Queerness in anime is pure, poetic, an indiscretion amidst the self-questioning and humiliation of high school. That is also where it must end, so it would seem in many manga and anime. The tragedy of having loved someone who perhaps shares your feelings, perhaps not, passes into the locked treasure box of memory as another teen leaves childhood behind, with one last look over their shoulder at all their old longings. That was one time, when they loved someone ferociously and without the responsibility of forethought. A time when they assumed they knew what love was.
This tragic dynamic, where same-sex love and its loss are as inevitable as the other, is so often replayed as though voicing a universal truth. Sometimes it is almost a punishment, deserved by a character for being so selfish, not being in touch with their true feelings, needing to face up to the real world in its unconditional cruelty. This is the case in Kiznaiver, in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, in No. 6. Even when love survives, these anime prescribe a double dose of doomed innocence.
Kiznaiver’s Maki suffers the added dagger of her love being doomed before any of the hetero crushes and love triangles among the rest of its main cast. Even before the anime’s narrative, she loses her first and only love Ruru to a terminal illness. She blames herself for neglecting Ruru and their joint project, a manga telling the story of another doomed romance between two women, a teacher and her student. The implication is that, though Ruru was bound to die, her fate was quickened by Maki breaking her heart.
The thought of being in love with another girl was more than Maki could deal with. She dreaded the implications, not being able to go through with her heart’s want and ultimately hurting Ruru even more. She withdraws because she fears what ‘real life’ would be by her friend’s side. Their bond, either way, would be cursed.
This fate and penance is presented as life lesson, the teaching of some higher power that happiness is ultimately out of our control. Nobody can lead their lives with the comfortable naïveté of childhood, as responsibility to the greater good must be accepted sometime. Madoka is the ultimate symbol of that fact, sacrificing her short youth to become a galactic goddess, powerful enough to destroy all darkness. Her friend Homura cannot accept that, and so she interferes with the fabric of time in her determination to save Madoka’s life. The question is whether she is doing this for Madoka, or herself. After all, Madoka has accepted her fate and stepped up to meet it, with loving heart and rational mind in perfect balance. Homura is the only one left clinging to her body as the totem of a love better served in spirit.
Young, queer love is shown deluded in this way, convinced that it can fix the damaged world around it. Such is the case in From the New World, in which same-sex love is pure yet unstable succour in a world of monsters, and in No. 6, set in a future post-war dystopia concealed behind the walls of the Utopian cities. Shion lives a charmed life in the city No. 6, until he harbours a fugitive from outside the walls and falls into disgrace. When the fugitive, Nezumi, returns to liberate Shion from the city’s illusion, they become one another’s only comfort in a hopeless world. Their relationship itself becomes what exposes them to their world’s true sickness, especially in sheltered Shion’s case. As hard as they might try to make some difference, rescue their fellow outcasts into the parasitic wastes, death becomes their reality. Through their choices, they are bound to one another in that reality, regardless of their hopes or feelings.
Together, many of anime’s queer teens have their days of happiness numbered. It is the same in citrus, the beauty of first love soured by the practical insistences of the adult world; marriage, family, pride, success. The only way to make the pain stop is to put away youthful idealisations for good, and go out into the world a ‘normal’, respectable member of society. That, or lead a double life where homosexuality is hidden behind closed doors.
Creators are nonetheless beginning to push towards queerness being accepted in Japan and the wider world. Yurikuma Arashi championed lasting love between girls in a hateful world which would keep it entrapped in the fairytales of youth, and Yuri!!! on ICE broke new ground with a kiss between two adult queer men. In the latter there is an apparent engagement, although both romantic instances were protected from potential outrage by suggestion. They are given their happy ending without being doomed to suffer for it, but at the same time we never see Yuri or Viktor’s lips meet. At the crucial moment, their mouths are hidden by Viktor’s arm in what could be just an enthused embrace. Nor do they agree in so many words to be wed. Outside of hopeful assumption, both characters could still be presumed two straight men, sexuality never mentioned, and outside reference to their ‘engagement’ excused as a punchline.
The eggshell treading was understandable to a degree, as Shion and Nezumi’s relationship in No. 6 was met with viewer backlash over gay themes being inserted into a non-shounen-ai sci-fi series. In a societal environment accepting of queerness as long as it’s part of private life, broadcasting of queer love in the day to day and beyond the high school ‘phase’ is still tentative. In an anime climate post-Yuri!!! on ICE, though, perhaps we can hold out some hope for seeing more such loves flourish beyond the school gates.