Hey guys! Time for another Lost in Translation! This entry comes from episode 5 of Shôwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjû: Sukeroku Futatabi Hen. Unlike the previous story of Jugemu, there isn’t that much information from English sources about the background story of Hangon-kou, so I did a little research for you guys, just in case you feel like you’re missing something in the events as portrayed in the story. I leave it to you to derive what symbolisms and parallelisms there are in the story to Yakumo’s own deep-seated emotional baggage. So enough chit-chat and let’s get to it!
Hangon-kou (反魂香, lit. return-soul fragrance) is a Rakugo story based on a poem written by Bai Juyi, who was a Chinese poet during the middle Tang dynasty (approx. 8th century CE). His work took inspiration from an even older poem written by Emperor Han Wudi during the Han dynasty (approx 100 years BCE) that lamented the death of his most beloved concubine, Li Furen. In the poem, Bai Juyi talks about a mystical incense that calls back souls of the dearly departed, referencing to Han Wudi’s descriptions of her trailing silken dress to the swirls of incense smoke. This same imagery is used in the Rakugo story to talk about a man who discovers that a monk in the flat of houses he lives at uses this incense of legend to call back the soul of his own deceased wife.
Many parallels are seen in the Rakugo story and the original Chinese poem. Emperor Han Wudi is replaced with a former samurai-turned monk Juzaburô Shimada, whilst the concubine Li Furen is the courtesan Takao. Yakumo pretty much outlines the story in his performance, where it is made known that Takao — having exchanged vows with Juzaburô — declines a rich feudal lord’s offer to live with him. Enraged by her insolence, the feudal lord orders Takao to be executed, whilst leaving Juzaburô unharmed, which end up torments the samurai for the rest of his life. Some versions of the story state that Takao gives Juzaburô the Hangon-kou, whilst others have Juzaburô discover the incense during his studies as a monk. Either way, his deep attachment for his deceased wife pushes him to seek for her image in the burning embers of the Hangon-kou.
As with all Rakugo performances, the story is framed in the context of the storyteller’s preamble. Yakumo decides to use instruments and imagery of a cemetery to frame the gloomy activity of praying for the dead. He does this by referring to the accompanying instruments on stage: the Shamisen and the woodblock. In referencing these instruments, he calls the Shamisen “cheerful” and the woodblock “somber”, going so far as saying that no one sings a dodoitsu (都々逸) — a traditional non-metered Japanese love song — whenever they hear the woodblock. He interestingly adds a third instrument — a (lonely) bell resounding at the dead of night. He then proceeds to paint the image of a cemetery by mentioning a “pinwheel, the memento of a [deceased] child”. He then opens the act with the starting Buddhist mantra to Amitâbha — and the story begins.
Here we can see the masterful art of framing in the traditional sense of the word. And what makes this imagery so interesting is how Yakumo’s framing also frames his own personal life — three instruments reflecting Miyokichi, Sukeroku, and himself — seemingly disparate things that are brought together in the unity of the narrative. And all of this segues beautifully into the main story of Hangon-kou.
Hangon-kou may have a rather gloomy backstory to it, but the comedy lies in its main character, Hachigôtarô, who plays the pragmatic and easily distracted neighbor of Juzaburô. After learning about the Hangon-kou, Hachigôtarô shares his own experience as a widower and requests the former samurai to spare him some sticks of incense so that he, too, may reconcile with his deceased wife. Of course, he is turned down, but the impertinent Hachigôtarô insists on getting his hands on the mystic incense, and heads to the apothecary to procure some sticks. Having forgotten the name of the incense, he hastily purchases a similar-sounding type — Hangon-tan (反魂丹) — and for good measure, buys 300 sticks.
The succeeding portion of the narrative was cut during the episode, but what essentially happened was that Hachigôtarô lit up all of the incense at once, only to produce so much smoke that it alerts yet another (more concerned) neighbor. This portion of the story has several variations, the most common of which involves Hachigôtarô basically fantasizing about what he would talk about with his deceased wife once she appears. This is where the actual comedy of the performance occurs, including a pseudo-dialogue between Hachigôtarô and himself playing the role of his own wife. Realizing that she isn’t appearing, he increases the number of sticks he burns at once and tries to re-enact the dialogue he recalls between Juzaburô and Takao, often correcting himself at times due to his fuzzy recollection. The final joke of the story occurs when he’s burnt so much incense it creates enough smoke as to alert his neighbor. Hachigôtarô thinks that the neighbor is his wife (comically entering through the front door), only to be told that they aren’t and that something smells like it’s burning. This joke is a pun that goes さっきからきなくさい (sakki kara kinakusai) which means “it smells like something is burning” as well as “there’s something dubious going on (in your house)”. This is likely a result not only of the excessive smoke, but also because of the strange dialogue that Hachigôtarô was having with himself (that his neighbors more than likely overheard).
But is this really supposed to be funny? Or perhaps there’s a deeper meaning to the story, like how Jugemu supposedly has a darker moral to it that justifies its comically ironic title?
The truth is, there is a deeper meaning. In particular, it works as a commentary on the secularization of modern Japanese society, showing how a pragmatic Hachigôtarô can be ignorant of his own cultural heritage in the form of the classics. His lack of respect for the sanctity of the deceased also makes him undergo a fruitless effort to resurrect memories of a deceased wife without understanding the vital role of prayer and reflection — the result of which is a “dubious” practice that questions his own devotion towards his deceased wife. By contrasting Juzaburô’s meditative practices with Hachigôtarô’s bastardization of Buddhist mantras, the story of Hangon-kou actually has a rather blunt depiction of everything that’s wrong with modern society. It blatantly calls out secular practices as illogical, materialistic, without clear goals, and utterly self-centered. The ultimate result is that it literally burns down our house — a reference to our heritage and our cultural rootedness — and leaves us with nothing but confusion and discontentment.
And there you have it! It’s interesting to note that Hangon-kou has its own anti-secularist agenda to it, but what’s more fascinating (to me at least) is how Yakumo sees himself in both Juzaburô and Hachigôtarô. On the one hand, he clamors for the purity of Rakugo in its most traditional form, and yet his motives to continue performing are self-centered, at best. In what ways do you think Yakumo was like Juzaburô? Like Hachigôtarô? Do share your thoughts in the comments below!