[Script] The Rise of Yuri Fandom with Sailor Moon

In my last video on the history of the yuri genre, I left off in the early-to-mid 70s, where Class-S and the Year 24 Group had led to the creation of a new genre. At the time, it was mostly seen as nothing more than a certain form of shoujo manga and hardly had widespread recognition. Today, it’s time to look at where the name yuri came from, how the genre spread to other audiences, and how it became an entrenched part of otaku culture.

In the early 70s, when the genre first appeared, it did not have a specific name, at least not one that’s still used today. Perhaps it was simply called same-sex love, perhaps it was so infrequent as to lack a name, unfortunately, there’s no real information on it. No, the name yuri didn’t come about until the middle of the decade. In 1976, the term first appeared in the relatively mainstream gay magazine ‘Barazoku’ which translates to Rose Tribe. In it, the editor of the magazine called its female readers ‘Yurizoku’ or the Lily Tribe. From here, the term grew in its association with lesbians, to the point that it was eventually picked up by doujin circles, before finally shifting into a larger name for the genre which included both pornographic and non-pornographic works.

But how did yuri become a genre as such? For a genre to have any meaning, it needs a community, a canon, a group of people who recognize the shared characteristics between works as part of a greater whole rather than as disparate works with trace similarities. In other words, it needed to expand and pick up a serious fanbase.

While yuri started in shoujo manga, it could be seen in other sorts of stories of the 70s as well. Shounen manga often featured lesbians, though generally, they were there to serve as comedic fodder or as villains. A great example of this is the original Cutie Honey, where Honey’s friend Nacchan is quite clearly gay but not taken particularly seriously. These trends had a relatively low impact on yuri’s immediate development, but they did expose the genre to a male audience which often shipped the girls together or used them as material for yuri doujinshi, something which would become influential in the long-term.

However, as a whole, the late 70s saw little change from the early 70s. Lesbians might’ve started showing up in a few more manga, but the community was still tiny at best and there was certainly no change in the tragic endings that all stories saw. The heteronormative pressure was still in full effect.

This began to shift in the 80s. It’s not as if the tragic elements and negative stereotypes were totally shed through this period. They were still quite dominant in the majority of yuri. But there were exceptions, particularly in josei manga. These are often forgotten since they had little obvious influence on later yuri, but a fair number of manga aimed at adult women portrayed lesbian couples in a relatively decent way, often allowing them to happily end up together. A great, English translated example of this is Moonlight Flowers, which has a happy ending for at least one of its couples. That’s not to say it isn’t tragic, as one couple does end in death and there’s plenty of violence and even rape throughout the manga. But it’s a picture of the wider freedoms granted to lesbian manga in josei magazines of the time. Shoujo, of course, did not change, with almost all endings still being tragic or, at best, ambiguous.

Another key part of the 80s was the serious debut of yuri fandom. As I said, the term yuri was picked up by doujin circles early on and it’s these groups that often formed the initial community surrounding the genre. I can find works going all the way back to Comiket 30 in 1986 which are yuri and there’s almost certainly older ones which were never scanned. Shipping became more and more popular and given the abundance of close girls in anime even back then, from magical girls to sci-fi, it’s no shock that male and female fans alike coalesced around these series and began making doujinshi based on them.

But even then, the community was still pretty tiny and there was little widespread or mainstream recognition of the genre. It was a type of manga that quite a few people liked but the tragic elements hardly went away, especially in series not specifically aimed at adults. Yuri hints might’ve been rising in male-aimed OVAs as well but they rarely went anywhere, except in porn series like Cream Lemon, where they obviously existed for men to jack off to. That is, until one manga and anime arrived in the early 90s, changing the genre to such an extent that nearly every series made after has to give it some credit.

That series was Sailor Moon. Both the anime and manga were pivotal here but the anime was significantly more popular and by all accounts had a larger impact. Sailor Moon was a shoujo manga published in a large magazine and its anime aired on TV for kids to watch.

From the start, Sailor Moon was popular with yuri fans. Magical girl anime usually were and Usagi’s repeated attraction to the other Senshi didn’t do much to dissuade this, even with Mamoru’s presence. It’s not hard to find yuri doujinshi for the series from when there were only three Senshi. But it wasn’t until the third arc where things really got going with Haruka and Michiru. These two were truly revolutionary. Certainly, they carried the butch/femme dynamic that many past yuri series had gone with, and for a time it seemed like their fate would be tragic as well. Given the size of the series, even a tragic ending for the couple would have significantly influenced the genre and community, increasing its size massively.

But they didn’t get a tragic end. They defied not only their own fate but the fate of all anime and manga lesbians at the time. They stayed together without dying or separating, something which was absurdly rare for mainstream series at that point. Not only that but in the anime, much of their dialogue is deeply suggestive and indicates that they even have sex, something truly unheard of in shoujo yuri back then. They were fully canon and also just attractive characters who were easy to develop crushes on and draw together. In short, they were the perfect couple for the job.

It’s very fortunate that Sailor Moon is the series that was latched onto. Haruka and Michiru were obviously great but by the nature of the show, there were a lot of other directions for members of the community to go in, increasing its popularity and thus yuri’s popularity. All of the Senshi were easy to ship with one another and there were other characters like Seiya who were explicitly gay. As such, the community was practically able to sustain itself purely based on this one series, with couples available to fans of any type of relationship.

And it can’t be overstated what an influence this had on the community. Sailor Moon awakened an interest in yuri for many people, particularly but not exclusively girls, and these fans quickly began to contribute. The history of otaku culture is a history of self-sustainment and cultural reproduction. It’s a world where creators are almost always fans themselves, for better or for worse. This applied here. The number of yuri doujinshi increased and with them came a new wave of mangaka interested in yuri. We even have translated Sailor Moon doujinshi from such esteemed yuri mangaka as Milk Morinaga and Morishima Akiko. A massive number of mangaka get their start doing doujinshi, so the importance of Sailor Moon doujins to yuri was massive. Eventually, Sailor Moon became a self-sustaining force for yuri on its own, as its existence fueled the genre and the genre helped to fuel its continued popularity in otaku spheres.

As yuri fan identity became more and more established due to Sailor Moon, one more important series released in the 90s. It had now been proven that yuri could survive without tragic endings and so, Sailor Moon’s best director left to do his own series. That director is Kunihiko Ikuhara, who departed after the show’s fourth season to make his own work, Revolutionary Girl Utena.

Utena is even gayer than Sailor Moon, though the queerness in this show is on both sides of the spectrum. Characters like Juri were obviously popular, but it was Utena and Anthy that grabbed the fandom. Again, they came at the perfect moment. They still embodied the butch/femme dynamics but at the same time, they rejected the binary of those tropes. The show did not end tragically for them but it also wasn’t entirely clear how things would work out. Because of this, fans felt the need to show for themselves how things would go, only making doujins of them more popular.

Utena and Anthy were hardly as influential as Haruka and Michiru, but they made an impact at the right time. Haruka and Michiru were so important that they practically created the yuri community. They so totally changed things that the previous yuri fandom, while historically important, didn’t really exist anymore, not in the same way. Utena and Anthy merely solidified that community, showing that it had the potential to last, that it wasn’t merely interested in one specific couple. In other words, it proved that yuri was a serious genre worth considering, not just a fad.

All this time, manga had been improving. The influence of Sailor Moon encouraged other artists to publish series that ended happily, series which the now much larger community would be eager to gobble up. The many doujin artists inspired by these two couples began to make other doujins, or even to publish serialized manga. Anime with yuri elements became more and more popular. Yuri fans were now a real demographic as the millennium turned, a community capable of seriously supporting yuri works. It’s with this that we began another phase of the genre, one where it could truly be respected and appreciated. One where multiple yuri manga and anime could release in one year. One where openly queer works would become more prominent. One where, perhaps, we could even have a whole magazine dedicated to the genre. It’s this phase that I’ll be discussing in part 3.

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