Beyond “Canon Gay”: Introducing Queerness Quadrants
In my several-years-long experience hanging around anime discourse on the internet, I’ve found that any discussion of queerness in anime tends to begin with the same question: “But is it canon gay?”
“Canon” queerness is typically defined by a character doing any of the following:
- Vocalizing their queer identity (i.e. saying “I’m [gay/trans/bisexual/asexual]” outright)
- Vocalizing their queer romantic interest (i.e. saying “I love you” to a member of the same gender in a way that can only be interpreted as romantic; saying “that person is my [girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse/lover]” about a member of the same gender)
- Expressing certain types of physical affection on screen (i.e. kissing on the lips; having sex)
- Saying outright that they’ve expressed above types of physical affection off screen (i.e. “we’re having sex” about a member of the same gender)
The above can be overridden by the “Word of God” rule, which means that if the creator of a thing says a character is queer, then that character is “canonically” queer. This has led to some frustration, but is not the topic of this post, though it’s certainly important to keep in mind.
“Non-canon” queerness, on the other hand, is defined by… Well, it’s defined by being undefined. Anything that doesn’t include one or more of the above criteria is banished to the realm of “non-canon” and the question of whether or not it’s even queer — no matter how many people interpret it that way — is considered a matter of “headcanon.” In other words, “non-canon queerness” is an oxymoron; only “canon” queerness is really queer, and if you disagree, that’s just your opinion and is presumed not to be a reflection of the work.
This is obviously a deeply limited and limiting way of talking about queerness in media as a whole. But though all media is of course vastly more queer than the canon/non-canon binary would have you believe, anime is (in AniGay’s extremely unbiased opinion) a particularly gay medium, and is therefore especially fertile ground for rethinking how we talk about fictional queerness.
So what exactly am I saying? The very very short version is this: I suggest that rather than two binary categories (canon and non-canon), we map queer anime onto quadrants along two intersecting axes. I’ll get into the details of what those axes are in a second, but just to show how much more room for diversity and nuance there is within the quadrant system, here’s an example of how the canon/non-canon binary would sort nine anime series I consider queer:
And here are the same nine anime, mapped onto queerness quadrants:
Within the confines of canon/non-canon discourse, the question tends to be “Is this queer?” Queerness quadrants change that to “How is this queer?” There are (maybe) series that aren’t queer at all, and won’t be on the chart. The point of QQs isn’t to “make everything gay”; it’s to encourage analysis and discussion of the nuances of queerness in media, and anime in particular, beginning with the acknowledgement that there are ways of depicting and reading queerness that don’t fit into what is narrowly defined as “canon.”
An Aside On “Metaphorical Queerness”
You probably noticed that on the sample QQ chart above, one of the categories queer anime can be sorted into is “metaphorical” queerness. So before getting into the nitty gritty of how specific anime series fit into the QQ system as a whole, I want to take a minute to discuss what I mean by “metaphorical” in this context.
The idea of symbolic or metaphorical queerness is a pretty common one in queer theory and discourse, and tends to refer to ways other than queerness in which characters are alienated from mainstream society. For example, part-human characters (like vampires or werewolves) whose literal monstrosity can’t be totally concealed and who therefore live in fear of being discovered (or “outed”) can easily be interpreted as being metaphorically queer.
But the line between metaphorical and literal queerness is blurry: A male vampire with a human boyfriend, for example, would be both metaphorically and literally queer. His boyfriend would only be literally queer — but the story as a whole could easily fall into either category, or somewhere between the two. And there are other, less obvious ways metaphorical queerness can be conveyed, like with characters who are social outcasts for non-supernatural reasons, such as struggling artists, career criminals, and other people who live on the fringes of society.
In the QQ framework, when a story features both a prominent metaphor for queerness and explicitly portrayed literal queerness (like in the gay vampire example above if the characters kiss onscreen), I’ll be categorizing it as “Explicit-Metaphorical.” Similarly, if the queerness of that gay vampire example were conveyed solely via metaphor and coy hints, I’d call it “Implicit-Metaphorical.” This isn’t meant to imply that there’s necessarily no literal queerness in either metaphorical category, just that I think the metaphorical aspect is the primary way in which queerness is addressed in the text. (More specifics on that later.)
The QQ framework doesn’t ask a binary question (like “Is this canon or not?”) so the answers it gives are often ambiguous. This means there are definitely interpretations other than mine that are equally valid, so I invite you to take my categorizations with a grain of salt, and come up with your own if you disagree!
Okay! Time for some specifics. QQs sort queer anime along two axes, or scales: one that ranges from implicit to explicit, and one that ranges from metaphorical to literal. These can be intersected to create four quadrants, Explicit-Literal, Implicit-Literal, Explicit-Metaphorical, and Implicit-Metaphorical:
Mapping series directly onto the chart like I did above allows for the most nuance, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll be using the four quadrants as approximate shorthand during the rest of this post.
And as it’s not super helpful to discuss QQs without actual examples, let’s talk about some queer anime series and how they fit into the QQ system. This will both clarify the system and show that it’s a lot simpler than charts and graphs might make it seem. Let’s go!
Substantial spoilers ahead for Yuri!!! On Ice, Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, and Gunbuster; very mild spoilers ahead for Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju.
Case study: Yuri!!! On Ice (2016)
Anime that is in either Explicit quadrant (Explicit-Literal or Explicit-Metaphorical) would already fall into the category of “canon” queerness, so for a list of what constitutes “explicit,” all you have to do is scroll up a bit to my list of what constitutes “canon.” Same thing!
Yuri!!! On Ice, everyone’s favorite anime about gay figure skaters, satisfies the narrow requirements for explicitly depicted queerness with an onscreen kiss (above) between the two male leads, as well as a host of other unambiguously romantic imagery and terminology surrounding Viktor and Yuuri’s relationship:
Viktor and Yuuri are also, well, literal men who are literally romantically involved, without any elements of fantastical metaphor overlaid on top of them. So the depiction of queerness in Yuri!!! On Ice is, yep, Explicit-Literal.
Explicit-Literal is the least ambiguous category of queerness in anime, and it’s also the least common (outside of BL, which is its own distinct category). The possible reasons for and implications of this are a bit beyond the scope of the current post, but it’s certainly worth keeping in mind how vanishingly rare mainstream anime that the current canon/non-canon binary defines as queer actually is.
Other examples: Hunter x Hunter (2011–2014); №6 (2011); Paradise Kiss (2005); Banana Fish (2018)
Case study: Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (2017)
Like I discussed above, anime in the Explicit-Metaphorical category would be classified as “canonically” queer in the canon/non-canon binary, but also includes a substantial layer of “metaphorical queerness” on top of that. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, which features multiple same-gender cross-species couples, is the poster child for Explicit-Metaphorical queerness.
At the center of Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid are Kobayashi (a human) and her maid/live-in girlfriend/co-parent, Tohru (a dragon). That it might be difficult for a lesbian couple to be accepted by the mainstream is never addressed directly; instead, it’s ostensibly the fact that Tohru is semi-secretly a dragon that keeps her and Kobayashi on the fringes of society. At the end of the series, Tohru’s, um, humanphobic father (in his human-like form above; in his dragon form below) tries to separate the couple, and Kobayashi defends their relationship in terms that could apply just as easily to queer relationships between humans as it does to their human/dragon relationship:
Metaphorical queer narratives in general are rife with these sorts of multiple meanings. What makes Explicit-Metaphorical queerness so much fun is that the multiple meanings are super obvious and require almost no work to interpret. Yes: Kobayashi and Tohru are in a human/dragon relationship that transgresses the traditions of society. Also yes: Kobayashi and Tohru are in a lesbian relationship that transgresses the traditions of society. Talk about the human/dragon stuff, and you’re also talking about the queer stuff. Ta-da! Easy.
Other examples: Devilman Crybaby (2018); Adolescence of Utena (1999); Land of the Lustrous (2017)
Case study: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju (2016)
Implicit-Literal queerness is incredibly important both to consuming and to understanding queer anime. Why? Because there’s so much of it and none of it “counts” as queer according to the canon/non-canon binary. When I talk about the canon/non-canon binary erasing queerness in media, implicit queerness is what I’m talking about, so I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent now to explain how exactly something can be queer without being explicit about it.
Implicit queerness is generally conveyed using a combination of subtext and coding. These are closely related but not identical techniques for indicating to “in the know” viewers that characters or relationships or situations are queer — without ever checking off any of the items on the list of what qualifies something as “canonically” queer. The purpose of subtext and coding is, of course, to fly under the radar and “pass” as heteronormative enough not to be censored or marginalized.
Though by definition implicit queerness is difficult to pin down, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju contains a number of relatively straightforward examples of both queer subtext and coding.
Above, SGRS’s protagonist, Kikuhiko, has just put his (very) close friend, Sukeroku, to sleep by cleaning his ears, an act commonly associated in Japan with romantic intimacy. I would define gay subtext as when, like this, traditionally hetero-romantic symbols or rituals are applied to a same-gender relationship that heteronormative audiences would presume to be non-romantic simply by virtue of being same-gender.
Queer coding, on the other hand, takes specifically queer symbols or rituals and applies them to characters or situations. Often, this is accomplished (sloppily) by using gay stereotypes, such as making a male character effeminate to signal to the audience that he’s gay, without fleshing out his queerness any further. But when used skillfully and empathetically, queer coding can be a valuable tool for telling a nuanced and artful queer story.
Below, a young Kikuhiko seems to be remembering or fantasizing about something that happened between him and someone else — contextually, between him and Sukeroku:
Kikuhiko puts out a pinky, which can refer either to a pinky promise, or to the Japanese gesture meaning girlfriend/sex stuff with women. Paired with what Kikuhiko is saying, or remembering, or picturing, one interpretation of this brief scene is the implication that he and Sukeroku were in the habit of fooling around together sexually, in the guise of “practice” for hypothetical later encounters with women — a situation intimately familiar to many queer viewers.
Though “practicing” is a super common phenomenon among queer kids generally, in twentieth-century Japan in particular, romantic “experimentation” or “practice” between teens of the same gender was, if not always encouraged, then at least expected—as long as the teens in question grew up into “normal” (heterosexual) adults.¹ In other words, the above scene would immediately jump out to SGRS’s queer viewers as being emblematic of an aspect of the queer experience, despite never announcing itself as such.
Other examples: Legend of Galactic Heroes (1988–1997); Kids on the Slope (2012); Lupin III (1971-); Nana(2006); JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure(2012-)
Case study: Gunbuster (1988)
The Implicit-Metaphorical quadrant is the vaguest and most difficult to define category of queerness in anime. Like Explicit-Metaphorical queerness, Implicit-Metaphorical is characterized by a prominent layer of abstraction or symbolism with many of the trappings of literal queerness (such as otherness, alienation, marginalization, etc). Unlike Explicit-Metaphorical, however, Implicit-Metaphorical queerness doesn’t check any of the items on the “canon” queerness list, and instead conveys queerness solely through a combination of metaphor, subtext, and coding.
Gunbuster, Hideaki Anno’s first anime, tells the story of Noriko and her role-model/crush/maybe-girlfriend Kazumi’s experiences moving back and forth between Earth and space. Not only is their relationship heavy with romantic subtext (adhering to S genre tropes), but the binary between Earth and space also seems to correspond to choices that do and do not adhere to heteronormative expectations, respectively. For example, various characters get married and have children on Earth, but when they or other characters go to space, those conventional life paths are either closed off, ignored, or rebelled against:
Implicit-Metaphorical queerness in anime is likely a lot more common than the very short list of examples I’ve been able to come up with. But because it depicts queerness so indirectly and abstractly, anime whose queerness is primarily Implicit-Metaphorical is most likely to go unnoticed as queer by mainstream discourse. Instead, viewers might acknowledge that it feels queer, or gives off a queer vibe, but stop short of defining it as “being” queer. On the plus side, this means that Implicit-Metaphorical queerness is one of the most fun quadrants of queer anime to encounter, because so often it’s an unexpected discovery.
Other examples: K (2012-)
The impulse to define queerness based on whether or not it’s “canon” comes from a good place. After all, the world is full of queer people, and the media we create and consume should reflect that, unambiguously.
But just like heterosexuality, the ways in which queerness can be (and has been) depicted extend far beyond the end of that short checklist. And celebrating the diverse spectrum of queerness in media—from implicit to explicit, from metaphorical to literal, and everything in between—isn’t giving creators an excuse to keep straightforward queerness out of their work; it’s a show of support both for the queer creators who have always been there, making art to reflect their own experiences, and for queer creators now, who are still struggling to express themselves outside the bounds of what is expected, encouraged, and allowed.
And there’s another reason it’s important to acknowledge the wide range of ways in which it’s possible to portray queerness: Anime is super gay. But only by removing your “Is it canon gay?” goggles can you truly begin to experience—and enjoy—the extent of it. So, on that note, welcome to AniGay! This should be fun.
1. In his extremely good Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, Gregory Pflugfelder goes into great detail (especially in Chapter 4) about the codified customs around queer sexuality and romance that were prevalent in same-sex schools in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Japan, as well as the hard line between what was permissible before and after the onset of adulthood. It’s also worth reading Pflugfelder’s essay on historical queerness between young women, “‘S’ is for Sister: Schoolgirl Intimacy and ‘Same-Sex Love’ in Early Twentieth-Century Japan,” which can be found in the Gendering Modern Japanese History anthology, edited by Barbara Molony and Kathleen Uno.