Fandom and the Internet Are Responsible for the Existence of Queer Anime and Manga
There’s been a boom of queer anime and manga (the terms for Japanese animation and comics) since the turn of the century. From titles like Yuri!!! on Ice to My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, queer fans can now see themselves reflected in this media. But it wasn’t always that way, and according to Erica Friedman, the founder of YuriCon and ALC Publishing, we have internet fandom to thank for the queering of anime and manga.
In a presentation to Harvard on Nov. 9, Friedman explained how while queer manga has existed since the ’70s, big publishers stayed away. Most LGBTQ cartoonists made their own independent magazines to show their work.
While queer manga is still often independently produced — for example, My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness was originally posted on image hosting site Pixiv — there are still opportunities to be published by big publishers. For example, My Brother’s Husband by Gengoroh Tagame runs in the mainstream manga magazine Action Comics, and the collection was put out by major publisher Futabasha. (In the United States, it was released by Pantheon, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday.)
Friedman points to the early online fans creating this market. She writes about the young days of discussion platforms like Usenet. Fans on groups like rec.arts.anime or alt.fan.Sailor-Moon would, in addition to the normal fan activities of posting fanfic and fanart, discuss the need for queer representation.
Beyond series like Ranma 1/2, which took a magic look at gender, or assumed-queer characters like Priss Asagiri in Bubblegum Crisis, queer fans didn’t see themselves. And so they latched onto imperfect representations like this — especially when it came to anime, which is much, much more expensive to produce than manga.
As the internet came into more and more homes, anime and manga became more and more popular. Fans would trade bootlegged tapes they’d added their own subtitles to. The popularity of these “fansubs” encouraged the growth of companies to legitimately license and import anime and manga titles. And, of course, these companies would gravitate to titles like Gravitation (pun intended), which had been popular on the fansub scene.
This led to a big popularity boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But as with all booms, a bust soon followed. Companies who had been importing tons of titles in the time-honored tradition of seeing what sticks found themselves with a lot of unwanted stock. And the lack of care also meant companies would import titles that were on the surface queer, but utterly misread the LGBTQ experience.
Or, as Friedman puts it:
Anime and manga companies were inevitably headed by straight white men, looked at porn and comedy as valid forms of representation, given the limitations of printing, distributing and sales of overtly LGBTQ content.
So we got stories like Angel Sanctuary, in which all the characters are bi (or perhaps pan)sexual, since they are not human. In Kizuna, masculine characters have violent relationships and violent sex.
Your and My Secret is an example of what I consider to be excruciatingly unfunny gender switch comedies. The body switch is played for laughs, with more attention being paid to things like the boy unable to touch the breasts of the body he finds himself in, issues of superficial gender roles, rather than anything substantive.
But, as she points out, with the big publishers ignoring smaller yet more accurate titles, there was a hole for smaller publishers to put out queer anime that actually spoke specifically to queer audiences.
At the same time, bookstores were feeling the pinch of Amazon. To get people into their stores, they began expanding their offerings to more niche titles, encouraging browsing. Thus, you began to see huge manga sections in Borders and Barnes and Noble.
Friedman also looks to the trend-driven nature of the anime and manga industries in Japan. With new retail outlets — including internationally — for queer-themed work, mainstream publishers and distributors started dipping their toes into this market. It also became profitable for anime studios to spend money on making queer shows as well. For example, studio Pony Canyon made a 6-minute music video to float an adaptation of a popular Yuri (or lesbian-themed) manga:
As the video racked up views — over 277,000 in just six months — Pony Canyon greenlit an OAV (original animated video). And it’s not uncommon at all for OAVs to lead to normal TV series.
And now, with the popularity of crowdfunding, queer creators have a number of options to get their work out there, even if they haven’t been picked up by one of the major publishers.
It’s a great time for queer anime and manga fans, and queer fans have themselves to thank. So pat yourself on the back — you deserve it!
What do you think about the state of queer anime and queer manga?
This article was originally published on January 31, 2021. It has since been updated.