What Value does Yuri Subtext have in Anime?

As I said in my post on the topic, yuri anime is incredibly rare. That’s just an unfortunate fact that any fan of yuri has to put up with. But while yuri anime is barely present, yuri is hardly uncommon in anime. In fact, it’s startlingly common in the form of subtext. I’d be willing to bet that somewhere between four and five shows have clear yuri subtext every season, if not more. Hell, it’s practically a requirement for the CGDCT genre. There’s a diverse set of opinions about how yuri fans should approach the subject of subtext and I plan on covering my ideas on the topic here.

Like I said, we lack yuri anime, so we’re stuck in a position where subtext is necessary to consume. I’d be very happy if I could watch actual yuri shows whenever I wanted to see some gay girls in my anime, but I can’t actually do that, so I turn to shows that I know will provide a lot in the way of subtext and implications. The current state of anime puts me into a position where even subtext is seen as a form of representation, but that shouldn’t be the case. Representation should ideally be explicit, but in absence of that I have to turn to something, and if I didn’t turn to subtext I’d have to turn to gross, fetishistic portrayals, something I’d rather avoid.

While it’s annoying to feel forced into consuming subtext, my approach to it varies a lot based on the material. The subtext in something like Kiniro Mosaic, which goes nowhere, is a lot more enjoyable to me than the subtext in a show like Hibike! Euphonium, which actively goes in a bad direction. An important part of my enjoyment of yuri subtext is that it remains in a firmly ambiguous state the entire time. If it veers into the territory of portraying one of the girls as straight then it fails, as it ceases to have any positive representative quality at that point.

I think it’s also important to clarify what subtext actually is. I see the term “yuribaiting” get thrown around a lot when people mean subtext and I can’t stand it, especially since it’s used in situations where it doesn’t apply. There’s plenty of “subtext” which is just text without a kiss. A great example of this is Flip Flappers, which people have called yuribait despite the show explicitly questioning Cocona’s sexuality in textual terms. This tends to be pretty irritating since it results in people ignoring some of the few yuri anime we do get. It’s almost entirely due to heteronormativity of course; no one would question Cocona and Papika’s relationship if one of them were male. Actual subtext is such because it’s ambiguous; if there are confirmed feelings, it’s not subtext anymore.

There are levels of acceptable subtext as well. CGDCT shows tend to have subtext from all characters, but they usually also have one character with a more blatant crush. Syaro in Gochiusa, Rin in New Game!, Aya in Kiniro Mosaic, and so on. These are nice, since they are explicit, though they do tend to come a bit too close to Class S-style admiration every once in a while. Still, it’s better than pure subtext and undertones.

The most irritating yet captivating type of subtext is the type that’s so blindingly apparent that everyone would accept if it were made canon. Here I’m talking about things like Kanan and Mari in Love Live Sunshine, Nanoha and Fate in Nanoha, and Hibiki and Miku in Symphogear. While you will find the odd person here and there that maintains that those relationships are absolutely platonic, the vast majority of people will look at those couples and say, “they’re gay.” It’s great because the shipping is done for me and I get to see what is, in effect, a lesbian couple in anime, but the fact that it’s technically still ambiguous is irritating. It’s totally unnecessary to keep it like that, but there’s no sign creators will stop doing that anytime soon, unfortunately. These couples are just another example of how a lot of yuri subtext would be text if the couples were straight. I’m still happy we have them, but it could be better.

I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I enjoy subtext, but it’s still worth criticizing. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with romantic subtext. You’ll find it among straight couples as well, and it’s a totally valid narrative tool. What makes it problematic is the fact that there are no real yuri anime. When subtext is all we get, it’s not enough. The absence of real yuri makes the subtext all the more unbearable, yet at the same time, the absence of real yuri makes the subtext all the more necessary to consume. It’s a bit paradoxical, but heteronormativity has driven me to a place where I simultaneously love and hate materials which I would just passively enjoy if the industry were in a better place.

So to conclude, subtext has value right now. It’s not perfect, but it’s what we’ve got, so we have to live with it. Subtext doesn’t always hurt a series after all. Nanoha and Symphogear would be much worse series if the yuri subtext wasn’t in them. But they would also be much better if they just blatantly crossed the line into text. Hell, those two series have already crossed that line, they’re just hiding, thinking they’re going unseen when we can all see it.

I’ll never actually get angry at subtext, outside of cases where the girls take a sudden turn towards heteronormativity near the end. But as much as I love seeing it, it’ll never keep me satisfied. We need real yuri anime, because only with its presence will subtext be able to shine on its own, not serving merely as replacement representation.


7 thoughts on “What Value does Yuri Subtext have in Anime?

  1. It’s fortuitous that you’d post something like this now. I was just about to go and comment something on your old Hidamari Sketch post for lack of a better place to put it. Having just finished the final season, I see a lot of potential problems with the way the yuri subtext was handled. Anyone watching the show should be able to realize that Sae and Hiro have a thing for eachother, and in Honeycomb even Yuno and Miyako start to look like more than friends, but the fact that it does not go anywhere still could say something.

    One scene in particular where I noticed this: Sae’s little sister is visiting, and makes fun of Sae for not having gone on any dates. Not only is Sae not explicitly in a relationship with Hiro, but it seems as though the possibility has never crossed anyone’s mind. I would not presume to speak for any actual lesbian women, but I get the feeling this approach could be seen as dismissive. Nobody in these shows considers the yuri relationship to even be possible, which might suggest some cultural attitudes about gayness – or at least female gayness – in Japan. I have no idea whether any of this has a basis, but as your yuri knowledge far exceeds my own, I’d like your take on it.

    Nice post, besides!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmm, yeah, I would say Hidamari gets a bit too heteronormative at the time. It’s pretty clear that Ume Aoki sees Hiro and Sae as in love if not in a relationship, but she still felt the need to write it in this way that ignores that. I think part of it is just the way these things are seen and part of it is an attempt to leave things ambiguous so as to not upset anyone too much. What’s more interesting is that Ume Aoki seems queer herself, based on some comments she’s made that show she’s very, uh, fond of looking at girls in public.

      There definitely is some basis to this stuff in Japanese culture. The 20th-century idea of Class S is structured around the idea of girls having incredibly close, romantic but not sexual love for one another in their teens before “graduating” into straightness and marriage. At the time Class S was progressive and gave far more freedom to queer Japanese women, but now it’s severely out of date. Class S was obviously a big influence on yuri, so those ideas stick around to some extent. They’ve mostly faded out of actual yuri manga, but in CGDCT manga they’re still oddly prevalent.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I have to admit that I agree on basically every point put forth.

    My theory for all of the subtext but not much actual yuri is that the studio working on the show is essentially trying to please two audiences at once, there’s us, the yuri community, and then there’s the “Muh waifu” belligerents who pick a new favorite girl every other month; the two can’t explicitly exist at once, so studios leave characters’ sexuality ambiguous to please both groups, but the yuri community always ends up getting the short end of the stick, since the latter group is really just not picky at all whatsoever, and there are a lot more of them.

    Hating on the annoying part of Otaku culture aside, I’m personally an incredibly avid shipper who is probably shipping around 200 different yuri couplings to differing extents; although I don’t really know what it’s like to have your ship utterly slaughtered (I’m really careful with my couplings), point is, I never would’ve been able to find this many beautiful ships if it weren’t for yuri subtext, hell, it’d probably be like one eighth of what it is now give or take, while yuri subtext is ultimately annoying and pointless, it’s also an integral part of a yuri fan’s shipping career.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Trust me, I’m a huge shipper too. I want more canon stuff, but I’m hardly out here campaigning against subtext. NanoFate is probably my favorite couple in all of fiction, in spite of my issues with how they’re presented at times.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Great article! I fully support your viewpoints.
    “…heteronormativity has driven me to a place where I simultaneously love and hate materials which I would just passively enjoy if the industry were in a better place.” I feel the same way 101%.


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