SPOILERS: Detailed discussion of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju episodes 5-6 and Yuri!!! on ICE episode 3.
“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.
Rakugo Shinju’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 Rakugo Shinju 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 gender presentation (along the masculine-to-feminine spectrum) interact in ways that are unique for everyone. This means 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.
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.