As much as I love anime, especially shonen, there are things about it that eat at me sometimes, and one of those things is the way that it depicts gay men. I’m neither an expert nor a critic, but rather a devout (read, “crazy”) fan who finds herself really annoyed by this aspect of the thing I love. Annoyed enough to write.
So usually, homosexual men and homosexual acts in shonen are jokes (see, Grell, the grotesque “queen” in Black Butler, see, Naruto and Sasuke’s unintentional kiss in Naruto, see, Freed’s unrequited crush on Laxus in Fairy Tail (by the way, I’m focusing on the fellas here, because while there’s plenty to discuss regarding lesbian relationships in anime, I need the space of a whole ‘nother essay if I’m going to pop that topic open). Anime is bawdy in general, so it’s not like heterosexual sex isn’t also a subject to ridicule, but those jokes are balanced out by straight couples whose romance is meant to be taken seriously. In the cases where they aren’t meant to be laughed at, gay relationships come off as sort of empty and lascivious, as pandering to female fans. In these scenarios, the characters aren’t necessarily homosexual, either, but rather they happen to be hanging out in these ambiguously homoerotic situations (Free! and Haikyu are the most cited example of this, though I’ve seen instances of this in many other shows). And that’s cool. I’m comfortable with ambiguity. But after a while, I start to think, are there any characters that are just into characters of the same sex? And could we maybe not laugh at these characters?
Not long ago I watched Owari no Seraph, which seemed to offer something a bit different (if only in the male protagonists’ relationship—the rest was pretty familiar). The fact that the protagonists’ feelings for each other are romantic rather than friendly is implicit, but not especially ambiguous. They are also not a joke. I thought, this is kinda groundbreaking, right?
Well, “kinda” is the operative word.
At the same time I watched Owari, I read an essay by Philip Kennicott called “Smuggler.” In the pre-internet world of the early eighties, Kennicott describes how, after reading the scene in Hermann Hesse’s Beneath the Wheel where two adolescent boys kiss, he began a hunt for any other book he could get his hands on that might relieve the sense of solitude he felt growing up as a homosexual teenager. He assembles a sort of gay “canon,” but as he reflects on these books as a middle aged man, he is able to see the ways in which this canon was actually destructive to his sexual identity. The books, he says, “depicted self-discovery as a cataclysmic severance from society.” That is, the gay men in these stories all suffer terrible fates. Some become terminally ill, some are raped or tortured. If they live, they often end up isolated from society, alcoholics and town crazies. Having found characters who shared his desires, characters with whom he could connect with, Kennicott recalls that all these characters are, really, punished for being gay by their own authors (many of whom were gay men themselves.)
Since I was consuming both the essay and the show around the same time, it was impossible not to see the parallels between what Kennicott describes in his canon and what happens to the protagonists, Mika and Yuu, on Owari no Seraph, which goes a little like this: after a long separation, Mika and Yuu are reunited. Mika (much to his dismay) is a vampire, and Yuu, in spite of his vengeful vow to kill all the vampires (the enemy of humans in this post-apocalyptic world) accepts his friend’s new state fairly readily. At the point where they first encounter each other again, Mika hasn’t fully lost his humanity yet, because he has avoided drinking human blood, a fact that apparently causes him a great deal of physical pain. In the inevitable scene where Mika is forced to drink human blood or die, Yuu offers his up. Knowing the ramifications of feeding on his friend, Mika is disgusted, rejecting Yuu’s offer repeatedly (we’re all following the euphemism here, right?) up until the point where Yuu, who absolutely refuses to allow his friend to keel over and die, slices his arm open, and bleeds all over the place, like you do when you’re an anime kid and you’re desperate. Mika succumbs, saying miserably, “It’s all your fault if I become a monster.” A cheesy line, perhaps, but the subtext makes this moment a bit haunting for me.
And just as Kennicott observed in his canon, the severance from society begins immediately after this act. Mika does indeed become a full vampire. They then enter into a battle to assist Yuu’s army unit and Yuu is consumed by the demon he has to draw power from in order to save his friends. Yuu’s company secedes from the rest of the military, and they run into hiding, taking Mika and Yuu with them. Both Yuu and Mika have literally lost their claim to humanity, and to top it off, Yuu has lost his position in the military. This plays out on fantasy’s terms, not as it would in realistic literary fiction, but as in the books that made up Kennicott’s destructive canon, the gay characters are punished, both as a direct result of their physical consummation and as the result of their feelings (Yuu is taken over by the demon because his love is, as the title of the chapter/episode indicates, “arrogant”—he wishes to protect both his friends and his lover, implying that he thinks he has a right to both—how dare he!). The message, then, seems distressingly similar to that of the “classic” works that Kennicott talks about. In his canon, as in Owari no Seraph, “The price of survival, for the self-aware homosexual, was a complete inversion of values, dislocation, wandering, and rebellion.”
I don’t mean to admonish Owari no Seraph specifically. In fact, as was the literature of Kennicott’s experience, Owari no Seraph seems to represent a way station on a movement away from depicting homosexuals as a joke, or not at all. Nevertheless, this way station is a pretty damn depressing place to be in 2016.
Three months ago this essay would have ended here, at the way station, with me making some kind of hopeful prediction for the future. But I think the future is here. A few weeks ago I noticed that people were buzzing, were absolutely smitten with Yuri on Ice!!. Since it’s an anime about figure skating, not my normal ninja-mage-vampire fare, I was hesitant. Then, the sequence of the characters skating in the opening credits came up in my Instagram feed and I was immediately mesmerized. The animation was so gorgeous, I had to watch, and once I did, the story sucked me in immediately. The protagonist, Yuri (who reminds me quite a bit of Arima from Your Lie in April), is a figure skater trying to recover from a major loss. He has living parents who love him, but don’t understand figure skating very well. He is still mourning the loss of his dog, who died while he was at competitions, a fact that contributed to his defeat. He comforts himself with food. Dead dog, nice lame parents, kinda chubby…in other words, he’s a regular guy, with regular pain, who, like many of us, is trying really, really hard to be happy with himself, and is often coming up empty handed. He is relatable, likable, and complicated. He also is, in no uncertain terms, romantically interested in a man. I crossed my fingers and held my breath watching the story unfold, hoping they wouldn’t make that fact a joke, hoping they would not dance around it, turn it into something ever-present but unmentionable.
And then, they didn’t. And I was shocked as shit. And delighted.
Not only does YOI not suffer from the aforementioned crappy tropes of ignoring or demeaning same sex couples, it also doesn’t make that third, more subtle (but highly disturbing) move where gay characters get the authorial banishment/disease treatment. Here we are at the end of the first season, and absolutely no one has a brain tumor, no one has been ostracized by society or had their essential selves devoured by any literal or figurative demons. Not that the characters haven’t been hurt as a result of loving each other, but that hurt is personal, a pain that comes from within their relationship and not from outside of it, a natural result of having characters with the magic three components: Relatable. Likable. Complicated. On top of that, the romance is so well-rendered, it could give any fictional heterosexual romance a run for its money.
I’m happy about the shift represented by YOI because this genre that I really love and feel compelled to champion has taken a step toward greater fairness. Both within the genre and among other forms of popular media, this step is actually a huge one—and when the topic is identity formation and the audience is, by and large, young people, it is not only a huge step, but a deeply important one. Like Kennicott, like me, people often self-identify by creating a personal canon, and the literature and pop culture we have to draw from can make a great difference in the selves we try to make, and how we feel about those selves.