How To Build a Story: Descending Stories

I know there’s a Descending Stories anime. I think it’s on Tootsieroll, or whatever that service that Sony just bought is called, but I haven’t seen it.

But I just finished the manga, all ten volumes, and as a story it works for me despite the fact that there’s no more than a minimum of action. It’s basically a multidimensional historical drama, and let me tell you, if you build that wrong

it’s
so
DULL.

So how do you build it right?

Well, for me, at least, there has to be something about the world the characters live in that holds my interest. If you drift back to last week, that was the element that drew me to Golden Kamuy. There the deal was Asirpa being Ainu, and the opportunity to learn about them.

Here the hook is rakugo, a Japanese performance art that’s sort of a mutant off-spring between stand-up comedy and the one-person play. The artist sits down in front of the audience and with a minimal number of props – a paper fan and a cloth like a handkerchief – acts out the whole story. It sounds really cool and I’d like to try it sometime (except that with my memory I’d forget my lines).

As with Sumo there is a formal training progression, various ranks, and so on. It’s an intrinsically interesting world to learn about, and useful as the background to a long story because you can have the characters performing and get into the meta element of the “story within a story.”

With the setting established, we can throw some characters on the stage. Here are the three main ones:

Yakuto: a skilled rakugo performer who is the top man in the field
Konatsu: Yakuto’s foster-daughter, who hates him as she blames him for the death of her parents (who were close friends of his)
Yotaro: a punk hoodlum who heard Yakuto performing in prison and vowed to learn the art

The story overarches Yakuto’s entire career, from his apprenticeship during World War II (from which he was exempt due to a bad leg) through his (POSSIBLE SPOILER) death as an elderly man. That would have been somewhere around 2000-2005, somewhere in there, but the timeline is never really defined. The early years he tells to Yotaro as a flashback during the first three or four volumes, and from there forward the story goes straight on to the end.

One of the things that makes the story work is that each of the characters grows in certain ways. Yotaro is a goofball through the whole story; he joins the action around 1970. His story is Rags to Riches: he goes from prison punk to the top rakugo artist in the nation by the end.

Just for the record, it doesn’t hurt that Yotaro is such a lovable goofball, especially at the beginning. It’s his personality that drives the overarching story into action; Yakuto sort of likes the big lunkhead, and so is eventually willing to take him as an apprentice even though he has sworn never to take an apprentice.

Yakuto’s story is an old one, the old traditionalist dissatisfied with the changes in the world, and particularly in his world of Rakugo. Metaphorically, he shakes his cane and shouts, “Get off my lawn, you whippersnappers,” a lot as the story progresses.

But Yakuto also learns to let people, Konatsu and Yotaro, and especially Konatsu’s baby boy Shinnosuke, into his heart. He’s still a hardass about Rakugo, but he’s also a terrific grandfather. Foster grandfather. Whatever. His story, if you like, is Rebirth.

And it may be Konatsu who grows the most. I think she represents the changing times between 1970 and 2000: in 1970 she’s a kid (well, about 18, but immature), and a wild kid at that. She blames, as I said, Yakuto for the deaths of her parents (although in truth is was an accident/suicide) so she hates Yakuto. And she despises Yotaro for being the punk he is at the beginning of the story. And wild she is: Shinnosuke is born out of wedlock, sired by a father who is never really revealed. Wild child.

But she grows out of that. She and Yotaro marry, and down the road they have a daughter together. The three main characters, Yakuto, Konatsu, and Yotaro, come together as a family as they watch little Shinnosuke grow up, the hard feelings between them overcome. And by the end, the daughter of master artist Yakuto and the wife of master artist Yotaro becomes a rakugo artist herself, the first woman to do so in the history of rakugo. Konatsu’s story is Overcoming the Monsters, the monsters being her own self-destructive impulses and the judgements of society.

From left: Yotaro, Shinnosuke, Konatsu

And all that gets tied together because there is a fourth character, a stealth character, at the base of the story: the art of rakugo itself. It has an actual meta-plot of its own. It goes from a respected art form in the ’40’s to having to fight against the emergence of radio and TV in the ’70’s to a re-emergence in the ’00’s with a new public face – Yotaro – new writers, new stories to be performed, and new artists, including Konatsu and Shinnosuke, to perform them.

You know that story by now. It’s Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl. Comedy.

So when you need to keep a story going, it helps a lot to have several plots going on. And it helps A LOT if one of them is in the background, where it’s hard to see but keeps things moving forward. The story of rakugo itself is a source of underlying but overarching tension itself that also releases at the end, just as all the other stories are reaching their releases as well.

Well, I got that off my chest. Now it’s time to hunt up the anime.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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