Anime, mon amour: forget Pokemon--Japanese animation explodes with gay, lesbian, and trans themes.
Welcome to the gender-bending world of anime (Japanese animation). In Japan animated features, TV shows, and direct-to-video series include every genre and type of character--including gay men, lesbians, and transvestites.
"What's interesting about the homosexual characters in anime is that their sexuality is "almost never a plot point. It's just taken for granted," comments Justin Sevakis, in-house production coordinator at Cenral Park Media, a leading distributor of anime in the United States.
For example, the villainous Dr. Muraki lusts after Tsuzuki, the handsome hero of Descendants of Darkness, but Tsuzuki loves the emerald-eyed Hisoka. Nuriko is a respected member of the cadre of powerful warriors in Fushigi Yugi: The Mysterious Play, although he's a transvestite. In El-Hazard: The Alternative World, Princess Fatora develops a crush on Lieutenant Gilda of the emperor's guards.
Perhaps the oddest use of gay characters in anime is yaoi: romances between young gay men that are created by women for female audiences, especially adolescent girls. "A lot of the lesbian imagery that we see in American pop culture is meant to tantalize male viewers," says Central Park Media president John O'Donnell. "The opposite is true in Japan: A lot of the male homoeroticism in anime is meant for a female audience and is written by females for females."
Yaoi fans produce reams of manga (comics), illustrations, and fan fiction involving male characters from such hetero boys' series as Gundam Wing and Saiyuki. The phenomenon is spreading to the United States. More than 1,000 people are expected to attend the annual Yaoi-Con in San Francisco in October. "The convention membership is about 85% female," says April Gutierrez, public relations chair of Yaoi-Con. "It's predominantly straight females, although we also get gay and straight guys."
Some anime characters behave in ways that are suggestive but ambiguous. In Cardcaptor Sakura two girls comment that "one of the seven strangest things about this school" is that Sakura's handsome older brother Touya and his inseparable pal Tukito don't have girlfriends. When Yoko tells Touya she loves him, he says he loves someone else--but doesn't say whom. In online forums, fans furiously debate the nature of the relationships between Fuma and Kamui in X and between Fiore and Darren in Sailor Moon R: The Movie.
There's a long history of cross-gender entertainment in Japan. Onnagata, kabuki actors who specialize in female roles, embody an ideal of refined ultrafemininity. The elaborate Takarazuka Revue, in which women play all the parts, has been popular since it began in the early 20th century.
Gay characters in anime are sometimes played for laughs. In Battle Athletes Victory the girls dress in skimpy outfits to distract the boys during an interscholastic match; the strategy backfires when the boys' school sends gay players.
But other anime characters are unapologetically gay. In Battle Athletes and its spin-off Battle Athletes Victory Kris walks around the dorm naked, offering other girls massages. Griffith blithely prostitutes himself to a dirty old man to finance his army in Berserk. The girls in Sailor Moon S: Heart Collection fall for Haruka (Sailor Neptune) only to discover "he" is a girl who dresses as a boy and hangs out with untrafeminine violinist Michiru (Sailor Uranus). None of the characters in these series go beyond an embrace or a kiss, although much more explicit material is available in Japan.
"Anime explores things they'd never do in live action or American animation-you certainly couldn't have 14 year-old boys falling in love," says fan Justin Rogers, 22, of New York City. "Nuriko in Fushigi Yugi is a good character, but Ranma is even better-a perpetually transgendered character. It doesn't get any more interesting than that!"
But for no-holds-barred gender tweaking, Rumiko Takahashi's outrageous Ranma 1/2 takes the cake. Because he fell into a cursed spring in China, teenage martial artist Ranma Saotome turns into a buxom red-haired girl when he's hit with cold water. (Hot water restores him.) "Boy-type" Ranma squabbles with his girlfriend Akane, while "girl-type" Ranma--who's still a boy inside-fights off the advances of various guys.
"In Japan children's manga and anime have much more flexibility in gender role depiction, especially when elements of fantasy or humor are involved," concludes Frederik Schodt, the author of Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. "It's surprising to see how young Americans enjoy the same stories that Japanese kids do."
Ten DVDs for anime beginners
These IO DVD titles offer an overview of gay anime characters, arranged in ascending order of their queerness quotient:
Ranma 1/2: OAV Series
An excellent introduction to the popular gender-bending comedy. (Viz) QQ: 1
Sailor Moon S: Heart Collection
Sailor Scouts Uranus and Neptune help Serena and her friends fight evil. (Pioneer) QQ: 2
Battle Athletes Victory
At their all-girls satellite school, Kris pursues Akari; the transgendered Anna appears in the first 19 episodes. (Pioneer) QQ: 3
Tall, thin, and beautiful, Fuma and Kotori epitomize the yaoi boy. (Pioneer) QQ: 4
Magic User's Club
The saucy Aburatsubo regularly tries to seduce his friend Takeo. (Anime Works) QQ: 5
Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Black Rose Collection
A cross-dressing teen fantasy with suggestions of homosexuality, lesbianism, and incest. (U.S. Manga Corps) QQ: 6
Fushigi Yugi: The Mysterious Play
The transvestite Nuriko is one of the stars of this supernatural adventure-romance. (Pioneer) QQ: 7
Steel Angel Kurumi
Android Sam nurtures a lesbian passion for "big sis" robot Kurumi. (ADV) QQ: 8
Of the three El-Hazard stories, lesbians Alielle and Fatora figure prominently in its Alternative World adventures. (Pioneer) QQ: 9
Descendants of Darkness
All the men in the cast appear to be interested in each other, if not clearly gay, especially protagonist Tsuzuki and Hisoka. (U.S. Manga Corps) QQ: A solid 10
Solomon writes about animation for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.