This article contains major spoilers for Neon Genesis Evangelion and Yuri on Ice.
Proceed with caution if you have a spoiler allergy
Characters who act ‘friendly’ with members of the same sex are pretty easy to come by in the world of anime. From series with a substantial female audience like Free! and Ouran High School Host Club to more unisex fare like Fairy Tail and even Dragon Ball Z, homosexuality seems to be everywhere!
But for most of these shows, gayness (both male and female) is either fetishized or used as the butt of a joke. I like looking at attractive people and I don’t mind the odd gay joke, but that’s pretty much all we get as far as mainstream anime goes.
Every now and then, though, a show that takes the time to portray a gay relationship in a realistic way breaks into the popular consciousness. It’s been happening more and more lately and I’d like to share three of them with you today. While none of them are flawless, they showcase some fantastic character writing and dedication to the craft of storytelling (even when the writers had every excuse to just phone it in).
Neon Genesis Evangelion – Shinji and Kaworu
First up is Neon Genesis Evangelion, a mecha series from 1995 with a heaping tablespoon of psychological horror mixed in. Our main character Shinji is treated like garbage by most of the cast, including the three women he’s attracted to. In Episode 24, they’re all either untrustworthy or incapacitated, so Shinji has nobody to turn to. Then, as if from the heavens, a mysterious boy named Kaworu Nagisa shows up to give Shinji exactly what he needs – unconditional love.
Kaworu has nothing but kind words for Shinji and not so subtly flirts with him at every opportunity. He tells Shinji, ‘Suki tte koto za.’ ‘Suki’ can mean either ‘like’ or ‘love’, but the line is translated in both the official English subtitles and dub as ‘I’m saying I love you’. Shinji is a bit flustered at first, but quickly opens up to his new friend and seems much happier as a result.
Kaworu was intentionally designed to be a bishonen (beautiful boy) character who Shinji and the audience couldn’t help but like. The bishonen character type is an idealized male form that mostly appears in shoujo (girls) and Boy’s Love (gay men) manga, both of which are designed to appeal to women. Hmm… I suppose it’s no wonder that gay characters tend to be unrealistic in mainstream anime. They’re based on BL and yaoi, which isn’t supposed to be realistic in the first place!
Anyway… Kaworu is actually a double agent and forces Shinji to kill him so that the world can continue to exist (or something; this show never entirely made sense to me).
This is a big letdown for me because, regardless of the story reasons for it, Kaworu becomes a victim of the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope that never seems to go away. This is a series where a lot of characters die, but Kaworu is killed in his debut episode. Afterwards, Shinji laments that he’s lost the one person who truly cared for him. His line, ‘Suki dattan da’ (using the same like/love ‘suki’ as before) is translated as ‘I loved him, too’ in the subtitles, but as ‘I liked him, too’ in the English dub. Odd, but this was 1995, after all.
Yuri on Ice – Yuri and Victor
Here’s an obvious one: Yuri on Ice! This figure skating anime from 2016 is incredibly popular; but more importantly, it centers on a romantic relationship between two male main characters. Its art style borrows heavily from shoujo and BL – there’s an emphasis on detailed eyes, shiny lips, and idealistic bodies. But since the characters are elite figure skaters, this glittery style actually works in the show’s favor.
What surprises me the most about Yuri on Ice is how it doesn’t take the easy way out when it really matters. Sure, there are plenty of nice bodies to look at and one or two characters whose main purpose (debatably) is to be a walking gay joke, but this exchange from Episode 7 proves that the writers intended to play Yuri and Victor’s relationship as realistically as possible:
Victor: ‘I’m not good with people crying in front of me. Should I just kiss you or something?’
Yuri: ‘No! Just have more faith than I do that I’ll win! You don’t have to say anything. Just stand by me!’
It wouldn’t be appropriate for them to kiss here, even if it would’ve made the audience happy. Victor is trying to make Yuri feel better after he accidentally struck a nerve (implying that if Yuri loses, it would reflect poorly on Victor as well – something that Yuri has been terrified of doing for the whole series so far). Instead, the kiss is saved for after Yuri performs and, because it was well earned, it’s all the more adorable. Obscured by Victor’s arm for unknown reasons, but still adorable.
All of the romantic dialogue is kept intact in English. I could go on for ages about the nuances of this show and its symbolism and how it subverts expectations at every turn, but that’s an article for another time.
Kira Kira Pretty Cure a la Mode – Yukari and Akira
Now for an anime that I’m willing to bet most of you haven’t heard of: Kira Kira Pretty Cure a la Mode! The Pretty Cure (abbreviated as Precure) franchise is a magical girl series in the vein of Sailor Moon but with a lot more melee combat. Ever wanted to see cute little girls beat the crap out of monsters with the power of magic and roundhouse kicks? Of course you have.
Kira Kira Precure, the currently running iteration of the franchise, devotes a significant amount of time to the growing romantic relationship between two female team members: Yukari (Cure Macaron) and Akira (Cure Chocolat).
It’s actually pretty normal for adolescent girls in Japan to share close relationships with each other, but it’s seen as something that they should grow out of once they’re more mature. The fact that Yukari and Akira are the oldest members of the team makes their love seem more legitimate – quite a bold statement to make on a Saturday morning cartoon aimed at little girls.
This sort of thing has been done before with shows like Sailor Moon, but what sets Kira Kira Precure apart is that it lets the audience see how human these characters are. Yukari is a fickle perfectionist, while Akira can’t resist helping people in need. They start out intimidated by each other, but gradually learn that they don’t have to put up any walls. They start enjoying each other’s company without any pretense. Akira even says that she loves Yukari; she uses the word ‘daisuki’, which is almost always translated as ‘love’.
This anime isn’t complete yet and doesn’t have an English dub, so I’m still waiting to see how this all pans out. Come and watch it with me – it’s a good show!
So what does this all mean?
It’s difficult in pretty much any medium to find gay characters that are written like real humans. Even Japan, a country that was free of Western influence for hundreds of years and whose culture has been intertwined with homosexual activity since medieval times, struggles to get it quite right.
But these three shows make me smile because, at the very least, they put in the effort and large audiences get to see it. I consider that a step forward for both sides of the Pacific.