Descending Stories is an epic series of emotional turmoil structured around the Japanese performance art of Rakugo. It’s a refined form of Japanese theatre involving a single person with minimal props telling a story, at its simplest requiring merging the skills of a raconteur with an actor and mime artist. As with so much in Japan, though, it also involves discipline and tradition, and English language readers will have to accept this as presented, despite the formalities seeming archaic. It’s a series that builds intensity from small moments, and offers very little context over this opening volume. Stick with it, though, as that context can gradually be understood, and Descending Stories is ultimately a very rewarding journey over ten volumes.

After his release from prison, a young man’s first thought is to become apprenticed to Rakugo master Yakumo, and despite his forceful naivety Yakumo agrees to make the young man his first ever apprentice, christening him Yotaro. It’s a name applied to foolish men in Rakugo plays, and a seemingly whimsical appointment by Yakumo, yet as we later discover, Yakumo does nothing randomly. It’s only in the final pages that we’re given an explanation of why a highly regarded performer would take on someone who’s enthusiastic, but an idiot, particularly when he knows it will upset his adopted daughter Konatsu. That’s along with every other talented hopeful he’s rejected in the past.

It seems at first as if Haruko Kumota is producing a standard manga, well drawn with gurning faces and farcical misunderstandings, but that’s a mistake. The serene cover is very representative, with Yakumo mid-performance, as it’s during the performances that Descending Stories takes off. The actual form is extremely nuanced, and in a moving second chapter Kumota’s art brings this out, suggesting what’s not actually present. That chapter’s also far more contemplative, reflecting on a dying art, missing people, dedication and maintaining standards, and pulling open the dark core of a death hanging over several of the cast. Descending Stories also deals with disagreeable aspects of Japanese tradition, the most prominent being that no woman can be a Rakugo artist.

The four chapters supplied here and the first of Descending Stories 2 comprise ‘Yotaro’s Odyssey’, his journey from clumsy enthusiast to someone who might be able to sustain a dying art form. It’s subtle and it’s surprising that such interesting drama is prompted by such a serene cultural touchstone.

A bonus strip informs anyone wanting to know more about Raguko, detailing the venues and what goes on there, adding the important information that despite the downbeat tone of Descending Stories, the artform is still very much alive in Japan.