The Evolution of “Recognition/Assertion of a Lesbian Identity” vs “Akogare” in Manga

by Katherine Hanson

It’s easy to pinpoint the earliest examples of lesbian identity being addressed in manga. From there, especially in the 90’s and 2000’s, the “family tree” begins to grow more and more branches and twigs, and to include not only recognition, but assertion of a lesbian identity in manga.

Yamagishi Ryouko’s one-shot story Shiroi Heya no Futari (Ribon, 1971) is, sadly, out of print, but it was the first of the earliest wave of yuri in the 70’s to include canon, no-bones-made-about-it Yuri characters, as opposed to the more ambiguous akogare relationships found in earlier shoujo manga like Takahashi Makoto’s Sakura Namiki (Shogakukan, 1957). “Akogare”, meaning adoration, refers to the intense, ephemeral romantic friendships that have traditionally been ascribed to relationships between girls who haven’t graduated from high school yet in Japan, serving the purpose of explaining away same-sex attraction in a way that will push women towards the path to fulfilling society’s expectations.

Shiroi Heya no Futari’s “good girl” protagonist Resine grapples with a crisis of identity after she hears two school mates whispering about she and her roommate Simone being “rezu” (a derogatory term for lesbians in Japan; the term favored by Japanese lesbians is “bian). While the story ends tragically (as it had to back then), there were certainly teenagers who recognized their internal struggle in Resine and came to terms with it or, at the very least, had a harder time ignoring it from then on. What was needed now was a story that plainly asserted that a girl being in love with another girl was okay.

In 1975, Rose of Versailles creator Ikeda Riyoko published Oniisama E, a three volume series published under the Margaret imprint, starring Nanako, a girl who becomes embroiled in the messy relationships among the three most influential students at her new school. She falls in love with one of them, a second-year student named Rei. In a conversation that probably saved lives, a crying, lovesick Nanako asks the older student who the story portrays as the most mature, reasonable one, Kaoru, how she feels about Nanako’s friend Mariko being interested in her. Kaoru tells Nanako that gender doesn’t matter—what matters is how both people feel. Even though the story ends tragically (again, as it had to), it explicitly affirms that there is nothing wrong with same sex relationships.

In some early works like Ikeda Riyoko’s Claudine…! and Kurimoto Kaoru and Igarashi Yumiko’s Paros no Ken, there is some ambiguity between lesbian identity and transgender identity. Oniisama E’s Rei is an example of a character whose description of being like a man—having the aura of a man, as Nanako describes her—was pretty obviously the closest thing that you were going to see to the word “butch” (or the Japanese equivalent) in a 70’s shoujo manga. That may have been the case with Claudine (the lead in Claudine…!) and Erminia (the lead in Paros no Ken) as well. Sailor Moon’s Haruka is described by creator Takeuchi Naoko, as having the “heart of a guy,” although when Takeuchi Naoko was asked if Haruka had been a man in her past life, she said no, and affirmed that she intended to create a relationship between two girls.  Just as the concept of akogare in Japan has a Western historical parallel in the idea of “smashings” between Victorian schoolgirls, the association between lesbian and transgender identity in older examples of Yuri has a parallel in the numerous historical examples of lesbians who passed themselves as men or adopted a masculine identity in order to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities men enjoyed, like La Maupin.  Some characters are clearly butch, but for some, like Claudine, one can’t be certain whether they are asserting themselves as transsexuals or as lesbians who want the privileges exclusive to men. Yuri fans have fondly dubbed cool, butchy yuri characters “Girl Princes,” partly because their earliest ancestor (who actually isn’t a Yuri character) is Ribon no Kishi’s Sapphire, who is literally a girl prince.

90’s shoujo (and less prevalently, josei) ushered in a new era. Although Yuri and lesbian identity were never synonymous with one another, the prevalence of tragic endings and characters who adhered to negative stereotypes associated with lesbians (e.g. being mentally ill and being predatory) still revealed that there was an association on some level for Japanese readers between the Yuri characters they read about and the gay women who were slowly but surely becoming visible in society. Yuri increasingly moved beyond that, and began to have unambiguously happy endings and unambiguously lesbian-identified characters who were portrayed positively.

From 1989 to 1991, Mutsumi Tsukumo’s Moonlight Flowers ran in the josei magazine Office You. While it begins with the stereotypical set-up of a lesbian being in love with a woman who gets married, it becomes a beautiful coming out story in which the lesbian gets the girl, several other lesbian characters appear, and we see what may be the earliest portrayal of the lesbian community in a manga.

In 1992, Ariyoshi Kyouko, author of the six volume not-quite-happy-but-not-quite-sad-either 80’s yuri series Applause, quietly published another groundbreaking story, titled “San Francisco Monogatari,” in her Bruges Applause collection. “San Francisco Monogatari” is about a Japanese writer named Yuuko who has suppressed her feelings for her friend Megumu since high school, convincing herself that she must have merely felt akogare and making plans for a marriage that she doesn’t want. After visiting Megumu, now an out lesbian living in San Francisco, Yuuko realizes that she is in love with her. She confesses to Megumu and Megumu reciprocates, and while the story doesn’t show them getting together, we are led to believe that they probably will.

In 1993, Ichijou Yukari included a one-shot titled “Dakara Boku ha Tameiki wo Tsuku“ in volume 14 of her popular series Yuukan Club. “Dakara Boku ha Tameiki wo Tsuku” sensitively portrays a lesbian-identified teenager who is in love with her best friend, and cleverly subverts the “man-hating lesbian” stereotype while it’s at it.

1994 saw the publication of Wagamama Juliet, a Moonlight Flowers-like story that ran in Young Rose. Wagamama Juliet is about Youko, a woman who realizes that she’s gay after meeting another lesbian, Ayari, who she falls in love with. While Wagamama Juliet’s leads aren’t as likeable as Moonlight Flowers’ Kaoru and Sahoko, it still has a surprisingly happy ending and addresses some aspects of lesbian life that really needed to be talked about.

The biggest milestone of the decade, however, came with the introduction of Haruka and Michiru in Sailor Moon in 1994. Haruka and Michiru bucked all of the negative stereotypes found in Yuri and saved the world while being completely stable and happy. None of the conflicts that they faced had anything to do with their being gay, which was a much-needed breath of fresh air. While they never explicitly identified themselves as gay, the series dropped numerous “codes”—like their cute butch-femme relationship and Haruka’s popularity with the ladies, which she rather enjoyed. (Haruka’s popularity and light flirtation with her admirers was more prevalent in the Sailor Moon anime.) Sailor Moon also broke ground by showing Haruka and Michiru raising a child with their friend Setsuna and doing a darned good job at it.

To a lesser extent, CLAMP’s Cardcaptor Sakura also contributed to the cause. While the people who wanted to see akogare instead of lesbians could slap the akogare label on Tomoyo to make themselves feel better, it would be harder for them to do that to Tomoyo’s mother Sonomi, who is, like Ariyoshi Kyouko’s lead characters in Applause and “San Francisco Monogatari” and the leads in Moonlight Flowers and Wagamama Juliet, a rare early example of an adult Yuri character. Because of Sonomi’s presence, one can more easily make the case that Tomoyo’s feelings aren’t just a phase. (Unfortunately, like her daughter Tomoyo, Sonomi fits the sad, still-popular archetype of the lesbian character who hopelessly pines after a straight girl.)

Last but not least on the roster of 90’s shoujo, Fujii Mihona’s wonderful Himitsu no Hanazono, a classic from 1999, features a bisexual heroine who falls for a lesbian whose butchiness ties into her appeal with—and attraction towards—women, even though she doesn’t explicitly identify as gay. (Yup, Girl Prince alert.) What Yuri needed at this point were more manga titles that didn’t beat around the bush at all regarding their leads’ sexual orientation, which leads us to…

…The proliferation of “Bian” manga (or manga that feature lesbian-identified characters and strive to portray lesbian life realistically) in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. The most noteworthy examples are: the manga that ran in PhryneAnise, and Carmilla (most noteably Takashima Rica’s Rica’tte Kanji!?, which ran in Anise), which were general lesbian magazines rather than manga magazines; Amamiya Sae’s Plica-chan comic strips, which ran in Anise before moving to the Love Piece Club website ; Tadeno Eriko’s doujinshi and work in Mist magazine (among some—but not all—of the other stories that ran in Mist); Yamaji Ebine’s Love My LifeIndigo BlueSweet Lovin’ Baby, and Free Soul, which all ran in the josei magazine Feel Young; and Takeuchi Sachiko’s autobiographical Honey & Honey, which ran in a women’s magazine called Da Vinci. In all of these examples of Bian manga we see not only increased recognition, but increased assertion of lesbian identity.

The 2000s saw the explosion of Yuri and gradual increase of titles blurring the boundaries between “bian” and “Yuri,” like Morishima Akiko’s work (Morishima Akiko is arguably at the forefront of this movement; it’s no coincidence that she drew a Bian manga series for Anise back when it was in print), Akiyama Haru’s Octave, Minamoto Hisanari’s Fu~fu,  Shimura Takako’s Aoi Hana, Ikeda Takashi’s Sasameki Koto, Goto Hayako’s Poor Poor Lips, Takemiya Jin’s work, Kuroda’s Husky and Medley, Chi-Ran’s work, and Nakamura Ching’s Gunjo. Like a handful of other Yuri titles, Gunjo would be just as qualified to label itself bian as, say, Yamaji Ebine’s work, but its out lesbian author has described it as Yuri.

On that note, a number of authors of works that would have been labeled “bian” (or some label that isn’t “Yuri,” like “onna x onna”) when they were first printed have been cool with other people labeling their work “Yuri” later on—or chose to describe their work that way themselves. Tadeno Eriko and Takashima Rica are two noteworthy examples. Takashima Rica even recently penned a comic illustrating the increasingly blurry boundaries between bian and yuri manga, titled “Comic Intro to Yuri.”  For those of us who want to see more lesbian identity in our Yuri, the blurring of the line between bian and Yuri manga is a much-welcome trend.

While most works containing Yuri still do not address lesbian identity—especially those that become commercially popular, like Yuruyuri—Yuri that does is now fairly easy to find in manga and will increase as time goes by.

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