Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is the kind of anime that makes you proud to be an anime fan. It is a thematically satisfying and well-written story, boasting both sweeping historical drama and funny, engaging characters, excelling in visual direction and voice acting alike. In a few years we’ll be talking about it in the same bracket as classics like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell, part of the rare selection of anime you can comfortably show someone outside fandom without caveats.
Rakugo also contains a number of feminist-relevant themes, characters and storylines. We’ve touched on it briefly in other Chatty AF episodes, but art like this deserves its own in-depth discussion. As the first volume of the manga came out in paperback last week, it seemed like the perfect time to revisit this beautiful and rewarding series.
Date Recorded: Saturday 29th April 2017
Hosts: Dee, Vrai, Caitlin
02:12 What is Rakugo
08:14 What drew you to the show?
11:42 Konatsu and Bon
16:26 Konatsu and Yotaro
18:16 Yotaro’s influence
20:49 Love triangle
26:11 Societal expectations
31:19 Bon’s sexuality
33:46 The sour note
37:37 Bon’s depression
40:18 Character complexity
41:10 Except Yotaro
46:11 Translation issues/cultural context
48:51 Separation from history
52:06 (Dee is attacked by her cat)
DEE: Hello and welcome to Chatty AF, the Anime Feminist podcast. I’m Dee, a writer and editor for AniFem, as well as the owner of the anime blog, The Josei Next Door.
CAITLIN: Hi, I’m Caitlin. I am an editor and writer for Anime Feminist, and I also run the blog I Have a Heroine Problem.
DEE: Okay! For this episode of the podcast, we will be celebrating both the anime’s recent completion and the print release of the manga by talking about the devastatingly good historical drama, Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju—which I’ll probably just call “Rakugo Shinju” from now on, ’cause that is a mouthful.
VRAI: [crosstalk; pained] It’s so many words.
DEE: It’s a lot of words.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] It’s a lot.
DEE: So just to give you a little background information before we dig into it, Rakugo Shinju was adapted from the josei manga written by Kumota Haruko. Fun fact: This was Kumota’s first josei series. Previously, she’d exclusively written BL, which are male-male romance titles. But you totally can’t tell while watching Rakugo Shinju that she’s interested in love stories between men.
DEE: [crosstalk] Like not at all.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Totally heterosexual.
DEE: Super. Yeah. The anime was produced by Studio DEEN and directed by Hatakeyama Mamoru, and features an all-star cast of long-time voice actors, including Tomokazu Seki, Hayashibara Megumi, and of course Akira Ishida, who gives what I’m gonna say is the greatest performance of his career as the protagonist, Bon.
VRAI: I may finally stop thinking of him as “Kaworu, and also other people.”
DEE: Yeah, he’ll be “Bon” from now on!
DEE: For me, Rakugo was running at the same time as ClassicaLoid, and it was back-to-back, so I will think of him as “Bon” and also as “Pad-kun, The Snarky iPad.”
CAITLIN: Oh, of course. [laughs]
DEE: He had a busy season. He has a lot of range. [chuckles]
CAITLIN: Very similar series.
DEE: Oh, of course. Yeah. So, as the title suggests, Rakugo Shinju is about the world of rakugo, a traditional Japanese storytelling art form. One person gets on a stage and tells a story to the audience using minimalist props and very little movement. It’s actually a pretty cool thing, so if you are joining us—if you’re somewhat new into this, I would say check it out online, ’cause it’s kinda neat.
In very simple terms, the story follows the life of the rakugo performer, Bon. In less simple terms, it’s a sweeping series covering about 80 years and four generations, and we do not have time to summarize the whole thing here. So we’re assuming that if you’re listening, you know the story already or you don’t mind being confused or spoiled. So, spoiler alerts for the rest of the podcast.
And that is kind of the end of my prologue. In case that didn’t clue you in, I’m a huge fan of the series and I could probably talk about it all day. I will do my very best not to monopolize this podcast. Caitlin and Vrai, I think it’s safe to say that you both view this one pretty positively as well?
CAITLIN: I am a big fan, yeah. I really enjoyed the first season. I have watched the first season… twice? Maybe three times all the way through? The second season, I have not revisited yet. But maybe someday.
VRAI: It’s very good, is the thing. It’s good and full of feelings. I dragged my feet forever getting started on this because I’m terrible, but then I binge-watched it in a day?
VRAI: Like the first—
DEE: I remember that, yeah. ‘Cause you were like, “Dee, I’m gonna start Rakugo,” and I was like, “Okay cool,” and then by the end of the day you were sending me all-caps-lock messages about it. I was like, “Oh God, did you finish?” And you were like, “Yep! Season one, done!”
VRAI: At like, three in the morning! [comically emotional] “Dee, it’s so sad!”
DEE: And I had to be careful—I had to make sure that you’d finished it, ’cause I didn’t wanna spoil anything—so I was like, “Y-ya started yesterd—are you done?” [laughs] I was very impressed. I did not know it was—I watched it week-to-week, so I didn’t know it was a bingewatch. I thought maybe it wasn’t one of those shows that you wanted to binge, necessarily. It might be one that you’d wanna watch, like, a few episodes and then take a break and then watch a few, kind of thing. No, turns out it’s bingeable.
VRAI: It’s very bingeable. Actually—
CAITLIN: It is pretty bingeable, actually.
VRAI: Having had kind of a foot in both, ’cause I also… I tried to wait all the way through season two so I could binge it also, and I didn’t make it. So I watched the back half of season two week-to-week. And I think it’s a much better experience binged, because you can keep track of the recurrent narrative threads a little better, I think.
DEE: Or you can just watch every episode twice and take extensive two pages’ worth of notes like I did. And then you’re good. You won’t forget anything. [laughs]
CAITLIN: I have very distinctive memories of just lying on the floor of the preschool I was working at, surrounded by sleeping children, watching it on my phone.
CAITLIN: I also had a big fight with my sister one time ’cause I was visit—we were both visiting our parents, and she wanted to watch Dawson’s Creek on the TV. And I had my shitty a laptop, and I was like, [bluntly] “No, I am watching this anime. You can deal with it. You can go watch your goddamn ‘90s teens soap opera on your computer.”
VRAI: Now, when I was 17 and depressed, I did watch every season of Dawson’s Creek. So I can’t throw too much shade.
CAITLIN: I mean, I’m not… Listen. I’ve watched some shitty ‘90s teenage soap operas. [crosstalk] I’m just saying.
VRAI: [crosstalk; laughing] Oh, it’s garbage! It’s terrible, terrible garbage!
CAITLIN: When it comes to, like, what gets priority for the TV as opposed to a shitty laptop screen, I think…
DEE: I think Rakugo Shinju is the winner. I think it’s the clear winner in most situations, really.
VRAI: Is this the nicest-looking Studio DEEN anime ever?
CAITLIN: Oh, it’s so beautiful.
DEE: It’s absolutely up there. Yeah, listeners, in case you don’t know, Studio DEEN kind of has a reputation for, um… “QUALITY” anime—
VRAI: [laughing in background]
DEE: —with all caps and a lot of sarcasm behind that word. But Rakugo Shinju—like, the animation is pretty minimal—
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] “Kwality” spelled with a “K-W.”
DEE: [chuckles] Yeah, exactly. The animation is fairly minimal, but it still looks gorgeous. And a lot of that comes down to, I think, the storyboarding. Hatakeyama has a really good eye for detail and body language, and it goes a long way when you don’t necessarily have, like, a giant budget for dynamic sakuga-style animation. Or resources, or whatever. You know, it’s not always about money.
VRAI: But I mean, it just looks nicer.
DEE: And the thing is, he’s done two other shows for DEEN: Sankarea and Rozen Maiden: Zurückspulen—which I probably butchered the pronunciation of that. [laughs] But they were also two of the best-looking DEEN shows I’ve ever seen. So, I do credit a lot of it to him. I think that looking over the production as the series director, I would guess that he holds it to a high standard, and I think that goes a long way towards making the show just look beautiful.
Also, the backgrounds are glorious. I think Studio Jack did those? For Rakugo? And they’re very lush and realistic but in kind of an artistic, beautiful way. Which is sort of the whole thing about the show, is it’s kind of couched between literal and emotional realism. And yeah, it looks amazing.
So yeah, obviously we’re all really high on the series, so this is gonna be a lot of praising probably. [crosstalk] Which is good.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Just a lot of tongue-bathing. I don’t… I mean…
DEE: You just had to make it sound dirty, didn’t you, Vrai?
VRAI: Yes. [laughs] I’m sorry, is that not why I’m here? I’m confused.
DEE: Just to get the innuendos out of everything.
VRAI: That’s what I do.
DEE: That’s why we keep Vrai around.
But yeah, so, kind of keeping with that… with the fact that we all really did like it so much, I figured I’d start with: What hooked you into the show? What drew you to it? What, if you were talking about it with somebody else—about what really stuck out to you and made you wanna keep watching and got you invested in it—what was that? Especially in the early going.
CAITLIN: Um… Konatsu.
VRAI: Konatsu is great.
DEE: You wanna expand on that?
CAITLIN: [chuckles] Obviously, I watched the series for all of the same reasons as everyone else: It’s gorgeous, it’s beautifully written, all of the characters are incredibly compelling. But I have this thing for angry girls in my stories. Women who are just… they have been wronged by society in some way—by gender roles, by… they’re chafing against the expectations set for them.
And Konatsu, in the first couple episodes of the show, was absolutely 100% that kind of girl. I just completely fell in love with her. I thought she was a super interesting character. I couldn’t wait to learn more about her. And then she barely appeared—or, she didn’t… yeah, she barely appeared for the rest of the season, and then it was as a small child. [chuckles] But you know, she was definitely sort of the first thing about the show that really, really grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go.
VRAI: Yeah, I think it’s interesting coming in as a newcomer. Because I know when people recommend the show to newcomers, I think there’s a lot of… they are already cued in to be attached to Yotaro and Konatsu particularly. But then as you’re watching it, as a new viewer, I had a really hard time fixing on who those characters were, because they go away so quickly. Not because they’re not great, and I love them very much. But they are backgrounded for the entire first season.
DEE: Yeah, it’s kind of a bold storytelling style. Because in that first episode, Yotaro and Konatsu are absolutely the most charming, sympathetic, easy to wanna root for right off the bat-type characters. While Bon—who we don’t even call that, we call him Yakumo at that point—you’re not really sure what to think about him, and he seems like he might be kind of a jerk.
CAITLIN: I mean, he is. [crosstalk] He is a jerk.
VRAI: [crosstalk] He is darling jerk.
DEE: [wishy-washy] He’s kiiiinda…
CAITLIN: He is a bad dad.
DEE: He’s very grouchy.
DEE: But then they shoot you back in time and you start with him as a kid. And it does, it kind of asks a lot of you to go, “Well, you’re not gonna see these characters you really liked for a while, but we hope that we’ll get you to like these other characters instead.” And for me, anyway, they definitely succeeded on that.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Absolutely.
DEE: I know that what drew me to it was—especially by the time I got to the… ’cause, the second episode, you get into the back story and you’re like, “Well okay, what’s going on here?”
And then by the third episode—which is the one where Shin goes to war and Bon has to stay behind—I was absolutely sold on the story and the characters. ‘Cause I started to have a better feel for who Bon was and how terrified he was of abandonment and how much he wanted to be of use and look after people. And they just did a very good job that episode of conveying that, especially in the nuances of body language, and little details, which I thought was really lovely.
And it also did a nice job of—kind of like what you were saying, Caitlin—that first episode sets up this gender dynamic with Konatsu where she wants to be a Yakumo performer—uh, [flustered] oh my God—
CAITLIN: [cracks up]
DEE: —a rakugo performer—
CAITLIN: More on that later.
DEE: [carefully enunciating] She wants to be the next Yakumo; she wants to be a rakugo performer. But at this point, women aren’t allowed to perform and so she’s been denied this.
And then we zip back in time, and right away they keep us connected to the early stuff with some of those similar themes. Because when you meet Bon, he is this, not traditionally masculine, more traditionally feminine character, raised in a geisha house. Enjoys dancing and sort of gets that ripped away from him, partly because he’s a boy and partly because of his injury. So—
CAITLIN: Right, it’s… very strong parallels, there. It was very interesting to me from the start how Yakumo didn’t really… You could see all of these similarities between them, in their origins, and it was very interesting about how Yakumo, Bon, whatever we wanna call him—
DEE: Yeah, characters names change all the time. I’m just gonna stick to Bon.
CAITLIN: [chuckles] Yeah, I get really confused about which name I should call each character. But, how Bon did not extend her understanding. Because if he had been understanding, she wouldn’t be this just absolutely furious at the world; furious at him. So he didn’t… Where did his compassion for her situation go? And that was one of the things that the show sort of slowly built up: how they got to be in that situation.
VRAI: No, I think that’s one of the best; like, the stealth best relationships in the show, is this… the fact that they are very much the same kind of person in a lot of ways that isn’t immediately apparent, and the way that their mutual tragedy over losing the person they loved more than anybody else has really left them bereft, but also with this prickly kind of companionship. It’s real-real good.
DEE: It is, and the way it develops over the series. And I do think it’s complicated for Bon because, on the one hand, I think he’s a really… Well, on the one hand, I think from a personal perspective, he kind of doesn’t want anyone to get involved with rakugo. So it’s not just because Konatsu’s a girl. He’s refusing to take any apprentices, he’s keeping people out of the industry, and sort of causing it to die a little bit.
CAITLIN: He is the shinigami for rakugo.
CAITLIN: He sees himself as the god of death. Assuring rakugo into irrelevance, basically.
DEE: Yeah. So I think there’s that, on the one hand. But then I think on the other hand, he’s also a really good example of internalized prejudices; how you come to… Even though he experienced those things as a kid, where he was shoved out of a world because of his gender, you live in that society long enough that you start to internalize it.
And so Konatsu comes along and she’s like, “I wanna be a rakugo performer,” and he’s like, “Girls can’t do that.” [crosstalk] But even before—
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] “I didn’t get to be a dancer, you don’t get to be a rakugo performer.”
DEE: And it’s very lovely how, towards the very, very end of his life and their relationship together, he does come around on that. First, by just not stopping her from performing—he’s just, “Do whatever you want”—but then when she does finally ask him to make her his apprentice, he’s like, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
VRAI: [croaks with emotion]
CAITLIN: [crosstalk; pained] And then he dies!
DEE: [crosstalk] It’s beautiful! Yeah, the show has a lot of emotional peaks and that’s definitely one of the major ones.
CAITLIN: So that happened in the same episode where she announced she was pregnant.
CAITLIN: I cried way, way more at her asking to be Yakumo’s apprentice. Babies make me cry.
CAITLIN: That’s just who I am. I spend all day, every day, around babies. Babies make me cry. I cried more when Konatsu asked Bon if she could be his apprentice than when she told Yotaro that she was pregnant.
VRAI: Well their relationship—I mean, I think that Konatsu and Yotaro make me very happy because they’re very sweet, and they’re the kind of relationship that I can give a shit about because I have an idea when I watch them of why they like being around each other and what they would talk about. Which I think a lot of…
VRAI: Like a lot of heterosexual ‘ships in anime do not bother with that. It’s just like, “Hey.”
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] “I like you! Why do I like you? I don’t know!”
DEE: [crosstalk] I think that’s true of a lot of ‘ships in anime. Like, I think there’s a lot of BL where I have a hard time knowing what they would talk about it.
VRAI: [crosstalk] That’s true.
DEE: That’s just, I think that’s an anime ‘ship problem in general.
DEE: But I know what you mean, that sense of—sometimes it feels like they just cram two characters together ’cause “I guess we should have a romance.”
VRAI: Right. But at the same time, they’re very non-demonstrative. I think that Shin and Bon had more intimacy despite never really resolving that on-screen than Yotaro and Konatsu do, despite—clearly they’re intimate! They had a child!
DEE: Yeah, up until she tells him she’s pregnant and it’s his kid, I genuinely wasn’t sure if their relationship was more just kind of a familial thing, where they got married because it made sense, or if they were an intimate married couple. So I was like, “Oh okay, you guys do bang. Good for you.”
VRAI: [through laughter] “Congrats on the sex.”
CAITLIN: [cracking up]
DEE: But it is like… they very clearly focused on that relationship, but they focused a lot more on their emotional bond. And, like you were saying, you can get a feel for how they would just hang out on a regular day and go about their business.
VRAI: Just the fact that they love each other’s performances—the fact that they’re specifically a performing couple, like they’re both artists, and they love each other’s work so much. Ahh, it gets me right in the feels.
DEE: Yeah. Well, and the thing about—to me, Yotaro isn’t a… like, I like Yotaro. He’s not a super interesting character on his own. But how he interacts and changes the people around him is really interesting.
And the support he gives Konatsu goes a long way towards her having the courage to get out of that mentality of, “Oh, I can’t be a part of the rakugo world,” and try to struggle towards that dream. And, I think that… And obviously, she supports him, too. And so that mutual bond there is really nice to see.
VRAI: I will say that Yotaro was kind of what caught my eye at first, because he’s…
DEE: Mm-hm. Same.
VRAI: Because he’s so… I expected him to be kind of the, you know the character: the reluctant punk who eventually melts and admits that he likes the thing. But Yotaro is just so sincerely enthusiastic from the word “go” in a way that’s unusual and very endearing. It’s so sweet.
CAITLIN: He’s a sweet boy.
DEE: He is a sweet boy. Well, and he does sort of tie in—in a very different way—he ties into that same underlying thread about people being told they can’t do something because of something in their past or how they were born, or things like that. Because his background as a criminal does cause him some problems.
And the fact that Yota—ugh, gosh—the fact that Bon is willing to take him on and stand up for him and not be bothered about the rumors that are going around is, I think it’s one of the early signs where you’re like, “Oh, he is still a big teddy bear at heart.” Kind of trying to look out for the strays around him in the same way that he didn’t necessarily feel like he was growing up.
VRAI: Well, I think there’s an interesting reversal at play, too. Because Konatsu and Yotaro—uh, Bon—are those kinds of characters who are very similar but seem opposite at first. Whereas once you start going on the flashback, you start with Yotaro, and then you switch over and you have Shin instead. And those two initially seem like very similar characters: these very open, sincere kinds of young men who open up the people around them. And they turn out to be very different kinds of people.
And at a certain point, I realized that, “Oh, this show is the very specific sub-genre that I like, which is period pieces that are unexpectedly gay. This is very good.”
DEE: Hoo, that. Yeah. Yeah, that was definitely a topic that was gonna come up eventually, but let’s just get into it now.
DEE: The relationships in the backstory especially are complex, and [there’s] a lot of subtext, and [it’s] kind of open to interpretation. So I was curious to hear how… I mean, I think Vrai’s answer to this is gonna be somewhat obvious—
DEE: —but how you read that based on what we saw. And just your feelings about the way they handled that, sort of… I guess I would call it a “love triangle,” but it’s kind of a half-hearted love triangle?
CAITLIN: It’s sort of interesting looking at the background of what the people who have actually worked on the series have said. Like, Ishida and Hayashibara have referred to them as being in love—romantic love. The manga artist has stated that she started off seeing Miyokichi more as a villain and an obstacle, and not as an actual prospect. So that sort of… [trails off into a bunch of uncertain noises]
CAITLIN: I don’t really have any conclusive interpretations. That’s one of those things where I have a very soft sort of: “Oh, you can interpret it either way. No reading is incorrect.” But I do… Yeah, no, I totally do believe that Bon is in love with Shin and he is sort of not realizing it.
And Miyokichi is… I think she’s so messed up, that I don’t think she’s really capable of loving anyone for who they are. Just ’cause she’s got such a tragic past and she’s been betrayed and used by men over and over and over. So I think she saw Bon as someone who would not use her the same way that she had been.
She complains about him not being interested in sex, but I think him not pursuing sex with her is one of the things that she also, in some way, liked about him. She knew that he wasn’t just going to… uh, what’s the horrible, vulgar phrase that I’m looking for? [brief pause] “Hit it and quit it.”
DEE: Well and I think she even says that when they first meet. She’s like, “You don’t look at me the way most people look at me.” I forget exactly what the line is, but it is very much that sense of: “You don’t just look at me like I’m a piece of meat.”
And no, I do—she’s fascinating to me, because she’s one of those characters, while watching the show, I have a really hard time sympathizing with [her]. And I think she sort of… well, I sympathized with her more as the series went on.
And I think Kumota, the manga author, even said that she changed up the ending for her based partly on Hayashibara’s performance. Because she just gave her so many more layers and complexities than what was maybe in the initial… like, on the page, that it changed the manga artist’s thoughts on the character.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Yeah.
DEE: Which I think is a really cool interchange of ideas between two mediums.
But she’s one of those characters, to me, where you kinda have to dive yourself back into the ‘50s and ‘60s—I guess pretty much the ‘50s—in Japan. Because she’s trying to live a life that is… like, geisha and courtesans and things like that are being phased out because of the anti-prostitution laws, and she’s getting older.
And so she’s living in this world where the job she knows is no longer available. But as a woman, there’s very little else open to her if she can’t get married. So… I think that—
VRAI: And Bon, maybe meaning well, tells her, “Well, you can do whatever you want.” But what does that mean when she has no—
CAITLIN: Yeah! It’s like, no, she can’t!
DEE: Yeah. He’s trying, but it’s, uh… And, when he says that, there’s that part of me that, as a woman in 20—I guess it was ‘16 at the time—I was like, “Yeah, you tell her Bon!” And then I’m like, “No, Dee, shut up.”
DEE: “That is your privilege and his privilege talking! She can’t just do whatever she wants. That’s not the world y’all live in.” And so her frustrations with him after he says that, I think, are a lot more understandable when you put it into the historical context. And then the way she kind of immediately gloms onto Shin, because she really… That’s her way of surviving, at that [point].
VRAI: It is interesting to me that, um… I need a chart, and also I need Shin and Yurie to like, sit down and work out a schedule for their boyfriend. Because clearly they could’ve been—
VRAI: Listen. Poly relationships are about responsible communication and you’re all failing terribly. Stop it.
DEE: Yeah, they all did a real bad job of talking to each other. Well, and they’re all held back by various social constraints in terms of, like, “Oh, well, you’re supposed to marry this kind of person” and “You’re supposed to have this kind of life.” And the characters who—Shin tries to rebel against that a little bit, and gets kicked out on his ass, basically.
DEE: So there are very real… It’s very much, to me—like, obviously they do need to talk more—but to me the tragedy in that first season is very much more a tragedy of the environment and of their circumstances than of some fatal flaw of any one or multiple characters.
CAITLIN: Yeah, and that’s sort of the tragedy of all the characters.
DEE: Yeah, absolutely. And the second season just happens to not be a tragedy largely because there were forces in place that are working to make things better.
VRAI: Well and with—I remembered my thought with Yurie.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Yes! [giggles]
VRAI: It’s interesting that she’s very much a character that, to not just write her off as “the woman who’s in the way of the BL relationship”—which I think is the mangaka’s roots showing themselves a little bit—
CAITLIN: [wincing] Yeah.
VRAI: Yeah, you really have to dig your feet into the context, which should also theoretically be true of Bon. Because of his time, he’s pushed away from being in a relationship with her and certainly—it goes without even saying, probably—with Shin.
But those elements of societal pressure are baked overtly into his narrative. The anime goes out of its way to show us that in a way it doesn’t with Yurie. Which I think is an interesting dichotomay. [stutters] Di—di—I can’t talk anymore. Words are gone.
DEE: I knew what you meant! Well, and I think part of that is because we are getting that entire backstory from Bon’s perspective, and he’s very limited in exactly how much he knows about the other characters. So we don’t get quite as much of their unique circumstances. We get it kind of in fits and starts. [crosstalk] And a lot of it retrospectively.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Like Shin’s terrible, terrible, holy shit, alcoholism. Oh my God!
DEE: Oh, yeah!
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Yeah!
DEE: [crosstalk] Yeah, Shin has alcoholism, like, the whole story. And no, it’s not really addressed, because it probably wouldn’t have been back then. [crosstalk] Bon kind of tries, but…
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Well and Japan… well, Japan’s attitude towards alcoholism in general is very… not a… [pained chuckle] Not a thing.
VRAI: Well, yeah. It took me a while to catch on that they were serious—they were seriously addressing it as a problem in the anime, because the lovable lush playboy character is so frequently used. But…
CAITLIN: Yeah. Well, yeah! And once he is trying to function on his own, he and his daughter are living in squalor. He’s too busy drinking away any money that she gets to go out and find a job for himself. What alcohol did to him was really messed up.
DEE: Well, and I think at that point, it’s a combination of both… ’cause I think he was sort of, like—I mean, I hate to use the term “functioning alcoholic,” but it is a thing. And I think that he was still kind of there beforehand because he was like, “Well, I wanna do these performances, I wanna go out and take care of these things.” So he had that to balance it a little bit.
But then when they go out to that town—like, by the time Bon finds him out in the village—to me, it’s not just alcoholism; he’s pretty deeply in depression as well. And those two things just combine into a cocktail of awful.
VRAI: [crosstalk] It was… like a…
DEE: [crosstalk] And he’s in a bad place.
VRAI: As somebody who follows the culture around stand-up comedy—I don’t think this was done purposefully, but it is very interesting to me how Shin’s spiral into falling apart once he’s lost his career opportunities parallels that kind of cultural element of, “Well, you’re always performing in clubs, and you’re going out and meeting and greeting people where there’s a lot of alcohol, and you’re supposed to be The Fun Guy.” And then you have this problem and no one cares.
DEE: Yeah, no, that’s actually a good point. That is a part of the rakugo culture. I remember reading up on this. The… ah, what were they called? Futatsume? Right? That’s like—
DEE: —you’re not an apprentice anymore, but you’re—
CAITLIN: The journeymen, yeah.
DEE: Part of what was expected of a futatsume was, because so many of your stories… like, basically, researching your stories, kind of thing? So they would encourage them to hang out at the brothels and go out getting smashed on their nights off, because it was considered part of their job; so they’d have a better idea of how to play the characters that they were playing in their more risque, raucous-type stories. So yeah, that’s a great parallel there, Vrai, ’cause it very much was a part of the history, too.
VRAI: Yeah, but like, [cynically] “Do that, but keep yourself under control and that’s your problem. We have no safety net for you.”
DEE: But you know, Bon found him and kinda helped him get his life back together.
VRAI: And they—
DEE: And for one wonderful episode, they were so happy!
VRAI: [crosstalk] Oh my God, it was so beautiful!
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] For one brief, shining moment!
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] They were so happy.
VRAI: I guess the only other thing—I guess there are eight million things we could talk about on the whole complicated relationship front—but also, I remain fascinated by that idea of like, “Is Bon very closeted, or is he ace, or is he both?”
DEE: Yeah, I, uh… the thing with Bon that I really liked about his character and related to on a very personal level, was how he developed these very deep, emotional relationships with people, but you never really get the sense that he’s… That there’s a physical aspect to it.
DEE: Like he and Shin’ll give each other hugs and he’s perfectly happy. But then you’ll see, like, Yurie will kind of try to… There’s a few scenes where they’re just hanging out together, and it’s very relaxing and comforting, and he’s fine with that. Like, he leans his head on her shoulder, and it’s, again, he seems comfortable with that.
But then when she tries to do things that are a little more sexually oriented, he gets very uncomfortable and pulls away. And then that line she drops where she basically says, “He almost never let me have sex with him.”
To me, he reads as very ace, but still develops romantic relationships with people. And so when he finds Shin and Konatsu and kinda gets to adopt himself into their—or adopt her and kind of marry Shin, I guess?— I think that’s about the happiest you see him in the entire show.
VRAI: [pained groans]
DEE: And I don’t get the sense that he’s like…
CAITLIN: [chuckles at Vrai]
DEE: You don’t get the sense that there’s a part of him that’s like, “Ohhh, if only we could also make out.” There’s not that sense at all. He seems like he would be perfectly happy just having this platonic, married-couple relationship. And I think it’s—I love it, and that episode. And when they get to have their little dual rakugo performance, and it’s… [fondly] It’s so good. It’s my favorite part.
CAITLIN: And he is very sex-repulsed.
DEE: Yeah. [crosstalk] Or at the very least uncomfortable, yeah.
CAITLIN: Like, whenever Shin brings home women, he’s just like, “Oh God, just get out of here! Gross. Icky, girls.”
VRAI: And I guess that’s… ‘cause I feel like there are two—exactly two—weird sour notes in the series. And one is Bon licking Yurie’s tears, which we can kind of explain away afterwards. And the other one is You-Know-What-The-Other-One-Is.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Yeahhhh…
DEE: We’ll talk about that. [weak chuckles]
CAITLIN: Ugh. Do we have to?
DEE: I mean, I feel like we can’t… [crosstalk] You can’t do a Rakugo post—
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Yeah, we can’t not. It’s just… [sighs]
DEE: —without discussing the final episode’s weird question mark that it leaves open at the end that none of us—none of us!—were asking. [exasperated] None of us were asking, Higuchi.
DEE: So, yeah, it is that rumor—or theory, I guess—that Konatsu and Bon maybe, uh… [feigns trying not to throw up] maybe had a sexual—hnngh—relationship at one point or another.
VRAI: [whispers] Gross.
DEE: Yeah, super gross. [chuckles weakly] And it does. It’s a very jarring moment at the end of the series.
VRAI: And the fact that it’s asked with such… I always had a hard time with Higuchi because he reminds me of another character in another series that I hate, so… [laughs]
DEE: Oh yeah?
CAITLIN: Who is it?
VRAI: His name is David Talbot and he’s a prick, and I hate him, and no one has ever heard of him, and that’s fine, keep on with that. But… so the fact that he’s got this very, completely—and I know, Dee, that your argument has always been that he’s always been clueless, which I think…
DEE: He’s always wrong.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Yeah.
DEE: Like he keeps coming up with these theories. He’s like, “Oh I bet Bon killed Shin and Yurie in a moment of passion!” And then he finds out the actual story and it’s nothing, nothing like that.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk; agreeing] No.
DEE: And then he’ll go on these, like, long, philosophical musings about the purpose of rakugo. And every time he does, we cut over to Yotaro, and he’s like, “What? What do you even…? No. Shut up.”
DEE: Like not even really paying attention. And Higuchi is like, [in a whiny voice] “Notice me, Senpai!”
CAITLIN: Higuchi is, like, the absolute epitome of a clueless academic.
DEE: Yeah, and I get the feeling he’s kind of supposed to be a joke character. So because of his long history of being wrong, I don’t put a lot of credence into the idea that they actually—that Konatsu—uh, that Bon actually is little Shinnosuke’s dad.
DEE: [chuckles] Largely because of that. But then there’s still that question of “why even bring it up in the story in the first place?”
DEE: And I have some thoughts on that, but I wanna give you guys a chance to talk too. So… do you have anything else you wanna add to that?
VRAI: I mean, ugh, obviously.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Yeah.
VRAI: But I do think it’s interesting that they choose that moment. I guess it’s in keeping with the show’s very reticent approach to feelings—especially intimate feelings—but that they choose that moment to confirm—to have Konatsu confirm that, yes, she was in love with him for a while.
And I wish, having read that little short side story that came with—what was it, volume 10?
DEE: Yeah, it was like an epilogue short story, yeah.
VRAI: Yeah, I wish that had been in the anime, because to me that is the far better encapsulation of those feelings. Where she’s just young and angry and looking for attention and she’s a weird hormonal teenager, so naturally, she’s sublimating that into a crush. And meanwhile, Bon is like, “Oh no, oh no, I know what this sad, sad feeling is. Oh no, oh no.”
DEE: Yeah, and then sort of deliberately pushes her away after that.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Yeah.
DEE: Which also explains some of the coldness in their relationship. Part of it is, again, just that he as a person is very nervous about forming bonds with people because he’s been abandoned so many times…? [chuckles sadly]
CAITLIN: And I mean, he was… their relationship was pretty badly poisoned when she came to the conclusion that he had murdered her parents.
DEE: Yeah. And he was okay with her needing to blame him, so he was like, “Yeah, that’s fine, blame me, [chuckles sadly] if you need to do that. I kind of blame myself.”
VRAI: “I really hope that you’ll get around to killing me one of these days.”
CAITLIN: Yeah. “Please, God. Please.”
DEE: God, that’s such a sad arc when you—especially when you really deal with the fact that Bon is a character who, probably his entire life, but definitely since the accident, has been dealing with pretty serious depression off and on.
DEE: Which was something that I don’t think I had ever really… I hadn’t thought of it in those terms until he’s in the theater and it gets set on fire—he sets it on fire? There’s a question mark there.
VRAI: That’s the show’s one real dip into kinda-sorta magical realism, almost.
DEE: Yeah, it plays with that a lot with the rakugo performances, like Miyokichi’s ghost—or Yurie’s ghost—showing up and then the shinigami and Shin visiting Bon during these lower points when he’s hovering on the edge of life and death. And so he does have a couple of these suicide attempts at the end, which are… [pained] really hard to waaatch… [chuckles sadly]
But to me, it just gives you a better idea of… like Caitlin said, he is kind of a jerk, and he is kind of an asshole to people. And he gets better as the series goes, but there is very much that sense of, like, a lot of it comes from: “I’m intentionally pushing you away because, on the one hand, I think I’m a bad person, and on the other hand, I don’t want to get hurt anymore.”
Which, again, makes him… he’s such a… He’s one of my favorite fictional characters, I think ever, because he’s just so… there’s so much there. He’s so well-written and complicated and sympathetic—
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Yeah.
DEE: —and sometimes pisses you off. And I really like that about [him].
VRAI: Well, and I was trying really hard to rack my brain and I could not think of another character that we follow from childhood to natural, old-age death.
CAITLIN: I mean. Any of the Joestars?
VRAI: Listen, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is not a real show. It’s just an elaborate prank. I believe this with my full heart.
DEE: Yeah, I don’t know enough about Jojo’s, but yeah, if they follow the characters from birth to death, that sounds pretty cool. It’s definitely very rare to see. [crosstalk] For sure.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] It is… it’s… ehhhh…
VRAI: [crosstalk] Especially so closely—
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] I don’t wanna get in on Jojo’s here.
DEE: Oh yeah, that’s fair. What were you saying, Vrai? Sorry.
VRAI: Well, just, especially so closely. Because a lot of…. it’s not completely unheard of to see a character—to flashback to a character when they’re young and then see them as old, old mentors, but we stick with Bon through pretty much every major development in his life.
CAITLIN: Right. Yeah, no, that’s absolutely true. And the fact that they have managed to build such a complex character in 13 episodes—because he was already incredibly complicated by the end of the first season.
DEE: No, that’s true.
CAITLIN: The fact that they built up this very, very complicated character very, very quickly is just absolutely incredible. And all of the characters are very complicated.
DEE: They are, yeah. Absolutely.
CAITLIN: Like, Miyokichi? Even though, like I said, she was originally conceived as a villain, she did develop a lot of… like, I could see a lot of complexity when I looked at her, even if it wasn’t totally intentional. [chuckles]
DEE: Yeah, I think she becomes a tragic figure in her own right, too.
CAITLIN: And—she absolutely does—and I think sort of one of the things about Yotaro is that, by contrast, he’s not super complex, but in a very real way. He’s still written as a person with a full range of human emotions, but he’s just a very sweet, simple guy with simple hopes and simple dreams and simple desires.
DEE: Yeah, he’s definitely more straightforward than the others. But like you said, he doesn’t feel two-dimensional at all.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Right.
DEE: He feels like a person who just is more straightforward, who goes, “Well, this is what I want to do, and so here’s what I’m gonna do.”
VRAI: Right. Like, he has his struggle with finding his own rakugo and how he wants to express that. But as far as emotional self-actualization—
DEE: [crosstalk] And dealing with his past.
VRAI: —he’s pretty much there.
DEE: To me, he’s the kind of… Well, and I think one of the reasons Yotaro’s story is a lot more straightforward than the others is because pretty much every character is looking for a place where they can be accepted and belong. And most of them are denied that until quite a bit later in their lives.
Yotaro is accepted into the rakugo world. And when it looks like maybe that’s gonna fall apart at the very beginning of season 2, when his history as a criminal is coming out and people aren’t signing about for shows anymore, he goes to Bon and is really upset about this.
And Bon is like, “No, you’re fine. Embrace your past. You’re my student. This is… keep working.” And so he gets that. He gets that kind of whole-hearted acceptance from both Bon and Konatsu. [crosstalk] Which is really lovely because Bon and Konatsu didn’t get that.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] And he offers it to them as well.
DEE: Yeah, and then he, in turn, gives that to them and…
CAITLIN: Yeah, he sort of… ‘Cause Bon and Konatsu, part of their whole deal is that they’ve never really had that sort of acceptance in their lives; someone who was unconditionally supportive.
DEE: Well, and they kinda did with each other. They just refused to admit it. So it still made their relationship fraught with horrible trouble for a long, long time.
CAITLIN: Yeah, but instead of just, like… Konatsu has him, and even though she’s not the kind of person who can just come out and be happy about it, he’s just like, “Yeah! You can do rakugo! You’re great at rakugo!”
VRAI: [emotionally] And then they hug and it’s so good!
DEE: It’s so good. He’s just like, “You do the show! Go on, you’ll be great.”
VRAI: [“Aww”ing emotionally in the background]
CAITLIN: Yeah! And even in the beginning when she was still very young and very angry, he was just very wholeheartedly supportive.
DEE: Like, as soon as he finds out she’s pregnant, he’s like, [through laughter] “What if I marry you, and help raise you the kid?” [snaps fingers] Like, he didn’t even hesitate.
VRAI: [emotionally] He’s a good boy.
[Everyone takes a moment to quietly agree that Yotaro is a good boy]
CAITLIN: Yeah, he’s just a sweet boy, who is just full of love and acceptance, and part of that is to his detriment. The whole reason he got arrested was because he just sort of attached himself to this strong leader.
CAITLIN: And that strong leader, unfortunately, was a criminal. So…
VRAI: Yeah, I mean that is… It’s not really touched on too much in the show, but I think that’s an interesting element for a character who is as open as Yotaro is this: How do you find people who are worth the amount of trust you’re willing to place in them?
VRAI: I am a little bit sad that Crunchyroll viewers didn’t get the full double-premiere of season two, only partly because I wanted to spend more time with that delightful reporter who looks kinda like James.
CAITLIN: [laughs] My friend really liked that guy. [laughs] Ah, the fancy boy.
VRAI: I loved the fancy lad and I wanted to spend more time with him!
CAITLIN: [cracking up]
DEE: Yeah, I think he’s in… Vrai, you’re talking about the season one prologue? The OVA that got truncated down into a short episode, right? [crosstalk] That’s what we’re talking about?
VRAI: I think it was for season… Yeah, I think season… [squeaky background noise] Must have been the season one OVA, then. The stuff that’s a lot of—the stuff about the tattoo and Yotaro’s years coming forward to the present. That, like, decade or so.
DEE: Yeah. I will forever have my fingers crossed that we’ll get some really nice blu-ray release and it’ll have the full OVA on it so we get those little bits of extra detail. Because I do think those would’ve been helpful going into season two, especially with some of the characters who kinda just show up and you’re like, “Who’s that guy?”
VRAI: Right. [pause] Very, very fancy.
VRAI: I’m so easy to please.
CAITLIN: He grows a shitty moustache. [cracks up again]
VRAI: I know! Someone hold him down and take away that terrible moustache. It’s a bad time. That is—that I had to see with my own two eyes.
CAITLIN: It’s a bad moustache. [continuing to crack up]
VRAI: Do we have a bead on… has season one been re… I want a physical release of this show, is what I’m saying. Give it to me. Put it in my face.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] It has… not. I don’t think it has gotten…
DEE: [crosstalk] Yeah, there isn’t—
DEE: Yeah, I don’t think there was any… I don’t think there’s any announcement. I was talking to Peter—who, dear listeners, is also on the AniFem staff, if you didn’t know—who does some work for Crunchyroll as well. And so he sent out a message about how he wanted a good blu-ray release, and I was like, [in a Texas accent] “Well, Peter, you should tell yer, uh, company to get in on that, then.”
VRAI: [persuading] Eh? Ehhh? Ehhh?!
DEE: Ehh? Ehhh? [chuckles] Yeah, ‘cause I would love a complete edition, with all the bonus information we have not gotten yet.
VRAI: A dub for this show would be so weird, wouldn’t it? Just because of the heavy amount of cultural stuff.
DEE: [crosstalk] Yeah, I’m not sure you’d even—
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] I don’t know if it’s dub-able.
DEE: Yeah, I’m not sure you would even bother. I think it might be one of those releases that you just… And again, because it is pretty niche. As much as we love to plug it, it is a fairly…
CAITLIN: The people who watched it… yeah, the people who watched it, love it, but that’s not a whole lot of people. It’s definitely like a cult following.
VRAI: Samurai Flamenco Syndrome, I call it.
DEE: [laughs] [crosstalk] A very different kind of show.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Samurai Flamenco had the thing where a bunch of people just rage-quit.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Except that Rakugo is very consistently good. [laughs]
DEE: I think it’s a difficult one to get into just because of that historical—well, both cultural and historical hurdle. So you’re, you know, as somebody in the US, you’re like, “Okay, what’s rakugo? What was Japan like in the ‘50s?” Which, I’m sure there are people in Japan who were also like, “What was Japan like in the ‘50s?” But then you also have that historical level, so it’s not just “this takes place in Japan,” it’s “this takes place in Japan around World War II.” And so kind of easing yourself into that world and that mindset.
And I think the characters are extremely well written enough that I think you can connect to them regardless of where you are, but kinda getting over that first hurdle of the subject matter itself, I think, can be a little bit tricky.
VRAI: But at the same time, I think that also makes it incredibly special, because if you don’t speak Japanese—and even if you do—there’s… You’re probably never going to be able to see a live rakugo performance or even listen to one of the recordings like they have in the show. Like it’s just an insurmountable character barrier without this kind of drama wrapped around it to explain it to you.
DEE: Rakugo is reasonably accessible, and there actually are a handful of rakugo performers who perform in English.
CAITLIN: Yeah. Don’t let the show fool you: rakugo has actually evolved with the times quite a bit.
DEE: Yeah. The series is kind of an alt-history. I guess Kumota came out in an interview about this—Karice, who has done a bunch of interviews for the series, was telling me about this—and Kumota intentionally set the show to take place in kind of an alt-history where rakugo was legit dying. It went through kind of a slump in the real world, but it was never as badly—it was never as bad off as the show makes it out to be.
DEE: There were female performers, like professionals, by the early ‘90s in the real world. And then there were foreigners doing it, I wanna say in the early ‘00s?, is when you started to see that kind of pop up.
VRAI: That’s really interesting, I learned a thing!
CAITLIN: Yeah. The show makes it out where, after the theater burns down, no one performs rakugo in Tokyo for 15 years. The show had been in such a real-world setting, that the sudden alternate history felt kind of jarring to me, ’cause I hadn’t really noticed that it was… that it had been diverging from the real world.
Because yeah, they’re making such a big stink about Konatsu finally being the first female rakugo-ka when there had been women performing rakugo for 20 years. Which, also, they make such a big deal out of it, and she’s got such an important arc in this season, and we don’t even get to see her performance. [crosstalk; annoyed] By the way. By the way.
DEE: [crosstalk] I thought that was kind of a bummer, too. I like to think there’s an extended version [crosstalk] where we get to see her perform in that final episode.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Oh, I hope so.
CAITLIN: I wanna see Konatsu perform. Anyway. [chuckles] Anyway. But yeah, it was really strange, because rakugo absolutely did evolve with the times. I’m sure there were a lot of people who fought tooth and nail against it ‘cause, you know, culturally, a lot of Japan is very, very reluctant to accept change. A lot of things are done in very old-fashioned ways that are unimaginable here. When I worked there, you know how we communicated between places? Faxes!
VRAI: The last fax machines on earth.
VRAI: ‘Cause you were not there in the ‘90s.
CAITLIN: Yeah, because Japan was not adopting any new ways of communication. While I’m sure there were people who fought changes to rakugo really hard and who did have Bon’s perspective of: “Well, if it has to change in order to survive, I would rather it just died,” it did evolve. And I think it’s awesome that it did.
And so I had been mentally preparing myself for that point in the show; I had been doing some mild research on female rakugo performers. When that didn’t happen, I was just like, “Wait, what?”
VRAI: That’s sincerely fascinating to me because I am a goofball dumb-dumb—
VRAI: —who just kind of said “Well, the anime said it, so I guess that’s how it happened!” It is very good for my dumb bad brain to have these actual facts.
[Scratching noises interrupt the audio sporadically for the next minute or so]
DEE: Yeah, researching rakugo while also doing the write-ups for it was really fascinating because—well, because the idea in the series is that Bon is digging in his heels in a lot of strange ways, because he’s not… Again, he decides to bring Yotaro into his family. And he doesn’t really stop him from, like, talking to Higuchi and doing new things; he just doesn’t help him.
So you do kinda get the sense that he moves very gradually over the course of that second season—well, really, from the moment he meets Yotaro on—from that sense of, like, “Screw it, rakugo’s gonna die; I’m gonna take it down with me like a jealous lover,” to realizing “I can’t stop this from happening” and kind of backing off, to then finally accepting that change and being able to die peacefully knowing that—like, kind of letting rakugo go—knowing that it will carry on without him and entrusting it to the two people who were most important [to him].
VRAI: And I know that afterlife scenes can be cheesy, but God, I needed it so much in this show.
CAITLIN: Yeah, I think it was really important to get that last bit; to get that coda to his arc. Because he did have a lot of unfinished business that he could not finish in the world of the living, because it was with people who were dead. The show was wrapping everything up with him so beautifully, they couldn’t not.
DEE: Yeah, you kinda had to get that capped. And not just—I mean, absolutely to wrap up Bon’s arc, and that final sense of peace that he was able to get, but also to give us just a little bit more with Shin and Yurie.
VRAI: So nice to see Yurie get closure. Like, so nice.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Yeah, absolutely. And that—
DEE: [crosstalk] Really to see—sorry, go ahead again. [chuckles]
CAITLIN: That really only happened ‘cause of Megumi Hayashibara.
DEE: Yeah, she helped give Yurie a better ending. And it was really nice to see that they weren’t just suffering eternally. They weren’t damning Bon the way he and, I think, Konatsu had worried they were doing from the afterlife. They wanted them to be happy, and they were grateful that they had been—that they had each other; that Konatsu and Bon had each other. And so then being able to say “Goodbye” like that, and murder us all with a pinky promise.
VRAI: [pained happy noises] And, like, shout-out to Matsuda, who we haven’t talked about at all, but who is the best!
DEE: [crosstalk] Oh, gosh.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk; fondly] Aww, Matsuda.
DEE: That’s—we’re actually coming close up to the hour, so Matsuda is a great place to stop, because he’s kind of like the secret hero of the story, I think, in a lot of ways.
VRAI: This idea of, like, The Roadie of Rakugo. The people who make it happen.
DEE: Yeah, the perpetual caretaker. And I love that we got his story at the very end. ‘Cause Rakugo is very much about storytelling. And so to wrap it back around to: everyone has a story, even this guy who’s been with us from the beginning, who you barely knew who he was in the first episode and then gradually became more and more of a character—even he has a story and even he has an important place in this narrative. It’s a good final… final moment, I guess.
VRAI: What we’re saying is that this show is very good and you should watch it. ‘Cause, like—
DEE: It is extremely good, yeah.
VRAI: If at least five more people watch it, maybe we’ll get that DVD.
DEE: [laughs] And then make five more people watch it, and we’ll start a… [crosstalk] It’s a pyramid scheme of Rakugo blu-ray.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Those always work! [laughs]
DEE: That’s where this is going, for sure. So watch Rakugo if you haven’t already. Which, if you’re listening to this and you haven’t already watched Rakugo—
VRAI: [crosstalk] What are you doing? [laughs]
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Welp!
DEE: —you must be very confused, but I’m glad you stayed with us regardless.
All right. Folks, that’s gonna do it for us today. We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Chatty AF. If you liked what you heard, tell your friends. And if you really liked what you heard, consider tossing a dollar or more to our Patreon each month. Your support really does go a long way towards making AniFem happen both in print and in your ear buds.
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We don’t have a pithy closing line for the podcast just yet, so I’m going to fall awkwardly into silence and hope our editor fills this space with some catchy theme music. I believe in you, Peter!