal perfectly but there’s just so much he could be referring to that it doesn’t lend itself to exclusivity. Having raised her he contributed to a good amount of her turmoil and decisions. He constantly shouldered the blame and hate for the incident where she lost her parents, and wasn’t exactly supportive of her passion for Rakugo. Their’s actually a third theory I have that I’ll get to in a second. The second one comes from a conversation between Yakumo and Kido, where he brings up a debt he owes and Kido responds stressing his skill in silence. When I initially heard it I had assumed Yakumo was referring to letting Yotaro leave the gang without repercussions, the statement prior to his “mouth shut” that it was “All in the past” could potentially still give credence to that. Regardless, we know from Konatsu that he was definitely involved, so it seems likely that he could be referring to that. To shift focus to one of my own personal theory of the events that transpired, I believe Yakumo prompted the baby-making between Konatsu and Kido’s kid. To elaborate, Konatsu having the baby was clearly her desire and I think Yakumo managed to arranged the proceedings. I can see this definitely being something he has guilt over, essentially pimping out Sukeroku’s daughter, even if under her potential behest. Regardless, we don’t know enough about the circumstances of the event itself to clearly know, though I have a hard time thinking of a reason why Kido needed to be involved if Yakumo truly was the father unless he just happened to walk in at the right moment. Finally, Konatsu’s striking lines of being a slave to her blood (sidebar: I know she said this earlier in the show but unfortunately I couldn’t find said instance, I’ll edit this piece if I managed to come across it later), a thought Yotaro’s presence discards. This is probably the most legitimate clue in my opinion. It’s hard to argue how seamless these lines work if you assume it’s about how Yakumo’s kid. Her bloodline having an infatuation with Kikuhiko, and her relationship with Yotaro is what’s freeing her, which if you subscribe to Higuchi’s theory is what ultimately ends up happening. However, I think her line previous line specify a “tragic life” can be used to paint a different picture. Perhaps one where unhappiness runs in, where constant bad decisions in relationships lead to tragedy. Granted, her repeating this line during her last moments with Yakumo seems to affirm the meaning of that phrase ties directly into her feelings towards him. As I’ve stated previously, I don’t think interpreting these to aid Higuchi’s hypothesis is invalid but none of them serve as explicit confirmations.
Before I move on from providing alternate interpretations of several key moments, I want to quickly point out the fact that Higuchi isn’t the most reliable source when it concerns theories about Yakumo. Along with lacking much tact for opening that can of worms, he also has a history or incorrectly predicting situations regarding Yakumo’s big secret.
Finally, let’s bring this dissertation to a close with a discussion of purpose. Whether the scene is meant to verify that Shinnosuke’s father is Yakumo or not, Rakugo Shinju wouldn’t include a pointless sequence, especially not at this stage in the game. Assuming Higachi’s on-point, there’s a lot of easy to figure out meaning. For starters, it turns Shinnosuke’s presence as a representative of both Sukeroku and Yakumo from figurative to literal. Something that I think is superfluous but the series had recently enacted a similar principle making those supernatural elements more literal. Not only that but it compliments the first season well, producing a sense of symmetry of the two timelines which the series is clearly fond of. The tragedy of the past resulting in Yakumo raising Sukeroku’s daughter being reversed with the occurring events resulting in Sukeroku (Yotaro) raising Yakumo’s daughter. And while I don’t really like the change in Yakumo and Konastu’s relationship, I can certainly see why the complications make for interesting drama.
So then, if the insinuations weren’t accurate was there any purpose to having Higuchi bring them up in the first place? I certainly believe so, first of all regardless of who the father is, giving Konatsu her own personal secret to keep, shared with Yakumo and [at least] two others is something I do appreciate and again, delivers symmetry to the series. But beyond that, it also accomplishes another important element that the finale desperately needed, ruminations from Konatsu on Yakumo.
As previously established, Rakugo Shinjuu is Yakumo’s story, and it’s a story dedicated between two very distinct periods of his life. The first period is the time he spent with Sukeroku and Miyokichi as he steadily progressed up the Rakugo ladder and the second being dealing with his impending death along with the drama surrounding Konatsu and Yotaro. While the first season dealt with hist ascent into the Rakugo world it also was building towards his emotional low-point whereas the second season saw his prowess at his craft begin to decline with his body yet also resolving a lot of his emotional turmoil accumulated in the prior season. The last two episodes deal with providing catharsis and resolution to both of those periods in Yakumo’s life. The penultimate had him engage with Sukeroku and Miyokichi, as he returns to various fixtures and staples of the time period he shared with them. His conversations with them are pure catharsis and everything from that period is resolved and wrapped up in one final moment with Matsuda that allows Yakumo the final lines, the longest living character. To remain consistent with this, the series finale also wraps up with one final moment with Matsuda that allows Yotaro, the new generation Yakumo and deuteragonist the closing lines. Much like how that previous episode dealt with Yakumo’s past, this episode dealt with the future that his life helped shaped, a future without him. This displays itself in many ways, his stage presence and style being preserved in Shinnosuke, Konatsu being the first female Rakugo performer (poignant since his final line of dialogue was agreeing to mentor her), Yotaro finally achieving the Sukeroku dream of becoming Yakumo, and of course, Konatsu finally being able to summarize her feelings in a way she was incapable of earlier. With how important their dynamic was to the series, there’s absolutely value in allowing her to openly suss out her feelings for him and with the unresolved father mystery, it makes sense to incorporate that as a tool to allow for that to happen naturally after so much time has passed from his death.
In conclusion, the mystery of who’s Shinnosuke’s father was definitely left open to interpretation and I’m certainly taking that liberty to say that Yakumo isn’t the father. That being stated, I would’ve preferred had the series not bring up the implication itself. If only because even after all my writing, there’s still this lingering thought that Yakumo is the father, and that’s something that just doesn’t sit too well with me. To paraphrase Yotaro, “Somethings are better left unsaid”. Though admittedly, my frustration with the situation has dwindled considerably. With the excessive length of this essay, I doubt anyone would even take the time to read it (if you do, let me know your personal take on this) but regardless, I can definitely say that this experience has been therapeutic.