Yuri: A Genre Without Borders
Yuri can describe any anime or manga series (or other derivative media, i.e., fan fiction, film, etc.) that shows intense emotional connection, romantic love or physical desire between women. Yuri is not a genre confined by the gender or age of the audience, but by the *perception* of the audience. In short, Yuri is any story with lesbian themes.
– From What is Yuri?
More than a decade ago, when I first wrote this definition for Yuricon 2, Yuri was already an existing element in nearly every genre of manga and anime. There were established examples of Yuri in series targeted at both male and female audiences.
If Yuri is to be considered as a genre in its own right, it needs to be understood as the one genre that breaks the unwritten rules of demographics and age.
Yuri in Shoujo/Josei – From ‘S’ Novels to The ‘L’ Word
Any study of Yuri as a genre has to begin in the early 20th century with ‘S’ serials . Yoshiya Nobuko’s Yaneura no Nishoujo 3 established many common tropes used in girl’s literature, even today. It’s not at all surprising that these tropes were subsequently carried over to girl’s manga series.
The presumption of Yuri was there at the beginning of girl’s manga, couched in reader interpretation of the deeply emotional connections between upper and lower grade students in school. However, while these ‘S’ relationships endured in girl’s literature and manga, lesbianism was often conflated with mental illness. Shiroi Heya no Futari, 4 which I consider the first truly “Yuri” manga, uses the tropes of a private girl’s school in France, the fantasy scenario of the school play, and the sense of “otherness” retained from Yoshiya’s work, to which is added the destructive edginess of lesbianism. This trend continued into the 1990s with stories like Futtemo Harettemo, 5 which shows same-sex attraction as an unhealthy obession.
The otokoyaku -inspired Girl Prince trope salvaged lesbianism by making masculine characters a figure of admiration, such as Tenoh Haruka in Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon 6 or as Sanjou Izumi in Nobara no Mori no Otome-tachi. 7
As lesbian culture began to flourish in the 1970s, Japanese lesbians naturally told their own stories through various media, including manga. Cartoons drawn by and for lesbians echoed their own lives, with autobiographical details; tales of life and love in the bars of Shinjuku Nichoume. These more realistic stories, created by women who had grown up on girl’s manga, quickly broke free of shoujo stereotypes, much as the broader category of manga for adult women had. Considerations of an adult life were – and are – drawn by adult women for an adult female audience, free of the fantasy tropes of girl’s literature.
Yuri in Shounen/Seinen – Innocent Schoolgirls in Love and Predatory Lesbians
More remarkable than the continued existence of previously established tropes from girl’s literature continuing into girl’s manga, is the mutation of these tropes in manga and light novels targeted to a male audience. Early on, the symbol of the lily as code for “lesbian” was asserted by characters in lesbian porn named Yuri, Yuriko or Yurika. The image of the lily, indicating purity, was combined with the hothouse environment of the private Catholic girl’s school as code for illicit same-sex coupling. With strongly indicative names like Shiroyuri Jogakuen and Yurigaoka, these schools were – and remain – indicative that same-sex romance and sex exists within these walls that house the minds and bodies of innocent maidens.
This symbolism, established sincerely in literature for girls, morphs into sexually suggestive signals in anime like Cream Lemon: Escalation, 8 and manga like Cutey Honey. 9 These altered perspectives are still being used for Yuri series targeted at a male audience. Private girls’ Catholic schools are no longer even named after real saints. Saint Jogakuen, Saint Cattelya, and the frankly nonsensical Saints Miator, Spica and Lulim from the ultimate Yuri parody, Strawberry Panic!, 10 are indicative of nothing but male-gaze fantasy settings, or, what I call “parting the gauze curtain”.
Male gaze Yuri tends to retain the innocent younger sister type, but transforms the girl prince into the predatory lesbian – the unhealthy obsession of girl’s manga becomes a dangerous compulsion. Her unfulfilled desires drive her to insanity, as we see with Mai HiME’s Fujino Shizuru 13.
More recently, after a decade of specifically Yuri – focused anthology magazines, a new trope has been born in Yuri for a male audience. Unlike the early presumption that girls experiencing first love in school would part after graduation that we see well into the 2000s, in the currently popular series Sakura Trick, 14 for example, the characters are presented as truly in love, not “playing” at love. The feelings are real, nonetheless, there is no acknowledgment of real-life socio-political pressures around a same-sex relationship. The girls remain cocooned by the gauze curtain of their fantasy school and do not have to deal with the real world.
Yuri Anthologies – Where it all comes together
In 2003, Sun Shuppan launched an all-Yuri magazine, Yuri Shimai. It was discontinued in 2005, but re-launched that same year by Ichijinsha as Yuri Hime and is still published today as a bimonthly. Yuri Shimai/Hime reflects the diversity of the Yuri audience, with series that appeal to readers of all kinds. Some artists present tales of adult women in relationships, while others draw stories of girls tucked safely in their private schools.
As Yuri anthologies grew in number, the audience saw more diversity of story than ever before. Erotic stories ran side-by-side with comics of innocent crushes. A reader might read something by Kurogane Ken with explicit sex, next to the kind of rosy-cheeked confessions of love favored by Morinaga Milk.
An interesting new trend has appeared in the last decade, as well; manga artists drawing lesbians, rather than women who are in love with another woman, but who are not gay at all. Takemiya Jin goes so far as to have her out characters use lesbian slang in Seasons.15 Nakamura Ching showed us an out lesbian character, who walks away from a successful career and a stable relationship to commit a crime in GUNJO. 16 Collectors 17 by Nishi UKO is a gentle slice-of-life comedy about two women in a long-term and very committed relationship.
Yuri Outside Japan
As manga has gone global, so has Yuri. Yuri anthologies outside of Japan help promote the genre in the global manga economy. Yuri Monogatari, 18 published in America, included artists and writers from around the world – and was the first time several Japanese Yuri manga artists had been officially published in English.
In the Netherlands, a native circle called Open-Minded published two mixed Yuri/BL anthologies, Crème Brulee and Liquorice19. Lepakkoluola20 is a new Yuri anthology from Finland and, in Poland, The Cold Desire is working on their second Yuri Manga Anthology21.
Unlike other manga genres, Yuri is not dependent upon the target audience for definition. By its boundary-crossing nature, Yuri is a mirror in which our own desires are reflected back to us.
The girl prince, the wide-eyed little sister, the hyper competent older sister, the motorcycle-riding predatory lesbian, schoolgirls in love, office ladies confused by their feelings for a co-worker, lesbians left behind by their lover to get married, women making a life together – all have an equal place in the formation and future of Yuri.
Or, as we like to say at Yuricon – Yuri is for anyone who enjoys Yuri.
1 http://www.yuricon.com/what-is-yuricon/#whatisyuri – Accessed October 29, 2014
2 http://www.yuricon.com/what-is-yuricon/ – Accessed October 29, 2014
3 Nobuko, Yoshiya, , originally published 1920. Current publisher Kokukshokankoukai , 2003.
4 Yamagishi Ryoko, Shueisha, Ribon Comics, 1971.
5 Fujimura, Mari, Shueisha, Margaret Comics, 1993.
6 Takeuchi Naoko, Kodansha, 1994.
7 Shirasawa Marimo, Kodansha, 2010.
8 Fairy Dust, 1984.
9 Nagai Go, Akita Shoten, 1973.
10 Kimino Sakurako, Media Factory, 2003. This series also openly borrowed tropes whole from older Yuri manga, like Himitsu no Kaidan 11 and Shiroi Heya no Futari, and the anime based on the virally popular Maria-sama ga Miteru12 novel series but also from Western literature, with obvious references to Wuthering Heights and The Graduate)
11 Konno Kita, Kaiseisha, 1997.
12 Konno Oyuki, Shueisha, 1998.
13 Sunrise, 2004-5.
14 Tachi, Hobunsha, 2011.
15 Takemiya Jin, Ichijinsha, 2012.
16 Nakamura Ching, Shogagukan, 2012.
17 Nishi UKO, Hakusensha, 2012.
18 ALC Publishing, 2003.
19 http://okazu.yuricon.com/2009/06/15/yuri-doujinshi-lesbian-comics-and-other-neat-stuff/ – Accessed October 29, 2014
20http://mesenaatti.me/en/lepakkoluola/ – Accessed October 29, 2014
21 http://www.wydawnictwotcd.pl/ – Accessed October 29, 2014
Erica Friedman is the Founder of Yuricon & ALC Publishing. She writes the world’s oldest and most comprehensive blog on lesbian-themed Japanese cartoon, comics and related media at Okazu. http://okazu.yuricon.com
Written for Eureka, “Current State of Yuri Culture” issue, December 14. Seidosha. Translated into Japanese by Yukari Shiina.