The tropes of shounen are familiar to most anime audiences, with this boys’ demographic being wildly popular and its works often held up as the “canon” works of anime and manga. Like any genre of fiction, it has its own codes and conventions: a cheerful, outspoken protagonist, an overwhelmingly male ensemble cast, a training arc, a tournament featuring similarly-minded deuteragonists, mentors with specific expertise, and familial legacies to contend with. Like any collection of tropes, they can also be utilized in service of a story outside of that genre—and in stories that don’t necessarily center on male heroes. Akane-Banashi, a manga about a young woman coming into prominence in the world of Rakugo, has one of the farthest possible premises from the shounen standard, and yet it uses the tropes of shounen effectively to convey the emotional stakes of the story.
Intense Special Techniques
Rakugo is a traditional form of Japanese storytelling that originated in the Edo period. The performer sits on stage and recites a story from memory, giving distinct voices to each character and acting out what they do. Rakugo has a set collection of canonical stories, and for a Rakugoka (the storyteller) to perform publicly, they must learn the story from a senior Rakugoka and have it approved. There is, however, room given to add personal flair in any Rakugo story. This art form has been covered in anime and manga before, such as in My Master Has No Tail and Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju.
Akane-Banashi is a modern-day take on Rakugo, and its characters showcase the wide variety of approaches to the art that are possible. The story works to make the reader just as invested in Rakugo as its characters are, because the love of this artform is the common force driving them all. Their different storytelling styles are introduced like shounen superpowers, with the art showing abstract representation of their style while a character on the sidelines explains it. The art also immerses the reader in the performance.
Select scenes of the story being narrated are drawn in a distinct style from the rest of the manga, sometimes superimposed over the stage. Additionally, these performances have the most intense facial expressions out of any part of the manga, complete with dark, intense shading—again using the kind of motion and dramatic emphasis that would usually be used for high-octane action scenes in a battle shounen. The passion and excitement that Rakugo is presented with here is integral to understanding the titular protagonist, Akane.
Akane has been extremely dedicated to Rakugo her entire life. She grew up imitating her father’s Rakugo practice whenever possible, but when he was expelled from his Rakugo school, she gained a vendetta. By improving upon the Rakugo skills she learned from her father, Akane wants to prove their validity to the master that expelled him: Arakawa Issho. Akane joins the Arakawa Rakugo school under a different master just before she graduates high school. The academic-adjacent setting and the drive to “defeat” a powerful figure form the shounen-esque pillars of Akane-Banashi.
In 2021, a matter of months before Akane-Banashi debuted, women made up only 5% of the Rakugoka in Tokyo. This is reflected within Akane-Banashi, where Akane is one of four women out of dozens of named Rakugoka characters. However, non-Rakugoka characters are split evenly between men and women, showing that the number of male Rakugoka characters is not just a matter of negligence, or the habit of shounen series having skewed gender ratios in their ensemble casts. Here, it is a choice, reflecting reality while also allowing for that larger-than-life shounen-esque adventure narrative to take place.
A Worthy Rival
While the sexism in the industry and the art form is touched upon in the series—as will be discussed more below—the male-dominated world of Rakugo is not the only motivating force nor the main obstacle that Akane faces. Instead it’s presented as just a fact of life, a set piece.
There are not many women in Rakugo, and Akane just so happens to be a woman pursuing Rakugo. There is no moral imperative, nothing setting Akane apart from the male Rakugoka. Akane-Banashi is primarily concerned with its characters and the goals they pursue, and this goal-oriented focus aligns it more with the aforementioned “get stronger and beat the rival” arc that works as the undercurrent to most shounen.
This same character-driven approach is evident when Akane’s first female rival in the story appears. Koragi Hikaru is a voice actress, and her pursuit of Rakugo is part of an effort to prove that she is a skilled performer, not just a pretty face. She makes her debut at an amateur Rakugo contest, and while she does well, she ultimately loses to Akane. This loss forms the basis of their rivalry; Akane herself admits that she does not belong at a beginner’s competition, and yet she still participated in order to further her vendetta against Arakawa. This type of rivalry is a staple of shounen: two young people at odds who nonetheless recognize each other’s talents.
Hikaru also finds the budding rivalry to be a source of inspiration. Losing against anyone else would have reinforced the sexism she was trying to escape. As a female voice actor, her physical appearance is often acknowledged before her work itself, and losing to a man would be yet another instance of being unfairly pushed aside. Losing to Akane, however, is unfair in a way that’s anything but disheartening. Hikaru commits herself more fully to Rakugo, not just as an extension of voice acting but as its own unique artform; when she next meets Akane again at another competition, she is a student under a master Rakugoka and has climbed to meet Akane’s skill level. These two girls, enmeshed in the sexist world of entertainment, have inspired each other to greater heights of motivation and firmer bases of self-confidence in pursuing their own individual goals.
Student and Mentor
In addition to its wide casts of rivals, shounen is also known for having an array of mentor characters. Ransaika Urara, current head of the Ransaika school of Rakugo, sees Akane’s talent and stubborn determination, and offers to teach her a story for an upcoming performance. The story’s central character is a courtesan, and Akane is wholly unsuited for the sensual way Urara portrays the character.
As an older Rakugoka, Urara faced much more overt sexism in her career. Akane-Banashi draws on the real-world belief, which persisted up to the 20th century, that women were unable to perform Rakugo. The previous head of the Ransaika school was especially infamous for being unwilling to take on students. However, Urara’s raw talent convinced him to take her on as an apprentice. In the present, Urara’s overtly feminine style of storytelling takes one of the excuses for excluding women—that a woman playing a sensual character would distract from the story—and turns it into one of her greatest strengths. Her performance style enraptures audiences, and it has made her a superstar in the Rakugo world and a spit in the face to the old paradigms.
Akane, while a quick study, is utterly unable to match Urara’s portrayal of the courtesan in the story. However, Akane’s empathy, out-of-the-box thinking, and pure determination, mean that this awkward, clumsy portrayal becomes Akane’s personal twist on the story, and is ultimately the version approved for public performance. She is rewarded for deviating from gender norms once she honestly evaluates herself and realizes that they don’t suit her.
Akane masters the story not by copying Urara, and thus replicating what could be construed as “women’s rakugo,” but by understanding herself as a person and creating a unique take on the story. The mentor-student relationship between Urara and Akane thus becomes a master of the artform helping a newcomer find a unique way to innovate. This relationship doesn’t rely on the two characters being women to function; the narrative does not suggest there is an inherent special bond between women, and there are no broad strokes drawn to separate a female Rakugoka from Akane’s many other teachers.
The uniqueness of Urara and Akane comes down to their distinct personalities, the same as the uniqueness of any of the other characters. Women are not portrayed as inherently different from men. The reader, though, gets to enjoy this twist on norms in a meta sense: because they are framed within the typical shounen mentor-student dynamic whilst they “just happen” to be women, the audience gets to enjoy seeing these female characters shine in roles they might not usually get to occupy.
Sexism and the pressures of trying to thrive in a male-dominated field are presented in Akane-Banashi as the unfortunate state of society, and a reality that many of its characters have to contend with. However, sexist realities are never the focus of the narrative. It’s a light touch that acknowledges sexism exists while not wrapping female characters’ whole arcs around that struggle—something that can get tiring after a while.
Akane-Banashi is an optimistic story about self-improvement, following the goalposts of shounen that serve the story, from Akane’s attitude and motivations to the presence of character tropes like the rival and the mentor. Additionally, after learning from Urara, Akane’s personal assessment is that she will change how she performs the story as she ages. She specifically talks about Rakugo stories as friends, and compares her familiarity with them to a friendship that grows and changes over the years. This strong emphasis on friendship as a core value, even in unusual places, is also a key element of shounen stories. And, like shounen, both the realistic and more dramatisized challenges in Akane-Banashi present to show what its characters can overcome, to emphasize their strength, and to suggest that a better future is possible.