These are the slides for the panel “Is This Feminist or Not? Ways of Talking about Women in Anime” as presented at Sakura Con 2017
Thank you to Michelle for your help in researching female rakugoka!
About a year ago, I wrote about Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu’s Konatsu. A young woman born into the all-male performing art of rakugo, she was cursed to be an outsider in the only world she knew. Her bitterness was further fueled by her toxic relationship with Yakumo, her emotionally distant foster father whom she believed killed her biological father. However, the show’s first season focused on Konatsu’s father and Yakumo, so we didn’t get to see how Konatsu’s arc would play out. The show’s sequel, Sukeroku-hen, is running this season. It brings the focus back to Konatsu, her hapless husband Yotaro, their son Shinnosuke, and the bitter, elderly Yakumo. The Konatsu of the second season, thus far, is recognizable, but a major shift in her attitude makes me wonder where the show is going.
Note: As always, this analysis assumes the reader has seen the episodes being discussed.
Rakugo is a traditional form of Japanese theater in which a lone performer, aka the rakugoka, sits alone on a stage with only a small cloth and fan for props. They tell a story, usually comedic, involving multiple people, distinguishing the characters using only their voice and mannerisms. Rather than making up their material, rakugoka have an established body of material to work with but are expected to put their own spin on the story. These days, it’s considered the domain of fussy old people, but it was once populist entertainment.
Like most traditional performance arts, rakugo is completely male-dominated. Once it was the sole domain of men, since most of the characters in the stories were male and it would have been odd to hear women using masculine speech patterns. Nowadays the field has opened somewhat, with women and foreigners (and occasionally both!) among top performers. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu takes place before that shift, however, and the gender dynamic inherent in such an unequal system informs much of the show.
Miki Ishimoto hated art school. She hated sketching geometric shapes and sculptures and she hated her teachers for criticizing her for deviating from the models. She’s excited to leave that whole world behind when she gets a job managing the hot new idol group, Sekko Boys. Much to her dismay, she discovers the members of Sekko Boys – St. George, Mars, Hermes, and Medici – are all marble busts. Available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Well, that was silly! The premise of Sekko Boys is utterly surreal, and well-aware of it. The episode opens with the boys performing to a stadium full of glowstick-wielding screaming fangirls. They shout their catchphrases, setting up their personalities: Mars is a warrior but also a passionate lover, Hermes is beautiful and multitalented, St. George is a protector of the weak, and Medici is charming and innocent. Yes, this is a world where marble busts are alive sentient, retain the personalities of the the ones they represent, but also are still heavy statues that must be carried and carted from place to place, injuring their handlers’ backs in the process. Working in a profession where back pain and other stress injuries are a major occupational hazard, I felt for Yanagisawa, their chief manager.
Artists, on the other hand, will doubtless feel for Miki’s backstory. Her frustration at endlessly copying the masters in the name of developing fundamentals, without her teachers ever allowing her to put her spin on things, is a common complaint, as is her resulting burnout. Much of the episode’s humor, other than the sheer absurdity of the premise, stems from her shock and horror at being confronted with the exact subject of her anger at a completely separate job.
The verdict: Sekko Boys’ premise is unlike any other, to be sure. I look forward to seeing how the silliness develops.
Likelihood of weekly coverage: Low. It’s too light to really warrant any heavy discussion.