Ishida Akira’s Amazing Voice Work in Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu

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One of the best anime of 2016, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, has returned for the Winter 2017, and with it some of the finest voice acting in recent anime history. Given that rakugo performers are themselves supposed to be able to take on many roles while telling a story, it requires the seiyuu playing these characters to have a great deal of convincing range. Nowhere is this more evident than in the voice of Ishida Akira, who plays Yuurakutei Yakumo the Eighth.

Ishida Akira has been a major player in anime since the 1990s, with roles such as Xelloss from Slayers and Athrun Zala from Gundam SEED to his name. However, what made me realize the sheer skill Ishida possesses is an audio clip of him performing seven different people, male and female, of all ages. From a young girl to an elderly grandpa, he can do it all. So, when he first appeared in Rakugo Shinjuu as Yakumo, I expected great things—an expectation that was fulfilled in spades. There’s a clear distinction in season 1 between Yakumo’s younger self in the past, and his elderly demeanor in the present.

To my surprise, season 2 turns out to show off Ishida’s chops even better. In this sequel, Yakumo is even older, and Ishida actually goes as far as to modify his performance to further show the passing of time. Often, I find that voice actors will have an “elderly voice,” but will not necessarily make the distinction between someone in his 60s versus someone in his 70s, for example. Ishida, however, does just that. His voice in season 1 had the weight of many years in it, but by season 2 it’s slower, deeper, and just a bit less coherent, as if that weight has finally started dragging his body down.

What’s even more impressive is when he performs privately for Yotarou (a.k.a. the new Sukeroku). Here, despite the strain it puts on him, Yakumo gives an extremely lively rakugo show. Pay attention to Ishida’s acting here, as he’s not just changing his voice to play younger characters as you would expect from any other professional voice actor. Instead, Ishida purposely plays a man in the twilight of his life imitating younger people as he performs. His enunciation is much clearer when he’s “on-stage,” but nevertheless has that characteristic elderly drawl. When he finishes and appears completely exhausted, and his voice reverts to “normal.”

Ishida’s performance is just one aspect of why Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is amazing, but it gives the series as a whole such a powerful presence. It’s great to see the guy in a role where he can really show the full extent of his talent.

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Best Anime Characters of 2016

BEST MALE CHARACTER

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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

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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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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[Apartment 507] Showa Nostalgia in Anime: What’s the Deal?

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I wrote a post over at Apartment 507 looking at the nostalgia for the Showa period that seems to be cropping up in anime. Leave a comment either here or there and tell me what you think!