Because I think there will be a lot going on in this post and I can think of like 5 different ways to start it, I’m breaking it into sections.
Where Yuri’s Been
Life has long sucked for yuri fans. For those of you who don’t know what yuri is, it’s a term used to denote the existence of lesbians in an anime or manga. Now, with fiction in general, lesbians (and other gays) have had it rough for a long time thanks to the general moral prejudice against them. The gay characters are always dying or ending up with some kind of insane heartbreak. Sure, it’s not true for all stories involving gay characters… that is, unless you’re an anime fan.
Seriously, there are no yuri anime, let’s put that out there now. I mean, there are, but they are incredibly few and until very recently, far between. In the beginning it was like Oniisama e… and Claudine and Rose of Versailles and that was about it – by the way, they all involved the main characters dying after long and prolonged insane drama. Fast forward a million years (and some shows scattered here and there with yuri elements, any and all of which are now considered ‘yuri classics’) and yuri always falls into two categories – bullshit or tragic.
‘Bullshit’ is a term I use for yuri shows that never explicitly state the fact that they are yuri shows. The biggest and most important example is, of course, Maria-sama ga Miteru. I LOVE Marimite as a yuri fan, but I do have to see the fact that people almost couldn’t definitively call it yuri if there wasn’t one openly lesbian chick running around groping everyone. Marimite spawned it’s clones, especially in the manga and novel areas (where there simply will always be more than there is anime) but only a few things made it into the anime world.
And those things are usually tragic. Of the ‘rain’ of yuri shows to have come out in the past five years (which is really just an embarrassing drizzle but if you’re as desperate as yuri fans are, it’s a rain) we have the following: Simoun (bullshit, especially since most of the girls turn into men by the end), Kannazuki no Miko (tragic), Blue Drop (tragic), Yami to Boushi no Hon no Tabibito (tragic), ICE (tragic, and shitty), just about every single slice of life show produced in 2007-2008 (bullshit, the whole lot of them, even the more hinty ones like Hitohira), Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha (yes, the creators THEMSELVES said Fate and Nanoha were gay lovers, but it never shows in the damn anime!!!), Mnemosyne (tragic, brutally), Mai-HiME (tragic), Read or Die and the Bee Train shows (bullshit), Kashimashi (Bullshit because none of them were gay, they were pulled together in roundabout ways.)
And that covers, I think, all of the ‘yuri’ anime released before 2008. Oh! But then there’s Strawberry Panic. Strawberry Panic is, at least, the one yuri show that (while containing overly dramatic and somewhat tragic elements) is not tragic nor bullshit. However, that show also SUCKS HARD ASS.
And that’s the problem with yuri anime. It’s limited! And because the fans are so desperate, they don’t care if it sucks, they will parade that shit around like a holy grail! Kannazuki no Miko and Strawberry Panic are heralded as yuri classics by some! Well, not me. I’m an enormous yuri fan, but I simply cannot tolerate shit, and those shows are shit. I don’t want all of my yuri relationships to end in tragedy! I don’t want my lesbian characters to constantly hide behind thin veils of straightness! FUCK THAT! But the trend wasn’t going anywhere.
You may ask ‘why?’ Why did yuri never want to take off in Japan, while the likes of yaoi ran rampant? For the answers to that, I dug up this old post by a friend and hyper-experienced otaku named Dagger who explained it as such (to append on changes since then, otome games have seen a huge rise in the last couple of years.):
Apparently 27% of eroge players are female. Now, I hope they’re just counting straight eroge, because it wouldn’t be that interesting of a statistic if they included BL games, haha. Either way, it helps to show that the best ero-games can be enjoyed by anyone (I’d say that the same applies for BL games, but as usual, women are more willing to explore male-oriented works than males are to explore female-oriented works).
Demographic-wise, I think ero-games can be broken down into three main categories: 1) hetero ero-games aimed at men, with a male protagonist, 2) BL games aimed at women, with a male protagonist, and 3) 18+ hetero games aimed at women, with a female protagonist. The latter are usually called otome games, and they’re the smallest category, but more and more have been getting released as of late.
What’s curious and kind of sad is the near-total absence of yuri games. You’d think that if female gamers can enjoy playing as a male in BL games, then male gamers wouldn’t mind playing as a girl in yuri games, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’ve seen a lot of comments (frequently from players themselves) to the effect that they need a male protagonist to identify with, even in almost-yuri works like OtoBoku, whose main character cross-dresses with great success.
And there you have it – there simply was no audience. Unlike yaoi which attracts straight women as well as gay men, yuri has only been attracting gay women (and believe me, if you read a lot of yuri or hang around the fan communities, you’ll find that this is extremely true. Almost all yuri is written in shuojo style with shoujo art.) So in other words, yuri is such a niche audience that it’s difficult to warrant anime production. That is, until now.
The Recent Yuri Trend
Yuri has seen a MASSIVE boom lately, especially in 2009 (officially making it the best year ever in at least one way, since it sure as hell wasn’t in terms of anime produced.) It’s actually fairly easy to see how this happened, especially if you’ve been watching as closely as I have.
1. The massive increase in yuri manga. This is certainly the biggest cause. We’ve had yuri publications like Yuri Shimai and Yuri Hime (as well as Yuri Hime S which is, in fact, supposedly aimed more at a ‘male audience’) since 2003 and they must be starting to catch on. I’ve been seeing a lot of great yuri manga coming out such as Gokujou Drops, Girlfriends (and any other Morinaga Milk works, they are all fantastic), Voiceful, Shoujo Sect, Iono-sama Fanatics, and the manga I’m currently blogging by chapter over at Suspended Animation Dreams, Manga no Tsukurikata (which is actually a yuri manga about a manga artist who is dating a girl to get experience for her own yuri manga which she is writing to cash in on ‘the recent yuri trend’!) All of these, the infinity of yuri one-shots, and more, are certainly lighting a fire and are more importantly pulling completely away from the ‘bullshit’ and ‘tragedy’ elements of yuri literature.
2. All of those damn slice of life shows! I don’t really know why, but in 2007-2008 just about every slice of life/comedy show had to have some kind of slight lesbian leaning. Hidamari Sketch had the heavily implied relationship of Sae and Hiro, Lucky Star had the not-so-heavily-implied but still-wildly-popular pairing of Konata and Kagami, Hitohira has Nono and Mugi-choco, Manabi Straight had Mikan and several of the other girls, Ichigo Mashimarrow had Itou Nobue the lolicon, and even the slice-of-life-ish 4-koma manga of the period that many of these shows were based from had the same treatment (Ichiroh! and S.S. Astro are two examples published by Yen Press which manage to feature at least one lesbian character in them).
I think the point was finally sold home in one of my favorite shows of 2008, Strike Witches. I think Strike Witches is what finally brought yuri to the male audience and therefor made the genre commercially viable. (Some might also say ‘tainted’, but I don’t fucking care.) Strike Witches’ brand of yuri utilizes the exact same relationships that were only lightly implied in the other slice-of-life shows and simply made them a hell of a lot more implied. It became pretty clear that ‘hey, those girls aren’t just acting that way because they’re good friends, I think they might want to fuck.’
I also think that the reason this trend works is that it lessons the need for male characters in a show. What is your biggest complaint about every harem show ever? The guy sucks. He breaks the girls’ heart, and he’s trying to ultimately get in her pants, which is what YOU want to do, not to see another guy do. I think that the style of keeping a cast mostly-female not only removes the sexual tension/drama (since the moe trend is ultimately trying to murder all drama, it seems, except when it’s deliberately making you cry) and keeps the girls more ‘pure’ in that there’s no smelly dude around them. But that’s all neither here nor there.
Somewhere, between the gradual increase of yuri characters in slice-of-life/moe anime and the gradual increase in popularity of yuri manga, a breakthrough happened. Some kind of fucking marketing genius looked at all of the almost-yuri in shows aimed at guys and all of the full-yuri in manga aimed at women and said ‘shit, let’s kill two birds with one stone, market the fuck out of yuri, and ride a mixed-gender cash train.’ [It’s funny, too, because at the beginning of 09 there was a big trend in ultra-manly shows and then it suddenly flipped into the ultra-yuri trend.]
3. Of course, we couldn’t have ushered in this yuri trend without a few good trial successes. We’ve got our Strike Witches, our random lesbian Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei characters, and our amazing new manga, but there needs to be a great test to see if this can all really work. I think this came in the form of a few shows that came out right around the beginning of 09. One was the 4th season of the biggest full-yuri anime of the decade, Maria-sama ga Miteru, which I have heard was the most successful season yet as it’s fanbase has gradually risen from ‘cult’ to ‘huge’ in the past couple of years.
Then we have Maria Holic – it’s not technically a yuri show so much as a trap show, but there is definitely a female lesbian main character who is trying to fuck pretty much any other girl she can get her hands on. A clever trick, crossing the yuri genre with the trap one, and having it be done by Shinbo and SHAFT who’s shows have been highly popular among otaku in the last 2 years. For good measure, we can also stir in the unexpectedly popular short web-original series Candy Boy that began as a random little independent production and was popular enough to warrant 7 short episodes (and figures!) as well as perhaps Ga-Rei Zero which had pretty popular yuri overtones. (EDIT: OH! And I almost forgot about Saki!!! This must have really been the final nail in the coffin. It’s like Strike Witches but gayer, and was the last big hit before the boom.) Combine these shows with the other test material and there’s no doubt – yuri was ready to take off.
And so, ladies and gentleman, I give you 2009, a year with more yuri-themed shows alone than I think had ever even EXISTED before. Now, I’m not saying that all is perfect quite yet – there’s still a lot of ‘bullshit’ in this group (see: CANAAN, Umi Monogatari, Needless (?), To Aru Kagaku no Railgun, Taishou Yakyuu Musume, Koihime Musou (?), Yoku Wakaru Gedai Mahou) but we even have non-yuri shows that have (straight-up) lesbian characters like Bakemonogatari, Queen’s Blade, and Kampfer; shit, they even finally released the long-awaited second season of would-be yuri anime Kiddy Grade right as this trend is happening – And then, of course, we have the real meat.
Gentlemen, behold! Aoi Hana, Kanamemo, and Sasameki Koto. All three are pure yuri – shows about lesbians and nothing else. None of them is a tragedy, and none of them is a fake. And all three of them, along with every show listed above, came out in just the last two seasons.
The Yuri Ghetto? Sure, if You Take ‘Ghetto’ To Mean ‘Gangsta Paradise’
The reason for this quickly-becoming-huge post is not only that I’ve been meaning to do a post about how excited I am about this trend in yuri, but because I want to reply to this post by 2-D Teleidoscope about how Sasameki Koto is the beginning of a ‘yuri ghetto’ or, in other words, is an ‘exploitation‘ piece.
I want to start by clarifying something: I think exploitation fiction is the fucking best. I love exploitation. Why? Because it is pure. It is pure understanding. To explain to you what I mean, I take one of the best existing exploitation directors, Robert Rodriguez (or, to a greater extent, Quentin Tarantino, though I think he’s going to take longer to write about). When Robert Rodriguez directs an action film, he basically says ‘okay, what is all the shit that you actually want to see in a great action film?’ and makes the movie exactly that. The result is that a fan of action films won’t just enjoy the movie – it will be the ULTIMATE movie. They’ll say ‘holy shit! That movie had EVERYTHING!’ because the director, a fellow action fan, studiously employed everything one would have wanted from that film.
This goes for exploitation in any medium, and man can exploitation be a beautiful thing to behold. I think some of the most legendary and brilliant pieces around are exploitative, like any given James Cameran movie (he seriously says ‘here’s everything a movie should be, now I’m going to make it that way’) or even if we finally get back into anime we can take the entire existing super robot and super sentai genres, both of which have largely become a way to take the tropes of the past from their genres and write them towards the people who remember those things (exploiting nostalgia, too.) Hell, we had a show last year that was specifically exploitative of it’s own franchise! And those Macross fags loved it to death!
Even my recently-admitted favorite anime, Gintama, is extremely exploitative in the most absurd way – it tries to mimic every single trope or story type imaginable, and not even as parody a lot of the time – it straight-up becomes it’s subject matter and if you are familiar with said subject, it is incredibly entertaining.
You get my point then, right? I love to see works like these that fully exploit their genre and give you EXACTLY what you want out of it. In fact, most of the yuri manga that I’ve read is exploitation! Those greats I mentioned like Gokujo Drops and Girl Friends are pure exploitation for exactly one reason – the authors are HUGE yuri fans and wanted to incorporate all of their favorite yuri elements into their story, and thereby it became that the story was exactly what a yuri fan wanted to read.
Aoi Hana is everything you could possibly want out of a serious and dramatic yuri anime (that doesn’t become an overblown and oftentimes stupid tragedy in the end) which kind of makes me curious as to why 2DT didn’t post about it as well (maybe he didn’t know how much it, too, was steeped in yuri tropage? Or it just wasn’t quite gay enough?) To further this ideal, the manga-ka’s other (and IMO better) work Hourou Musuko is everything you could ever want out of a serious trap manga (in which there are a seriously suspicious amount of gay or cross-dressing and overly mentally mature elementary schoolers…).
Then we have Sasameki Koto which takes it one step further by being VERY openly gay. And fucking amazing. The first episode of Sasameki Koto was one of my favorite first episodes ever, containing amazing directing and super-painful drama that almost brought me to tears all while girls fall in love with one another~ it’s glorious.
And then we have Kanamemo playing up the other side of the field. Whereas Strike Witches made the slie-of-moe genre less ambiguously gay and Saki made it even-less ambiguously gay, Kanamemo finally flat-out said ‘yeah, slice-of-moe is as gay as it gets’. It helps that the show’s art style looks exactly like that of it’s two predecessors and the show still plays up that definitively male part of the audience, but this time girls are making out left and right and practically just fucking each other in broad daylight. There is no other word to use but ‘glorious.’
So there you have it – we have finally not only gotten two pure, female-aimed, non-tragic, straight-up-lesbian shows on the air as well as permeated the male fanbase with yuri and scattered the ashes of lesbianity all around into the many other shows on TV. I foresee a future in which yuri shows can casually come up several times a year and ‘the lesbian character’ becomes a mandatory, time-honored trope. For fans like me, this can only be a good – no, a GREAT thing.