We’ve looked at Yuri’s roots in lesbian social movements and Japanese girls’ literature, but there’s an aspect of our history we haven’t addressed. Today we’re going to take a look at some series in which lesbianism is linked, either directly or indirectly, with an unstable mental state. There will be spoilers ahead, but mostly for 40 year-old series, so I don’t feel bad. Thanks to my wife and Erin Subramanian for their contributions to this essay!
When Japan was opened to the west, the Japanese people adopted and adapted western fashion and technology quickly. The Japanese government, having found themselves thrust on the world stage, sent young people around the world to learn the science, technology and culture of countries with which they would now be dealing. (Not always with appropriate preparation, but some of those students returned to make significant contributions to Japanese education and culture, notably Yamakawa Sutematsu and Nagai Shige, the subjects of Janice P. Nimura’s book Daughters of the Samurai. 2016, New York: W.W. Norton.)
By the 1920s, Sigmund Freud was writing obsessively about human sexual development. His writings on the pathology of homosexuality strongly affected Japanese theories of psychiatry, as they did psychiatry in other countries. For Freud, female homosexuality was a pathological manifestation of masculinity, which he discussed in detail in a paper “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” (Freud, S. (1920). “A Case of Homosexuality in a Woman”. The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 1974, New York: Hogarth Press.) and was always the fault of the father, although his own daughter, Anna Freud, was herself, quite probably a lesbian. This idea was adopted by psychiatrists around the world and has been remarkably resistant to change. It was the basis upon which homosexuality was made a criminal behavior and entered into Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders in the USA, and the International Statistical Classification of Disease and Related Health Problems used in Japan.
The shift from folklore to science in Japan was fast and furious. Japanese schools adopted western curricula, dress and customs, while scientists and medical professionals caught up with current western knowledge. Psychology and psychiatry bloomed and quickly pushed folk beliefs to the perimeter of life. A good example of the flattening of folk belief from worldview into concepts such as sublimation and projection can be found in Kyogoku Natsukhiko’s Kyogokudo novels, which are set in the mid-20th century and follow “atheist onmyouji,” Akihiko “Kyogokudo” Chūzenji. In The Summer of the Ubume, (姑獲鳥の夏1994, Tokyo: Kodansha. Translated into English in 2009, New York: Vertical. ), the erudite protagonist has cause to launch into dense, extended monologues on the emotional and psychological void caused by overturning of folk knowledge – which is accessible to everyone – and replacing it with scientific knowledge – which is accessible only to the few who are able to study it. In these murder mysteries, modern psychology is intertwined with and used to explain youkai lore. The second of Kyogoku’s books, Moryou no Hako (魍魎の匣, 1995, Tokyo: Kodansha.) a lesbian relationship between two high school girls become mixed up with the plot of a serial killer who is the “goblin” of the title. (This novel was made into an anime series in 2008 with animation by Madhouse, in which the Kyogukodo character is free to expound his theories of religion, philosophy and psychology.)
In Western literature of the 20th century, lesbians were portrayed as emotionally unstable, predatory, unhealthily obsessed by sex, and violent. An entire genre of literature that we now call Lesbian Pulp Fiction was based around this idea that attraction to another woman was a descent into madness and violence, ending in death or prison. The back cover of Intimate Story of a Lesbian, (1965, New York: Imperial.) “as told to Doris Hanson” says,
“Lesbianism,” she told Miss Hanson, “at first repulsed me. But, like a disease, it grew to possess me, completely”… “Brought out” by a jealous, domineering woman executive, Maria was sponsored in a career….[which led her into] a world of sexual excess…. Maria’s intimate story of life in the hidden society of women without men may horrify and shock….It could only have been written by one who lived and became….
THE VICTIM OF ITS HORRORS
This kind of hyperbolic language shifted as the century wore on. The “Third Sex,” used as a term for homosexuality from movies and books in the mid-20th century, stuck around through the 1970s, when lesbians stood up politically and refused to be shoved back into the closet. (In fact, the phrase “come out of the closet” as a gay rights slogan was coined by Lesbian Pulp author Artemis Smith.)
Homosexuality was famously removed from the 7th editon of the DSM-II by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 (1974, American Psychiatric Association.) In Japan , the classification of homosexuality as a disease lasted a few decades longer. “… “homosexuality” was removed by the World Health Organization from the list of “mental disorders” in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10th revision published in 1993 (which was adopted by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare the following year).” (Japan: Human Rights in Law and Discrimination against LGBT People in Japan, 2017 Amnesty International.) By 1995, homosexuality was no longer considered a disease in Japan, but it’s taken a few more decades for manga artists to notice.
The idea that lesbianism is a pathology, as posited by Freud, lingers in popular media where lesbianism also functions as a fetish for readers. Manga and anime are pop culture media, but frequently published and produced to fit within socially conservative framework (whether to sell to the widest possible market or to cater to a specific demographic or just to protect one’s own industry from government intrusion,) which means that these 20th century associations linger on well into the 21st century. “Everyone knows” that lesbians are predatory, or emotionally unstable, although it’s been shown that with the simple addition of laws that put gay relationships on a more stable footing, suicide and depression decrease.
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2. Survey of Emotionally Unstable Lesbians in Yuri, 1938-2017
Over-intense emotional desire is portrayed as negative in girl’s literature as early as the 1930’s. In Kawabara Yasunari and Nakazato Tsuneko’s Otome no Minato, (乙女の港, 1938, Tokyo: Jitsugyo no Nihonsha.) Kastuko desires to be Michiko’s onee-sama to the point of breaking her up with Youko. It takes a crisis in which Youko is Katsuko’s savior to get her to back off. This behavior is reflected fully in the relationships in 1957 manga Sakura no Namiki, (さくら並木) by Takahashi Makoto. (2006, Tokyo: Shogakukan Creative.)
Possessive jealousy is as far as these relationships go until Yamagishi Ryhoko’s 1973 manga, Shiroi Heya no Futari (白い部屋のふたり, 1971, Tokyo: Shueisha.) In this story, which I consider to be the first Yuri manga, Simone is presented to us as high strung, violent, and tempestuous. Having been abandoned by uncaring family, her mental instability is associated with her passionate nature and presented as part of a whole. Simone falls in love with Resine because she is unstable and emotional and is, we are meant to understand, looking for affection anywhere she can find it.
This theme is repeated again in Maya no Sourestu (摩耶の葬列, 1972, Tokyo: Shueisha.) by Ichijou Yukari in 1972. In this story, Reina is spoiled, but neglected by her father, and Maya is part of a family whose history is filled with lies and desire for revenge on Resine’s family. Even should they find a way out of this labyrinth, it turns out that they are half sisters. One must die so the other may marry a man she cannot love. Put a pin in this story, we’ll come back to it.
In Riyoko Ikeda’s 1975 work, Oniisama e (おにいさまへ, 1975, Tokyo: Shueisha.) Rei, known as Saint-Juste, is emotionally abused by her beautiful and influential half-sister, Fukiko. Fukiko’s emotional abuse occasionally turns physical, and Rei takes to drugs for solace or anesthesia. Her conflicted feelings about Fukiko are surfaced when the protagonist Nanako becomes involved. Fukiko attempts to manipulate Nanako, but is unsuccessful, which gives Rei the emotional wherewithal to reject Fukiko. Ultimately, Rei turns her attention to Nanako and, we might expect, recovery and health, but is killed in a tragic and pointless accident. This is a key work, not only because the anime is a masterwork in and of itself, but because Rei turns away from a wholly unhealthy relationship with her exceptional half-sister towards the wholesome influence of the protagonist and is seeking a healthier friendship (or, maybe, even, romance) with her before her death.
In 1978 manga Claudine…! (クローディーヌ…!, 1978, Tokyo: Shueisha.) by Riyoko Ikeda, we are presented with the “case” of Claudine, a woman who dresses as a man and falls in love with women. This manga can with completely validity be read as a story of a transgender man or of a masculine lesbian. Because Ikeda’s portrayal is not as fully formed as we in the 21st century might desire, Claudine’s expressed wish to be a man, can be accepted at face value or also mean that they wish the privilege of a man, that is to love women and wear men’s clothes. In either case, Claudine’s story is told to us as a “case” from the perspective of their psychiatrist who is treating Claudine for depression and suicidal thoughts. When Claudine has, yet again, been abandoned by a lover who wants a more “normal” life, Claudine commits suicide. This story is forward-thinking in the sense that the psychiatrist suggests that Claudine was not the sick one here, but that society is at fault.
Applause (アプローズ) (1981-2, Tokyo: Shueisha) by Ariyoshi Kyouko is an epic story which traces the relationship of two young women, Shara and Junaque from a private girl’s school in Belgium to Broadway in New York City. In the beginning arc it is Junaque who admits her feelings of love and desire to Shara, but is rejected. Junaque, consumed by rejection and fear of her “inverted” nature, marries a man she cannot love, and dives into an increasingly troubled life as an alcoholic and emotionally unstable adult. Shara meets Junaque (now called Shelle) once again as an adult and their affair starts right back up. Unlike Shelle, however, Shara is unwilling to hide her love, causing the two of them to have a tempestuous on-again-off-again affair that ultimately ends ambiguously, with either their death or escape, depending on the reader’s need.
By 1993, Fujimura Mari presents another example of the emotional instability that accompanies a lesbian relationship in Futtemo Haretemo (降っても晴れっても) (1993, Tokyo: Shueisha). Nagi and Hiro are two classmates who develop a deep, almost obsessive, definitely possessive, attraction between them. Nagi and Hiro’s relationship is dysfunctional and they often act in ways that are harmful to themselves and the other. Suicide and violence are a palpable presence in this story, linked directly with the relationship. At the end they are presented as happy and whole when they meet after years, having married men and moved on with their lives. This was a low point in presentation of lesbian love in shoujo manga, inextricably linking mental unwellness and lesbian desire, which could be “fixed” by heterosexuality.
In Haruno Nanae’s Pieta (ピエタ) (2000, Tokyo: Shueisha.) Rio is presented to us as a troubled teen, threatening to commit suicide. Her father and step-mother claim to have no idea why she’s like this, but readers can see that she’s the victim of vicious emotional abuse by her step-mother and disinterest by a neglectful father. Her psychiatrist worries that her family’s influence will impede her mental health. Sahoko, a classmate, who was herself troubled, and Rio develop a relationship that ultimately brings healing to both of them. With the help of their psychiatrists, who function as surrogate parents, they move in together. The romantic relationship between Rio and Sahoko is not presented as the cause of their mental instability nor because of it, but as the thing that helps them find wholeness and stability. This was not the first Yuri romance to have a happy ending, but it was a sea change in the presentation of mental unwellness linked with lesbianism. Here, being lesbian is what heals, rather than what hurts.
When Sun Publishing first put out Yuri Shimai (百合姉妹 2003, Tokyo: Sun Publishing) magazine, the first Yuri-focused manga magazine in 2003, they included works from classic and well-known Yuri manga artists, including Kita Konno, creator of Himitsu no Kaidan (秘密の階段. 1995, Tokyo: Kaiseisha.) Her stories for Yuri Shimai and it’s successor Yuri Hime, (百合姫 2005-present, Tokyo: Ichisjinsha.) , now published monthly as Comic Yuri Hime (コミック百合姫), tended to focus on incestuous and abusive relationships. “Under the Rose”, later reprinted in Yuri Hime Selection, (百合姫Selection, 2007, Tokyo: Ichijinsha.) was a good (bad) example of the kind of automatic integration of lesbianism with all the unhealthy things possible.
In 2004, the surprisingly influential Kannazuki no Miko (神無月の巫女, 2004, Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten.) debuted. In every version of Kaishaku’s series, accomplished, classical Japanese beauty, Chikane is conflicted from the beginning between her fate as a lunar priestess and her affection and desire for her partner, solar priestess Himeko. In the anime, her emotional instability is directly linked to her physical desire for Himeko, while in the manga, Chikane rapes Himeko to, ostensibly, make Himeko not trust her. In both cases, it’s her desire for Himeko that causes the emotional conflict.
At the same time, (not an accidental happenstance, as the Yuri-ish and genre-defining Light Novel series Maria-sama ga Miteru (マリア様がみてる) had increased interest once more in stories of girls in private schools, and the new Yuri manga magazines and anthologies were using that setting compulsively) the anime Mai HiME (舞-HiME, 2004-5, Tokyo Sunrise.) was hitting the airwaves. In this series, Fujino Shizuru is shown to be obsessed with Kuga Natsuki. She’s not hiding her desire, but is also unable to come out and express herself. When she can no longer control herself and comes to Natsuki late at night, kissing, possibly assaulting, her, Shizuru is interrupted by fellow HiME. Shizuru completely loses her grip on sanity and is, clearly, shown to be an example of the pathology of lesbian desire.)
Honorable mention needs to go here to Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (魔法少女リリカルなのは 2004, Tokyo, Geneon.), the anime (and later, manga,) franchise that also began in 2004. In this ongoing narrative, the emotionally and physically abused Fate Testarossa, is rescued by Takamachi Nanoha. Fate and Nanoha remain friends during Fate’s incarceration, and, when she is released, they move in together. The two create an alternate family that grows in every subsequent series. Both Fate and Nanoha adopt children who have been rejected by their families. They are seen to share a bed, and once again we are given to believe that their relationship is the thing that is the most stable part of their lives.
Yet, at the same time, we’re presented with Yaya from Strawberry Panic! (ストロベリー・パニック!, 2003-2007, Tokyo: Mediaworks.) who is the first 21st century example we have of a character said to have been “neglected by her father” as both a stand-in for abuse, as her behavior maps to a sexually abused child, and also directly stated to be the cause of her lesbianism. Yaya’s behavior is highly sexualized, possessive, obsessive and she borders on the edge of mental breakdown until her “love” for Hikari is subsumed in her desire to see Hikari’s relationship with Amane realized. The series supplies Yaya with a potential partner in a younger student but, notably, a student that has shown us a strong will and personality, so we may be confident that, if something develops, it will be consensual, thus indicating that Yaya has herself been made whole and functional.
In 2007, Nakamura Kiyo (writing as Nakamura Ching,) took a completely different tack with GUNJO (羣青, 2007-2012, Tokyo: Shogakukan), a true-crime-like story of a woman who had been overtly sexually abused by her father and husband, and the lesbian who killed the husband for her. In contrast to the traditional narrative elements in which the abuse (or “neglect”) are related to the lesbianism, the lesbian in this series walks away from a functional, happy life to help the abused and neglected school acquaintance. “Lesbian-san” (the characters are not named through most of the series) is not the abused person, but neither is she emotionally stable, as she and the overtly emotionally unstable “Megane-san” are on the run after a murder “Lesbian-san” has committed.
By 2010, Lesbianism was much more rarely linked directly with mental instability. In Ebon Fumi’s Blue Friend (ブルーフレンド 2010-12, Tokyo: Shueisha.) the premise begins with a well-worn trope of an emotionally troubled girl befriended by a popular girl, and the possessive, unhealthy relationship between them, exacerbated by bullying at school. This relationship is something the two girls manage to shift from unhealthy and manipulative to a healthy friendship that is positive for both of them. Once again, we see a way through the instability to healing. After 7 years of a Yuri-focused manga magazine, readers were starting to see a more general shift in the narrative of the mentally unstable lesbian.
In 2011, we see a slightly different version again of the link between obsessive affection/desire and emotional instability in Puella Magi Madoka Magica (魔法少女まどか☆マギカ, 2011, Tokyo. Shaft.) In the serialized TV anime, we meet Homura after many repeated cycles of existence, in which her one desire is to save Madoka. This obsession with the other girl has warped her (as has her repeated failure to save Madoka.) Nonetheless, Madoka is able to break past Homura’s emotional armor and remind her why she’s doing this. Their mutual affection allows Madoka to break out of the cycle. This is rewritten in a subsequent movie, in which Homura’s obsession continues to affect her negatively until she becomes the thing Madoka must fight. Her sacrifice is the only way to end the continuing cycle…suicide is still the only way out for the obsessed lesbian.
As the Yuri market has developed, and series more generally showed functional, happy lesbian relationships both in shoujo-manga fantasy spaces, such as Shirosawa Marimo’s Nobara no Mori no Otome-tachi（野ばらの森の乙女たち 2010-11, Tokyo: Kodansha.) or GIRL FRIENDS by Morinaga Milk (ガールフレンズ 2006-2010, Tokyo: Futabsaha) and in more real world-settings, such as Sweet Blue Flowers by Shimura Takako (青い花 2004-13, Tokyo: Ohta Publishing) or Nishi Uko’s very adult, very realistic, Collectors (コレクターズ 103-16, Tokyo: Hakusensha.), this use of “neglect” as cipher for abuse will come back as a plot complication.
In 2012, Saburouta began serializing Citrus (シトラス 2012, Tokyo: Ichijinsha.) a story about two sisters by marriage who find themselves physically attracted to one another. Mei, who reflects the classic Japanese beauty, and Yuzu, who represents the outgoing popular girl, gavotte around one another (and in and out of other complicated and often emotionally manipulative) relationships. Mei’s behavior, like Yaya’s, is much more consistent with a survivor of sexual abuse, but once again, we are told it’s because her father “neglected” her. We can be forgiven in this case for remembering the Freudian pathologizing of lesbianism as being the fault of the father. We equally remember Maya of Maya no Souretsu, whose desire for the “neglected” daughter of a man she loathed drove her to suicide.
We must end here with a mention of Kodama Naoko’s NTR: Netsuzou Trap (捏造トラップ 2014-present, Tokyo: Ichijinsha.) While the characters aren’t explicitly described as suffering abuse or “neglect,” it becomes apparent even to a casual reader or viewer, that Hotaru’s behavior can be traced back to abuse. Kat Callahan of Anime Now says, “the series seems to deal with a very important issue: the cycle of abuse, and specifically, sexual abuse.”
Everything old is new again…and we’re still stuck with this ugly idea that women are lesbians because they were “neglected” by their father and that this neglect causes not only lesbianism, but manipulative, unhealthily obsessive pathological lesbianism.
Freud would be so pleased.