Yuri: An Indepth Look at Women in Love
A new student transfers into a wealthy all girls school and falls for the most popular girl in school. Long time readers of Yuri, like myself, would pass this book by on the shelf without a second glance. Before I go into the tropes of the genre, a bit of historical context is needed. Gay relationships between men have been recorded all the way back to the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868), with the samurai class practicing Shudo, or the way of youth in which they would take a young apprentice as a lover until they completed their training. Lesbian relationships did not become public knowledge till 1911 when a double suicide rocked the newspapers of the time. They existed before this time, but they either were never acknowledged as such or were seen as nothing more than platonic. These relationships are called Class S in japan, the S standing for “shojo” or girl. It is use to denote that such romances are seen as childish and stepping-stones towards dating men. The term Yuri gets its name from Yurizuko or Lilly tribe a term for media with lesbian themes. It originally referred to pornography and magazines targeted at a lesbian audience. But overtime, the term Yuri lost its pornographic connotations and instead became about women’s love stories.
The most famous writer of Yuri was Yoshiya Nobuko. She was a woman a head of her time, traveling the world with her sectary and partner, Monma Chiyo. Yoshiya was a lesbian novelist whose numerous short stories and novels focused on the romantic relationships between women. These were all written in a such a way that they could also be seen as friendships or lesbian relationships. With flowery confessions of love, flower motifs (her short story collection is titled Hana Monogatari or Flower tales), and an all girls school setting she laid the foundation for the motifs and relationships found in modern Yuri. Yoshiya wrote during the Taisho era of Japanese history which lasted from 1912-1926 and was a time of great social change. The first feminist magazine, Seito (Bluestocking in English, named after the English literature movements of the 18th century) was published. All men gained the right to vote and women gained fiscal independence because they were able to work outside the home for the first time. It was in this climate that Yoshiya published her works. Early Yuri manga was similar to American lesbian fiction of the 20’s through the 60’s with women falling in love only for them to be unable to be together either by having one of them die, getting married to man despite their feelings or never see each other again. There was a lack of lesbian creators in the American lesbian fiction scene as well, with most novels being written by men. Yoshiya was a breath of fresh air since in her book Yaneura no Nishshojo published in 1919 ended with the couple deciding to stay together beyond high school, a revolutionary concept for its time. I’d compare it to the lead characters in Mary Radcylffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness which was banned after being published in 1928 because its characters were unshamed of their lesbianism. Sadly, none of Yoshiya works have been translated into English. For more information on her writing read Sparkling rain: Tales of women who love women.
The problem is that Yuri has yet to grow beyond these motifs. The genre, like Yaoi, is written mainly by heterosexual women with lesbian writers like Morishima Akkio and Takamiya Jin being some of the few openly gay writers in the genre. For a genre focused so much on women in love with women, the lack of lesbian voices is disheartening to say the least. Writers mainly retell the same story: High school girl meets another High School girl, they fall in love, one of them thinks their love is wrong or strange, they realize it isn’t and they stay together until graduation. Rinse and repeat dozens of times and you have a large chunk of Yuri storylines. But why an all girls school setting? In pre war Japan, men and women lived in different worlds going to all male and all female schools until adulthood, thus Yoshiya was capturing the time period she lived in. This creates a undercurrent that lesbians can only exist in situations without men, which is far from the truth.
Topics like Homophobia, coming outing to friends or co workers are totally nonexistent in these stories creating an idealized view of lesbian lives. There are amazing writers in the genre who aren’t gay such as Yamaji Ebine, whose works break the clichéd cycle by focusing on adult women who are sure of their sexuality and themselves. Her works Love of my Life (2001), Sweet Loving Baby (2003) and Indigo Blue (2002) and Free soul (2004) have not been released in America but have been released in France. Her works fall under the category of Josei manga for women ages 15 to 44. Love of my life focuses on Ichiko as she comes out her father. Her father isn’t too surprised since both he and his late wife were gay. Ichiko’s parents wanted children but since gay couples aren’t legally recognized as anything the pair decided to get married instead. It’s a frank, raw and nuanced depiction of lesbians in modern-day Japan. Morishima Akkio uses the Moe art style to draw her readers in and then tell stories of adult women in love from OL’s (OL is short for Office lady) to classical tales of a princess falling in love with her protector only to forced to be choose between the good of her people and her own personal happiness.
Thankfully, works like Aoi Hana (known as Sweet Blue Flowers in English) break the trend. Aoi Hana tells the story of a young high school girl named Fumi and her childhood friend Ai-chan. Instead of retelling the same story as all Yuri, the series deals with everything from coming out to relationships in a realistic manner without the flowery melodrama found in works like Strawberry Panic. Fumi’s tearful coming out scene is painfully accurate and her struggling with her sexuality is portrayed respectfully and not in an over the top manner. The manga just published it’s eight and final volume in 2013. It’s anime adaption aired in 2009. The writer of Aoi Hana, Shimura Takako also penned Wandering Son, which also deals with LGBT issues.
Unlike Aoi Hana, Strawberry Panic (2006) plays up the drama and stereotypes to the hilt. Set at not one but three all girls catholic schools the story chronicles the life of Nagaisa Aoi when she falls head over heels of the Etoile, Shizuma. (Having gone to an girls catholic school, I can attest that Strawberry panic is in no way accurate). The main focus of the series is the Etoile competition in which each school pairs up two girls to represent it’s values and they get symbolically married to each other. (In the novels of the series, Aname gets down on one knee and pretty much asks Hikari to marry her in front of the entire school) Or the scene where Amane and Shizuma gallop across campus on horseback to get to their respective girlfriends, who are both wearing wedding dresses, and save them from as the book calls it “the Tower of Captivity”. Besides the Catholic church views on same sex relationships, at my school none of this would even remotely happen. The closest thing from this series that seems vaguely factual is the oath ceremony during the symbolic marriage which draws a bit from the crowning of Mary. My school didn’t even have an equestrian club. Then again, series began life as nothing more than a poll in magazine in which readers could pair up anime girls (who at this point didn’t even have names) and based on the poll results, short stories were written about the romantic pairings. The problem is the series didn’t develop the cast beyond their archetypes so when Amane falls for Hikari, it’s not because of their intense chemistry or similar interests but because that’s what the poll wanted to happen. It’s all style and little substance. Combine that with problematic aspects such as Yaya being described as “The only real lesbian in school” which seems hilarious considering that this stated by Hikari, a girl who has just stolen a helicopter with her girlfriend and flown to a private island so they can elope. To say that some manga is exaggerated is the understatement of the century.
Modern shows and manga like the 4 panel gag manga Sakura trick are Yuri, but they are seinen manga (whose target demographic is 15-24 year old boys) which explains the loving shot of the main characters thighs in the first few minutes of the first episode. It uses lesbianism for titillation of the male audience, not to explore the issues that come with being LGBT in japan. Madoka Magika (2011) has Yuri subtext but like Sakura Trick it is also Seinen. Unlike Sakura Trick, the characters are well developed, well rounded human beings which allows for the yuri subtext to have more weight and meaning to it allowing for numerous interpretations of the same scene.
The target audience for yuri varies depending on which magazine the story is published in. Works found in Yurihime magazine have a interesting readership break down. According to “The Sexual and Textual Politics of Japanese lesbian comics: Reading Romantic and Erotic Yuri narratives” by Kazumi Nagaike, an associate professor at Oita University…
The publisher of Yurihime, Ichijinsha, once performed a readership survery, showing that approximately 70% of its readers are female, and 27% are teenagers; 27% are 20 to 24 years; 23% are 25-29 and 23% are over 30. Even though this survey seems to rely on self reporting, the data shoes that nearly half of the Yurihime readers are over 25, and thus cannot be labelled a shojo themselves.
The target audience for shojo manga is girls ages 10 to 18, which makes Yurihime’s readership even more engaging. A huge portion of readers are adult women. The letters page of Yurihime contains numerous confessions of lesbian love. Some letters tell of readers longing for co workers or other girls in their class. Some are from heterosexual women who just enjoy the stories. While these stories may not be the deepest or most engaging they do provide a much needed outlet for exploration of the female sexual identity.
While Yaoi can take place in dystopian futures and far away kingdoms, Yuri is stuck with high school as a main setting and if the writer is feeling ambitious, an office. Simoun, a 2006 science fiction anime series tried to break the mold by creating an entire world where women are the default gender from birth. When they turn 16, they must choose whether to stay female or become male. It dealt with themes of war, racism, the role of religion in conflict, post traumatic stress and grief. While it still had the all female setting that is typical of the genre it explored a wide range of themes and concepts. Akuma no Riddle (2012) is currently being made to anime and its lead character is a female assassin who falls in love with her target. It too, sadly, falls into the trap of high school settings but it has assassins. Space operas, swashbuckling tales of high adventure, espionage, paranormal investigations there are so many stories just waiting to be told.
With series like Morinaga Milk’s Girlfriends becoming a New York Times best seller in the States, it’s clear that there is a market for Yuri but the few works that do come over fail to adequately represent the lesbian experience to the fullest. The world has evolved and so should Yuri. The anime version of Aoi Hana has been licensed by Rightstuf. Both ominibus editions of Girlfriends and the omnibus edition of Strawberry Panic have been licensed by Seven Seas entertainment. Wandering Son is licensed by Fantagraphics. Simoun has been licensed and released on dvd by Anime works. Sakura Trick is unlicensed but is stream on Crunchyroll.
What do you think? Leave a comment.