I’ve been meaning to write an article like this for a while now – not because I like yuri more than any other genre of anime, but because it’s such a niche genre in comparison to most others. Sure, you can find yuri pairings in any number of pornographic works, but anime that depict lesbian relationships in more genuine, realistic terms are actually incredibly few and far between. [As an aside, I think this has in large part to do with the general fanbase; when not overtly or explicitly sexual, yuri is a genre that’s often targeted towards women, not men – yet there are far more yaoi fans among women than yuri fans, and so the amount of anime being produced to cater to them are similarly low. Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t any men who also enjoy watching yuri anime, but this can actually become more of a problem in the long run, since it’s further complicating an already very fractured audience.] Having now watched a fair few yuri titles, many of which I will never, ever be watching again, I decided it might be a good idea to celebrate those that managed to stand out due to their intelligence, innovation, or sincerity – especially if, like me a few years ago, you have a curiosity in the genre but have absolutely no idea where to start.
A quick clarification: by yuri anime, I’m talking about titles in which there’s at least one canon, romantic female/female pairing in the series, and am only counting those where said pairing is a/the main couple of the show. For these reasons, I’m not including anime such as Sailor Moon, Loveless, or Read or Die.
Now that that’s cleared up, on with the list! These are in no particular order.
Kashimashi: Girl Meets Girl
I tend not to like either science-fiction or love triangles (the latter especially because they so often come across as clichéd or ridiculously melodramatic), but Kashimashi does both and still makes me like it. Granted, it’s not on my top 20 list and while production qualities are above average, there’s nothing that particularly stood out to me in terms of artwork or animation. Having said that, this is a good example what yuri anime can be like when mixed with romantic comedy and actually done well. The sci-fi aspects bring something fun and a bit unique to the table, but apart from setting off the chain of events they don’t play a major role in the story, which definitely works for me. I don’t know that Kashimashi really ever manages to get away from some of the stereotypical characters we’re used to seeing in yuri anime – the princely tomboy, the ultra-shy sweet one, etc. – but what it does do is weave quite a touching series that largely steers away from generic fanservice and cheap gags, instead focusing on a sympathetic cast of girls, down-to-earth romance, and some genuinely amusing comedy.
Maria-sama ga Miteru
Maria-sama is what happens when you cram a bunch of very proper, well-bred young ladies together at an all-girls Catholic high school… without actually aiming the anime at men. Usually this synopsis alone would look to be a recipe for slow-motion pillow fights and more panty shots than you could shake a stick at (and that’s the least offensive scenario), but since Maria-sama is a classic yuri series, and one that firmly adheres to the Class S genre to boot, it’s very much a character-driven series with absolutely nothing in the way of fanservice. What we have instead is a sometimes intense but mostly slow-moving, largely plotless show that revolves around emotional rather than physical relationships. On the one hand, this means that anyone looking for something a bit racier or even any kind of overarching narrative will almost instantly fall asleep, because looking at it from these angles, Maria-sama really is nothing more than a dialogue-heavy snooze-fest. On the other hand, we’re also talking about a show whose emphasis is on romance as opposed to sexuality, which many yuri fans will no doubt find extremely gratifying. The series can certainly be over-dramatic at times, but it’s also one that is beautiful, graceful, and really quite sweet, with some nice artwork and a few surprisingly mature storylines.
Revolutionary Girl Utena
I feel odd about listing this here, because despite its numerous merits, I really don’t like this series – for the most part I find it dull, repetitive, and often just plain silly. That said, I have an enormous amount of respect for the show, and its significance as far as the yuri genre goes cannot be underestimated. I would never in a million years recommend this series to anyone unfamiliar with anime, because a huge part of its goal is to play on and subvert a number of tropes seen in shoujo manga. It also borrows heavily from the types of visuals that those with some knowledge of the Takarazuka Revue will recognise, but will probably be lost on everyone else. Utena is essentially a postmodernist fairy tale present wrapped in distorted magical-girl tropes and topped off with a ribbon made of pure what-the-fuckery – it’s part surrealist fantasy, part psychological drama, with a healthy dash of allegory amidst plenty of the most compelling (or most terrifying, depending on your point of view) that shoujo has to offer: abuse, rape, yaoi, yuri, incest, and gender play. If you like Ikeda Riyoko’s The Rose of Versailles or Oniisama e, fairy tales with dark twists, the weirder parts of Sailor Moon, or Mawaru Penguindrum, then there’s a high probability of you really digging Revolutionary Girl Utena. Utena’s relationship with Anthy is one of the most complex and expertly woven anime romances I’ve ever seen, while the relationship between Juri and Shiori makes for another very intriguing affair.
This series is a bit different from many anime out there, and a lot different from many yuri anime in particular. While only six episodes in length, each of them are 45 minutes long rather than the standard 20 to 25 minutes – they feel more like miniature movies more than episodes really, and I think this tends to work in the show’s favour since there’s quite a bit going on with regards to plot. With an interesting mix of action, mystery, science-fiction, the supernatural, and even elements of horror, my first thought was that Mnemosyne would have too much going on to tell an effective story. Surprisingly, it’s actually a very well-paced narrative that also manages to be boldly intelligent as well as undeniably provocative, dishing out plenty of fanservice right alongside its often very grotesque, squirm-worthy visuals. I find the relationship between Rin and Mimi, as well as some of the relationships that Rin and Mimi are involved with outside of the detective agency, to be especially engaging – even more so when their immortality comes into play. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this series for the faint of heart, and it’s fairly obvious which demographic the show is targeting, but that doesn’t mean women shouldn’t also be able to enjoy it. The series is original and creative in terms of plot as well as its approach to storytelling, and a much welcome breath of fresh air compared to some of the more mainstream yuri anime material around.
This show is in many ways the polar opposite of Mnemosyne – both are great anime, but where Mnemosyne is in-your-face and often quite graphic with its themes and visuals, Aoi Hana is soft and sensitive and oh so sweet. A slice-of-life drama with some lovely artwork, this series features some of the most realistic portrayals of female/female romance that I’ve seen in any anime title to date. If you’re familiar with Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son), an anime I reviewed a while ago here on Otaku Lounge, then you’ll have a good idea of the kind of style I’m talking about. Although the story is simple enough and definitely won’t be keeping any action fans entertained, Aoi Hana is probably the best yuri-specific anime I’ve had the pleasure of watching thanks to how respectfully and intelligently the genre is explored. One of the things I really love about Shimura Takako’s work here is that unlike so many other yuri stories, she doesn’t shy away from also depicting males in her cast that are more than just token characters. Neither does she treat men as some kind of cruel or inferior breed – as befitting an anime that is first and foremost a yuri series, all of the main characters are young women, but I don’t get the feeling that the male sex is being excluded simply because it’s a story revolving around lesbian relationships. I also applaud the way in which the characters, complex as they are, interact with one another naturally; the relationships don’t feel forced, and the story very wisely steers away from both comedy and melodrama, instead choosing to focus on the sincerity of the narrative. To me, that’s what makes Aoi Hana truly shine.
Question of the post: What’s the best and/or worst yuri anime you’ve ever watched? Do you think yuri anime is gradually becoming more popular, or is it slowly fading into the background?