Review by Ian Keogh
Always planned as a finite series, Haruko Kumota splits Descending Stories into sequences of varying lengths, and Descending Stories 2 began the look back into the past of Rakugo master Yakumo, which will occupy the series until midway through Descending Stories 5.
Yakumo became apprenticed to a previous Rakugo master on the same day as Sukeroku, which led to them bonding despite their very different personalities. Both have come to love the performing art and aspire to be masters themselves, but Sukeroku has a natural exuberance Yakumo can’t match. We know from the earliest chapters, though, that it’s Yakumo who becomes the master, while Sukeroku dies in disputed circumstances. That’s the very effective suspense Kumota hangs over this long flashback sequence.
Kumota opens here in post-World War II Japan with Rakugo again booming, and Sukeroku and Yakumo taking a chance on hiring a theatre for their own performances. Just as in the earlier books, Kumota has a subtlety to his art that really brings the Rakugo to life, his drawings for the performances are evocative, indicating the movement and the exotic costumes amid the minimal staging. The design work applied to the costumes isn’t just for stage. The sample page shows Miyokichi in visiting Sukeroku while Yakumo is away, and even in black and white Kumota makes her kimono almost drip from the page.
Miyokichi is instrumental in making Yakumo’s mind up about how important his art is to him, and the realisation of what he’ll have to sacrifice. It’s a sequence that Japanese readers steeped in the culture of respect will immediately understand, but translates awkwardly into English where questions are raised, Despite this, Kumota’s eloquence ensures the situation transmits with the right emotional strength. Kumota also constantly emphasises opposites, most obviously between the yin and yang personalities of the two main characters, but in other respects besides, such as that of rules and desires, or the relationship between fame and quality.
Rakugo performances have been a regular feature of Descending Stories, so that another is the highlight of this volume is no surprise, but the circumstances of it are. Kumota builds to this scene masterfully, out in the open with no reader likely to pick up on the significance until it’s revealed as another contrast, that of respect expected and respect due. The subsequent fall out is also beautifully handled, emboldening Yakumo and determining Sukeroku’s eventual fate. That final chapter is a stunning piece of drama, and Kumota will have to go some to top it in Descending Stories 4.
Kumota ends the volume with a few lighthearted pages about attending Yose shows, but it’s the drama that really hits the spot.