Is Anime Seriously Going Gay On Us? (A Commentary on Yuri!!! On ICE)

When Yuri!!! On ICE first came out, it “came out” in every sense of the phrase. Audiences were shocked, delighted, and some disgusted at the sight that they were seeing. To get some of you up to speed, what they were witnessing were the anime’s main characters Yuri and Viktor – both male – being portrayed as lovers. And oh boy, did the Internet go nuts.

For months, it seemed like we would never see the end of “Yaoi On Ice” jokes, heated debates about Episode 7’s hug (or was it a kiss?), and one analysis after another written about Eros and Agape. Fans of the series were falling for it all – hook, line and sinker – and would you believe, it wasn’t because it was yaoi?

Yaoi, also known as Boys’ Love (BL), refers to the Japanese genre of fictional material focusing on romantic or sexual relationships between male characters. It is typically marketed at female audiences, whereas its opposite, Yuri or Girls’ Love (GL) is typically marketed to males.

A screencap from Tiger and Bunny; an example of a famous yaoi series.

Many would claim that Yuri!!! On ICE is considered a yaoi, but I beg to differ. Throughout the series, Yuri and Viktor may have had plenty of romantic and sexual tension, but it never escalated further to the point of fetishising it. And if we can be real for a moment: yaoi and yuri is a fetish.

It is a clear example of homoeroticism in art, referring to homosexual desires which can be temporary, as opposed to homosexuality, which is a permanent identity and sexual orientation. Not that anything is wrong with enjoying homoeroticism. Most of us like it despite not being LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) ourselves.

But what’s worse is how frighteningly common it is for people to remain bigoted towards the LGBTQ community despite liking yaoi and yuri. For example: Finding gay people disgusting despite enjoying yuri, or openly disliking lesbians despite enjoying yaoi.

That’s what makes a show like Yuri!!! On ICE – a story that directly goes against the grain – carry such a powerful message for the current ACG landscape; perhaps best articulated by the show’s writer herself, Kubo Mitsurou:

Translation: “No matter what real people think of this anime, within its world no one is ever going to be discriminated against because of what they like. And that is something I will always protect.”

Compared to shows that blatantly use yaoi and yuri subtext to their (sales) advantage – e.g. Hibike! Euphonium, Free! Iwatobi Swimming Club, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a.k.a. the type of shows we’re used to – the difference in intention here is clear. But unfortunately, the reactions from audiences were not.

If we’re to be honest with ourselves, most of the ACG community still exists on extreme ends of the spectrum. Looking at how Yuri!!! On ICE was received, for example, many went ahead and over-sexualised situations, as if to “fill in the blanks” left by the production team. If not, many chose to stay away from the series; some just for the plain and simple reason that “yaoi” made them uncomfortable.

Either way, it shows us that we have a long way to go. Personally, I believe our obsession with (or distaste for) yaoi and yuri has only clouded our judgement towards the matter. Things only become clearer when we take a look to the West, where such media have become more common. Then, it is easier to differentiate between homoeroticism and true LGBTQ representation.

Our country Malaysia, and even Japan, may still be lagging behind in that department. But with stories like Yuri!!! On ICE leading the change, I believe it’s only a matter of time before we as a community catch up with our Western neighbours.

Still, the final decision lies in each and every one of us. Are we willing to accept that change?

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