BEST MALE CHARACTER
Yurakutei Yakumo, aka Yurakutei Yotarou (Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu)
I’m fascinated by the idea that people change when they’re onstage, that they can almost see their “performer” self as a wholly different persona. There are plenty of real-world examples of this, from Freddy Mercury to Magic Johnson to Umehara Daigo, and within anime this past year we saw a couple as well. The best most recent example is probably Katsuki Yuri from Yuri!!! on Ice, but I think an even more amazing case of this is the eighth Yurakutei Yakumo.
Whether it’s as a young, frail boy, an overly serious adult, or a sneering wizened old man, Yakumo lives a compelling life full of equal parts friendship and struggle with his own identity. But when he’s performing his rakugo, it’s clear that there are elements buried deep within himself that come to the surface. His performances, the subtle changes he makes to play different characters within the same story, feel especially real. The fact that he’s so reserved in his actual life but excels in telling dirty stories when in front of a crowd encapsulates all that he is.
BEST FEMALE CHARACTER
Shidare Hotaru (Dagashi Kashi)
Appearing in the very first anime season of 2016, Shidare Hotaru made an immediate impression on me. Her striking appearance and intense expressions struck me like lightning. More importantly, her endless fervor for inexpensive Japanese snacks is something I relate to on an equally deep level. All too often, when people are interested in food, it comes more from a desire is to chase only the best eats, to become one of the elite, instead of appreciating everything the world has to offer. Hotaru isn’t like that. She truly loves all dagashi from the bottom of her heart.
Ironically, she’s a rich girl, which plays on one of the classic tropes of Japanese fiction.
What’s more, thanks to Dagashi Kashi, my recent trip to Japan this year involved searching for all sorts of Japanese munchies. Let it be known that Corn Potage Umaibou are one of mankind’s greatest inventions, and that we have Shidare Hotaru to thank for helping to spread the gospel of dagashi.
2016 was actually full of excellent characters who went the full gamut from realistically subtle to hyper-real dynamos. It’s what made deciding best characters especially difficult, and something I mulled over until the very last second. Even after solidifying the picks in my head, I could still sense my own hesitation. However, what I think ultimately brought me to pick Yakumo and Hotaru is that, even though they’re very different people, the flames within their souls burn brightly for their chosen passions. Incidentally, those passions are quite similar themselves. Rakugo and dagashi are traditional enjoyments of the common man in Japan that have both become dying arts in a certain sense with the movement of the times. How does one adapt and change while preserving the spirit of these cultural artifacts? That’s the fight both Yakumo and Hotaru are in, and they’ll go down swinging if they have to.