While I was reviewing the show about sex that I’ve been watching, I got to thinking about the more general theme of sexuality in anime. While there are countless romantic comedies, most of them are so formulaic as to not warrant discussion. And in other shows fanservice and romance are often added almost as an afterthought, to fill up time or attract more viewers or both. When anime writers actually put forth artistic effort into portraying sexuality, it is most commonly through gay characters. In the over two thousand hours of anime I’ve watched, portrayals of homosexuality have almost exclusively fallen into one of five categories. And while of course there will be some exceptions, these groupings cover the vast majority of series’ gay characters. So here they are, in order of increasing realism and decreasing infuriation.
Category I: Gay People Don’t Exist
This rank isn’t about a lack of gay characters (this is a ranking of how homosexuality is portrayed, and the under-representation of gay characters is, as a lack of portrayal, a subject for another post), but rather the explicit or implicit declaration that there are no gay characters in the entire setting. Aquarion Evol, the inspiration for this post, falls into this category. The giant robot Aquarion goes berserk whenever any of its three pilots has strong romantic feelings for one of the others. So, in order to avoid this, they separated the male and female pilots and allowed no contact whatsoever between the two genders. And it worked. They had absolutely no problems for years after they instituted that policy, because of course there are no gay people amongst the many dozen pilots at the academy. It’s stupid, it’s ignorant, and it’s amazing that Satelight/8bit could have an entire production team where no one would realize that something was wrong.
Category II: The Flamboyant Comic Relief
This is the most common representation that I’ve seen in shounen series. It shows up in both male and female flavors, and neither of them are good. The men are exceptionally effeminate, with gesture and speech mannerisms that correspond remarkably with the stereotypical “flamboyant gay guy” in American culture. They are hypersexualized, constantly making advances on all the straight male cast, more often than not resulting in a Benny Hill-style chase scene designed to get laughs out of thirteen-year-old boys. A recent example is Persona 4 The Animation, where the animators managed to make it even worse in adaptation.
As with the men, the women in this category are all sex-crazed. However, in addition to the sexual harassment-based humor, they also provide fanservice, since we’re all supposed to find breasts being groped hilarious. To Aru Kagaku no Railgun is a show where one of the characters is constantly trying to bed the protagonist, with the added bonus of another character who engages in constant skirt flipping.
There were many other scenes from the show that would have provided more explicit examples, but I didn’t feel comfortable posting those images. And don’t get me started on Sacred Blacksmith…
Category III: Constant Low-Level Fanservice
Sometimes, when a writer realizes that his audience might not want gay characters who try to sleep with anything that moves, you’ll get characters who actually have relationships. But when the writers don’t manage to get all the way to serious interpersonal interaction, you wind up with shows in this category. The running around and groping are traded in for blushes and extended shots of staring into each others’ eyes, and the characters seem to understand that not everything with the proper set of chromosomes wants to sleep with them. Series that feature this category can be quite good, and the characters’ relationships can be very entertaining to watch, but it still feels like the aim of these characters is fanservice rather than realism. For instance, I really enjoyed watching Saki, and found it to be one of the most adorable shows I’ve ever seen. But the point of the show was lots of blushing and adorableness, providing a steady stream of (rather effective) mild fanservice in order to keep viewers hooked. Never mind that relationships are more complicated than that; there must be more holding hands!
The male half of this category more often turns up in shoujo works, which are not the types of series I tend to watch. From what I can tell, it all seems to work the same for the men as it does for the women, but with more sparkles.
Category IV: Standard Romantic Comedy
Here is where the portrayals of homosexuality finally are on par with how heterosexual relationships are most commonly shown (aside from harems, I suppose, but that deserves a category all to itself). In these shows, gay characters actually interact in a way that at least attempts to mirror the real world. Unfortunately, while there are WAY TOO MANY heterosexual romantic comedies, those with gay characters are much more rare. In fact, off the top of my head, the only series I’ve seen that qualifies is Sasameki Koto. It was serious and humorous and happy and sad, and more enjoyable than many other romantic comedies. There isn’t really an image I can provide that sums up the quality of the anime, but the relationships between the girls were as good as if not better than those in the show’s heterosexual counterparts. Like them, it suffered from some of the pitfalls inherent in turning romance into comedy, but that’s not always a bad thing…
Category V: Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son)
This category has only one show, Hourou Musuko, because there are no other shows like it. It is what dramatic romance series aspire to be, with the most realistic relationships I’ve ever seen in anime. I couldn’t watch much of it, because I found it too serious to be entertaining, lending itself more to critical analysis and artistic appreciation rather than simple enjoyment. But it certainly occupies the top spot when it comes to depictions of gay characters.
If you have any counterpoints, additional examples, objections, or general thoughts on this topic, feel free to comment. This is an analysis based on what I’ve seen, and I obviously haven’t seen everything, so I’d like to know your thoughts on the topic.