Yuri 101 |A 40-Year Long Gap

1945-1970, the two-and-a-half decades immediately following the deadliest war in human history, a war which reduced much of Japan to rubble. The first period of Japanese industrialization and capital accumulation was long since over, and with it, the social environment had changed. While young women in all-girls’ schools continued to fall for one another while facing the idea that their feelings were mere practice for heterosexual marriage, the Class S movement, and the pessimistic hope for escape which accompanied it, were long-since dead, giving way to the growth of a broader queer subculture. But the path to yuri was not untread during this period. The rebuilding of Japan really did change everything, all aspects of the culture, and for our purposes, one of the most notable such changes was the blossoming of manga.

The immediate postwar years were not a time of great prosperity. Many parts of Tokyo were outright slums and it took a decade from the end of the war for the famous “economic miracle” to bear fruit, even longer for that fruit to become edible to those on the lowest rungs. An environment such as this was a perfect breeding ground for pulpy, cheap to produce media, just look at the Depression-era US, and comic books are just one such example of the works which cropped up at the time. While manga existed in some form before the war, it was after it that they truly took off, becoming the serious force in popular culture that they are today. This was, of course, spearheaded heavily by Osamu Tezuka, though contrary to the belief of many Westerners, he was far from the only influential mangaka working at the time.

Tezuka is often thought of as a mangaka focused heavily on the male demographic, with stories such as Astro Boy, Black Jack, and Dororo standing out as clear examples of shounen and seinen-aimed material. However, in the immediate postwar era, many if not most shoujo mangaka happened to be men as well, and Tezuka was just one such author. Many of Tezuka’s introductions to the medium, such as his large, expressive eyes and often melodramatic stories derived, in part, from his experience with shoujo culture. See, Tezuka was born in the city of Takarazuka, and was a huge fan of the Revue, something which bears out as you look into his works. This experience with pre-war shoujo culture would itself go on to inform future shoujo culture, as the prose stories of the Taisho and early Showa eras gave way to manga as a dominant form.

Many of Tezuka’s Disney adaptations, such as Bambi, were published in shoujo magazines, but the work most clearly recognized for its importance, and for good reason, is Princess Knight, or in Japanese, Ribon no Kishi. Directly borrowing aesthetic elements from Takarazuka, it tells the story of a princess who, due to a mishap up in Heaven, is born with the heart of both a boy and a girl. In an attempt to prevent an evil duke from exercising his claim to the throne, she’s treated as a boy so that she can inherit the crown. While not a yuri story itself—the lead, Sapphire, eventually marries a man—and not even as gender-breaking as some of Tezuka’s other work—a strongly essentialist tone remains in its treatment of “men’s” and “women’s” hearts, even if Sapphire’s possession of both is an important step in the history of how manga has portrayed these things—the manga was very popular with the nation’s girls, one of many works at the time which brought attention to the shoujo magazines it was published in. In addition, it’s had an outsized influence on future works we’ll be covering, so it’s worth keeping in mind for that reason, though I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.

However, none of this is an explicit connection to yuri manga. This video is on the shorter end, as you probably saw, but trust me, we’re not quite done. While Class S as such was long gone by the time shoujo manga was on the rise, there is one notable work which stands out as a precursor to yuri’s true beginning: The Rows of Cherry Trees, or, Sakura Namiki. Drawn in 1957 by Takahashi Makoto, a well-regarded artist for his ultra-flowery shoujo girls which played just as large a role on shoujo’s aesthetic as Tezuka, it draws in many ways from the works of Yoshiya’s time. Set at an all-girls’ school, and with art certainly reminiscent of the covers shown in the first video, it tells the story of two girls’ battle for their senpai’s affection, with the main character eventually winning. Theirs is not a sexual relationship, but it is in a certain sense a romantic one, much as the less explicit stories of the Class S days were.

Realistically speaking, it’s unlikely that Sakura Namiki had a direct effect on the development of yuri. However, its existence demonstrates a few dynamics which are key to keep in mind as we move into the next stage of history. First, the appeal of same-sex relationships had not ceased. This seems obvious, but it’s really quite important. The young girls reading these magazines still found something captivating about these relationships between girls their age, between the connection of admiration from kohai to senpai. Second, it’s a demonstration of the broadening of these feelings. By the time Sakura Namiki released, school enrollment and literacy was far higher than they had been in Yoshiya’s time. The young girls reading these stories were not the bourgeois girls who could afford to go to private schools at the turn of the century, but the children of Japan’s general working masses. And as affordable entertainment, manga itself reached this broader audience.

The dynamics of Class S, of close relationships between girls unfortunately bound to fall apart due to the pressures of society, had not disappeared like a puff of smoke with the end of the war, even if its specific movement had slowed to a halt. With the queer movement and community expanding in cities like Tokyo, spaces were being opened for post-education expressions of divergence, albeit in a heavily marginal position. Yet, in the 50s as shoujo manga blossomed, it was not young women telling the stories of their feelings as they had done decades prior, but adult men borrowing from the works of those decades. That was about to change.

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