Here’s how Rakugo Shinju teaches its modern viewers to appreciate rakugo. Clever show.
After World War II, rakugo storytellers ran into a problem: how would they appeal to a new audience? While a flourishing of cinema and radio certainly didn’t help—in fact, cinema’s popularity ran a good number of yose out of business—the problem with rakugo was more elemental. Its subject matter was outdated. Many of its more established stories—the kind that any seasoned storyteller knows—were first formulated when rakugo spread to the lower class as a form of commoner’s entertainment in the Edo period, and a minority of the stories began even earlier than that. And society had changed: vernacular, practices, gestures, social relationships, and common knowledge during the Edo period faded out as Japanese society advanced. If the storytellers didn’t do something, rakugo stories would have to rely on patrons who either had prior knowledge of the material or simply didn’t care.
The storytellers, however, found that within their performances there lied the opportunity to bridge the gap between contemporary culture and their created Edo story worlds—the makura. Rakugo monologues have a three-part structure consisting of the makura (preliminary comments), honmon (main narrative), and ochi (punch-line or windup). During the Edo period the makura found purpose as a sort of lead-in to the story, warming up the audience via anecdotes or observations related to the story about to be told , but contemporary storytellers found that they could also use the makura to explain antiquated references. It was a way to make sure that the audience would understand the punchline or the more abstruse jokes peppered throughout the narrative, and in the same move, pull them deeper into the mystique of the fiction.
It’s notable that Showa-Genroku Rakugo Shinju doesn’t spotlight its makura. In fact, the show either skips or heavily abbreviates them. And for good reason! While a detailed makura might make the jokes more intelligible, a lengthy explanation also suggests that the viewer is an outsider. Monologues about the historical would, for many anime viewers, fall on deaf ears. They’d strip the show’s narrative of its pace and serve to alienate the audience more than draw them in. Who cares about which city was famous for a certain type of sake in the olden days?
Faced with the danger of isolating itself from its modern viewers, Rakugo Shinju innovates as the storytellers of the Showa-Genroku period did. Rakugo Shinju opts to omit its storytellers’ makura, and in the place of them, it leverages visual information and dialogue in the form of its first performance to condition its modern viewers as to what constitutes good rakugo, offering a distinct in-show audio-visual grammar.  In other words: it uses Yakumo’s ‘Shinigami’ as a sort of makura, but instead of priming the audience as to the spoken word, it prepares them for its unique style of visual storytelling. The show establishes from its very first performance that good rakugo storytelling has the ability to bend time and space and pull its audience into the created world of its performer—the performer, in turn, has the ability to give their fiction solidity.
The show’s first real performance  comes when Yakumo performs ‘Shinigami’. The very beginning of the performance has one of Yakumo’s fans proclaim that, as a result of Yakumo’s mastery of the art, he’s “whisked away to Edo”, immediately establishing one of rakugo’s draws: the potential to escape into the world of the story. Yotaro then further instructs the audience—he calls attention to Yakumo’s gestures, focusing on the storyteller’s hands and eyes. When Yakumo shifts his gaze to reflect a shift in persona, a shift of lighting and expression gives him intense, focused solidity in three dimensional space—the audience recognizes that one trick of the successful storyteller is his ability to seesaw between personas in a convincing manner. As his performance continues, Yakumo’s ability to manipulate time and space expands. He vacillates between his many personas, and the show employs an impossible horizontal pan to stress the figurative three-dimensional space that Yakumo’s seems to occupy despite his stationary position. The ochi of the story involves Yakumo arguing with someone directly in front of him, where the audience should be—Yakumo functionally incorporates his audience into his created world. The power of his performance is such that he’s capable of even changing the theatre’s plain, symmetrical lighting into something far more dynamic; he can evoke the presence of other sources of light, such as a candle.
Further, Yakumo’s ‘Shinigami’ is the only performance in the show with running commentary—just as rakugo storytellers don’t interrupt their narratives in order to explain their jokes, positioning the explanations instead in their makura, Rakugo Shinju allows every future performance to speak for itself.
When a storyteller fails to evoke their created world, their stories fall—literally—flat. In an early, almost meta-narrative example , Yakumo dispassionately watches through a television as Yotaro tries to perform a story. Yotaro’s enthusiasm can’t cover for his lack of experience, and a sharply angled shot of the television demonstrates how much Yotaro struggles to project himself. He’s just flailing his arms, and indiscriminate movement doesn’t create the illusion of space and life.
A more painful example of this flatness comes in episode two, with Yakumo’s failed first performance. While Akira Ishida’s brilliant voice-acting definitely helps—it captures Yakumo’s enervation with uncanny accuracy—the camera’s visual articulations attest just as well to Yakumo’s novice. The camera spends the majority of its time looking straight at him, imposing flatness on his every movement, and it never obliges him the camera shifts that indicate transitions between personae, something that even Yotaro’s first performance was good enough to warrant. Cruelly, it even echoes the first episode’s shift of the eyes; this time, however, there’s none of the mastery over light  that composes a part of the older Yakumo’s artistry. There’s none of the eroticism or suggestiveness that makes his later performances so entrancing. He’s not even speaking to an audience—he’s just speaking into the air.
It’s the ability to project themselves in three-dimensional space—to give imagination solidity—that marks all of Rakugo Shinju’s convincing storytellers. Yotaro’s performance of ‘Dekigokoro’ frequently employs shifts of the camera as he switches between personas, a convincing mime of how his characters would see each other in real space. Once he elicits the first set of laughter from his audience, the camera zooms out to emphasize his control of the theater’s space, his stage dominating most of the shot. As Yotaro grows more comfortable with his audience, the camera obliges him, taking dynamic angles to suggest that he’s capable of extending the stage in front of him, manipulating the range of his created world to incorporate his audience—just as Yakumo can.
Yotaro’s not as proficient in the art as the old master, but the visual grammar of Yakumo’s ‘Shinigami’ performance teaches the viewer to appreciate Yotaro’s nascent skill. And, if that’s not insurance enough, frequent cuts to the ex-convict’s engrossed audience help.
One thing that’s missing from Yotaro’s performances, however, is the ability to create life. He’s got a natural control of space, but he never quite creates life itself, and this is an ability that—as ‘Shinigami’ communicates—separates great storytellers from novice ones. Yakumo’s Shinigami brings a candle into existence, young Sukeroku’s audition for Yakumo the 7th evokes in Yakumo the 8th both the sonic and visual wonder of a cast fishing tackle, but Yotaro only articulates himself on the stage.
Yakumo the 8th’s masterful performance towards the end of episode one (and the one Yotaro so cringingly interrupts) assists in cementing how powerful a tool creating life can be. His performance begins with a fade transition from a blizzard to his miming of that very blizzard. Flames come to life and manipulate the very lighting of the theater, as do Yakumo’s words; fans become pipes, capable of bending space and time—Yakumo’s exhale feels just that little bit too long, but it paces his story marvelously. When one of his personas drops their cup, the cup—for just that delicate moment—clunks around on the straw mats of his created world, and it comes to life audibly. Yakumo at his most artistic is a world in himself.
Young Sukeroku also has the ability to manipulate imaginary objects in three dimensional space, giving them incredible solidity—the camera conspires with him, taking a number of angles as he turns his bowl around, signaling to the viewer that, just like the older Yakumo, he can bring objects and space in his story into felt existence. Yotaro’s inability to do this sets him a clear level behind the two masters.
It’s from Yakumo’s Shinigami that the anime’s viewers learn the grammar of Rakugo Shinju’s performances. Specifically, they learn what successful performances can do—bend space and time to give the performances themselves the illusion of three-dimensional space. The powerful storyteller, Rakugo Shinju is convinced, can, at moments, strip away their audience’s existence and project the world of his story on to it. The greatest practitioners can create life, move it, and even steal it, as if it existed in the first place.
 — This problem hasn’t quite disappeared—one might say it’s even harder now, with so many forms of commercial entertainment within easy digital reach.
 — Some stories have strict makura while others are more flexible. ‘Shinigami’, for example, has one of the most calcified makura in rakugo: it’s rare to see any storyteller omit the “In the past, there were many gods…”
 — I think this is a wise decision on the anime’s part. A story’s historical content is interesting, yes, and primary to many rakugo jokes, but clever visual gags tend to work better than wordplay in animation. And it occurs to me now that this might be the reason why I’m not too big a fan of a lot of anime humor—why I like most of Watamote’s gags, but not, say, Saekano’s.
 — Skipping, because it wasn’t ‘performed’, Yotaro’s recollection of Yakumo’s performance at his prison.
 — Many rakugo aficionados will argue vehemently against the use of televisions / visually recorded material to watch rakugo, and I can’t help but agree with them. Though perhaps this can be assuaged with a good recording setup and good headphones, watching recorded rakugo feels a lot like the sound is coming from a single source. Since real life theater rakugo doesn’t have a dynamic camera, how sound reverberates is intensely important to the feeling of projected space in real rakugo.
 — It’s here that the show’s designs really shine through—the wrinkles around the older Yakumo’s eyes.
I’ve limited this writeup to the visual grammar of the performances, but I think a number of these visual cues also feature in the non-performance parts of Rakugo Shinju‘s narrative. I also excluded any mention of the two very distinct types of performance that Yakumo and Sukeroku (+Yotaro) embody—I imagine the difference between the two is something worth writing about, both on a thematic and visual level.