Review by Frank Plowright
It’s hardly been concealed that Haruko Kumota has jumped the narrative forward several times, yet the final pages of Descending Stories 7 brought home how far we’ve journeyed through Yakumo’s life. As seen on the delicate sample art, he’s now a relatively frail elderly man.
That reflects other elements of Kumota’s story. She’s underlined for a while that the art of solo storytelling, Rakugo, is possibly dying, so does Yakumo’s poor health mirror his lifelong art? It’s likely that’s intentional as another plot thread here definitely reflects the idea of creating new Rakugo stories to accompany the timeless tales: a favourite venue for both Yakumo and Yotaru’s performances no longer meets safety requirements, so needs to be rebuilt. Those subtleties, however are just a side dish.
A particularly sombre and reflective mood characterises Descending Stories 8, each of the main characters considering their life and purpose, with Yakumo’s loyal servant Matsuda acting as a gentle prompting conscience.
Almost always the highlight of any volume is a Rakugo performance, and Kumota’s skill at varying the circumstances and emotional weight of these is masterful. She surprises again, looking back into the past under unusual circumstances, but that’s small potatoes compared to the revelations that tumble out subsequently when recontextualising a tragic moment revealed in Descending Stories 5. It’s an astonishing revelation and an astonishing piece of storytelling because the series gives the impression of being so measured and serene, yet the emotional turmoil stoking the fires is monumental. That’s brought out at the end, as Kumota returns to the idea of Yakumo as the living embodiment of Rakugo culture after having been confronted with much from his past. If there’s a record of him at his peak is there any purpose for the artist himself? It’s an interesting dilemma, intimately tied to the idea of new Rakugo as mentioned in Descending Stories 7, yet not highlighted as such.
Adjust to the carefully cultivated sensitivity and Descending Stories constantly rewards, and this is a great episode ending with a moment directly continued in Descending Stories 9.