Thank you to everyone who attended our panel Beyond Yuri!!! on Ice: LGBTQ Anime and Manga at Sakura-con 2017 (or wanted to and didn’t get in)! We didn’t expect so many people and were incredibly grateful for the support. We held this panel again at Kumoricon 2017 in two parts. Thank you to everyone who attended at either convention! Now that it’s been a year since Yuri!!! on Ice aired, this panel has been retired but the transcript will remain. Keep in mind this post lacks the slideshow, delivery, and discussion time of the full panel.
The title isn’t a knock on Yuri!!! on Ice at all. (We hosted this panel cosplaying Yuri and Victor, after all.) Rather, we want to use its popularity as a springboard to bring attention to other anime and manga that feature LGBTQ themes and issues.
We’ll be covering a variety of manga and anime that portray LGBTQ themes in positive, negative, and mixed ways. This includes some gross stereotypes and tired tropes, given that they can affect what may be seen as LGBTQ representation. (In other words, keep in mind that we’ll be talking about homophobic, transphobic, and gender essentialist content.) Anime or manga that use the words lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer are rare; but we’re working with those that come as close to it as possible. By the way, we generally won’t be including adaptations of video games, visual novels, and light novels because it would simply get too long. Those mediums have unique histories and conventions that require analysis outside the scope of this panel.
We will also be including LGBTQ history and topics in Japan to give context and see how they connect to anime and manga. The only spoilers we’ll discuss will be relevant to the LGBTQ content. If you were recommended an anime on the basis it has a gay character but it turned out they were actually straight or they die you’d want to know beforehand, right? We’re sorry if we don’t mention your favorite anime or manga, but it’s impossible for us to know and cover everything. We’ve aimed to include a variety of works with major LGBTQ characters and themes, but more importantly manga by LGBTQ creators. We’re also prioritizing those that are legally available in the United States, unless they’re historically important or otherwise significant.
As a disclaimer, when it comes to our criticism, we don’t mean it as a personal condemnation or attack on anyone who enjoys any work we discuss. Both of us love most of the media that we cover here, even when they’re deeply flawed. Obviously, fans aren’t synonymous with all the problematic ideas a story can contain and perpetuate. We believe critical analysis of media is important and even when we love something or think that it’s important, that doesn’t mean it’s excused from critique. If everyone can agree on one thing, it’s that media can have great impact, positive and negative, which is worth discussion.
Also, it should go without saying this panel comes from a Western perspective to a Western audience. We’ve aimed to incorporate Japanese perspectives and insights and find our common ground as LGBTQ folk and build a bridge between cultures. When it comes to most of the Japanese creators we talk about, we only know so much about their identities and private lives. Between this and the culture and language barriers, we try not to assume too much about the creators themselves. Rather, we can only judge them by the content of their works and how they may or may not resonate.
With that in mind, here we go!
People who retroactively could be considered LGBTQ have existed long before those terms came into use. In Japan and other parts of the world, the turn from the 19th century to the 20th marked a shift from viewing sexuality as a behavior to an identity, which makes it a good place to start. The Meiji Period (1868-1912) is known for the modernization of Japan. In 1872 sex between men, known as sodomy, was criminalized due to Western influence. In the same year the family register, which documents gender and marital status, was enacted for all citizens. Eight years later the Penal Code made sodomy legal. However, the 1894 Japanese translation of Psychopathia Sexualis by Richard von Krafft-Ebing and 1915’s The Theory of Perverted Sexual Desire by Eiji Habuto and Junjiro Sawada pathologized homosexuality.
Class S was a popular genre of literature in early 20th century Japan, defined by intimacy between schoolgirls. The girls in the stories were written with close relationships, but those would end at maturation into women with the expectation they would marry men. One of the most popular authors was a lesbian named Nobuko Yoshiya. Although her life didn’t match the narrative of Class S, the popularity of the genre led to perception of romantic relationships between girls as chaste, immature, and temporary.
Our next time period is the Occupation of Japan (1945-52). After World War II, the United States military occupied Japan and remodeled it into a democracy. The democratization included writing the Constitution of Japan. Article 24 states “Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.” It defines marriage as only between a man and a woman, so only they can be married and recorded in the family register. The loanword “gay” caught on during the occupation to describe feminine men who had sex with men. The gay village of Nichoume also began to grow in Tokyo. The neighborhood is still a hub of Japanese gay culture and appears often in autobiographical manga by gay authors. Also during the occupation, manga as we know it today started to take shape with popular titles like Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka. Manga wasn’t subject to censorship like it was under imperial rule. Tezuka would go on to be the country’s most distinguished mangka, known as “the god of manga.” This isn’t the last we’ll hear of him at this panel.
The Post-Occupation Years
After the occupation, Japan regained sovereignty and entered the international scene. Although homosexuality is legal, stigma and pathologicalization persisted. For example, the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems listed homosexuality as a result of personality disorder since 1948. In our research we couldn’t find exactly when Japan started to use the ICD, but probably in 1956 when Japan joined the United Nations.
One famous manga from this period was Princess Knight by Osamu Tezuka from 1953 and on, and an anime in 1967. The plot follows Princess Sapphire who must pretend to be a prince in order to protect her kingdom. Additionally, when she was born, a young angel gave Sapphire a “boy heart” and a “girl heart” when she was only supposed to have a girl heart. It sounds like a cool Mulan-esque tale with a nonbinary hero but it’s fairly gender essentialist, such as when Sapphire has her boy heart temporarily removed and she’s suddenly unable to fight or defend herself. The influence of Takarazuka shows, which Tezuka grew up with, is clear but he has an odd way of treating women and gender which we’ll get back to.
In the 1960s a genre of novels known as tanbi, meaning “aesthetic,” emerged depicting tragic love between older and younger men written by women. They are considered precursors to BL, like Class S was to yuri. The first of these novels was A Lover’s Forest by Mori Mari in 1961.
Some animated films had been made in Japan, but Astro Boy premiered in 1963 as the first television series. As such, it was the beginning of the anime industry.
Not all anime and manga at the time were created by Osamu Tezuka, though. Artists like Yoshihiro Tatsumi pioneered the genre of gekiga, featuring more mature subjects, around the same time. In 1969, Tatsumi independently published short stories based on the society he observed. These were collected in English much later as The Pushman and Other Stories. Many of these gekiga were cynical and violent, but one depiction of a transgender woman stands out for its hopeful tone: she borrows makeup and clothes from a roommate, gets a girlfriend who accepts her, and is told she seems “more bright” as a result. It’s very impressive for its time period.
The 1970s: Breaking the Mold
The 1970s were a revolutionary time for manga. Collected volumes became popular and profitable rather than just magazine serialization, shounen manga were getting grittier, and women mangaka like the Year 24 Group were creating mature shoujo manga.
Intimacy between girls first appeared in manga in the 1970s, aimed at young girls. In the same decade the word “yuri,” meaning “lily,” became associated with the genre. Yuri manga was influenced by Class S, featuring schoolgirls and minimal to no sexual content. “Opposites attract” and admiring a mature classmate, the “onee-sama,” were common. The lack of sex portrays their relationships as “pure,” in contrast to the perception of real lesbians as sexual deviants. These manga were also written as tragedy where the characters die or are otherwise separated, not unlike lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s and 60s in the United States. Yuri has grown as a genre since then with more variety in character ages, tones, and sexual content, though it can still fall back on these tropes.
Shiroi Heya no Futari, meaning Our White Room, was the first published yuri manga by Ryoko Yamagishi in 1971. It follows a timid girl named Resine who enrolls at an all-girls school in France. This may already sound familiar. There she meets her roommate Simone who likes to skip school and drink. Their school holds a production of Romeo and Juliet with Simone and Resine as the leads respectively, and their kiss on stage brings them closer. Rumors spread about them being lesbians and Resine rejects Simone in tears. In despair, Simone goes drinking and encourages a man to kill her. Resine receives news of her violent death and swears to never love again. This tragedy set the precedent for yuri. Manga scholar Yukari Fujimoto argues that early yuri manga expressed that girls can only find happiness with a man, therefore their relationships with girls end in disaster. There’s nothing wrong with tragedy itself, but the repetition of it for a marginalized group reinforces the status quo against them.
Barazoku was the first and longest running Japanese magazine for gay men, from 1971 to 2004. The title means “the rose tribe” in English and yes, this is the origin of the loanword “bara,” originally a reclaimed slur against gay men. Nowadays it’s more common in English-speaking circles to refer to art of beefy gay men. It was also the origin of the term “yuri.” The magazine featured one-shot manga, such as the memetic Kuso Miso Technique.
Devilman is a classic shounen manga from 1972 to 73 by Go Nagai about a young man named Akira who gains the powers of a demon to save the world from a demon invasion. If you want to know all about this manga and its expanded universe, you should read Intro to Devilman, a Demonic Manga Masterwork. That post carefully avoids a certain spoiler, but it can’t be ignored in this case. Akira has a good friend named Ryo who teaches him about demons. As it turns out, Ryo is actually Satan living as a human but along the way fell in love with Akira. So we have a man in love with another man but he’s also, y’know, Satan. On top of that Devilman portrays Satan physically and mentally as both a man and a woman. Like Princess Knight this isn’t inherently bad, but is awkward how Satan’s woman side is blamed for falling in love with a man. Overall Ryo is a sympathetic character, and the literal sympathy for the Devil is part of a greater theme of morality being more complicated than expected.
The Rose of Versailles is a classic shoujo manga by Riyoko Ikeda from 1972 to 74 that takes place in a fictionalized version of the French Revolution. There was also a popular anime that aired from 1979 to 80. Marie Antoinette was originally the main character but the popularity of a girl named Oscar who was “raised as a man,” essentially being taught to fight, brought her to the spotlight. Fun fact: she was named after Oscar Wilde, and if that’s not gay we don’t know what is. Her one true love is a guy named Andre, but girls fall in love with her even knowing she’s a woman. This manga informed the aesthetic of shoujo and yuri for years to come. Oscar may die for the revolution, but so do the nobles like Marie Antoinette.
Back at it with our friend Osamu Tezuka: Black Jack follows the surgery jobs of an unlicensed doctor, but we’re not here to talk about him. We’re here to talk about when Tezuka accidentally wrote a trans man named Kei Kisaragi. He‘s introduced as a man, but later it‘s revealed Kisaragi and Black Jack were lovers when he lived as a woman. Kisaragi then developed uterine cancer and Black Jack performed the life-saving surgery, but according to the manga the hysterectomy turned Kisaragi into a man with no feelings for Black Jack. There’s no sugarcoating it: It’s weird and doesn’t understand how gender identity works. He’s essentially a trans man, but it’s deeply rooted in gender essentialism that defines a woman by possessing a uterus, so we can’t really say it’s good representation.
Like yuri, shoujo manga by women depicting intimacy between boys emerged in the 1970s. The earliest was a oneshot titled In the Sunroom by Keiko Takemiya in 1970. However, the genre was known as tanbi (aesthetic) or shounen ai (boy love) at the time. The term boys love, or BL for short, replaced the former in the 90s. Early BL manga featured European schoolboys, psychological drama, and tragic endings. Feminist and sociologist Chizuno Ueno explains that “male homosexuality [in shoujo manga] was a safety device that allowed [girls] to operate this dangerous thing called ‘sex’ at a distance from [their] own bodies; it was the wings that enabled girls to fly.” BL editor Toshihiko Sagawa goes as far to say that “although the characters looked like beautiful boys, the persons inside of them were girls or women.” This use of boys as avatars for girls to explore sexual themes has been rightfully criticized as appropriation of gay identity, which we’ll get more into later. This analysis of BL may not reflect every creator or reader, however.
The Heart of Thomas by Moto Hagio was one of the earliest BL titles in 1973. Hagio aimed to create a literary and thematic manga about an all-girls school, but changed the characters to European boys to create an Other for the shoujo readers. The story begins with the suicide of a boy named Thomas after he was romantically rejected by his classmate Juli. The arrival of a transfer student named Erich who looks just like Thomas shakes Juli out his aloof attitude. The mystery around Thomas’ death and Juli’s coldness slowly reveals itself in a psychological drama: it turns out Juli was abused by an older classmate and considered himself damaged goods, so he denied his feelings for Thomas. None of the characters end up in relationships, but the manga finishes on the uplifting note of Juli learning he can love and be loved. Moto Hagio went on to create more manga with LGBTQ themes.
Kaze to Ki no Uta, meaning The Poem of the Wind and the Trees, was another classic BL manga by Keiko Takemiya from 1976 to 84. There is also an OVA from 1986 covering the first three volumes. The story is one big flashback of a man named Serge recounting his first love Gilbert and how abuse from his uncle led to his untimely death. It takes place in a European all boys school, but unlike Heart of Thomas it has explicit sexual content. Gilbert is introduced as a promiscuous boy who sleeps with classmates and teachers, but they revile him once they’re done. The headmaster hopes that a kind boy like Serge can set Gilbert on the right path, but he becomes more entangled with Gilbert than anyone. Serge feels sympathy for him, partially because the homophobia Gilbert faces reminds him of the racism he’s experienced for being Romani. Even for a tragedy, it’s just really depressing.
Relationships between men weren’t exclusive to BL in the 70s, however. In response to the rise of gekiga, Osamu Tezuka shifted to creating grittier works. This new direction resulted in MW in 1976, a thriller about a serial killer named Michio on a revenge quest for those who created a weaponized gas that ruined his life. When he’s not plotting his revenge, he sleeps with a priest named Garai and tells him everything. The priest could easily report Michio to the police, but he doesn’t out of guilt for sexually assaulting Michio as a child. It’s definitely a dark story, with gay sexuality apparently included for the shock factor among the likes of rape and bestiality. However, at one point a lesbian journalist saves Garai’s reputation by not publicizing him visiting a gay bathhouse and she declares no one should be judged for who they love. It’s a small gesture to remind readers not all gay people are violent and miserable like Michio and Garai, which is better than nothing.
Riyoko Ikeda made a career of manga playing with gender like Rose of Versailles, and actually created a short story about a transgender man in 1978. The title Claudine…! refers to his birth name, which all characters call him by since he is closeted for the entirety of the story. The manga follows his life and his relationships with women, which all come to an end when they find cisgender men they prefer. It’s a lot of hardships packed into a single volume. He’s so distraught by the realization that no one will see him as a man that he commits suicide. Like yuri and BL for gay people, Claudine…! portrays life as a trans person as inevitable tragedy.
In 1978 JUNE became the first manga magazine specifically for BL, though co-creator Keiko Takemiya clarifies that “the magazine of JUNE turned a spotlight on human sensitivity of dual personality in human beings which go beyond gender. […] It was not a magazine which depicted only boys’ love.” Nonetheless, JUNE marked BL as a distinct and marketable genre. Many BL authors got their start in JUNE through its submission contest.
The 1980s: The Origin of “Otaku”
Enthusiastic—if not obsessive—fans of anime and manga existed from the very beginning, but the 1980s brought the term “otaku” to describe them. Otaku fandom included the exponential growth of doujinshi culture. Doujinshi refers to self-published works, not necessarily based on existing anime or manga. Anime and manga like the shounen soccer series Captain Tsubasa were popular among women who created doujinshi. Of course, a particular genre of doujinshi is dominated by women. The words “BL” and “yaoi” are thrown around synonymously in English-speaking fandom, but generally in Japan “yaoi” refers to amateur publications and “BL” to professional publications. The term “yaoi,” short for “no peak, no fall, no meaning” was coined in the late 70s to refer to manga that focused on physicality more than the dramatic complexity of BL. This interest in simple sexuality went hand-in-hand with the rise of doujinshi depicting existing characters in sexual relationships. The depth of their relationship is already established and explored in the source material, so doujinshi can simply get down to business, you know?
These gay interpretations have been intended and encouraged by creators. For example Yoshiyuki Tomino, the creator of Mobile Suit Gundam, has described his aim for the film Char’s Counterattack as “I thought it would be good if, maybe, I could highlight the sensuous elements… to the point that you’d think, ‘Could Char and Amuro be gay?; I think fiction writing is, more than anything… like I just said, about conveying that sensuality, having the audience pick up on it… if they can’t, that’s no good.” He rests the quality of his film on the sexuality between them being apparent. This isn’t the only time he’s noted the chemistry between Amuro and Char either. Such subtle homoeroticism became more common in mainstream anime and manga than the candid yuri and BL of 70s shoujo. Our theory is that by carving out the niches of yuri and BL, a divide was created between them and other anime and manga. Even today if a series includes a same-gender couple it’s dismissed as “just” BL or yuri as if they can’t exist outside those genres. It’s also expected if audiences want explicit same-gender relationships they can turn to yuri and BL, or simply make it themselves as doujinshi. Even professionals like Fumi Yoshinaga make yaoi doujinshi of their own manga with sex they can’t depict in magazines. And of course, yaoi doujinshi of Gundam followed the anime’s popularity. Character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko believes that “some were angered by [yaoi], claiming it made a mockery of the source material, but I didn’t think so. It was brand-new culture.” It’s hardly mocking when the sensuality was intentional like in Char’s Counterattack, if you ask us. Fun fact: Yasuhiko was also the director of the Kaze to Ki no Uta OVA in 1986, which puts his point of view in perspective.
We won’t be covering as much about specific yuri and BL from here on because of the immense number of interchangeable works, but will spotlight some modern titles.
Stop!! Hibari-kun! is a classic shounen comedy manga (1981-3) and anime (1983-4) about a boy named Kosaku who moves in with a yakuza family after his mother dies. There he meets the lovely oldest daughter Hibari, but the family soon informs him that Hibari is “actually a boy.” Creator Hisashi Eguchi wanted to poke fun at the romantic comedy genre with a heroine who’s “actually a boy.” Hibari’s classmates know her as a girl and she asserts herself as a daughter, but her family insists she “be normal” instead, hence the title. It’s all played for laughs, but it’s uncomfortable to read since she’s essentially a trans girl. Especially when it comes to her crush on Kosaku, who sees her as a boy and refuses to think of himself as “gay.” He rebuffs her and insists he’s not a “pervert” like her. At times it’s implied Kosaku has repressed feelings in return for Hibari, but the manga was discontinued (over schedule conflicts) before their relationship could be resolved.
Hibari is only one example of the pattern in anime and manga of characters who live and present as women, with narrative exposition always there to remind the audience they’re “actually men.” There are also characters who live as men but are “actually women,” usually forced to rather than for personal reasons. We’re not saying these characters are trans necessarily, but that it can be unclear if a cisgender creator knows the difference between a cross-dresser and a trans person. These characters tend to either inaccurately approximate transgender experiences as petty or invert them to portray cisgender characters marginalized for their gender.
X+Y is a science fiction short story by Moto Hagio, part of the series A, A’. Each story follows a member of a humanoid alien species known as Unicorns, in this case a young man named Tacto. His doctors inform him he has two X chromosomes, though his body is like that of a cisgender man’s, which in the real world is known as de la Chapelle syndrome. The doctors follow gender essentialism and encourage him to take hormones and “become a woman,” but Tacto refuses. Later a man named Mori becomes attracted to Tacto and they’re comfortable both being men. It turns out Tacto’s chromosomes could naturally change and he asks if Mori would prefer him to be a girl, and Mori says to decide for himself. Instead of conforming to gender essentialism and heteronormativity, Tacto remains a man with XX chromosomes and stays with Mori.
As you know, the 1980s was the time of the AIDS crisis. In Japan, HIV was mostly contracted by hemophilia patients treated with infected blood products. The Ministry of Health and Welfare announced the first Japanese AIDS patient was a Japanese gay man traveling back from San Francisco, which diverted attention from the companies selling infected blood. There was a perception of AIDS as a foreign disease or one that only sexual deviants could contract, but three straight women hemophiliac patients were found to have AIDS. People with HIV and AIDS both faced discrimination, and continue to today.
The manga Nemureru Mori no Binan by Wakuni Akisato addressed gay men during the AIDS crisis. The manga and its sequel Tomoi were published from 1986 to 1970, but the story takes place from 1982 to 83. The manga follows a gay Japanese doctor who moves to New York, where he learns about AIDS and the homophobia toward patients. His first white American lover moves away in fear of AIDS, then his second contracts AIDS and is murdered by his jealous wife. The creator clearly understood the discrimination around AIDS and sympathized with the gay characters, but we think this story falls into the narrative the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare created of AIDS as a foreign disease since only American characters have it.
Bara Komi was a short-lived supplement of Barazoku devoted exclusively to manga in 1986. As such, it was the first manga magazine for gay men. Unfortunately, it only lasted two issues.
In 1986 the first ILGA Asian Conference was held in Tokyo, hosted by the Japanese IGLA Support Group. The Japan chapter of IGLA was one of the earliest LGBTQ organizations, and more would follow.
Many yaoi doujinshi artists were recruited to the manga industry in the 80s, including CLAMP who made their professional debut with RG Veda. Like most people, we were introduced to the RG Veda characters Ashura and Yasha through their alternate universe versions in Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle. In Tsubasa they’re a romantic couple, so it’s jarring that in most of RG Veda they’re more like father and child. Yasha wakes the genderless child Ashura from eternal sleep. A prophecy predicts the evil spirit within Ashura will kill Yasha, but they grow to care for each other. In the end Ashura dies, and Yasha stays by their side in hope they will awaken again. Eons later Ashura, now an adult, revives to be with Yasha together forever. RG Veda also features one of CLAMP’s only lesbian couples. Sohma devotes her life to Kendappa, but Kendappa has her own unshakable loyalty to someone else and kills her. She then commits suicide, unable to live without her. Again tragedy isn’t a problem, but it would be nice for CLAMP to write some happy lesbians for once. If we included every CLAMP manga in this panel we’d be here all day, but we’ll be looking at some other key creations later.
The 1990s: The Gay Boom
In the 1990s, gay people and homosexuality received more attention in Japanese media in what was known as “the gay boom.” It started in 1991 when the women’s fashion magazine CREA published a series of articles about the subculture of Japanese gay men, but it spread into the mainstream. The origin from straight women was criticized by gay men, but the boom did give a platform to many gay people.
In the midst of the gay boom, there was the Fuchu Youth House Incident. The Fuchu Youth House is a public facility run by the Tokyo Metropolitan government. The Japan Association for the Lesbian and Gay Movement would rent the facility for meetings, but didn’t reveal the purpose of their organization until 1990. After that they were refused use of the house, as the government argued they were using it to have sex. The association, also known by the shorter name OCCUR, filed a suit in retaliation. The court ruled in favor of OCCUR and declared “it is necessary for government bodies to show meticulous consideration for homosexuals, as a minority, and to ensure their rights and interests are upheld. It was unacceptable then and is unacceptable now for a public authority to be indifferent to or ignorant of these points.” Although this should have been a landmark case in treatment of LGBTQ people, the incident is not common knowledge in Japan.
Tokyo Babylon is another early CLAMP manga from 1990 to 93. CLAMP aimed to address modern social issues of Tokyo through supernatural mysteries, investigated by a shy boy with mystical powers named Subaru. Between adventures, his sister Hokuto encourages Subaru and their veterinarian acquaintance Seishirou to become a couple. We can’t help feeling like the shoujo readers were meant to identify with Hokuto in her matchmaking of a young boy and a much older man. Subaru is embarrassed by the idea, but later in the story when Seishirou is fatally injured he realizes he’s in love with him. Unfortunately for Subaru, it turns out Seishirou is actually a deadly assassin waiting to see if he’s human enough to fall in love. Seishirou says he feels nothing for Subaru and proceeds to ruin his life. We wish we could say this manga criticizes the romanticization of older men preying on younger boys, but actually CLAMP uncomfortably advocates for relationships between minors and adults in other manga. We’ll get to more of that later. Rather CLAMP portrays Subaru and Seishirou as soulmates and the real danger is not Seishirou’s age, but that he was raised to be an assassin without a grasp of “love.” In the sequel X that takes place nine years later and they’re both adults, that’s their problem.
Yu Yu Hakusho is a shounen manga by Yoshihiro Togashi from 1990 to 94, super popular at the time it was publishing and its anime adaptation was airing. It follows the supernatural adventures of spirit detective Yusuke and his friends. Early on Yusuke and Kuwabara encounter a trio of demons, the first of which is a woman named Miyuki. Kuwabara refuses to fight a girl, while Yusuke deduces she’s trans by groping her during their battle. He yells at her that if she wants him to see her as a woman, she has to get sex reassignment surgery. Don’t listen to Yusuke. Trans people are their gender with or without surgery. This awkward inclusion of a trans woman would be unremarkable if not for how Togashi improved his portrayal of them in future manga, which we’ll get to later. A later arc features the antagonist couple Sensui and Itsuki. Sensui is a violent human so disillusioned with humanity he wants to destroy them, but Itsuki sees and loves every side of him. This means in the emotional sense as well as Itsuki knowing every personality of Sensui’s dissociative identity disorder. It kind of pulls a Devilman with the reveal that Sensui has a woman alter who only Itsuki knows about. They are antagonists, but the previous antagonist Toguro was just as cruel and he was straight. They are defeated by Yusuke as expected, but without giving too much away they ultimately get what they want and end on their own terms.
Sailor Moon needs no introduction. The manga and anime adaptations differ in depictions of LGBTQ characters, and it’s hard to fit everything. All versions features the iconic couple Haruka and Michiru, of course. In the manga Usagi herself has feelings for Haruka even after learning she is a woman. It also says Haruka has “the power of a man and a woman,” which can be interpreted in a number of ways. The 90s anime emphasizes Haruka and Michiru’s relationship, especially with sexual innuendos. Director Kunihiko Ikuhara instructed Haruka’s voice actress Megumi Ogata to play them as “husband and wife.” When Ogata asked if they were gay, he said no but husband and wife all the same. Come on, Ikuhara. Their relationship, particularly as depicted in the anime, was a hit and contributed to a boom of yuri. The 90s anime’s expansions on minor characters resulted in a few being LGBTQ as well. The early antagonists Zoisite and Kunsite became a couple, which we would find awkward if not for Haruka and Michiru. By having gay villains as well as heroes, the relationship between villains is part of their character rather than reflecting on gay people as a whole. We can’t say the portrayal of Fisheye was as neutral, though. The conflation of gay men and trans women in Japanese media makes Fisheye’s identity ambiguous, but nonetheless Fisheye seducing men to observe their dreams reinforces the idea that trans women are deceptive for not disclosing they’re trans. The final season of the anime features a team of sailor soldiers who come to Earth in search of their lost princess. In the manga they simply cross-dress as a boyband, but in the anime their bodies can physically transform, which opens up a variety gender-related interpretations.
In 1992, a great “yaoi debate” was sparked by an editorial in the feminist sexuality magazine Choisir by a gay activist named Masaki Satou. He argued yaoi profits off unrealistic depictions of gay men and the women who create or enjoy it are no better than perverted old men watching woman-on-woman porn. Of course, women readers of the magazine wrote in with their opinions such as it was expression of their sexuality or that since it’s not about gay men they’re not allowed to criticize it. Obviously, some of these hold more weight than others. Discussion around BL and yaoi has gotten more nuanced the more their industries have grown. Some BL addresses gay issues, some doesn’t. Some BL is written by straight women, some not. Some gay men like BL, some don’t.
At first there were two lesbian and gay film festivals in Japan, one organized by ILGA and one organized by a straight-owned company, but they later combined as the Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. There have been five Japanese animated shorts over the history of the festival: Plica-chan, nakedyouth, Talking About Amy, Hibi-chan, and Sex Candy; though they aren’t necessarily considered anime. Last year the festival renamed to Rainbow Reel Tokyo to include more LGBTQ identities.
Back to CLAMP with their magical girl, fantasy RPG, and mecha hybrid Magic Knight Rayearth from 1993 to 95 about high school girls traveling to a magical world. In the second half of the manga, a love triangle forms between our heroine Hikaru and two guys named Lantis and Eagle Vision. Hikaru and Eagle are competing to become the leader of the fantasy world, while Lantis believes the system should be eradicated. In the midst of this conflict and growing closer to them both, Hikaru notices that Lantis and Eagle have some kind of history. At the climax when she comes faces to face with Eagle, she realizes they must have broken up but still have feelings for each other. We sure don’t know any other love triangle of a girl between two boys where the boys also have a romantic relationship. With feelings between all three of them established, the manga ends with Hikaru declaring she’ll marry both of them. Apparently the anime adaptation removes the relationship between Lantis and Eagle and the polyamorous ending, unfortunately. And to be honest, we wish CLAMP had remembered how genius and fantastic this ending would have been for some of their other series, like xxxHolic and Cardcaptor Sakura.
G-men is a currently publishing magazine for gay men that began in 1994. It is not exclusively for manga, but includes serialization of gei komi. Erotic manga for gay men is often distinguished from BL or yaoi as “geikomi,” or gay comics. Most authors keep their personal lives private to avoid discrimination. A lot of geikomi are actually available in English nowadays!
G-men was co-created by Gengoroh Tagame, the most prolific gay mangaka. He was born in 1964 and began his art career at 18 years old by submitting under pen names to various magazines, including JUNE. At 30 years old he became a full time artist of gay erotica with G-men, but he’s also a scholar of Japanese historical gay art. In the past few years his work has been published in English in the US, such as The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame that collects various stories. Most of his work (Standing Ovations, Endless Game, Gunji, Fisherman’s Lodge, Contracts of the Fall) features themes of BDSM and is super NSFW. If you look up his work, you should be an adult and not riding public transit. In 2014 he started My Brother’s Husband, his first manga appropriate for all ages, which we’ll get to later.
In 1994 the ILGA organized the Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade, the first gay pride parade in Japan. In 2007 the event was renamed Tokyo Pride Parade. The parade was retired in 2011, but more pride parades have taken its place.
The tenth edition of ICD finally removed homosexuality from its personality disorder diagnosis. However, this doesn’t erase stigma completely either.
Neon Genesis Evangelion from 1995 also doesn’t need much introduction. Maybe one of the most iconic anime about teens in giant robots fighting alien invaders, though it’s also not about that at all. Evangelion is notoriously dense and throws the audience for a loop towards the end. There’s a lot in that show but to tighten the focus here, one theme the series examines is the pressure of gender roles on children and when they don’t fit those roles. Shinji is a boy but timid, Asuka is a girl but brash, and Rei is a girl but eerily cold. Of course, gender roles go hand-in-hand with heteronormativity by defining one gender by attraction to the other. Throughout the series Shinji tries and fails to connect with women intimately, as part of the larger theme that getting close to someone makes them able to hurt you. Toward the end of the show Shinji finally meets someone who accepts him unconditionally: a mysterious boy named Kaworu, who says he loves him. Unfortunately Kaworu ends up dying, but Shinji keeps his memory in his heart to remember he is worthy of love. There’s more LGBTQ content in Evangelion than Shinji and Kaworu, though. In The End of Evangelion, characters are greeted by a vision of the person they love most to lower their defenses. Maya is greeted by her superior Ritsuko, implying she loves her romantically. It’s a brief moment, but it’s there.
Phryne was a short-lived women-loving women magazine from 1995. The two issues included some one-shot manga, including early strips of Rica ‘tte Kanji?! by lesbian mangaka Rica Takashima. It follows the adventures of Rica and her fellow lesbian friends in Tokyo. Rica has been aware she likes girls for a long time, but is new to the scene around Nichoume. The early strips focus on lesbian bar community, then moves onto Rica and her first girlfriend, their relationship hurdles, and flashbacks to their childhoods. Takashima was driven to create the manga to fill her desire for a “lighthearted story about two women in love, just going about their ordinary lives together.” The entire run has been collected in English for free to read online by ALC Publishing, so go check it out! In 2008, Rica Takashima moved from Tokyo to New York. She has said Japan was stifling for her and that “New York represented the sort of place that Utena and Anthy went to find in their quest to revolutionize their world.” We’ll get to Utena later. Nowadays she creates public art installations in her adorable art style too.
Rica ‘tte Kanji?! moved to serialization in the women-loving women magazine Anise. The magazine lasted from 1996 to 2003 and included manga. It lasted longer than Phyrne, but still came to an end. Lesbian mangaka Sae Amamiya pondered if the end of Anise meant “both authors and readers have cut themselves from reality and now enjoy yuri as fantasy,” rather than acknowledge real lesbians and their creations. Sae Amamiya created Plica-chan, another manga serialized in Anise consisting of simple four-panel strips. It follows a handful of young lesbians in their daily lives in a down to Earth but funny way. Plica-chan was also adapted to a trilogy of short animated films shown at the Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
A few manga in Anise were created by Akiko Morishima, who has gone on to be an accomplished yuri mangaka. She mostly does short stories, the longest ones being only a few volumes. Probably her best known work is being the character designer for Yuri Kuma Arashi, which we’ll get to later. She also did the manga version which has a fairly different plot from the anime. Notably, while she makes stories about high school romance as many yuri mangaka do, she also focuses on adult women in her work. She also sometimes touches on her own life, such as her experiences of being a lesbian or having ADHD.
The Rainbow March in Sapporo was established in 1996 and has become Japan’s longest running pride parade.
In the late 90s, Japan started moving toward medical treatment for transgender people (photos of surgery at the link). In 1996, the Ethics Committee of Saitama Medical School submitted a report that sex reassignment surgery was treatment for gender dysphoria. A year later the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology introduced guidelines for diagnosis of gender dysphoria. With this groundwork laid, the first sex reassignment surgery for a trans man was performed in 1998 and for a trans woman in 1999.
Our next look at CLAMP is their most famous work, the magical girl manga Cardcaptor Sakura from 1996 to 2000. Like Sailor Moon, it’s hard to fit everything relevant on one slide because basically, almost every character is bisexual. The main romance is between Sakura and Syaoran, a girl and a boy, but they both show interest in characters of the same gender too. Sakura and Syaoran compete for the affections of an older boy named Yukito, who actually turns out to be in a relationship with Sakura’s brother. Meanwhile Tomoyo has a crush on Sakura, happy that she can find true love. (Though as mentioned earlier, Sakura has two hands. Just saying.) These relationships came as a result of CLAMP wanting to positively represent minorities to their elementary school readers. In writer Nanase Ohkawa’s words, “Sakura believes in all the forms of love she sees.” This gets awkward because CLAMP also considers adults and minors in relationships a marginalized group, the most extreme being an elementary school teacher engaged to his student. Frankly, it’s gross to see such a relationship portrayed as a chaste, sweet love! The anime adaptation downplays these relationships. The age gap couples are all a man and a woman, but comparing them harkens to the harmful perceptions of gay people as sexual predators.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is the brainchild of former Sailor Moon anime staff. The anime aired in 1997 and was followed by the film Adolescence of Utena two years later. There’s also a manga that was developed simultaneously with the anime, but it’s not gay so it’s irrelevant. The anime takes place in a metaphorical world that combines school drama and fairytales. Our heroine Utena lives her life aspiring to be a “prince” like the one that comforted her as a child. She’s also on a search to reunite with him, which leads her to Ohtori Academy where students hold fencing duels for the ownership of a girl named Anthy. She wins the duel and becomes engaged to Anthy, but wants to free her and they fall in love. As Utena uncovers the mystery of the duels, the show explores the horrors of patriarchy and heteronormativity. One subplot involves the fraught relationship between two girls named Juri and Shiori. When they were younger, Shiori assumed Juri loved a boy and dated him to anger her. In actuality Juri was in love with Shiori, and she can’t get over losing her. Shiori returns to Juri’s life and makes her miserable, but her obsession with Juri implies she returns her feelings. Eventually they reconcile their communication issues and have the potential for a relationship. As for Utena and Anthy, they break free of abusive men and leave behind the cruel Ohtori Academy. Their departure represents growing up and finding a place they truly belong and can be themselves. The film Adolescence of Utena retells the events of the show, including Utena and Anthy’s relationship being more explicit. At the end of the movie they once again leave Ohtori Academy behind, this time kissing in the nude.
Yoshihiro Togashi followed the success of Yu Yu Hakusho with Hunter x Hunter in 1998. The manga is currently on hiatus and a recent anime has adapted almost all the story. It follows a young boy named Gon in his quest to become a hunter and find his absentee father. He meets many people on his journey, including an egregious gay predator stereotype named Hisoka. He has a sexual fascination with strong fighters, including the twelve year old Gon. It goes as far as being aroused in and out of fights, all played as a gross but quirky trait, which normalizes the perception of gay men as pedophiles. Personally, we don’t want him to die, we just want him to go away. But it’s not all bad. Unlike how Yu Yu Hakusho insisted trans women can only be considered women after surgery, this manga recognizes the young Alluka as a trans girl despite her age. Her abusive family misgenders her, while her loving brother Killua supports her as a girl. She doesn’t speak about her gender identity but given how the Zoldyck family is repeated portrayed as exploitative of both Killua and Alluka, it’s the easiest interpretation. Killua’s solidarity with Alluka against their abusive family may extend to him being queer too, as his relationship with Gon has a lot of romantic weight to it. It’s subtextual, but definitely not a difficult interpretation. For example, one scene features Gon and Killua talking about dating, ending with Killua’s wish that he could just spend the rest of his life traveling with Gon. He even says the potential to die together would be a lover’s suicide.
The 2000s: The Trans Boom?
If the 1990s were the gay boom, the 2000s may have been the trans boom with an increase in visibility of trans people in Japanese media. Not all of this visibility is positive, however. For one thing, Japanese media often conflates gay men with trans women. Creators don’t make a distinction between being gay and trans, whether it’s out of ignorance or malice. These characters are called “okama,” which means “pot” and conjures imagery of gay sex, but we’ll avoid that word as much as possible since it can be used as a slur. These characters are usually effeminate, muscular, lustful, comic relief, and reviled by other characters. And they are everywhere—even as a class of people in One Piece, the most popular manga in Japan. As mangaka Yuhki Kamatani says, using LGBTQ characters for jokes is “deeply rooted and widely accepted.” At best the characters are physically powerful, but that’s still part of the joke in contrast to their femininity. These characters often overlap with the harmful stereotype of the gay predator, like Hisoka in Hunter x Hunter. An older character will openly flirt at or outright assault a younger character of the same gender, to the disgust of the latter. One Punch Man takes this as far as you can by making the predator a prison rape joke. Additionally, it can be deeply upsetting to encounter with no warning from any of its fans. This character type isn’t exclusive to men, but it’s just as uncomfortable with women. The victim is usually the protagonist, so the audience is meant to empathize with their reaction and the gay character becomes the Other as a joke. The prevalence of predatory depictions enforces the stereotype that gay people are dangerous.
The Act on Special Cases in Handling Gender for People with Gender Identity Disorder of 2003 wrote qualifications for trans people to change their gender to male or female in their family registry. The act states that they must be medically diagnosed, 20 years or older, unmarried, have no minor children, and have had gender affirmation surgery. Obviously, many of these qualifications are unreasonable and rooted in transphobia. The requirement to be unmarried overlaps with homophobia because the marriage would become same-gender and therefore illegal.
LGBTQ politicians in Japan have been around for decades, such as Ken Tougou, though he was never elected to public office. In 2003 Aya Kamikawa became the first openly transgender and LGBTQ in general politician elected. Kanako Otsuji became the first publicly out gay politician after she was elected. Taiga Ishikawa became the first elected knowing he was openly gay. And just recently, Tomoya Hosoda became not only the first trans man elected to public office in Japan but in the world.
Wandering Son, also known as Hourou Musuko, was a manga by by Takako Shimura that ran from 2002 to 2013. It focuses on two kids who struggle with their gender identities around when puberty starts for the both of them. It’s probably one of the best known manga that focuses on transgender issues and may be the only one licensed for an official localization in English. Additionally, the translation is by Rachel Thorn, a transgender lesbian and academic on shoujo manga. To be blunt, we’re not huge fans. There are some issues with this manga on simply a story and character level, but in terms of representation we can’t recommend it. It needs to be mentioned that Takatsuki, the character who’s described by the story as “a girl who wants to be a boy,” eventually becomes more comfortable with femininity and identifies as a girl by the end. The anime adaptation does not reach that far in the story. This complicated and messy relationship with gender is not inherently bad and definitely deserves exploration, but it can be an upsetting surprise for people who identified with Takatsuki’s dysphoria. There’s also no other characters who are trans masculine, which implicitly plays up stereotypes of trans masculine people as simply unhappy women who hate themselves. Additionally, it uncritically plays with stereotypes of trans women as predators with a supporting character, Yuki. She’s introduced while flirting with Takatsuki, clearly a child. There are repeated jokes about her being attracted to “young boys” while she also acts as a safe mentor figure for the two main characters. We have other complaints but those are the two most significant and specific issues that make us reluctant to recommend this manga.
There are things to like about this story. It ultimately supports Nitori, the character who’s described by the story as “a boy who wants to be a girl,” identifying as a woman by the end. She also ends up in a loving relationship with another woman. Shimura’s talented at capturing the unpleasantness of growing up in a way that isn’t cynical or condescending. She understands how cruel society can be and how that infects adults and children, both those who hurt others for being different as well as those who understand themselves as different and struggle with their identities. By ending on Nitori’s self-determination as a woman, it ends on a fairly hopeful note. Wandering Son is a lot more about the journey than the destination. There’s a lot of misgendering, harassment, anxiety, and self doubt to read through. Again, this isn’t inherently a bad angle to explore, but it can be rough to read for 15 volumes, and especially on anyone who wants to find more pleasant representation.
Tokyo Godfathers is a movie from 2003 about people who have been “thrown away” by society. Not only are the three protagonists homeless, but one is a trans woman named Hana. When the trio find a baby on Christmas Eve, Hana thinks it’s a gift from god to have a child she can’t have biologically. She alternates between self-deprecation and optimism throughout the film. Her friends misgender and insult her at first, but come to respect her.
The “IS” in IS: Neither Man nor Woman by Chiyo Rokuhana stands for “intersex,” which is an umbrella term for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the binary definition of “female” or “male” sex. The first volume contains two short stories about people coming to terms with being intersex and deciding to educate others. The remaining 16 volumes follow one story about an intersex character.
Yuri Shimai started publishing in 2003 as the first yuri manga magazine. Yuri and BL originated around the same time, but it took yuri 25 years longer to have a magazine dedicated to it because it’s always been the less popular of the two. Yuri Shimai even stopped publication after one year due to low sales, but thankfully revived as Comic Yuri Hime in 2005.
Comic Yuri Hime features manga by Jin Takemiya, an openly lesbian mangaka who began her career in doujinshi. She mostly creates short stories, but also has a three volume manga called Fragments of Love. It looks at a teen lesbian who has one night stands with older women to get affection with no strings attached. She befriends a gay boy at her school, and his homophobic sister gets a crush on her. But the sister has a best friend with a crush on her and it becomes a love triangle. It’s a short but sweet manga, notable for including LGBTQ identities.
There’s lots of modern yuri manga out there, such as Sweet Blue Flowers (2004-13)was by Takako Shimura again. There’s an anime adaptation of it as well from 2009, which only covered a bit of the series. It follows two girls who were once childhood friends but became separated and are now entering two different high schools. They reconnect by chance and become friends again. There’s some queasy elements such as one of the main characters being sexually abused by her cousin as a child, but it not really being acknowledged as abuse by the story. However, Shimura definitely stumbles a lot less here than in Wandering Son, dealing in issues of sexuality rather than gender identity. Her talent for writing fraught, difficult teenage drama with compassion and nuance shines here as well.
Nabari no Ou from 2004 to 10 was the debut manga by Yuhki Kamatani. It follows a middle school boy named Miharu who discovers he carries the ability to rewrite the universe and gets sucked into the world of modern ninjas. A ninja named Yoite finds him and demands “I want you to make it so I never existed.” They work together to make this possible, but they fall in love and Miharu questions if it’s the right thing to do. Yoite is introduced as a boy and is later revealed to be intersex, though Yoite being intersex was omitted in the anime adaptation. We personally think Yoite can be interpreted as nonbinary with the story’s theme of gray areas, but it is ambiguous. Besides Miharu and Yoite there’s also minor characters Raikou and Gau, who are more ambiguous but probably developing a relationship.
In 2012 Yuhki Kamatani, the author of Nabari no Ou, came out as x-gender and asexual. X-gender is a nonbinary trans identity exclusive to Japan that means neither man nor woman. In Japanese asexual means not romantically or sexually attracted to anyone, which is slightly different from its meaning in English. Knowing this puts the LGBTQ themes of Nabari no Ou in perspective. Kamatani has said they believe the LGBTQ community can be represented in a variety of genres, which they certainly do in their manga. If you’re interested in Kamatani as a person and their manga you should read Intro to the Works of Yuhki Kamatani!
Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama is about a world in which humans are under the constant threat of being eaten by monstrous giants that are near invincible. Humanity protects itself with walls and a specialized military that attacks the titans’ only physical weak point. Notably, there’s an exchange between two characters, Ymir and Reiner, that heavily implies they’re both gay. In addition, the official manga website states about Ymir, “Besides her deep love for Krista, it seems that little is known about her.” (Disclaimer: This is a very rough translation!) The anime adaptation has only recently reached the point in the story where these characters become prominent. Of course, the reveal of them as titans seems to place them gay villains, a tired stereotype in plenty of stories. However, Ymir and Reiner are compelling and sympathetic. In particular, Ymir’s love for Krista is a point of sympathy and humanity, not a sign of evil. So while they may be dangerous antagonists, they’re also nuanced characters. However, there is one glaring issue to address: Isayama is very likely a right-wing nationalist. There’s various posts covering this controversy, but essentially while there isn’t direct evidence of Isayama being an apologist for Japan’s colonialization of Korea, there’s strong evidence of such. This doesn’t make the representation in Attack on Titan somehow bad, but it’s important to note that even if a creator is progressive in their work in some areas, such as writing interesting, complex gay characters with compassion, that doesn’t mean all of their politics are progressive.
The 2010s: Present Day
Now we’ve reached present day. Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade was organized to replace the old pride parade in Tokyo. It hosts a week-long festival as well as the parade itself. Although it is a platform for LGBTQ people, it has also been criticized for including capitalist, militarist, and nationalist organizations.
Atsuko Asano’s novel series no.6 was adapted into an anime in 2010, a rare exception to our no adaptations rule. In fact it’s interesting it’s based on something unrelated to anime or manga, which results in a same-gender relationship in an anime more detached from the history of BL. It’s highly praised for the relationship between Shion and Nezumi, who are two men with opposing beliefs toward the dystopia Shion comes from. As the mysteries around the dystopia are uncovered, they fall in love. On top of that, they meet and befriend an androgynous character known only as Dogkeeper.
Land of the Lustrous (2012-) is a fantasy manga and anime about a race of humanoid jewels who defend themselves against the Lunarians who want to harvest their bodies for their beauty. Phosphophyllite, or “Phos,” is a weak jewel who’s assigned to creating a history encyclopedia, as they’re bad at every other job and too weak to fight. While not explicitly LGBTQ, the characters in Land of the Lustrous are all genderless and don’t fit within the gender binary of male and female. The official manga and anime English translations avoid gendering the characters.
Genderless characters, or characters with otherwise ambiguous gender, are a relatively more common trope in Japanese media than in the US. They tend to be fairly androgynous in appearance and are found mostly in fantasy or scifi. One aspect of this trope can be attributed to how gender is less prevalent in the Japanese language, such as how third person pronouns that indicate gender (or lack thereof) like “she,” “he,” and “they” are used less often compared to English. While there are gendered linguistics in Japanese, they’re generally expressed differently than in English. This isn’t to say Japanese culture or media is inherently more progressive on issues of nonbinary or gender non-conforming people, but I would say it’s somewhat easier to find humanized, sympathetic portrayals of such characters in anime and manga. Unfortunately, fans often feel the need to apply a gender to the characters as if they can’t exist without one.
Massive Goods, a “fashion brand, publisher, and creative agency representing queer and feminist artists from Japan,” was founded in 2013 and is still going strong. They sell books, t-shirts, and other merchandise with a focus on the art of erotic gay manga artists like Gengoroh Tagame. They’re the best source for gei komi in the US, such as Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It, but be aware most of it is not safe for work.
There are artists with work available through Massive and other publishers besides Tagame, such as the openly gay 33-year-old Mentaiko Itto. His art if often described as a happy medium between burly gei comi and waify BL art, such as his first English collection Priapus. The titular story of his second collection The Boy Who Cried Wolf was inspired on his own life, as he explains “when I was in school, even I acted like I was straight. […] These days I’ve come out to my parents and friends and, with nothing to hide, I have a good life as my real self.” Again, it’s not safe for work so don’t look him up unless you are an adult.
The 2013 anime original Samurai Flamenco follows Masayoshi, a man so obsessed with fictional superheroes he decides to become one in the real world. In the process he meets a superheroine named Mari who has a girlfriend and his future fiance, a police officer named Goto. At the moment Goto has a long distance girlfriend so it seems like the romantic implications between him and Masayoshi will only be teased, but we promise you it’s all resolved in a thematic and touching way. It’s a silly anime but it has a lot to say about how being “abnormal” actually makes you a better person, which you can read more about in Reflecting on Samurai Flamenco.
As expected from the same director as Revolutionary Girl Utena, Yuri Kuma Arashi takes place in a metaphorical world populated only by women and bears, separated by a wall. The women symbolize nonsexual intimacy between girls as seen in yuri, while bears symbolize demonized lesbians in Japanese media. The human women live in fear of being eaten by the bears, and our heroine Kureha swears to wipe them all out. Unfortunately for her, a duo of bears infiltrate her school disguised as human and one has feelings for her. There’s also trials and cellphones and no men. It’s a dense show with plenty of odd layers and metaphors, but it’s worth checking out. However, there’s a significant amount of fanservice which can be offputting, to say the least. As mentioned earlier, the character designs were done by Akiko Morishima, who also made the manga version with a slightly different story. It’s nice for a show about lesbophobia to actually employ a lesbian.
Also as mentioned earlier, in 2014 Gengoroh Tagame began his first all-ages manga My Brother’s Husband that aims to educate readers about gay people and culture. The story is seen from the point of view a straight Japanese man named Yaichi, who learns not only is his twin brother dead but he was married to a white Canadian man for ten years. Mike, the husband, moves in with Yaichi and his daughter Kana. Tagame contrasts Yaichi’s homophobic tendencies with Kana’s obliviousness to show how society creates prejudice in people as they grow older.
Shimanami Tasogare is Yuhki Kamatani’s latest manga project, which directly addresses LGBTQ issues. Unlike the straight protagonist of My Brother’s Husband, the story follows a closeted gay boy named Tasuku. After an aborted suicide attempt, he discovers a local lounge for LGBTQ people and finds support there. Though Tasuku is the main character, Shimanami Tasogare focuses on a variety of LGBTQ experiences, including an adult lesbian couple, a middle schooler questioning their gender identity, and an adult trans man. It’s fantastic and our dream is for it to be licensed.
More and more Japanese wards are legally recognizing same-gender partners, though it’s more symbolic than anything. The first of these was Shibuya, Tokyo in July of 2015. Since then Setagaya, Iga, Takarazuka, Naha, and Sapporo have joined Shibuya. Recently Osaka has also decreed same-gender couples can adopt children.
Like Sweet Blue Flowers for yuri, Doukyusei is our modern BL spotlight work. The 2016 film Doukyusei, meaning Classmates, adapts the 2008 BL manga of the same name by Asumiko Nakamura. The manga has not been licensed, but the film notably had a limited release in US theaters to positive reviews. The film decreased the student-teacher relationship B-plot, which goes to show that an adaptation doesn’t have to uphold the problematic elements of the source material.
One of the best sources for LGBTQ content in manga is the essay manga genre. Essay manga are nonfiction and often autobiographical, so many LGBTQ people tell their stories and educate their readers along the way. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness may be one of the only LGBTQ essay manga available in English, but it’s one of the greatest. It’s autobiographical, but not educational. It’s a short but dense autobiographical work that focuses on Kabi Nagata’s experiences with mental illness, struggling under family expectations of employment, and of course being a lesbian. The relationship between her sexuality and reading BL is particularly interesting. It’s very heavy in the sense of dealing with uncomfortable topics in a frank and personal manner but because of its honesty, it’s also satisfying and validating in a way rarely seen in most stories.
Another essay manga coming soon in English is the adorable The Bride was a Boy by Chii, a trans woman. It balances the story of meeting her husband with information about the many steps she took to update her legal gender on her family registry. She had to come out to her family, see psychiatrists, and have gender affirmation surgery in Thailand. She remains upbeat with her adorable art. She also clarifies that she’s telling her own story, not the only narrative for trans people. Like the informational segments of The Bride was a Boy, Chii draws many educational manga strips about LGBTQ issues on her website and Twitter. She doesn’t exclusively write about trans issues and often features the perspectives of her friends relevant to the topic at hand.
We’ve finally reached Yuri!!! on Ice. What can we say, go watch it? (Go watch it.) What’s remarkable about Yuri!!! on Ice is not just a fun, good, unique story but finding representation when you didn’t expect it. One of the PVs set up expectations for sensual homoeroticism, nothing too out of the ordinary for an anime series about male-male intimacy. But there’s something indescribable about the experience of slowly realizing that what seemed like fujoshi bait that only implied queerness for titillation was actually the buildup for the central relationship within a romantic comedy. And the international success it’s achieved is icing on the cake! Johnny Weir, an openly gay and two-time Olympian figure skater who partially inspired the creators’ love of figure skating, loved Yuri!!! on Ice.
It’s not perfect though. Fat jokes run rampant in the first two episodes. There’s a character with a creepy sister complex that’s played for both uncomfortable laughs and pathos. The pacing is kind of bumpy for a twelve episode series. Sometimes the rotoscoping is a bit too ambitious. In terms of LGBTQ representation, people debate its effectiveness, given that none of the characters talk about sexualities in terms of sexual orientation and that Victor and Yuri’s relationship is repeatedly presented in coach-skater terms, while also relying heavily on visual and symbolic gestures of romance. It’s not hidden exactly, but it’s also not Yuri telling the audience, “We dated and now we’re married with kids” level of explicitness that some wanted.
Personally, while the indirectness is odd, we don’t think those aspects make Yuri!!! on Ice less “adequate” as representation. It’s simply one form. It’s hard when often LGBTQ representation is denied because it possesses some subtlety or messiness, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. Sure it can be debated technically, but at what point do you watch a 2016 anime show featuring two men standing in a church together, looking at each other with tenderness and affection, while sliding rings onto each other’s fingers and genuinely think, “That’s not gay at all”? That kind of interpretation would be way off the mark. Plus, given what Mitsurou Kubo has said about the story herself, it all fits. The representation within the ending of The Legend of Korra rested on less (just simply confirmed by creators) and we feel no shame or doubt about discussing Yuri!!! on Ice as LGBTQ representation in the same way.
And really, Yuri!!! on Ice isn’t the end all, be all for LGBTQ representation, not even for male-male romance representation. None of the media we mentioned is. Our hope is simply to expand people’s knowledge of what else is out there, within both mainstream and obscure anime and manga, as well as maintain a critical eye on how LGBTQ people are portrayed. Additionally, not everyone will like the same stories, even if they have LGBTQ representation, and that’s okay. Social progression is not a straight line but well-crafted, resonant representation and LGBTQ support has been increasing in recent years, Yuri!!! on Ice only being a part of it all. Our hope is that it doesn’t stop with more voices being heard and more stories being told in a variety of ways, with LGBTQ experiences as diverse as people are.