A look at LGBT representation in Japanese anime compared to what American studios do.

Representation in Western media has been at the forefront of talks in recent years. And the major American studios have been worked on that issue. This resulted in movies such as Aquaman with a Polynesian lead or Shang-Chi, the first Asian American superhero movie. It allows everyone to feel represented and that’s important. Indeed, you feel more connected the characters if you are able to identify yourself with them.

American Studios are doing a great job in terms of representation for women and people of color but they have failed to do that for the LGBT community, at least for the most part. I’m not talking about independant movies here but movies and TV series made by big studios. LGBT representation has been lacking with American Studios, which is something that isn’t a problem with Japanese anime. And that is exactly what I want to talk about. How Japanese anime do a better job at LGBT representation than American studios? First we have to look at what American studios are doing and then we will see what Japanese anime do.

American Studios and LGBT Representation
Simon (Nick Robinson) in Love, Simon.

The 20th Century Studios did a beautiful work with Love, Simon. It was a rom-com featuring a gay love story. It was a long overdue movie. However, we then got a spinoff series Love, Victor on Hulu (or Disney Plus STAR depending where you live) which was once again about coming out. Plus, Sony released Happiest Season another story about coming out. You can easily guess the trend here. Now Hollywood is stuck in that type of storyline for LGBT centered movies and series.

(L-R): LeFou (Josh Gad), Gaston (Luke Evans) in Beauty and the Beast. Photo courtesy of Disney.

The second alternative is movies that feature secondary characters who are barely hinted at being LGBT or when they are, it’s full of clichés. We all remember LeFou in the live-action remake of Beauty and The Beast. I love this movie but the LGBT representation there was a joke. And the worst, it’s the studios often saying they have representation making a big deal out of it. But in fact, when you watch the said movie, it’s not that at all.

And the final alternative is stories focusing on AIDS. It’s extremely depressing and repetitive. To be honest, it’s often quite offensive as if the LGBT community was only defined by the struggles of AIDS or coming out. So there is representation but it is too often reduced to those tropes.

Though, American Studios tend to give better representation when it’s Lesbian characters than when it is for Gay or Bisexual men. I can give you several TV series from studios featuring Lesbian characters or even movies that feature them without the coming out story. Though, when it comes to gay characters, it’s more difficult (there are of course a few). It’s because it’s easier for Straight men to see two women together than two men. And that’s the problem.

Steps To The Right Direction
(L-R): Sprite (Lia McHugh), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Karun (Harish Patel), Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

However, I have to say Disney is the studio that has significantly improved on LGBT representation. And Marvel Studios has been the one leading the front. In 2021, we got major LGBT representation. First, the Disney Plus series Loki confirmed its titular character as bisexual. It is a confirmation through a dialogue but it is extremely meaningful. And then, Eternals featured Phastos a gay superhero. It has nothing to do with coming out or clichés. They even show us his family life with his husband and his son! This is a better representation for gay and bisexual men than everything we got before from major studios.

It’s a long overdue representation. It’s definitely a great start. I know Marvel Studios will continue to improve their work on representation in the years to come. But I also hope other American studios can do the same. To do that, American studios should definitely look at what is done in Japan with anime.

A Different Approach

There is no doubt that I mostly feel more represented when I watch Japanese anime than with American studios. Indeed, Japanese anime have done a much better work in terms of LGBT representation than Western media.

First and foremost, Japanese anime are past the coming out storylines and the clichés. It’s often women who write these stories. And I think that partly explains why we get more gay love stories. Women don’t have problems to write these characters. In Japan, there is even a genre of manga and anime that specifically feature gay love stories – Boys’ Love. And it’s typically written by women. Even when it’s Lesbian or bisexual women, there is also a better representation. Sailor Moon is the perfect example of that representation. All in all, whether it’s gay, bisexual or lesbian representation, Japanese anime has it all, everyone is treated fairly.

Beyond that, I’m impressed with the variety of stories featuring two men in love. It’s not just the romantic stories that you can find in the Boys’ Love genre. You can have thrillers, comedies, sports, music anime featuring LGBT characters.

Mappa’s Diverse Work

Mappa is one of the Japanese studios doing a great work with LGBT representation. They have produced hugely successful series featuring main characters who are LGBT.

Banana Fish is a gritty action thriller. It deals with difficult and important themes like drugs, gangs and rape. In many ways, I would also describe it as a tragedy. It’s an emotionally heavy story. And the two leads Ash and Eiji are young men in love and their story is at the heart of the show. It’s one of my favorite anime.

Then, Yuri on Ice! is a sports anime about figure skating. The story focuses on Yuuri Katsuki, a profesionnal figure skater. He convinces Victor Nikiforov, another skater to train him. That profesionnal relationship quickly turns into a romantic one. By the end of the season, Yuuri and Viktor are engaged. It’s a fantastic series that not only provides a wonderful love story but it also does a great job at picturing the figure skating world.

And finally Sarazanmai, a series created by Kunihiko Ikuhara. It’s a fantasy anime following the story of Kazuki, Toi and Enta. These three teenagers have to help the Keppi collecting the shirikodama of zombies created by the Otters. The shirikodama help them getting Dishes of Hope to fulfill their wishes. It’s a compelling and emotional series as you would expect from Ikuhara. This one features three gay characters – Enta, one of the heroes. Plus the two cops Reo and Mabu who are a couple.

These three series say a lot about LGBT representation in Japanese anime. It’s stories that do a great job at showcasing LGBT characters. And these characters are not just defined by their sexuality. They are defined by their actions, their emotions and personalities. Plus, they are part of stories from different genres.

Universal Stories

Though, let’s not stop at Mappa. There are other works that feature LGBT representation in a meaningful way.

One that immediately comes to mind is Given. It’s a music drama anime that also fits in the Boys Love’ mold. Given tells the story of a rock music band. All of its members are LGBT characters. The series and the OVA focuses on Mafuyu and Ritsuka’s relationship. While the movie focuses on Akihiko and Haruki’s rekationship. It’s a series about grief, finding love and music. I have watched that one quite a few times, the songs are absolutely beautiful and the story feels so authentic! The characters face struggles that everyone face. It’s stories that have a universal appeal. It’s not about the neverending coming out or AIDS like too often seen in Western media. That’s why it’s also a better representation.

Beyond The Romance Trope

I have talked a lot about love stories as part of the LGBT representation in Japanese anime. But, Japanese anime also feature characters beyond the romance trope.

Sarazanmai is an example of that. Enta is in love with Kazuki, though it doesn’t end up in a romance as Kazuki isn’t interested in Enta. So it ends up as a friendship between Enta a Gay boy and Kazuki and Toi two Straight boys. And I find this quite compelling.

Stars Align is another example of featuring an LGBT character beyond the romance trope. And more importantly, that character Yu Asuka is non-binary. Their story has a lot to do with them finding who they want to be. And this happens in a sports anime. This series has done a groundbreaking work in terms of representation with Yu.

Neither Sarazanmai nor Stars Align follow the “gay friend” cliché from Western media. Yu and Enta are nothing like that. They are their own characters.

A Better Future

The reason I wrote this piece is to talk about LGBT representation and the need for mainstream Western media to do better on that matter. They can actually take example on Japanese anime for that. Indeed, anime do a much better job at LGBT representation. And it does it in a meaningful way.

It’s a subject that is dear to me. So I also hope that if you are part of the LGBT community, I have given you some anime to watch where you’ll surely feel represented. And anyone, if you love anime, I recommend the ones mentioned throughout this piece. If you are looking for a new anime to watch Sasaki and Miyano is starting on January 9! It’s a new LGBT romance series.



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