As someone who grew up queer and a fan of anime, I struggled to find much queer representation. Compared to Western animation, with shows like X-Men being powerful metaphors for queer folk and difference, and Boys’ Love and Yaoi manga fetishising queer relationships, I never felt like my story belonged in the medium. That was, however, before I realised that anime had gradually become a queer power fantasy.
For many queer people in the 1990s, the magical girl genre was a power fantasy: the ability to colourfully transform from your everyday mundane life into a sparklingly beautiful warrior princess or sailor scout felt like a metaphor for queerness and gender, as shows like Sailor Moon quickly became a queer icon. The Sailor Starlights, a group of Sailor Scouts who posed as a boy band on Earth but would transform into magical women, were a metaphor for drag personas. Despite the English localisation downplaying any queer ties as familial and heterosexual, Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were in love, as were villains Kunzite and Zoisite; and Fisheye was originally a beautifully seductive drag queen.
Rose of Versailles, the fantasy manga retelling of the French Revolution, strikingly alluded to queer notions of gender and identity. Its lead, Oscar, is a woman raised as a man, who wears male clothing and serves as a personal guard to Marie Antoinette, yet identifies as a woman. Throughout the series, both men and women are blinded by her beauty. Rosalie is described by her as her “spring breeze.” Inspired by Rose of Versailles and Sailor Moon S: The Movie, Revolutionary Girl Utena starred two queer women in love in an epic battle adventure. After meeting Anthy, a girl in an abusive relationship and awarded to the winner of a sword fighting tournament as their Rose Bride, tomboy teen Utena competes to save her love. In Shaft’s deconstruction of the genre, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Homura defies God and the creator that grants her her magical girl powers to save Madoka from damnation.
Similarly, a rise in independent manga has allowed for more creators to freely explore queer ideas. Bara manga artist Gengoroh Togame’s series My Brother’s Husband is an adorably charming and lighthearted tale of acceptance, coming out and grief. After opening his door to the widow of his estranged gay-twin, Ryoji, a burly Canadian man named Mike, Tokyo-based single father Yaichi and daughter Kana are introduced to a world unbeknownst to them.
Togame powerfully uses Kana’s innocently naive perspective of a child and Yaichi’s prejudice (explored through panels mimicking his inner-thoughts) to address Japanese society’s distant attitude towards queer people - questions such as, “who is the lady in the relationship,” why Mike and Ryoji can get married in Canada but not in Japan, and even the texture and hairiness of Mike’s skin. With a sequel volume in the works, Togame creates an interesting discussion on race, sexuality, and the nuclear and modern family.
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, Nagata Kabi’s emotionally raw and honest autobiographical telling of a young woman’s experience with mental health and sexuality, is easily one of the best queer stories to come out of Japan. The story follows a nameless girl as she tries to find her place in society, dealing with depression, anxiety and parents’ expectations, as well as the pressures of her first experience with another woman. Kabi’s manga has been unanimously loved by critics: comic book creator Tillie Walden (Spinning, I Love this Part) included it in an article on the five best queer comics; the Anime Awards recently awarded it Manga of the Year; and, according to Nielson Bookscan, was the second best selling comic during its debut week in the US.
At the same time, in a genre where show creators queer bait, Yuri on Ice is a rewarding step towards diversity. The inspiring tale of the romance between Victor, a Russian coach and his young ice-skater admirer Yuri, is a beautiful exploration of gender and sexuality, as the show portrays a real developing relationship. What other series would merely tease and leave up-in-the-air to debate, Yuri on Ice confirms and headlines. Director Sayo Yamamoto and writer Mitsuro Kubo use ice-skating; an already queer-coded sport to picture a world of acceptance. No one questions the romance that blossoms between Yuri and Victor. Instead, their friends welcome the announcement of their proposal with open arms.
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