Homoeroticizing the Dragon Ball: Why Anime Is So Radically Queer

by: Mariann Devlin

Today I “come out” as a huge anime fan.

For the majority, anime is just a bunch of adult-themed cartoons. (Let’s not question our own appetite for cartoons, from Archer to Wall-E to Futurama.) That’s true in a nutshell, but anime, for me, is a higher breed than most American animated series–because of the attention it gives to the epic and the mythological–and of course, its revelry of all things LGTBQ.

My first introduction to anime occurred in 2000, after I started dating my first serious boyfriend. He would watch a lot of the anime on Adult Swim, and I remember not finding the shows all that appealing, but that’s only because I wasn’t paying close enough attention.

One night, I sat next to him on the floor and watched the best episode of what is now one of my favorite anime series (despite its terrible animation), Gensomaden Saiyuki. A ragtag group of antiheroes battles it out with villains who are more human, less villainous. Totally up my alley! But in that particular episode, the characters recounted the night they all met one another. A priest hears the voice of a prisoner trapped for centuries atop a mountain. One man nurses another back to health after he finds him grievously injured in the middle of a forest. It was all very touching and way homoerotic.

Turning to Steven, I asked, “Don’t all of these guys seem kind of gay for each other?”

“Yeah, I got that feeling too,” he answered nonchalantly.

Once I started watching more episodes, I realized that the sexual tension between almost all of the characters wasn’t a figment of my imagination. It’s not even the pipedream of thousands of yaoi fans who write erotic fanfiction devoted to these “straight” male cartoons. Yaoi and shonen-ai, anime that is implicitly homosexual–and the LGTBQ fandoms that support those genres–are as real and flourishing as the American Sci-Fi genre and its respective fandoms, which are teeming with wild M/M fangirls as well.

One of my very best friends is a queer-identified, published author of M/M romance novels, who got started writing yaoi fanfiction. This isn’t uncommon; for a lot of people, anime’s exaltation of epic romance between men can feel like liberation. In the U.S., mainstream media often typecasts gay people as single, frivolous, and with very few complex emotional or sexual desires. In anime, queer characters can be any heroic archetype, and the challenges they come across in love are often analogous to their greater journey–as it so happens with heroic straight characters.

There’s no point in “queering” anime, because most anime series–if they’re not already explicit in the homosexuality of some of their characters (like in shows as varied as Sukisho! or Angel Sanctuary)–at least push gender-boundaries to the limit, with the ethereally beautiful male characters who could pass for women. Other characters, like Nuriko from Fushigi Yugi or Aoi Futaba from You’re Under Arrest, are unambiguously transgender. Or, as in the case of Saiyuki, there are characters whose performances seem straight until they share these incredibly intimate moments with one another, that even straight male anime fans can’t interpret as anything but romantic and sexually charged.

Lesbian female characters are also given attention. In the North American version of Sailor Moon, Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune are “cousins,” but in fact, they’re lesbians who live together. More androgynous in the manga, Sailor Uranus has been described by her creator, Naoko Takeuchi, as being the epitome of female liberation because of her ability to assume different roles regardless of her supposed gender. The beautiful Sailor Neptune was created as the yin to Uranus’ yang.

In Revolutionary Girl Utena, almost every character is bisexual–but what’s most radical about the series is its deconstruction of everything from sexuality, gender, love, friendship and heroism, to the very fairy tale myths which prop up those categories. I challenge any feminist cultural critic to watch this show and walk away unmoved (or undisturbed). Utena also features one of anime’s only African characters, Anthy Himemiya.

Anime isn’t just about powering up, like in Dragon Ball Z, or the trials and tribulations of having lots of high school girls adore you, as in Love Hina. I just decided to rewatch one of my favorite anime series for the first time in years, after realizing that what made my friend so interested in a show like Battlestar Galactica, like spiritual faith and personhood, are the same things that are explored in Neon Genesis Evangelion, only NGE is like Battlestar times a billion. I’ll also go on the record and say this: Shinji is totally gay for Kaworu.

Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.

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