Homosexuality is a common theme in Japanese comics aimed at girls and women. One of the most popular girls’ comic genres in Japan is “Boys’ Love:” stories about love between men written by and for women. However, a rapidly-growing genre called yuri, or “lily” features romance between girls. Scholarship on queer sexuality in these Japanese comics examines the appeal Boys’ Love and yuri hold for heterosexual women and even argue that Boys’ Love and yuri destabilize identities based on gender or sexuality. What is rarely explored is how lesbian comics represent real life parallels and various discourses surrounding lesbianism. In doing so, these comics rely on notions of stable identity and ‘the lesbian’ as a distinct category. Examining the history of yuri and the relationship between two different categories of lesbian comics – romantic ones and realistic ones that explicitly deal with lesbian identity and community – reveals that these comics engage politically with representations of lesbians and expose real life discourse and ideology about lesbian relations.
Although the term yuri can refer to any Japanese comic book or animated cartoon with lesbian content, it typically refers only to the genre of romantic lesbian comics, which is distinct from the realistic comics. Yuri comics are usually published in yuri-only magazines such as Yurihime (“Princess Lily”), but magazines with a broader scope publish them, as well. For example, they appear alongside heterosexual romances in Margaret, a comic magazine for young girls, and Mist, a lifestyle magazine for adult women. A shared aesthetic unites the genre, featuring elaborate backgrounds and beautiful, feminine characters with long, shining hair and wide, sparkling eyes. Yuri narratives, designed to appeal to a wide audience, feature romance between women but do not engage gay politics. They avoid portraying “coming out,” gay communities and discrimination against gay people. Instead, yuri comics set their stories in girls’ schools, where the absence of men allows female characters to develop innocent crushes on one another. Romantic attachments blend together with sisterly affection and admiration for dignified older students. Because almost all characters in any given story are involved in passionate relationships with other girls and there are no heterosexual romances to contrast these sapphic ties, lesbian crushes do not cause characters to feel out of place, to experience bullying from other students, or to seek out gay communities for support. As a result of this distance from the issues gay activists usually address, comics that closely follow the conventions of the yuri genre often offer optimistic views of love and desire outside the dicta of compulsory heterosexuality, but their potential for rallying support for gay political movements is limited.
The animated cartoon Maria-sama ga Miteru (“The Virgin Mary is Watching”) exemplifies some of the strategies yuri narratives employ to enable romance between girls while skirting controversial issues of gay identity and the place of lesbians in mainstream society. The Virgin Mary is Watching is one of the most popular yuri narratives, having begun life as a series of novels by Konno Oyuki before being adapted into an animated television program, a live-action movie and, unofficially, numerous fan-produced comics. It follows Yumi, a student at a Catholic girls’ high school with the unsubtle name “Lillian,” as she tries to get closer to Sachiko, an older student she admires, and learns about the complicated relationships among the other students along the way. Yumi’s interactions with Sachiko are full of blushing and suggestive physical intimacy, but, far from being illicit, their relationship is sanctioned under the auspices of Lillian’s petite soeur system (an affection for French phrases and motifs is also characteristic of yuri), in which each older student chooses a younger one to mentor. The bonds between the other pairs of “sisters” are equally passionate. Labeling Yumi’s affection for Sachiko sisterly is not intended to conceal the homosexual romance which is the story’s main theme: Yumi and Sachiko refer to their outings as “dates” and other characters sometimes joke about stealing Yumi away from Sachiko or luring her into infidelity. However, the sisterly label does remove the need to address discrimination and identity formation because, in the world of Lillian, the romantic affection between Sachiko and Yumi is not unusual or shameful. Worlds that accept lesbianism among young girls, whether under the cover of a sisterly bond as in The Virgin Mary or in openly sexual expressions, are common in yuri comics. Although these settings allow yuri artists to tell lighter and freer tales, they provide no visions of lesbians in society at large and can associate lesbianism too closely with fantasy, giving the impression that lesbian relationships are not viable in the real world.
Scholarly studies of yuri are currently scarce, but there is growing academic interest in the related phenomenon of Boys’ Love comics. Like yuri, Boys’ Love portrays homosexuality without invoking gay identities, and the scholarly interpretations of this evasion of gay identity politics in Boys’ Love are influencing newly emerging research on yuri. In general, studies of Boys’ Love draw from queer theory’s deconstruction of the concept of fixed sexual orientations to read the absence of gay identities as a way of “transcend[ing] concerns about gender and sexuality, which tend to be seen as irrelevant or beside the point” (Wood, 406). Far from being homophobic, the refusal to label characters gay opens the text up to a much wider range of queer readings, allowing readers to adjust characters’ genders and sexualities in accordance with their own desires. Queer possibilities are especially important for women readers, whose turn to Boys’ Love comics “suggests certain dissatisfactions with the fantasies offered by mainstream media and traditional hetero-normative romance” (Wood, 409). The appeal of Boys’ Love, according to this interpretation, lies not in gay male romance specifically but in the escape these comics afford from a sexist, oppressive paradigm of heterosexuality. Since this interpretation of the appeal of homosexual media relies only on the content in question not being heterosexual, critics can and do apply it just as easily to yuri.
In the first academic analysis of yuri magazines ever published, Boys’ Love researcher Nagaike Kazumi argues that yuri is an opportunity for women readers to devote their attention to female bonding, whether sexual or not, and to value relationships between women over heterosexual romance (Nagaike, n. pag). Nagaike’s reading of yuri combines queer theory with a very different paradigm of boundary-blurring: feminist theorist Adrienne Rich’s idea of a “lesbian continuum” encompassing all interactions between women, from friendship to lesbian partnerships. As in readings of Boys’ Love, Nagaike prizes ambiguity and openness to multiple interpretations over expressions of specifically gay concerns and experiences, though she departs from the free-ranging ambiguity of queer theory in concentrating on blurring the line between homosocial and homosexual affection between women. However, yuri lacks the gap between readers and subject matter present in Boys’ Love: female fans’ enjoyment of comics about lesbians has different implications than female fans’ enjoyment of comics about gay men. Nagaike accounts for this difference by emphasizing female solidarity and friendship, and use yuri to represent lesbianism not as a hypothetical alternative to sexist models of heterosexuality but as an embodied reality struggling to establish its place in Japanese society and politics. The contention that the absence of lesbian identities in yuri leads to an unrestricted multiplicity of possible readings itself limits readings by obscuring the lesbian identity that does in fact lie submerged in some yuri texts. Though yuri comics generally avoid addressing lesbian concerns outright, only a porous boundary divides them from realistic comics which openly depict lesbian communities, lives and struggles.
Realistic lesbian comics appear online, in lesbian newsletters and magazines, and in independent, book-style volumes. They attempt to educate heterosexual readers and women new to the lesbian community about lesbian life in Japan and to build solidarity among lesbian readers. For instance, Takeuchi Sachiko writes in the foreword to her comic Honey and Honey,
“To most people the lesbian world seems like just a myth. They wonder if it even exists at all. But that world is my reality. The lesbian world isn’t just confined to the yuri world, which always seems to involve romances with ‘onee-sama’ [older sister] at all-girl schools… So I’m using this comic to depict the mythical lesbian world. This is the story of Sachiko and Masako. I don’t think every ‘bian couple is just like them, but it would make me happy if the story surprised some straight readers and made some ‘bian readers nod in agreement at parts (Takeuchi, 4-5).”
Over the course of the series, Takeuchi corrects common misconceptions about lesbians, provides definitions of lesbian slang and a map of Tokyo’s gay district, and humanizes the issue of discrimination against gay people by depicting the loneliness she and her partner feel at lying about their relationship and being afraid to hold hands in public. Honey and Honey, like many realistic lesbian comics, is intended as both a subtly moving experience and a practical guide for lesbian and straight readers alike.
The aesthetic of realistic lesbian comics is markedly different from that of yuri comics, reflecting their differences in themes. First, realistic lesbian comics have much simpler art, reducing characters to line drawings and eliminating backgrounds altogether. One strip of Amamiya Sae’s series Plica-chan hints at the significance of this artistic decision: as Plica-chan, the protagonist, asks readers not to think of her in terms of stereotypes from yuri and pornography. Amamiya blends her usual simple style with traits characteristic of the other two genres, creating a parody of each that draws attention to how they encode stereotypes of lesbians at a visual level. By providing only enough visual detail to convey the plot and mood of the story, authors of realistic lesbian comics state at a visual level that they intend their comics to be read more for a message than for visual enjoyment.
The portrayal of characters in realistic lesbian comics also departs from yuri conventions in that realistic comics usually include butch characters even as they take care to correct the assumption that all lesbians are butch. Japanese psychoanalysts studying lesbianism at the beginning of the twentieth century identified two strains of eroticism among women (Robertson, 176-78). The first was the “Class S” (for “sister”) relationship, a passionate friendship between female classmates or co-workers. Class S was not an isolated abnormality; it was an entire culture celebrating romantic bonds between women, including novels set in girls’ boarding schools, which Nagaike identifies as precursors of yuri comics. Psychoanalysts considered Class S relationships relatively harmless, and even advised parents and educators to encourage passionate friendships between young women, though not without keeping them carefully under control. In contrast, the ome, or butch-femme, relationship was a frightening manifestation of lesbian carnality, the presence of a masculine and a feminine partner in the couple hinting at the sexual nature of the pairing.
As historians Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis note in their book on lesbian subcultures of the American 1940s, “The masculine appearance of butches distinguished them and their fems as different, thereby serving as a badge of identifiability among lesbians themselves and to the general public. The possibility of recognizing one another was essential for the building of a distinct culture and identity” (Kennedy and Davis, 153). Despite the temporal and geographical distance between the culture Kennedy and Davis describe and lesbians in contemporary Japan, this formulation of butchness as an identifying badge with a community function holds true in Japanese lesbian comics. Although not all characters are portrayed as butch, the inclusion of butch characters acts as a proclamation of lesbian identity, forcing readers to recognize the differences between mainstream and lesbian cultures in a way yuri comics do not. In attempting to communicate the realities of lesbian life, realistic lesbian comics consciously position themselves in contrast to yuri. However, an excavation of the roots of yuri finds the romantic comics tangled up in the same discourses of lesbian difference and the fixity of lesbian identity that the realistic comics highlight.
Not only does yuri preserve pieces of 1970s comics which were more closely related to gay identity politics, it is interwoven with current realistic lesbian comics. In arguing that yuri imagines possibilities outside heteronormativity but is not necessarily linked to lesbianism as most lesbians define it, Nagaike points to the influence Boys’ Love has had on yuri, writing, “In discussing the subversive nature of yuri manga [comics], we cannot ignore the fact that many yuri manga artists have previously established their status as successful creators of BL manga” (Nagaike, n. pag). This is true, but many yuri artists also create realistic comics for lesbian newsletters and magazines, and yuri shares with realistic lesbian comics themes that are not present in Boys’ Love. One of these is the fear of losing one’s lover to a man because of the pressure on women to marry and have children. Nearly every realistic lesbian comic includes at least one example of this occurrence: in Plica-chan, Plica’s first meeting with her new girlfriend is when she throws up on the other woman after getting drunk at the wedding of a former “friend,” and Sachiko and Masako of Honey and Honey meet just after Masako’s previous girlfriend left her to marry a man. The realistic lesbian comics portray the loss of a lover to a man as a temporary emotional hardship that should not discourage women from going on to another lesbian romance, and also to some extent as evidence of social pressure that makes lesbian lives unnecessarily difficult. The portrayal of the same phenomenon in yuri varies: while some comics use the pressure on women to marry to enhance melodrama without considering what it means for lesbians in reality, others sympathize with and support lesbians trying to hold their partnerships together in the face of heteronormative expectations.
In Soft-Boiled Fujoshi (fujoshi literally means “rotten woman” and refers to someone who enjoys Boys’ Love), Morishima depicts a geeky woman whose interest in Boys’ Love leads her to yuri and whose passion for yuri leads her into the arms of another woman, also a geeky yuri fan, in real life. The two women’s shared obsession with yuri cements their love for one another, and Morishima shows them living happily ever after, dressing up as yuri characters and making yuri fan comics together. Morishima’s vision of the function of Boys’ Love and yuri comics recalls lesbian activist and scholar Mizoguchi Akiko’s formulation of Boys’ Love fans as “virtual lesbians” whose desire for male homoerotic imagery and attachment to their sister fans puts them outside the usual bounds of heterosexuality. However, where Mizoguchi’s “virtual lesbians” still marry men and live heterosexual lives, Morishima’s yuri fans carry their homoerotic proclivities into reality (Mizoguchi, 156). Morishima’s comics demonstrate that the close ties between yuri and Boys’ Love do not prevent yuri from representing and encouraging lesbian desires and identities. By publishing Soft-Boiled Fujoshi in Princess Lily, a yuri magazine, she reaches out to lesbian yuri fans and asks heterosexual fans to remember that lesbians exist in reality as well.
Morishima’s metafictional comic Soft-Boiled Fujoshi does in art what scholars have so far failed to do in criticism: it connects yuri to the lives of lesbians in reality. Doing so requires accepting, at least conditionally, the categorization and labeling of genders and sexualities, because this practice, as realistic lesbian comics attest, is a part of daily life for most sexual minorities and is fundamental to how lesbians form communities and combat discrimination. Scholars are often hesitant to speak in these terms, noting correctly that they are remnants of psychoanalysis’s pathologizing of homosexuality and that they confine the diversity and changeability of sexuality to narrow categories, sometimes in ways that support the interests of certain groups over others. However, these terms and discourses play an important role in lesbian comics, whether they are used negatively as in the suicidal narratives of the 1970s, positively as in contemporary realistic lesbian comics, or only subtly as in yuri. To ignore the presence of lesbian identity in yuri risks perpetuating the dominance of heteronormative models over lesbian sexuality, a dominance realistic lesbian comics and some yuri protest through their theme of lesbians reluctantly leaving their partners to marry men and form nuclear families. For critics influenced by queer theory, with their love of destabilizing categories, it may be time to question the boundary between the romantic yuri genre and the realistic lesbian comics that work to secure the rights and dignity of real, embodied lesbians in Japanese society.
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