Though Japanese animation, or anime, is known for having more queer characters than American television, the representation isn’t always the best. The “boys love” or “yaoi” genre tells stories of men falling in love — but they’re made for straight women, and generally are unrealistic. (Sometimes even physically — protagonists sometimes have what’s known as the “yaoi hole”, a mysterious orifice that acts remarkably like a vagina during heterosexual sex.)
And while there are a lot of queer characters on TV, Japan still has some homophobia to work through. A common yaoi trope is “I’m not gay, I’m just really into this one guy — but I’m otherwise straight, I swear!” Another, more unfortunate trope, is rape. Sometimes the protagonist seeks the company of other men because they were raped as a teen or young adult.
Other times, you get a situation like Love Stage!!, an anime where the relationship starts because the more dominant man can’t control himself and almost rapes the other man — who then forgives him and falls in love with his almost-rapist. (Love Stage!! is particularly frustrating in this regard. Most everything before and after the rape episode is quite good, and the series would have been vastly improved without it. But with the rape scene, it becomes something impossible to recommend.)
But, as with anything, there’s always people who do it right. So with that in mind, here are five of the best gay anime ever.
1. Yuri!!! On Ice
We’ve written about Yuri!!! On Ice before. In fact, sometimes we won’t shut up about it. But it really is that good. The story is a surprisingly mature look at the blossoming of a romantic relationship between Yuri, a professional ice skater, and Viktor, his coach. Everything about this show is amazing — the skating routines are gorgeous, the music is outstanding and the story, above all else, rings emotionally true. (And, hey, Viktor’s design was based on dreamboat John Cameron Mitchell.)
Gravitation is a bit older than the rest of the shows on this list — but it’s been long considered to be the gold standard of gay anime. Gravitation is about the romance between Shuichi, an up-and-coming rock singer and Yuki, a romance novelist. They have a meet-cute when a breeze blows the lyrics to Shuichi’s latest love song down the street. Luckily for him, Yuki returns it — but scribbled with notes pointing out all the things wrong with it. A TV series and an OAV (Original Animated Video — basically the anime equivalent of direct-to-video) series both exist; the TV series is far superior. Unfortunately, the one problem with Gravitation is that it’s out-of-print — but if you can find a copy of the TV series, definitely pick it up.
3. No. 6
Unlike Gravitation, No. 6 has a number of options where you can legally stream it. No. 6 is a dystopian tale of a deeply stratified society between the haves and have-nots. (Gee, we wonder what that’s like.) When the high-status Shion takes in Nazumi, a wounded boy who was also a wanted fugitive, Shion and his family are immediately stripped of their status. Four years later, however, Nezumi saves Shion from a wrongful arrest, and the two team up. If you’re a fan of sci-fi dystopias or simply good characterization, No. 6 is a must-see.
4. Free! Iwatobi Swim Club/Free! Eternal Summer
Free! had an interesting birth. Initially a short pilot, it took the internet by storm. But half the anime fandom was intrigued, and the other half was mad that the studio, mostly known for their pandering to straight male audiences, was doing a series about hot boys instead. While there aren’t any explicitly gay relationships in Free!, it earns its slot on the list due to its gorgeous… animation. (Seriously, the way they animate water is amazing.) But it’s not just a hot-boy-a-thon — we watch the characters grow as people as the series explores male camaraderie.
One interesting thing: The only characters objectified in this show are men. Very few women swim in this anime, and when they do, they only wear unrevealing one-pieces. Regardless of whether or not you’re here to ogle the boys, it’s kind of nice to not see women forced to strut around wearing nothing more than an improbable string bikini.
Another one that’s unavailable to stream — but Loveless can be found cheaply on DVD. (At this writing, an Amazon seller has the complete series available on disc for $5.) Loveless is a modern-day fantasy story. In the society, which looks a lot like modern Japan, humans are born with animal features — making them catboys and catgirls. However, once someone loses their virginity, they lose their cat ears.
The protagonist, Ritsuka, is only 12. His brother was murdered two years ago. When his brother’s friend, Soubi, re-enters the picture, Ritsuka discovers that he and his brother have a special magic, and that they must fight others who also have the magic. The one downside with Loveless is that it’s only 12 episodes — so if you like the story and want to see what happens, you’ll have to check out the comic book (or manga). (Thankfully, it’s worth it.) The creator, Yun Kouga has also done another outstanding series, Earthian, about gay angels deciding whether or not the Earth is too violent and negative, and should be destroyed. Like Loveless, the anime is way too short (only 4 episodes), but there’s a full manga to explore.