Have you ever had an idea that just sounds like you’re about to kick a hornets’ nest, and you just decide to do it anyway? Yeah, me neither.
I’ve been thinking about this for about as long as I’ve been an anime fan. It’s no secret that the medium has always had a niche set aside for these kinds of stories, especially boys’ love and manga. My conservative estimate is that half of the manga on Bookwalker is yaoi.
And that all began with watching Death Note, and going online to talk about it with my friends, look at fanart, and go on Archive of Our Own to read fanfiction, where I found a…not insignificant amount of Light and L doing a different kind of detective work (3,000 if you’re curious).
There is a long history of fujoshi and fudanshi in just about every fandom ever, but considering I just used two Japanese words to describe the concept of people who like BL, I think there’s something going on there. What is it about anime and manga that doesn’t just create a space for these stories and their fans, but offer so many series that specifically cater to it, while also never giving the people what they really, really vocally want?
Or, to put it in another way, what’s with all the queerbait in anime?
Before we begin, let me establish that I am in no way an expert on the topics I’m going to reference here. In fact, I’m talking about queerbait anime specifically because I have more experience with that than BL and GL anime and manga, and I don’t want to get too far out of my depth.
Nothing I say about Japanese culture or Western influence on that culture should be taken as indicative. I did some research that’s available for anyone to find online, trying to understand the context of how a thousand years of art has evolved in response to an increasingly global market. Generalizations are unavoidable, but I’ll do my best to minimize them.
The history of homosexuality in Japan differs greatly from the West and Middle East, which have been defined by the doctrine of Abrahamic religions for the last two millennia. Shintoism and Buddhism, the two dominant religions in Japan, hold no prohibition against homosexuality. However, some Western attitudes towards sexuality were adopted during and after the Meiji Restoration (1868-1889) and American occupation of post-war Japan (1945-1952).
Despite the strong historical and cultural presence homosexuality has had in Japan, it is often considered taboo for this reason. Even in isolation, ancient and feudal Japan adopted a form of pederasty similar to Greek civilizations of antiquity.
Buddhist acolytes and samurai apprentices were encouraged to engage in relationships with their mentors. This was usually accompanied by an agreement of monogamy, though that only extended to other men. Yet again, similarly to ancient Greece, male and female partners were held as though in separate categories.
Japan has only rarely adopted laws that were outright hostile to homosexual relationships, and only after the West began to exert its influence in the country, but the legal attitude remains one of ambivalence. Same-sex marriage and civil unions are not recognized despite popular support, and with the 2022 overturning of a decision categorizing a ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional, that seems unlikely to change in the immediate future.
What I hope to do with this section is help someone who might have no prior knowledge of what I’m about to talk about, so they might understand the cultural context. There are some cultural restrictions against homosexuality, though there are no legal prohibitions, creating a space for stories that occupy the middle ground, so to speak.
These stories usually feature relationships between men (but not always) that go beyond friendship, while not labeling itself as explicitly romantic. That is what we call queerbait.
Queerbait has a bad reputation, and it is at least partially deserved. The term is most often used to deride writers who want to have their cake and eat it, too. Queer people form a large part of many fanbases, and an especially enthusiastic one at that, but they don’t want to alienate that guy at Disney who edits the gay out of every movie they release in China.
Before we discuss the right and wrong way that queerbait can be used, though, let’s talk about what’s not queerbait. Let’s face it, there are a lot of people on the internet who see two male characters interact and call it queerbait when the writer doesn’t have them end up living together in a cottage. I’m old enough to remember that someone got traction on Tumblr for trying to forcibly out Arin from Game Grumps despite the fact that he’s straight, because he makes dumb jokes in Youtube videos.
We have to consider the possibility that the writer never intended for these characters to be viewed as queer. Also, if I may ruin the day of some people on Twitter, men should be allowed to have close relationships without their sexuality being questioned. Gender roles have been loosened considerably, and yet some of the most “progressive” people won’t let two men hug without assuming they’re gay.
The worst offender in all of anime may be the My Hero Academia fandom. Katsuki Bakugo is not allowed to breathe within ten feet of another boy or they will accuse Horikoshi of queerbaiting. Actually, a lot of shonen anime wind up in this situation, as they have majority-male casts with a lot of interpersonal conflict.
Everyone is free to come up with their own interpretations of stories, and write the fanfiction or draw the fanart they want, but the problem is that a lot of people don’t stop there. There have been death threats and harassment campaigns against people for shipping Deku with his canon love interest. I’m going to be particularly brave for a second and say threatening someone with violence over cartoon romance is dumb.
And as a writer, I personally want the freedom to explore different kinds of relationships. Friendship can be more interesting than romance, and I will die on this hill. I mentioned L and Light, and deciding that their complex and antagonistic dynamic just means they’re gay is lazy. Not least because you don’t need to elevate examples of an unhealth relationship in a community where instances of domestic violence are often ignored and don’t receive the proper awareness.
Consuming art often requires us to look deeper than what is initially available. By taking the most simplistic interpretation possible, you’re underselling a writer’s hard work, and not every character needs a romantic relationship. Don’t let that stop you from having your headcanon, as long as you aren’t forcing it on other people. I wish we got more relationships between men and women in fiction that don’t have to be romantic.
But enough about stories that aren’t actually queerbait, I want to see the ones that are.
There are too many examples to name them all, so I’m going to settle for some of my favorites: Free, The Case Study of Vanitas, Lycoris Recoil, and SK8 the Infinity. I’d like to address each of them individually, and see what we can take away from each of them.
Free is pretty straight forward as yaoi-bait, seeing as it is a fanservice anime catering to women. If you don’t believe me, the only major female character is a girl who spends all her time on-screen ogling the lean, muscular men in swimsuits.
Our protagonist and deuteragonist, Haru and Rin, have an admittedly strange relationship, even by the standards of this subgenre. They’re more than rivals, not quite friends, and should probably stop working through their homoerotic tension in the middle of the swim meet, they’re making everyone deeply uncomfortable.
Also, I don’t know if it’s on purpose, but the traditional Japanese view of gay relationships involve viewing one man as the feminine partner and the other as the masculine. If you’re unaware, Free has a naming convention where all the swimmers have feminine names. I’m not sure if the author was trying to buck the trend with that, help fans create their own interpretations, or maybe they’re all bottoms.
The Case Study of Vanitas is my gothic steampunk bisexual vampire dream. That means it is a great place to reiterate that the binary of homosexuality versus heterosexuality is a relatively new concept in Japanese art. As I highlighted in my review of the first season, Vanitas and Noè are just two bros living together in a flat in Paris, and I’ve never head anything less straight in my life.
So, I could call them friends, but I’ve never looked at one of my straight friends and told them no one can kill him but me, so make of that what you will. Where things get spicy is that both characters have female love interests. Queerbait generally has lackluster straight relationships for obvious reasons, but Jeanne and Dominique prove to be an exception to the rule.
Lycoris Recoil is the best anime of this season, and its inclusion here has nothing to do with that sweet sweet Google search trends relevance. As the sole yuri-baiting anime we’re talking about today, I should point out that it actually follows the blueprint to a T, moreso than some of the yaoi-bait.
Really, it has all the hallmarks: Takina and Chisato are physically intimate without being sexually intimate, there are no male characters close in age to them, and while they’re both traditionally feminine, Chisato would most often be viewed as the dominant and thereby masculine partner. Actually, LycoReco’s inclusion here has mostly to do with how often yuri gets ignored in favor of yaoi, except when corpos screw up the Sailor Moon dub to preserve the fragile illusion of heterosexuality everyone had going on.
SK8 the Infinity is…wait, created by Hiroko Utsumi, the director of Free? I give up, the woman’s a master of her craft. SK8 so masterfully blurs the line between yaoi-bait and plain old yaoi that like four different times I sat up in my seat thinking, oh, did they finally admit it?
Alas, they did not. I except the recently announced second season to be even gayer than the first, while also gaslighting me even harder than before. You do not get to look me in the eye, name a character in a matador costume after the biblical Adam only for him to refer to another man as his Eve, and tell me they’re straight. I’m not joking, it’s illegal.
Queerbait is often seen as exploitative, though that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Why does anime use it so often? Homoerotic tension is really just a byproduct of any interaction between two people of the same sex, and it is a writer’s duty to use any and every tool at their disposal to create a compelling story.
And not including a gay relationship does not mean that they’re even queerbaiting. Not every story has room for every character to be in a relationship, or you get a dumb Harry Potter epilogue where everyone gets married to their high school sweetheart. While queerbait is often used to put gay butts in seats, you’re doing a disservice to art as a whole if you were to remove it from everything.
I prefer to think that queerbait can be used as artistic shorthand for an intimate platonic relationship, or to generate tension between characters, and it’s really effective in both of those roles. The anime I used as examples are all phenomenal, and even if they’re playing with fire, they’re not inherently wrong for doing so.
I hope that I have not kicked a hornets’ nest by writing this, because honestly, this was the most fun I’ve had writing an essay in some time. I’ve been talking about a lot of my favorite anime now and in the coming weeks, too, so that means a lot. Turns out, I forgot how much I like doing research and working new information into what I already do best; wax poetic about silly cartoons.
With that said, if you’re going to leave a comment down below or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, I’d ask you be respectful of anyone who might have a different viewpoint. Not least because I already moderate the comments quite a bit and people are still leaving nasty messages on my Mushoku Tensei essay. Never change, internet. Until next time, thanks for reading.