Shinigami inspiration: Layered Storytelling

Inspiration comes from everywhere, movies, places, people, history, songs, you name it. Today I would like to talk about the inspiration that came from an anime called Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju.

SGRS is among my top 5 favorite anime ever. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling, built upon layers and layers of twists and turns, spanning over seven decades and passing through several generations. 

Created by Studio Deen in 2016 as an adaptation from the manga with the same name by Haruko Kumota, SGRS is a story about friendship, love, loss and Rakugo–a form of Japanese verbal entertainment, where a lone storyteller sits on a stage in a seiza sitting position, with no props except a paper fan and a small cloth , and depicts a long and complicated comical (or sometimes sentimental) story.

Flickr| Picture taken by Charlesy at the Sanma Festival, 2008

The story has one character as a centerpiece: Yakumo Yuurakutei, a legendary rakugo performer who is haunted by his past.

We meet Yakumo through the eyes of Yotaro, an ex-con released from prison with nothing to his name. At the prison gates the guard asks him about his plans, and Yotaro mentions he wants to learn the art of rakugo from one of Japan’s greatest masters, Yakumo Yurakutei VIII. This because of an unforgettable performance he had seen the master deliver of a story called….Shinigami.

Yakumo, notorious for taking no students, was in the end persuaded to take him on, and nicknamed him Yotaro-the fool. Yotaro had no formal training or elegance, but something about his charisma reminded Yakumo of someone from his past. And from here on, the past began unraveling.

It captured my heart and my soul completely. A story about love, art, and storytelling, the likes I have rarely experienced.

I watched this anime twice, both times in tears, awed by the beauty of every scene, the emotional weight of every line. A story told by an unreliable narrator, where you have to pay attention to clues in order to understand the full depth of the story. Everything had a double meaning, every act had ramifications that shaped character development for decades. Nothing is told “in your face”, you are forced to draw your own conclusions and sometimes you have to go back and re-watch episodes and scenes several times to “get it”.

This anime taught me about storytelling, but most importantly, taught me about layered storytelling, and the art of a “story within a story”. It helped me understand how to shape the plot around secrets that unraveled slowly with each page.

And in regards to the rakugo story called Shinigami… well… *points toward my own Shinigami*… I was as inspired as Yotaro.

The first time I saw the anime was in 2018, one month before publishing Kogitsune. It inspired me to add a story about a shinigami in the Takamagahara Monogatari. The second time I saw the anime was in February 2019, while finishing the first draft for Shinigami.

Watching SGRS again, while writing my own Shinigami, had a strange effect on me. I looked at the draft and got annoyed with myself. It was too superficial, too simple. So I changed the story completely.

Shinigami is dedicated “to my otaku family, my fujoshi sisters, my fudanshi brothers, and my non-binary siblings from the otaku world,” but it is also dedicated to Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju.

If you enjoy watching anime, or reading manga, and appreciate beautifully told stories, layered, emotional and with unreliable narrators, please watch this anime. You will not regret it.

Stay safe,

Xia Xia

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