Joshiraku

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Friday, May 30, 2014

There are plenty of anime series that will never get officially licensed for English audiences. Sometimes it seems like a missed opportunity, while other times it is understandable as there are certain series that wouldn’t possibly make back the cost of acquiring them. Joshiraku is definitely one of these series, as it is a comedy that focuses on a group of female rakugo comedians. Despite the fact that quite a few jokes went over my head and it was necessary to read fan sub notes after each episode to get some of them, I still found Joshiraku to be enjoyable.

If you’re like me, the first thing you’ll probably wonder as you start this series is “What the hell is rakugo?” As it turns out, it is a Japanese form of verbal entertainment where a storyteller sits on stage with only a paper fan and small cloth and depicts a lengthy and complicated story that has humorous elements. That one person acts out all the characters, and a lot of the humor is based on word play and puns. Joshiraku looks at a group of high school age girls that are rakugo comedians and follows their daily exploits on and off stage. Since I don’t speak any Japanese aside from random bits I have picked up from watching way too much anime, that in itself made it hard to pick up on all of the jokes. In addition to this, there were numerous references to Japanese entertainment icons, brands, and other events that not every viewer is going to be familiar with, as well as some jabs at politics. Having the ability to read fan sub translation notes definitely made a difference, as it allowed me to discover what I might have missed while watching the episode and not all of the puns directly translate into English.

Even though a decent amount of jokes in each episode went right past me because I either don’t know the language well enough or didn’t get the reference, there were still enough moments that I found amusing to keep me interested in the series as a whole. If you’ve watched a considerable amount of anime and know a little bit about the current political/economic situation in Japan and Asia in general chances are you may be able to understand some of the commentary. In between the sheer amount of word play and references there is also slapstick and other physical/random humor spread throughout each episode. It’s an interesting balance, as Joshiraku will sometimes hit the absurd in your face level of humor that is a mainstay in anime today and follow it up with some very subtle word play. As an outsider I also thought it was interesting that the majority of the locations the girls visited were real locales and they went to some areas of Japan that aren’t always common for anime.

There are five characters in Joshiraku, and each of them receives equal focus throughout the series. Marii is the one that gets made fun of the most, as she has a very loud and outgoing personality but talks in a masculine tone and is often accused of often being a cross-dressing boy (and for whatever reason ends up naked on a fair number of occasions). Kigu is supposedly the cute, childlike one of the group and lives up to this reputation by her actions, but there are often cuts to her internal dialogue that humorously reveals she harbors a must darker, cynical side. Tetora is the most normal out of the five, as she often balances out the zanier antics of the others but she also contributes a good deal of puns and commentary for the viewer. Gankyo is the token glasses/smart girl character, but she has a violent personality and this is exploited quite a bit. Finally, there’s Kukuru who is my favorite of the cast. Kukuru is somewhat emotionally unstable and has a tendency to fall into waves of depression, but she has a very dark and bizarre sense of humor that caught my attention during the first episode. Her bad luck is used for some of the funniest and strangest skits in the entire series, and every time I saw the frame pan over to her character I knew it would be worth it.

Since the majority of Joshiraku takes place in the waiting area of the rakugo theater with occasional visits to different Japanese locales, the animation isn’t anything overly flashy that will stand out in the mind of the viewer. But J.C. Staff has been able to do a good job of translating the look and feel of the manga onto the television screen and I didn’t notice any jarring transitions between frames. There are a few sequences where the studio is able to throw in a little bit of action and shake things up, but for the most part this is an anime that is focused on characters talking. Sometimes the static nature of the animation is even used for some of the jokes, and while it’s unlikely to be an element of the series that is used as a selling point Joshiraku does maintain a consistent aesthetic throughout. The voice acting cast works well together and creates a dynamic that reinforces the humorous nature of the series. My two favorite performances were from Kotori Koiwai (Kigu) and Saori Goto (Kukuru) as both actresses sold the personalities of the characters and consistently stood out. Both the opening and ending themes are your standard J-pop, but I wasn’t that crazy about the ending theme in particular.

To get the most out of Joshiraku, viewers will either need to understand a good deal of kanji and spoken Japanese or read through the fan sub translation notes after each episode for references they may have missed. This will probably be too much work for the average viewer and will likely keep the series as a niche within a niche, but those of you who think an anime that has the standard slapstick silliness mixed in with a considerable amount of wordplay and social/political commentary (that at times pokes fun at western culture) sounds interesting may want to give it a shot. Don’t expect an official release in North America though, as so much of this series is Japanese centric that I can’t see this series catching on with a wider audience.

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