Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Yuri-service in Anime: Delivering The Goods

Yuri-service. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with anime probably knows what I’m talking about. If not, picture this: Two girls, staring at each other passionately, fingers intertwined with flowers blowing around them. This is an increasingly common sight in a variety of genres, but rarely does it go beyond that and turns into an actual lesbian relationship. Real life lesbians like myself tend to gnash our teeth at this, but practically since anime was first becoming known in the United States this has been a major component, but there’s a growing sense of discontent among fans of Yuri that can be summed up in one sentence:

Stop teasing us.

The problem with most of the subtext these days is that it’s just that: subtext. It exists purely to titillate and make fans think about characters being in a relationship, but it rarely if ever delivers. One blogger I follow recently proclaimed that shows should “stop being half-assed about the lesbian aspect”, and this seems to be a growing opinion among those of us who like our girls love.

This is hardly new phenomenon in anime. In 2001 Noir became the newest of these shows imported to the United States and the first major exposure I had to anime as a whole. In my opinion, it was a great series that kept you on the edge of your seat and had an interesting and complex story, but the main draw was the relationship between the leads, Kirika and Mirielle, and how they grew to care for each other in the end. We could debate until the cows come home about whether it really was a Yuri series since there was never definitive "proof" that they were lesbians, and indeed people have been fighting about that even though it’s been over 7 years since the show was on the air. But even if you think there was no romance to speak of between the female leads you have to agree that they loved each other in a very deep and emotional way.

But what made Noir different from the Yuri-service shows these days was that the girls and their feelings were not just fanservice, they had an actual impact on the plot and real, visible consequences. In fact, you could even read it as being one of the driving forces behind the plot. These girls had real emotional investment in one another and were willing to fight and die for it, and there’s a strong indication at the end of the show that this relationship is going to continue and grow into something more, be it romantic or not.

Revolutionary Girl Utena was a 1997 series that similarly used the not-necessarily romantic but certainly passionate relationship between its female leads to drive the plot and question the very meaning of gender and relationships, but trying to summarize Utena like that is leaving out about 90% of everything else that went on in it, and we don’t have all day. The point is that the reason these shows are so loved is that the Yuri was not just service, it was a major component of the story and was given just as much attention and thought as any other part of the plot.

Nowadays? Not so much. There are a few examples that stand out like Aoi Hana, but they're mostly for niche audiences and rarely get much attention outside of these circles. In mainstream works these characters are mostly limited to side roles and don’t have much of an impact on the story itself. And there’s the classic “bait and switch” tactic which consists of setting up a girl/girl pairing and then having one or both end up with men in the end. This infuriates fans for two reasons, first it means that all the hints and subtext was just a tease, and second it sends the rather homophobic message of “look but don’t touch” or that a girl/girl relationship is okay when you’re young, but “real” women grow up and have husbands and families.

Granted, we are talking about shows that come from Japan, a country that has very different social values from our own, so what we see as an unfriendly message may in fact be perfectly acceptable to them, and the above message is considered acceptable by most Japanese viewers at this point in time. But putting that aside, in the United States there’s another part of this that seems to be irritating an increasing number of people.

Mainly, the fanservice aspect, which depending on the show can range from mildly annoying to downright disrespectful. By “downright disrespectful” I mean “these characters exist only in the show to provide breast and butt shots” and have no character or purpose besides their connection to another girl and the risqué situations that result in them being in the same room. While certainly not free of subtext, Noir and Utena generally stayed away from this, and in the case of Utena much of the sexual content that would be fanservice in any other series was intended to be and managed to be quite disturbing given the circumstances. The movie of Utena is another story, and is best left to its own post, but even it contained the suggestion that sex is not all its cracked up to be no matter who is doing it.

Nowadays the Yuri fanservice is generally played completely straight. Given that most of the viewers of these shows tend to be young males this might not be surprising, as someone else pointed out that to a lot of men the appeal of seeing a pair of lesbians can be summed up as “1 + 1 = 2”. But there's only so much teasing a person can take before they start to get fed up and want the real thing, and the fact that even the men these shows are supposed to appeal to are getting tired of it might indicate that a sea change might be needed if these fans want to be retained.

I predict that in the future these feelings will also crop up in Japan, though probably at least several years from now. The Americans watching, on the other hand, may turn to their own country’s works in the meantime as long as the teasing continues to be just that: teasing.