Hey everyone, it’s time for my monthly OWLS post! If you aren’t aware, OWLS is a group of otaku bloggers whose goal is to use anime to spread acceptance to everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
Our theme this month was “Journey.” The prompt was:
We have all heard this saying in some shape or form: “Life is a journey.” We travel down a path in hope that we reach a goal or destination, but the travel in getting there isn’t always easy. Along the way, we encounter some personal struggles. It is in those moments where we must overcome an adversity to complete our journey or take a different route or path instead. In this month’s OWLS post, we will be discussing the personal journeys of pop culture creators, icons, and characters. We will explore the journeys that these characters went through, discuss the process and experiences they had on their journeys, what they discover about themselves, or share our own personal journeys.
In past OWLs posts, I’ve written a lot about the personal journeys of different characters. So, for this piece, I decided to do something a little different. I am going to write about the journey of something very important to me… yuri anime and manga! Yep, we are gonna explore the history of yuri.
Recently, a whole string of new yuri adaptations have been announced. And this year alone we’ve had some major releases like the Citrus anime and the currently-airing Happy Sugar Life O_O However, getting tons of mainstream yuri content (portraying actual lesbian relationships) is a foreign concept to many fans. Even within the last few years, major yuri anime was hard to come by. There’s always tons of yuri manga online, but not many have been a big deal, excluding Citrus. One main reason for the lack of yuri content is Japan’s cultural beliefs about homosexuality, especially lesbian relationships. So, why the sudden increase? That’s a story for another day.
But whatever the reason, I decided to explore the yuri genre’s journey since its inception in Japan.
***A huge thank you to Erica Friedman whose website (Yuricon/Okazu) was instrumental in figuring this all out! Thanks to Dale for letting me read their essay. And another thanks to all the yuri fans that have helped me discover and enjoy new yuri content.***
The Beginning – The 1920s to 40s
Although she may have not been the very first to write about it, Yoshiya Nobuko is credited as being one of the first Japanese lesbian writers. She is also known for giving birth to the yuri genre in the 1920s (Hendricks, 2015). Her novel Yaneura no Nishojo (Two Virgins in the Attic) is thought to be the catalyst of most – if not all – yuri content (Friedman, 2010). Another one of Nobuko’s most famous works is Hana Monogatari (Flower Tales), which tells the tale of two girls who had a romantic relationship while away at school (Hendricks, 2015).
According to a video about the history of yuri by Erica Friedman(2016) from Yuricon, Yoshiyo Nobuko’s work helped establish many of the themes we see in modern yuri anime. For example, hints of her work can be seen in Strawberry Panic when Shizuma and Nagisa have a piano duet. Friedman (2014) also claims that the novel 1938 Otome no Minato, written by Kawabata Yasunari and Nakazato Tsuneko, also contributed to many of the tropes we see in current anime, such as “S” relationships. An “S” relationship (or S kankei) refers to a strong emotional tie or “sisterhood” between two girls, usually between a senpai and their kohai (Shamoon, 2009). Sound familiar, yuri fans?
Slowly But Surely – The 1950s to 60s
In Japan and in most societies around the world, homosexuality was not seen as acceptable during the 50s and 60s. Therefore, yuri content was rare, but it does exist! Well, sort of. There is one short manga called Sakura Namiki (The Rows of Cherry Blossom Trees) from the 1950s (Friedman, 2013). In this story, a girl named Yukiko has a Ping Pong match with Chikage-senpai, the girl she has a crush on. It’s not an in-depth yuri romance or anything like that. The main focus of the story is the school festival. However, it does have some sprinklings of yuri. In fact, it’s like many shows we get today; it’s not a centerpiece, but there is some yuri going on in the background. It’s not much, but it was a start.
Then, there is Ribon no Kishi from 1967. Considered one of the first shoujo series, Ribon no Kishi is about a princess who was born “with both a girl’s body and boy’s mind.” Erica Friedman (2004) stated that there is basically no yuri in the series and when there is any, it’s “superficial.” However, the idea is pretty LGBTQ-friendly.
Yuri Breaks Ground – The 1970s and 80s
Up until this point, there had not been any real yuri manga (Yoshiyo’s work were novels, not manga). That is, until Shiroi Heya no Futari (Our White Room) by Yamagishi Ryoko came out in 1971. This series is considered the very first yuri manga by many in the yuri community. The story is about two girls, Resine and Simone. At first, they don’t get along, but eventually form a romantic relationship. Without giving too much away, I will just say their relationship ends in tragedy (Brown, 2005). But this was to be expected. As Erica Friedman (2004) stated, “Of course this has a tragic ending. Could we expect anything else? Not in the 70’s, no.”
However, the manga was monumental in its own way. Unlike other series that came before it, Shiroi Heya no Futari was entirely centered around yuri and had a more serious depiction of a lesbian relationship. Not only that, as goodboy64 (2015) from the Yuri Nation states, the manga touches “upon the social pressure of a lesbian relationship by actually using the word ‘lesbian.’ You’ll be hard-pressed to find characters address themselves or others as such in mainstream or popular yuri today.”
I am not sure if the original Japanese version uses the word “lesbian,” but they do have a point. In modern yuri, girls almost never admit they are lesbian, gay, or queer – except for maybe Kanbaru from the Monogatari series and Takaoka from the Out of the Blue manga (at least based on my memory). But why is this? As Dale Hendricks (2015) quotes in his essay, “the lesbianism portrayed in shojo manga remains fundamentally distanced from women’s corporeal desires for other women.”
Therefore, simply acknowledging the fact there was a lesbian/queer relationship in the manga makes it a true stepping stone for yuri. In their review, goodboy64 also states that the manga has influenced (directly or indirectly) many of the tropes we see in modern yuri. Although it has its flaws, like over-exaggerated art and simplistic dialogue, I really enjoyed Shiroi Heya no Futari. Resine’s and Simone’s love for each other and emotional connect felt legitimate and real. Such desire between women had been seen in manga before.
Go read goodboy64’s full review for a more in-depth analysis of this series!
But the 1970s had another yuri gem: 1972’s Rose de Versailles by Ikeda Riyoko. In this manga, Oscar is born as a girl, but is raised as a man since she is the only heir to the throne – sounds a bit like Ribon No Kishi, right? Bits of yuri are seen throughout the series, such as when the character Rosalie admits she has feelings for Lady Oscar. Since Rose de Versailles is one of the most popular manga of all time, its mangaka, Ikeda, is known for making a big breakthrough in yuri manga (Brown, 2005).
Even though these two are the most well-known, there were some other yuri series published in the 1970s and 80s. Overall, there was about yuri-ish manga published per year during this time period – much more than in previous time periods.
Here’s a quick overview of some noteworthy ones:
- 1976: Boku no Shotaiken by Yuzuki Hikaru. This manga is one of the first gender change manga; it’s about a boy who is “reborn” into a woman’s body.
- 1978: Claudine by Ikeda Riyoko, the mangaka of Rose de Versailles. This is another story about someone with a swapped gender identity. It was recently released in English by Seven Seas.
- 1987: Paros no Ken by Igarashi Yumiko. A manga about a girl being raised as boy. Are you seeing a pattern?
You can see a more detailed list and descriptions of these series on Yuricon (Bando).
Yuri Goes Mainstream-ish – The 1990s
As we’ve seen, yuri was sparse in the early 1900s and slowly began poking its head up in the 70s. But it mostly fell under the radar. Then came the 90s. This decade is a nostalgic time for many of us, and it turns out it was a great time for yuri too thanks to Sailor Moon! For tons of fans, this series is classic and is considered the best magical girl series ever. But it also helped sow the seeds for many later yuri series.
How so? In season 3 of Sailor Moon, Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus have an openly queer relationship. Not only that, Uranus has the power to change genders, giving the couple even more queer power. Erica Friedman (2016) explained that Uranus and his/her princeliness combined masculinity and femininity for the first time. What’s more, unlike Simone and Resine who were the subject of nasty rumors and whose story ends in tragedy, Neptune and Uranus end up together and are also heroes who help save the world!
This makes Sailor Moon the first mainstream anime to have a positive portrayal of a lesbian relationship. Although the Rose de Versailles anime was very popular, it pales in comparison to Sailor Moon, which is still a phenomenon. And the other series mentioned, like Ribon No Kishi, don’t really have any real yuri.
But Uranus wasn’t the only princely figure defying gender roles in the 90s. The Revolutionary Girl Utena manga came out in the 1996 and tells the story of Utena, who fights the student council to protect a meek girl named Anthy.
This series is considered legendary among yuri fans. But I am going to be honest… I haven’t watched the whole thing ;~; So… I can’t really say how strong or genuine the relationship is between Utena and Anthy. However, Erica Friedman (2016) claims that Utena was a milestone for yuri and helped emphasize another positive, gender-defiant relationship. According to rantasmo (2016), the Utena series is “more concerned with gender roles” than homosexuality, although he says the standalone movie is more homoerotic. He explains that the character “Utena rejects the role of a passive-submissive princess and instead aspires to be a heroic prince.” In other words, she was awesome! And was one of the first gender-defying women in anime from the 90s.
And… those are the all the big ones I got! But there are two more series I would like to mention. The first is Cardcaptor Sakura – which is one of my favorites – that came out in 1996. Even though its main couple is straight, one of its side characters is so so gay~ Tomoyo Daidouji! I absolutely adore Tomoyo and her undying love for Sakura. The other series is the Chirality manga. I have not read it myself (I believe it’s erotica), but it’s apparently one of the first yuri manga to be translated in English and brought to North America (Fanlore.org). I will have to check it out some time.
Conclusion: The Blossoming of Yuri
And that’s everything for now! Did I miss any major ones? If I did, please let me know in the comments.
It took some time, but yuri definitely grew as a genre throughout the 20th century. At first, it only popped up occasionally but near the end of the 1900s, it began to become more common, even if it wasn’t exactly mainstream. I want to give a huge thank you to anyone and everyone who contributed to those early yuri works, and again thank Erica Friedman and Yuricon for cataloging so much of yuri’s history. I have much more to say about other yuri series from early and late 2000’s. Make sure to check out Part 2 when it comes out!
OH! And also don’t forget to read all of the other awesome OWLS posts from the Journey Tour by other members.
Bando, Kishiji. Shoujo Yuri Manga Guide. Retrieved from http://www.yuricon.com/oldessays/shoujo-yuri-manga-guide/.
Brown, R. (2005, Aug 8). An Introduction to Yuri Manga and Anime. Retrieved from web.archive.org/web/20070303141012/http://www.afterellen.com/archive/ellen/Print/2005/8/yuri.html.
Friedman, E. (2016, May 21). A Very Brief History of Yuri. Retrieved from YouTube.
Friedman, E. (2013, Jan 17). Love on the Edge of Admiration and Desire – Proto-Yuri Manga: Sakura Namiki (さくら並木). Retrieved from okazu.yuricon.com/2013/01/17/love-on-the-edge-of-admiration-and-desire-proto-yuri-manga-sakura-namiki.
Friedman, E. (2014, Mar 2). Proto-Yuri Novel: Otome No Minato (乙女の港) – Part 1, Introduction and Synopsis.” Retrieved from okazu.yuricon.com/2014/03/02/proto-yuri-novel-otome-no-minato-%E4%B9%99%E5%A5%B3%E3%81%AE%E6%B8%AF-part-1-introduction-and-synopsis/.
Friedman, E. (2004, Sept 15). Ribon No Kishi/Princess Knight. Retrieved from okazu.yuricon.com/2004/09/15/ribon-no-kishiprincess-knight/.
Friedman, E. (2004, June 3). Yuri Manga: Shiroi Heya No Futari (白い部屋のふたり). Retrieved from okazu.yuricon.com/2004/06/03/yuri-manga-shiroi-heya-no-futari/.
Friedman, E. (2010, May 9). Yuri Novel: Yaneura No Nishojo. Retrieved from okazu.yuricon.com/2010/05/09/yuri-novel-yaneura-no-nishojo/.
goodboy64. YMC #47: Shiroi Heya No Futari (By goodboy64). Retrieved from yurination.wordpress.com/2015/03/19/ymc-47-shiroi-heya-no-futari/.
Hendricks, Dale. Land of the Rising Queer: Depictions of the Anime Lesbian. Retrieved from thatbakablog.wordpress.com/2015/10/23/land-of-the-rising-queer-depictions-of-the-anime-lesbian/.
Rantasmo (2016, Aug 31). Kunihiko Ikuhara Needs More Gay. Retrieved from YouTube.
Shamoon, Deborah (2009, Apr 21). The Second Coming of Shôjo. Retrieved from hesomagazine.com/japan/the-second-coming-of-shojo/.
“Timeline of Yuri Fandom.” Retrieved from fanlore.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Yuri_Fandom.