[Discourse] So That I Could Be Myself: Gender performance in Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju and Yuri!!! on ICE

SPOILERS: Detailed discussion of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju episodes 5-6 and Yuri!!! on ICE episode 3

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“It’s not a kind of rakugo I can do. The more I hear, the more uncomfortable I get… Never mind it. I have my own rakugo.”

“Trying to be the playboy isn’t me. I want to be the most beautiful woman in town, who seduces the playboy!”

This year we’ve had the pleasure to see a pair of top-notch anime, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju and Yuri!!! on Ice, deal with gendered expectations in two very different spheres: 1940s Japanese rakugo and modern-day world figure skating. Along the way, both series have challenged cultural expectations about how men should or shouldn’t act, and shown why it’s important to cast aside restrictive gender roles and play to our own strengths.

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Showa Genroku’s first season follows the career and personal life of rakugo performer Kikuhiko. He’s raised in a geisha house but handed over to a famous rakugo master for apprenticeship at a young age, partly due to a leg injury that ends his dancing career, but largely due to his gender. “He can try all he wants, but a boy can’t be a geisha,” the women whisper, pushing him out of their sphere and into one reserved for men: The loud, energetic world of rakugo storytelling.

Afraid of being abandoned again, Kikuhiko works hard to be accepted, to “carve out a place for myself,” but he doesn’t have the forcefulness of his master and fellow apprentice, nor the aggressive, soldier-like strength that was expected of men in WWII-era Japan. (While most of Showa Genroku takes place after the war, Kikuhiko grew up during the 1930s-40s, so he likely would’ve felt these societal pressures keenly as a child.) He’s quiet and reserved, preferring to stay inside studying than go out carousing with his friend and fellow apprentice, Sukeroku. Try as he might, he can’t get comfortable with the masculine world around him, and it makes his rakugo performances stiff and awkward. dee3

It isn’t until Sukeroku drags him into an amateur kabuki show, playing the role of a man disguised as a high-class woman, that Kikuhiko starts to find his voice. Here, he’s able to play to his strengths: Grace, beauty, refinement, delicate speech and subtler gestures. The audience is enthralled by his performance, which in turn encourages him to move away from broad rakugo comedy and into the “sexier” pieces that more prominently feature women and romances.

He expertly embodies the feminine roles in these pieces, at last finding success with his audiences and confidence in himself. Perhaps most importantly, he realizes he does rakugo not for the audiences, but for himself: “So that I could be myself.” By playing the roles of women on stage, Kikuhiko finds an outlet for his own personality, a place where he can present himself honestly, unconstrained by the narrow definitions of “manly” behavior, and people will accept him for it. Maybe he can’t be a geisha in this society, but at least he can play one on stage.

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In a very different but also restrictive world, Yuri!!! on ICE’s titular character, Katsuki Yuri, finds himself in the middle of a surprise competition with up-and-coming Russian figure skater Yuri “Yurio” Plisetsky. The winner of the competition gets to have world champion (and Yuri’s idol/crush) Victor Nikiforov as their coach. To Yuri’s surprise, Victor chooses “Eros”—sexual love—as Yuri’s theme, forcing our mild-mannered protagonist out of his comfort zone.

In the build-up to the competition, Yuri struggles to understand what Eros means to him. He eventually settles (hilariously) on his love of pork cutlet bowls, but he still can’t get the routine to feel right. It isn’t until he’s going through Victor’s old costumes and finds one that’s meant to suggest “both male and female genders at once” that he realizes his problem: he’s been trying to play the aggressive playboy, when he should be playing the seductive femme fatale.

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This revelation completely changes the feel of his performance, shifting the focus from strength to beauty. Yuri’s routine is graceful, alluring, and far more confident than any of his previous performances. On the ice, he’s able to give voice to a part of himself he hadn’t realized existed.

As with Kikuhiko’s elegant rakugo, it goes against the grain of the times, as contemporary men’s figure skating tends to stress “masculine” athleticism over “feminine” artistry. But his performance is honest and engrossing, and the audience can’t take their eyes off him any more than they could Kikuhiko.

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When people hear the word “feminism,” they tend to think solely about women’s rights, but the ultimate end goal of feminism has always been gender equality. As our understanding of gender deepens, our understanding of how people define themselves within that framework changes as well. Cultural norms, gender identity (along the woman-to-man spectrum), and preferred gender presentation (along the masculine-to-feminine spectrum) interact in ways that are unique for everyone, meaning that a truly gender-equal society is one where anyone can embody any trait, regardless of whether it’s been traditionally seen as “feminine,” “masculine,” or something in-between.

Characters like Kikuhiko and Yuri not only present us with these alternatives, but argue for why those alternatives should be nurtured and encouraged. Both young men are able to make the most of their talents, to confidently perform and captivate their audiences, precisely because they don’t fit the expected mold of masculine behavior. Their femininity isn’t something they should be ashamed of, but a valuable strength they—and, both series argue, the world at large—should embrace.

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Granted, the confines of Kikuhiko’s world mean he continues to struggle with gendered expectations off the rakugo stage, and we could argue that Yuri on Ice is idealistic in how quickly everyone accepts Yuri’s unconventional skating style. There’s also a whole long discussion here about gender and sexuality, given the strong implication that both men are queer and thus their femininity may play into some gendered assumptions even as it challenges others. These are conversations we can and should have, especially once both series have finished and we can see the full picture.

Still, the net result of these two performance stories is a positive one, using art as an outlet for self-expression to challenge the audience’s understanding of how genders “should” behave and show why being able to act honestly, unconstrained by traditional expectations, is beneficial to both the individual and the community at large. The best kind of fiction pushes boundaries in-story and out of it. Getting two anime that accomplish this so masterfully in one year is a promising sign, and one I hope we see more of in the seasons to come.

 

Comments are open! Please read our comments policy before joining the conversation and contact us if you have any problems.

Not sure where to start? Some questions to kick-start conversation:

  • Got any anime or manga that challenge gender expectations that you’d recommend?
  • How have anime or manga inspired you to express your gender differently?
  • Why do you think two anime discussing gender and sexuality in this way have come out this year in particular?
  • Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju and Yuri!!! on ICE are both stories about men, created by women for a presumably female target audience, which have both achieved broader appeal. How do you feel about this?
  • How do you think the time periods of the two stories affect the different ways they present their topics?
  • If you are a queer and/or gender non-conforming man who has enjoyed either or both of these series, how do you feel about the way they depict gender and sexuality?

 

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  • Thanks so much for writing about this! It’s a parallel that I’ve been dying to hear/talk about, but I don’t think Rakugo Shinyuu got the audience it deserved. I hope pieces like this boost interest in it, as well as its second season (I think in January??)!
    Something that stood out to me that emphasizes this is the pronouns they use for themselves – Kikuhiko starts using the very feminine わたくし (even out of character, IIRC), and I want to say I heard Yuuri use 私 when he was getting into his “femme fatale” character.
    SGRS (there has to be a better way to shorten this title) felt to me like a tragic romance that might have ended more happily in another era, and so far, YOI is like a much happier realization in modern times. Even if it doesn’t explicitly end with Yuuri and Viktor in a relationship (I take issue with the idea that it’s not “really queer” unless they kiss on screen, but that’s another story), I’ll still be thrilled that shows like these exist, and excited for the future!

    • Sinclair

      A bit more information about Kikuhiko’s pronoun usage, since I haven’t seen anyone discussing it. After a certain point he always uses either atashi or atakushi depending on the context (atakushi is more formal), including out of character; while these normally very feminine pronouns, it’s also traditional for rakugo performers to refer to themselves as such. I don’t know that there’s any information on this available in English, but the Japanese wikipedia page on first person pronouns mentions it.

      Also, Yuuri definitely did refer to himself as atashi during his first eros performance.

  • Jahu

    I love how Yuri!!! on Ice has been exploring the different kinds of love, the expectations men have foisted on them. That said, the blatant homoeroticism has me worried about the intent of the queer-reading scenes–fetishization? Queerbaiting? Or are we going to get lucky and have a deep MLM relationship on screen?

    • Aza

      yuri on ice is definitely geared towards a female audience, there’s too much female gaze in there to be anything but. I’d therefor strike “queer baiting” off the list – to me, at least, the boys love genre has quite nothing to do with queer baiting. And if anything, yuri on ice is in that tradition.
      I also think that fetishization is a very negative way to refer to boys love as a genre. Yes, there is an element of this in the fanbase, and therefor of course the producers have that fixation on gay romance on their minds when creating boys love media. Fetishization as a term though implies that there cannot be a legitimate interest of a female audience in a queer love story. This is where I call bullshit. Who is to decide what kind of romance story I am allowed to enjoy? Boys love is a genre that has been among the first to work with female gaze. Many hetero- and bisexual women clearly enjoy this depiction of romance. Is it entirely realistic? No, it is not. It’s a sub-genre of romance, it never wanted to be entirely realistic. Does this invalidate any other messages this story carries? No, it does not.

      I’m deeply curious about what will happen in yuri on ice. I’d be ecstatic about a deep love story, because you see too few of those in boys love, especially in Anime, since there are so few boys love anime being produced anyways. If it remains unresolved, I’d still be mostly fine, because the series has sort-of brought the question on the table – and ever since Yuri refused Viktor’s offer to be his lover, Viktor’s advances have been mostly ‘motivational’ or – as in ep. 6 – drunk. Their relationship can just be that of coach and althlete – close, with touch to affirm this closeness, but actually no sexual component. Why shouldn’t it? Touch does not need to be sexual, and Viktor obvioulsy CARES deeply – but that does not mean the relationship needs to be romantic and sexual. This is another thing that taking it seriously that way can give us: a caring friendship between men that does NOT shy away from physicality. Yes, they touch, they hug, so what? Girls do it all the time, and nobody bats an eye. Why should it be queerbaiting when men do it? Viktor’s allusions to Yuri seducing him on the ice play into the chosen story. It can be entirely motivational, getting Yuri to focus on his chosen theme and story, getting him in character for the performance.

      So, overall, I’d say: As yet, we don’t know where yuri on ice will take us, but wherever it might go, I don’t think it can veer off too badly into the negative aspects that are often associated with boys love. There’s to much honest communication in there already. (Gosh, how much I hate those damn ‘misunderstanding’-plotlines in romance! just TALK to each other!) And though I know that some people are already put off by the BL-undertones in the series, I think they do the series a miscredit. This can just be what it says. A story about an athlete finding a way to win in his chosen discipline.

    • kuatin

      I would say that it is still far too early to call. I think it is a little silly that all over the place people are declaring yuri on ice as a great beacon for gay representation. The reality of the matter is that it does fall into a lot of the same habits as your average BL show especially in the clear sense of voyeurism that the show puts on the main relationship.

      At the end of the day I think that the idea of positive LGBTQ representation comes down to whether or not the show portrays characters that show the characters as having complex relationships and feelings in regards to and outside of those matters and not simply a homoerotic romp between two men that might be gay. This is where BL always struggles. I believe that thus far Yuri on ice has not achieved this as their relationship is purely hints and voyeuristic displays designed for the viewers enjoyment.

      It feels like all the articles come down to it’s a good show with homoerotic tension therefore it’s very progressive. In order to really be progressive I feel that it needs to address the characters actual relationship instead of having them talk vaguely of love. As right now I feel like it is still very possible for the characters to be mitigated to sex objects.

      • Black Emolga

        “At the end of the day I think that the idea of positive LGBTQ representation comes down to whether or not the show portrays characters that show the characters as having complex relationships and feelings in regards to and outside of those matters and not simply a homoerotic romp between two men that might be gay.”

        Does it ever occur to you that your holding works with LGBTQ character to a much higher and unattainable standard than any het work would ever have to be held too. We don’t expect works with het relationships to justify themselves with characters having “complex feelings” about their sexuality. They can just exist. But gay/lesbian/bi characters must be justified through internal dilemmas over their sexuality. In a way this is itself a form of Othering. LGBTQ people must be explained while het people can merely exist.

        • kuatin

          Let me try to explain my thinking a bit better. First yes I am aware that I am holding lgbtq representation to a higher standard. While there are many heterogeneous relationship shows I don’t think many of them meet that standard but I also don’t call them positive heterosexual representation.

          Next is that when looking at a show like Yuri on ice I feel that it is important to look at it in the context of it being bl that is to say it was made by a straight woman for other straight women. It should also be measured against other bl works. This context is vitally important because while there are many shows within that genre that depict homoerotic relationships there is a precedent for the characters to not be gay. I don’t need it to explore their sexuality I just need the characters to be homosexual. I guess complex was a poor choice of words for my earlier statement.

          Let me finish by clarifying two things none of this is to say that Yuri on ice is a bad show or to say who should or shouldn’t enjoy it.
          I would consider Yuri on ice as good lgbtq representation if it were not bl. However as it is bl it needs to prove that it is a standout of its genre on ways other than being pretty and popular. This is what I meant.

          • Champ Buch

            Ah, but Yuri on Ice is not BL, it’s a seinen sports anime with an incidental yet undeniable queer romance between two men. A few Western sites not affiliated with the creators have labeled it as shonen ai or yaoi, but it was never marketed as BL, nor labelled that way by the creators. Also: I’ve no idea about the sexual identity of Kubo and Yamamoto: have they identified as straight? Although violence towards people in the queer community in Japan is rare, many people choose to remain in the coolest because of prejudice in the workplace and in Japanese society as a whole. Either way they have created a story that is groundbreaking in its national and genre contexts.

    • tdoiwitcohe

      I read it as Viktor (most specifically, and I’ll focus on him since he’s a main character) being a very openly sexual person–he seems confident in his sexuality and enjoys flirtation (of a fairly melodramatic variety, sometimes, but it feels at one with his career in performance and with his character). I personally didn’t see that as fetishization, where he would have been made the object of a sexual fetish (by writers, viewers, etc); instead it seemed to me that he was expressing himself, and he is a sexual being who is very comfortable with that.

      I’m curious to know if there were any particular instances you read as being fetishization (and I admit I’m still a bit fuzzy on what ‘queer baiting’ is–does anyone have a good definition/example? Thanks for your patience with someone new to the language of fandom!).

      • Animenord

        I think Wikipedia’s definition of queerbaiting is rather good:
        “The term refers to what happens “when people in the media (usually television/movies) add homoerotic tension between two characters to attract more liberal and queer viewers with the indication of them not ever getting together for real in the show/book/movie”.

        The term is used to describe a tactic where a queer relationship or character is hinted at to attract/appeal to the queer market, and then is denied, either modifying the character’s behavior (making them enter an opposite gender relationship), playing it off as a joke (sometimes a recurring joke or trope), or denying the assumptions (in interviews, panels and such) without modifying the character’s behavior.”

        • tdoiwitcohe

          Thank you, that makes much more sense now and I definitely recognize it in several shows that I’ve seen.

  • Ryoken

    Really good article and commentary on both series; even if they are not my cup of tea, I’m glad shows like these add variety and theme to anime as a medium, as this article shows.
    Keep up the good work, AF!

  • Lake

    I like your discussion on rakugo but with yuri on ice I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be progressive or just another take on the “uke/seme” idea, where one has to be the “woman” in a gay relationship before it goes anywhere.

    • tdoiwitcohe

      Yuri may act in ways that are traditionally categorized as ‘feminine’, but I don’t feel that he acts passive or submissive while interacting with Viktor. And Viktor himself seems comfortable embodying both traditionally ‘masculine’ and traditionally ‘feminine’ traits into his skating and his appearance (consider his lovely long hair from flashbacks, and the fact that he was originally choreographing ‘Eros’ for himself). In fact, it seems that Yuri truly gains Viktor’s respect as an equal by growing in confidence to the point where he stands up to Viktor and corrects him on how Viktor should be dealing with Yuri’s anxiety (that scene in the parking garage is one of my favorites because of just how human they both are at that moment, how the coach/pupil dynamic that Viktor has been struggling with is suddenly upended, and how lost Viktor looks when that nicely categorized relationship becomes undefined (momentarily at least)).
      I’m sorry this was a very long response to your lovely concise question! I’m curious to know what you think!

  • Kaikyaku

    I thought Rakugo Shinju was fantastic. It was when Kikuhiko was not on stage that he was truly performing, trying to fit the model that society expected of him in order to survive. Rakugo was his release. Part of that was definitely being able to tap into a more feminine side of himself. Yuri!! on Ice is a lot more up front, but that makes sense not only in terms of the setting of the story (modern vs post-war) but also in terms of personal situation. Yuri has a lot of freedom and a supportive network and the show can work from that to be more open. For Kikuhiko, if he doesn’t meet society’s standards he has nothing. His experience of the world has to me more hidden and subtle and the series reflects this by leaving it always just under the surface. Both are great series, but for different reasons.

  • Danny Kazari

    I’d love to see an article on Hourou Musuko in the future! c: