Within the problematic undertones of yaoi and fetishization of queer people in anime

Shonen, shoujo, seinen, josei, isekai, mecha, kodomomuke… for an avid enthusiast, the list of anime genres is endless and each category has its unique set of subgenres binge watch. For the uninitiated, however, the Japanese film and TV animation style is synonymous with a deeply problematic — depends who you ask — hentai (read: animated pornography).

Although anime became world famous in 2022 with the live-action remake of Cowboy Bebopiconic tributes to Sailor Moon and even Kanye West admitting that his “greatest creative inspiration” is Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk movie Akirachances are if you declare your love for Japanese popular culture or stream Otacore playlists in public, you’d be instantly hit with a “I bet you’ve been having weird kinks like scat since watching anime.”

Linked mainly to ‘gainaxing’ – the technique of illustrating a female character with lavish breasts minus a bra, and then animating every physics-defying shake and bounce they’re subjected to – in several mainstream anime, it’s not surprising to find seeing that SFW shows are looped in the same category as hentai. The fan service side of the industry doesn’t help this matter either, nor does the questionable fan art of characters popping up on forums like Reddit.

This generalization, in turn, has led to genres like ecchi and harem being seen as the main fodder for “otakus” or “weebs” on the Internet. Even if you only love shonen anime like A piece, Bleach and Fullmetal Alchemistyou are automatically considered a sul and locked up perv with no pull game, who probably has posters of ‘waifus’ like Zero Two or Marin Kitagawa in their wardrobe and car seats.

Although hentai poses problematic tropes such as incest, pedophilia and bestiality along with the gross objectification of women for male pleasure, I hate to admit that this is just the heterosexual side of the industry. Enter the deeply divisive world of yaoi and yuri – genres based on LGBTQ+ relationships that routinely succumb to poisonous stories to attract the most rabid fans.

What is yaoi?

Derived from “Yama nashi, Ochi nashi, Imi nashi,” meaning “no climax, no point, no meaning,” yaoi is a genre of anime, manga, video games, and movies that surrounds same-sex relationships — usually created by and for the viewing pleasure of heterosexual women. Yuri, on the other hand, is the female equivalent of yaoi that focuses on explicit lesbian relationships. Unlike the first, yuri is not marketed to a single demographic of viewers and the audience is made up of men, women and everyone in between.

The term “yaoi” was coined in the late 1970s as a subgenre of shoujo manga (illustrated works aimed at a young female audience). At the time, there were several terms that were used, including shounen-ai (or boys love), which refers to stories of non-explicit gay relationships that focus on the romantic, emotional, and joyful side of gay life. In contrast, yaoi was used in a self-deprecating way to refer to amateur fan works (doujinshi) that base their entire existence around sexual themes and scenes – excluding all kinds of plot and character development.

With “no climax, no point, no meaning”, yaoi therefore continues to feature male characters who are more than just friends, but not really lovers. This “in-between, not quite” status essentially paved the way for the genre to use homophobia as a mere plot device to augment the drama or to prove the terrifying love between the protagonists.

A genre full of problematic tropes

If you’ve been active in the anime scene, you would no doubt have heard echoes of certain shows that are off limits if you want to stay in the community as a “soft stan”. Whether it’s opening music (body, body! Body, body, body! – if you know, you know) or certain scenes (think sticky, melting vanilla ice cream that you’ll never look at the same way again), most of the references made can be traced back to media that fall under the yaoi genre.

Heck, while I managed to list both the poisonous and scarred anime minus their names in the paragraph above, chances are you’ll still be watching them at some point – given the way the curious algorithm works , both on social media and in our heads. Some call this a “rite of passage,” but I prefer to label the journey as yet another medium for endorsing yaoi, along with all its problematic tropes.

First, yaoi has a big rape problem. Rather than being presented as a crime involving an attacker and victim, rape is transformed into a degree of passion that ultimately reveals the “uncontrollable” attraction that the seme (“top” or “the attacker” in the relationship) feels for the uke (‘bottom’ or ‘the receiver’ – yet another problematic trope labeling of roles in same-sex courtship).

Almost all yaoi stories are covered at least one consensual sex scene as the uke later forgives and falls for the seme, making them forgive any sense of responsibility associated with the act of violence. Simply put, rape is love in yaoi.

Next up is “It’s okay if it’s you”: a figure of speech that downplays same-sex relationships in both yaoi and yuri. Synonymous with “I am not gay, my friend is”, most yaoi suggest that the characters are straight – except for just one person. I mean, that’s fine in real life, you hurt you as long as it doesn’t hurt the other human involved. However, in some yaoi works, homosexuality is compared to nothing more than a schoolyard fantasy where men “grow out” over time as their significant other leaves them for their toxic female ex.

In the genre, ukes are also largely treated as objects of pleasure with… self-lubricating loot holes that require no prior preparation before being penetrated by literal lightsaber penises (in the case of censored yaoi, that is). In some cases, characters who clear look like minors are being dismissed as working adults. And don’t even get me started on Yaoi’s obsession with misogyny, gaslighting, incest and rape drugs. The list is endless, but the problematic contenders depend on who you ask, as most people link the genre’s popularity to the claim that “girls like fiction more than realism.”

3 shounen-ai anime worth streaming in 2022

Now, if you’re someone who had never heard of the term “yaoi” before reading this article, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sudden surge in list content popping up in your Google Discover and FYPs. But if this article has piqued your interest and you want to check out the genre for your own reasons, I’d like to give you some shounen-ai anime before you click away.

Although the two categories in question have been used interchangeably, it will help you get a better and healthier perspective if you decide to try yaoi later. That said, here are three shounen-ai anime worth streaming in 2022 and beyond:

1. ‘Given’

Music has the power to heal and Given‘s portrayal of this fact hits all the right notes. The 2019 anime from Studio Lerche tells the story of Mafuyu Satou and his high schoolmate Ritsuka Uenoyama. With a passion for guitar, Mafuyu convinces Uenoyama to help him master the instrument and later join his band as lead singer. As Mafuyu falls in love with music, he falls in love with life again and learns to let go of his dark past and embrace new chapters in life.

The anime is filled with screenshot-worthy quotes and music that will live in your head rent-free for years to come. The story also takes a closer look at the relationship between the band’s bassist Haruki Nakayama and drummer Akihiko Kaji, who redefine queer joy one by one.


2. ‘Yuri!!! on ice’

MAPPAs Yuri!!! on ice is probably one of the most famous figure skating anime out there today. The 12-episode sports series follows a rising Japanese figure skater named Yuuri Katsuki, who gives up his passion after his crushing defeat at the Grand Prix final. Yuuri, who captivates his idol, Russian skater Victor Nikiforov, with his own rendition of his free skate program, is then coached by Nikiforov to rediscover his dreams and ambitions.

The sweet notes of respect, adoration and even humor between the two make the series a must-see, even if you’re not into the whole sport X shounen-ai genre. And believe me when I say this, Nikiforov will no doubt end up as your phone wallpaper the moment you finish binging the anime. Season two, when?


3. ‘No. 6’

This 2011 adventure anime from Studio Bones tells the story of Shion – an intelligent boy who lives a privileged life within the walls of No. 6 (one of six city-states built after the world was destroyed by war) – and Nezumi, a convict who met the former through a chance encounter. Over the course of 11 episodes, the protagonists build a romance centered on respect, support and understanding, all within the framework of a dystopian society.

(Spoiler alert!) What’s more, both Shion and Nezumi manage to eventually make it out alive, turning the bird into the “bury your gays” trope that has gripped LGBTQ+ anime since conception.


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