Queerness in Anime: The Celebration and Erasure of Queer Identity in Japanese Subcultures

At first glance, anime may seem fairly progressive in comparison to western media when it comes to the depiction of queer characters. Many popular anime have had queer main characters, including anime for children (Sailor Moon had multiple queer characters and depicted lesbian relationships) only for their queerness to be completely cut out when brought over to the U.S. However, there is a large trend within anime of misrepresenting queer characters either through the refusal to acknowledge or confirm their queerness or with the fetishization of queer relationships for a primarily straight audience. 

Transgender characters in anime are relatively common. However, they are never described or acknowledged as such despite clearly identifying as trans. These characters are commonly referred to as “Traps”, an extremely dangerous term perpetuating the notion that transgender individuals are tricking people and are not really the gender they identify as. It’s not just the term “Trap” that holds this notion, the characters themselves are never acknowledged as transgender individuals. For these characters, there is almost always a reveal that consists of “You’re a boy?” despite the character clearly identifying as otherwise. This surprise reveal of trans identities is common, and is associated with fear and disgust, their ability to pass as women is seen as a plot twist. This ability to pass is often associated with deception (Miller, 2012, pg. 107).  After their status as trans is found out, many times the other characters will begin to misgender them and not consider them a woman at all. The exact same scene usually happens with trans male characters, though trans women are more commonly depicted. This promotes the dangerous idea that transgender individuals are not “real” men or women. The following images depict how these scenes play out:

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(source: Reddit)
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(Source: Know Your Meme)

The character Luka Urushibara from Steins;Gate is undoubtedly a trans woman, presenting as female and voicing her clear desire to be a woman. However, in the show her gender is brought up quite often usually with remarks such as, “But he’s a guy” or “Someone this cute can’t be a guy”. Characters in the show will refer to her using he/him pronouns and actively call him a dude or a guy, clearly ignoring her identity as a woman. For the male characters in the show displaying an attraction towards her, their attraction is depicted as shameful and wrong, as it’s seen as being attracted to a man. Her transgender identity being completely disregarded is something quite common in anime with trans characters, as can be seen with the following example from Sailor Moon with the character Fisheye:

Trans identities are not the only queer identities that are left unconfirmed. Anime is notorious for depicting characters as gay, but not confirming their sexuality so as to leave it open to interpretation. Magical girl anime series are the most common culprit of this, leaving the possibility of the characters simply being “good friends” rather than confirming their feelings for each other. Anime very often also depicts lesbian relationships as tragic, with bad things usually happening to the characters. This makes it seem as if romantic relationships between women are never “meant to be” (Smith, 2016, pg 23). A popular depiction of this is with the characters Kyoko and Sayaka from Madoka Magica. While the two’s relationship is unconfirmed, they display clear romantic feelings towards each other. When Sayaka ends up dying, Kyoko shows her devotion towards her in an act only seen in romantic tragedies. She sacrifices her own life so Sayaka doesn’t have to be alone in death. Not usually something you would do for someone who is just a “close friend”. 

Their relationship is only alluded to as being romantic in merchandise for the series. The two are only depicted as a couple when it comes to marketing merchandise, with official artwork showing the two holding hands or being intimate, or figure sets of the two being sold together. This demonstrates the fetishization of lesbian relationships commonly seen in anime. The two are often depicted as a couple to sell merchandise and attract interest in the show, but in the anime itself their relationship is left up to interpretation and it’s never confirmed that they have feelings for each other. 

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(Source: Otaku Mode)

Fetishization of same-sex couples in anime is certainly not limited to lesbian relationships either, and is in fact almost more prominent with male pairings. Similar to the Kirk/Spock slash fan-fiction we’ve studied in class, shipping male characters regardless of canonical orientation is insanely popular in anime fan circles. It’s so popular in fact that an entire sub genre has emerged from fan works of this nature, known commonly as yaoi. The word itself is actually an acronym of sorts that stands for “yamanashi, ochinashi, iminashi” (without a climax, point, or meaning) referring to the tendency of these works to be mostly fluff pieces with not a lot of story. But overtime yaoi has become more than just fan-works. Similar to the way Fifty Shades of Grey originated as Twilight fan-fiction, the yaoi genre has grown to include many original works. The defining feature of what is considered to be “yaoi,” however, is its depiction of these relationships.

While yaoi is a genre focused on romantic relationships between men, it is written primarily by and for straight women. Because of this, the way that the relationships and the men themselves are depicted is often not an honest portrayal of queer romance but is instead catered entirely to the fantasies of the heterosexual women that write and consume the media (Kee, 2008, pg. 65-66). The pairings are almost always built to model the traditional gender roles of a heterosexual couple, simply subbing the woman out for a “boyish” or  feminine man. This character type is called the “uke” where the more masculine and dominant partner is referred to as the “seme.” The uke is always a smaller guy with a slender frame and big eyes. He is also often characterized as being much more expressive and emotional. On the other hand, the seme is often shown to be tall and muscular with large masculine hands and a more stoic/reserved demeanor. This dichotomy makes it easily digestible and understood by the genres target demographic of straight women but is often alienating and off-putting to gay men as it feels much more like voyeurism than honest representation.

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(Source: tumblr / mangago.com)

The dishonest portrayal of queer men in yaoi anime and manga is especially insulting when considering the way gay men are so underrepresented in main stream anime series. Often falling into the same pattern as trans characters and lesbians, if they are on screen at all their sexuality is only ever alluded to and is never stated outright. They also are often relegated to side-characters and are depicted either as over the top stereotypes, fetishistic fan-service, or one off plot devices. They also usually only appear solo and any love interest they may have is most of the time a very one-sided one. 

Many examples of these types of characters can be found throughout popular series. A notable one being the Hitachiin twins, Hikaru and Kaoru from Ouran High School Host Club, a show that parodies many of the stock characters and tropes found in shoujo romance anime. While interesting characters, the twins are mainly used as a gimmick as they aren’t even gay themselves but rather pretending to be in a gay incestuous relationship specifically for female attention. An example of the one sided gay romance trope can be seen in the 2011 anime series Mirai Nikki, with the character Aru Akise. Even though Akise is a likable and well-written character and his crush on the protagonist, Yuki, is clearly stated and not played off as a joke, he is killed very shortly after expressing his feelings, bringing him into the all too familiar “bury your gays” trope. 

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(Source: ZeroChan)
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(Source: YouTube)

Luckily, it seems that representation is getting a little bit getting over time, with 2016’s Yuri on Ice being very well received by LGBTQ fans all over the world. However, even it wasn’t free from some of the industry’s harmful tendencies when handling gay characters. While the show is just as much about figure skating as it is the romance between Yuri and Viktor, the uke/seme dynamic found in yaoi can be pretty easily identified here too, and again neither of the two character’s sexualities are clearly defined. Additionally, the character’s are shown embracing in the last episode of the series but it is animated in a way that makes it unclear whether or not it was a hug or a kiss, which was likely intentional.

Overall, anime as a medium is very hit or miss with its handling of queer characters. While canon gay characters have been appearing in even children’s series since the 90s, the overwhelming majority of onscreen representation for LGBTQ people in anime is intentionally ambiguous queer baiting, stereotypical caricatures, or total fetishization. Though things look to be trending towards the positive, the anime industry still has a lot of work to do in the ways of explicit, positive representation.

Citations:

Kee, T. B. (2008). Unauthorized Romances: Female Fans and Weiss Kreuz Internet Yaoi Fanfiction (Doctoral dissertation).

Miller, J. (2012). Crossdressing Cinema: An Analysis of Transgender Representation in Film (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Texas A&M.

Smith, R. (2016). PEELING BACK THE CANDY-COLORED WRAPPER An Examination of Feminization, Queer Relationships, and Localization in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Sailor Moon (Unpublished master’s thesis). Oklahoma State University.

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