“Why Do I Pursue You?”: Hikaru no Go and Implicit-Metaphorical Queer Storytelling
One of the best depictions of an intense adolescent crush that I’ve ever seen is in the middle of episode 28 of Hikaru no Go. Eighth grader and professional go player Akira Toya has just finished his match in round one of the Young Lions tournament. The camera lingers on Akira as his defeated opponent rushes off toward a noisy crowd across the room. Akira places his basket of stones on the board and closes his eyes, and the sound and color slowly fade from his surroundings. Except for a single sound, a single image: the player seated at the table just behind him, Hikaru Shindo, rhythmically picking up and placing his stones. Each clack of stone on board reverberates in Akira’s mind. Hikaru’s existence drowns out everything else in the room.
It’s nothing deep, but it’s an intense and universal moment. Who doesn’t remember that feeling of hyper-awareness of someone’s presence, of knowing where they are in a crowd without trying, of thoughts that rush into your mind as soon as there’s any space for them?
But wait, you might potentially be objecting if you’ve watched the show, there are Plot Reasons for Akira’s fixation on the match going on behind him here. Yes, there are! This is simultaneously true, irrelevant, and crucial to understanding the specific ways in which Hikaru no Go (like many similar shows) tells queer stories. It is true that the details of the plot provide a microscopically thin cover, a transparent sheet that shields the story from being pigeonholed into BL or shonen ai marketing categories without actually obscuring any of the emotions being portrayed. The utter transparency of that cover means that its existence does nothing to change the queerness of the story being told.
But this strategy of telling intense queer adolescent love stories in the language of sports or battle rivalries and friendships is frustratingly difficult to talk about in a straightforward way. In the framework of Elizabeth Simins’s Queerness Quadrants, these stories tend to fall in the implicit-metaphorical quadrant — the space farthest away from the explicit-literal stories that are most easily classified as “canon” or “official.” There’s an unavoidable defensiveness that creeps into every discussion of works like this; even as I type this paragraph I’ve written and deleted several sentences that felt tainted by that desire to justify myself to that persistent skeptical reader in my head, the one who objected above that Akira is only fixated on Hikaru’s match because he’s confused by Hikaru’s supernaturally precocious go skills.
But I am not in fact here to argue a case or provide receipts for anything. That framing paints implicit-metaphorical queer stories as deficient, lacking surface level features that would validate them and leaving us to go digging for subtle clues. Hikaru no Go is not about subtle clues; it’s not about subtlety of any form. It’s not referencing obscure historical coding or asking you to click through frame-by-frame to find the split second where the clouds in the background spell out “gaaaay!” It is exactly what it is: a beautiful case study through which to talk about the important ways that implicit-metaphorical stories are strengthened and enriched by both the implicit and metaphorical dimensions.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of watching Hikaru no Go, all you need to know for this discussion is that the plot is largely driven by the eponymous Hikaru upending his life and devoting 100% of his time to becoming a professional go player in order to gain the respect of the boy his age who’s the top go prodigy in the country. Akira, the prodigy in question, is for his part baffled by Hikaru’s erratic displays of genius, and obsessed from afar with Hikaru’s rise through the ranks in pursuit of him. There is nothing subtle or especially artful about the portrayal of these intense star-crossed middle school crushes — once you’ve let go of the need for the specific language of romance to validate obvious queer attractions in fiction (which hey, I strongly recommend doing!), it’s tempting to start wondering whether it really makes sense to classify something this unabashedly blatant as “implicit.”
But that oxymoronic tension between blatant and implicit is exactly the point: By leaving the romantic attraction in the story unlabeled, it’s easier to maintain realism without specifically including “coming out” arcs or portraying explicit homophobia. All of the emotions of adolescent crushes are there, in the cinematography, in blushes and stares, in the drastic effect that the two boys have on each other’s lives — there to be recognized by anyone attuned to them. Stories that directly discuss societal and internalized homophobia and deal with the process of coming out are an important piece of the landscape of queer fiction; but it’s also relaxing and pleasantly escapist to have the freedom to tell a simple love story and sidestep some of the thornier dimensions of growing up queer. Right now, in the world we live in, implicit storytelling techniques are a great way to accomplish that.
My favorite moment that illuminates the layers of implicit storytelling in this show actually involves neither Hikaru nor Akira directly:
Whole articles, nay books, could and should be written about the multifaceted roles of ostensible hetero love interests in implicit queer narratives: On the one hand the existence of such a character reinforces the “cover,” filling the narrative gap of “hetero love interest” that would otherwise stand out; on the other hand, a hallmark of deftly told implicit queer stories is that the details of how the surface-level heteronormative romantic arcs play out actually serve to reinforce the queerness of the story. Hikaru’s childhood friend, Akari, took up go in order to spend more time with Hikaru, going so far as to spend her weekends taking classes. Except for this one moment, above, the question of whether Akari’s motivations are romantic is left just as implicit as anything between Hikaru and Akira. Even in this scene, the emotions behind Akari’s embarrassed reaction are left unspecified. Does her blush mean that the woman’s teasing is accurate? Is she just embarrassed at the intrusive questioning?
Well, spoiler, we never really get insight into how Akari sees her own feelings toward Hikaru. This scene isn’t setting up further development of a romantic arc between them; after Hikaru quits the school go club the two have very few interactions at all. Akari serves mainly as a symbol of the friendships and community Hikaru chose to leave behind in his pursuit of Akira and professional go. Instead, the main purpose of the scene above is to highlight the fact that Akari’s pursuit of Hikaru’s attention through go reads as obviously motivated by a crush: “You wouldn’t have taken up go if it weren’t true!” Akari’s path is a shadow of Hikaru’s; the only thing stopping anyone (in-universe or out) from assuming that Hikaru’s obsession also comes from a crush is heteronormativity. Akari’s existence gives the show an excuse to say out loud what it can’t quite say about Hikaru’s feelings. This scene deftly lays bare the hidden-in-plain-sight nature of the central story, but in a way that remains completely camouflaged from any viewers who are viewing the show through the distorted lens of heteronormativity.
So the implicit dimension has the joint benefits of helping the story fly under the radar of pigeonholed “LGBT” marketing categories and allowing the narrative to focus on the simple emotions and attraction between the characters without directly confronting issues of self-identity as queer. In an imagined utopia, neither of these things would be necessary — fiction labeled as LGBT wouldn’t be marketed any less widely than anything else; it wouldn’t be unrealistic to tell an adolescent love story between two boys without dealing with questions of prejudice. Until we make it to that utopia, there is a real advantage to exploiting the assumptions of society in order to tell this kind of open-secret queer story: It has a good chance of reaching the audience with whom it will most resonate, and can provide queer kids with stories that reflect their own emotions and experience.
Even more subtle and fascinating is the role of the metaphorical dimension. In her Queerness Quadrants article, Elizabeth discusses metaphorical queer storytelling mainly as a way to engage with issues of discrimination and homophobia through pretty direct analogy, for example the demons in Devilman Crybaby or dragons in Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid.
While it’s quite a fun exercise to parse “playing go” as a similarly direct analogy in Hikaru no Go, I certainly wouldn’t argue that the world of professional go functions as a pointed and pervasive metaphor for existing as queer in a homophobic society. And yet in the context of the emotional motivations and arc of Hikaru’s story, it’s impossible not to see themes bleed into each other.
Hikaru’s choice to devote all of his energy to pursuing professional go has the effect of alienating him from his friends and deeply confusing his parents. Themes of change and loss of one’s childhood connections are ubiquitous and by no means specific to explorations of queer identity. But it would be naive not to view these elements of Hikaru’s arc in the context of how driven he is by his “pursuit” of Akira.
And what, precisely, is Hikaru even pursuing? Akira isn’t a foe who needs to be defeated to save the world from destruction; he’s not even an asshole who Hikaru wants to knock down a few pegs (although some other characters may see him that way). What Hikaru’s after is Akira’s respect and friendship, and the mechanism for obtaining that happens to be getting really really good at go. But it’s not just the abstract concept of Akira’s respect that he’s after: There is a specific label for a relationship that’s exclusive, reciprocal, and indicates a place of elevated centrality in each other’s lives.
I refer, of course, to “rivals.” There’s nothing subtle about the “metaphor” of using the relationship of rivalry to stand in for romantic attachment; it’s a trope so common as to be cliche. But more is going on here than a simple censorship to keep the queer nature of the story implicit. I said above that the microscopic cover of implicit storytelling allows the show to avoid dealing head on with societal homophobia — but it’s here, in the complex psychological layers of coding and metaphor that the characters themselves attach to their emotions, that the recognizable and relatable effects of that homophobia show through. For those of us who grew up queer in a world that is so hostile to those feelings, not only is it easy to see through the cover to the actual emotions beneath, but it’s also specifically resonant that Hikaru has latched onto a label for his own desires that isn’t romantic. That too is a very real part of the experience of queer adolescence, poignant and familiar to anyone who has struggled with understanding and explaining (away) their own feelings.
This is the dance that these stories perform: implicit storytelling in plain sight, emotions with the all-consuming intensity of romantic desire that are never labeled as such, themes of isolation and confusion that are both universal and pointed, language that simultaneously obscures and resonates. The result is a story with a duality that feels like a magic trick — look at it through one lens and there’s nothing queer about the work at all, but shift your perspective and suddenly every detail comes into focus to illuminate a story that’s not even trying to hide.
How we talk about these stories matters. Hikaru no Go is by no means unique; it’s archetypal. We need to find the language to talk about the way queerness is expressed in these stories without having the conversation stall at unknowable questions of creator intentionality. We need to validate discussions of the themes, emotions, and experiences that resonate with queer viewers without dismissing them as something externally imposed on the work. Elements of narrative can be both ambiguous and purposeful, both unspoken and intrinsic. Tropes can be meaningfully resonant independent of how the creators intended them. If we dismiss implicit queer stories then we’re playing into precisely the heteronormative burden of proof that works to convince all of us that whatever we feel, we’re not really queer, we can’t be, that’s something other people in the special “LGBT” section of the bookstore — er, society — are, not us. We just really really really really want the cute boy to look at us passionately again. That’s…different, somehow, as long as we call it something else….right?
In 2016 Yuri!!! On Ice made a huge splash by actually breaking through the sports anime genre conventions and allowing the gay romance between its main characters to be expressed explicitly. That’s a huge, important deal. It means a ton to see a triumphant performance actually celebrated with a spontaneous kiss (rather than just the implication of one), and for the characters to discuss their commitment to each other with the word “engagement” (rather than some stand-in involving the coaching of ice skating or whatever). It’s great progress for creators not to feel burdened by censorship (although they did have to fight for it). It’s a weight off the shoulders of viewers not to fret about intentionality, not to worry about sudden out-of-character hetero romances introduced because the writers don’t see what we see in their stories. All of this is good, and should be celebrated, and replicated, and normalized until we have dozens — nay, hundreds — of explicitly, openly, unabashedly gay anime about every sport imaginable.
But while we’re celebrating all of that, it is so important not to diminish all of the existing stories that rely on implicit and metaphorical storytelling to reach a queer audience. Yuri!!! On Ice wouldn’t have been less queer if that kiss had been implied off-screen, if the lifelong commitment had been symbolized by sport-related metaphor — its queerness just would have taken a different form. Only after we find a way to excise the defensiveness and skepticism from the framing of how we talk about these shows can we begin to discuss the really fascinating and thorny nuances — what sorts of details can shed light on creative intent? What is the role of hetero love interests in these narratives? How is non-romantic friendship presented and distinguished? How do the characters identify their own feelings and how is that question explored? The whole genre of sports anime is bursting with interesting and messy examples of the strengths and frustrations of this flavor of implicit queer storytelling. To me Hikaru no Go embodies many of the strengths in their simplest form: at once escapist and emotionally perceptive; unabashed about the intensity of the characters’ emotions; bold in the use of parallelism and metaphor to reinforce the romantic arc of the story. Stay tuned for future articles where we dive into the details of how these same elements (and others!) show up in some of our other favorite sports anime.