I think it’s safe to say that there are only two ways that a Westerner would be exposed to the Japanese performing art known as rakugo. One way is the Ace Attorney case that had rakugo and notoriously expected you to know real life information about Japanese cuisine in order to be able to solve the case. The other way is to read Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju– published in English by Kodansha Comics- or watch its anime adaptation (okay, so technically there are three ways but the latter two both involve the same thing). Because of the Ace Attorney case, I was left very confused as to what this rakugo thing is. So, I basically read this manga all the way through as a form of research.
And here’s a small warning: DON’T read this manga for research! Descending Stories jumps right into the rakugo theme expecting you to already have a basic idea of what it is. Although you can at least figure out some terms thanks to footnotes and context clues, it doesn’t really serve any purpose as to what the appeal of rakugo is. If you want that, you’re going to have to read the bonus sections where the author literally documents different areas of rakugo. From context, rakugo itself seems to be an event where you watch a man kneel down and tell a story out of a pre-written selection while also doing the voices and mannerisms of all the characters. I didn’t actually do any research on rakugo so that I could dive into this manga fresh and from the perspective of an average Joe who wouldn’t know about it themselves.
Descending Stories is a slice-of-life manga, with rakugo as a narrative theme, more than anything else. The main character, Yotaro, is an ex-convict who has finally served his time in jail. Upon release, he seeks out Yakumo, a rakugo-ist(?) who performed at his prison, because Yotaro was inspired by him. When he finds the man, he’s turned down from becoming a rakugo apprentice, but is allowed to freeload and figure out how to rakugo on his own. Oh, and also, the whole overarching narrative revolves around Yakumo’s friend, the late, great Sukeroku (late, as in dead). This is a manga about coping with loss.
Similar to Ascendance of a Bookworm, I have a hard time discussing the characters because they are just normal people. While Yotaro is the main character, technically, half of the manga is actually focused on Yakumo and Sukeroku’s backstory. Keep in mind that depending on their rakugo status, their names will change like that guy in the Secret Show. It’s not that hard to get used to because the recap at the beginning of volumes 2 and onward tell you who’s who every time.
I think the art is the weakest aspect in the manga. Although it’s got a distinct, humble style, every character looks like they’re making duck-lip expressions, which clashes with the theme of loss, and basically any scene that’s meant to be taken seriously. At the very least, the panel flow is perfectly fine, and has some strong double-page spreads.
Geez… I… I’m gonna be honest, I don’t know what else to say about Descending Stories. My preferred genres are battle shounen and isekai, yes, but I’ve been more than capable of enjoying the more “cultured” manga. Heck, Naoki Urasawa- the mangaka of 20th Century Boys and Monster– is one of my favorite mangaka of all time! Plus, there’s Kasane and ACT-AGE that I love too, and don’t even get me started on the masterpiece that is Space Brothers. I’m more than certain that Descending Stories is a great manga. My beef with it is probably the art, which I find really important for the actual conveyance of the story. If Urasawa did the art for this, I might like it more.
Final Verdict: 8.5/10
I gave Descending stories a lot of benefit of the doubt. I can see the makings of a great drama manga here, but I just couldn’t get into it like the drama manga I previously mentioned. It also didn’t help me appreciate rakugo itself, which is unusual because I find that manga are the only time that I appreciate a real-world things that I normally find boring. If you want something with more “culture” than those “mindless” battle shounens, Descending Stories has culture to spare!