In Japan, within the yuri genre—yuri referring to any sort of romantic or sexual lesbian relationships—there’s a subgenre called Class S. It’s often described as “romantic friendship,” but perhaps “pseudo-platonic lesbians until graduation” would be more accurate. The focus is on close emotional relationships between schoolgirls—and it is very nearly always schoolgirls—that borrow the imagery of romance, such as hand-holding, writing love letters, exchanging gifts, maybe even as much as a chaste kiss, but never more than that. One-sided lesbian pining with the acknowledgement that one’s feelings will never be returned by the heterosexual object of one’s affections can also fall into this category—Tomoyo from Cardcaptor Sakura is an archetypal example. There is nearly always the implication that these lesbian feelings are just a phase, and the girls involved will grow up to be straight and marry men.
You may think this sounds an awful lot like queerbaiting, the practice of deliberately including queer subtext—and only subtext—to court that audience without the risk of alienating viewers who might be put off by actual same-sex romance. And in contemporary works, you’d probably be right—the recent Ghibli film When Marnie Was There is a particularly egregious example of this. But if you go back to the origins of the genre, things are a lot more complicated.
Class S was codified by Yoshiya Nobuko, a prolific writer during the Showa and Taisho periods, with her serially published Flower Tales—running from 1916 to 1924—being especially popular and influential. These short stories almost never end happily for the girls involved—if they’re not pining from afar, their relationships inevitably end in tragedy. Naturally, schoolgirls ate this up, and Class S relationships gained a certain amount of popularity in real life before a combination of government censorship and a transition to co-ed schools led to the genre’s decline. Yoshiya’s writing shifted from schoolgirl crushes to heterosexual relationships, with any feelings between women becoming more akin to sisterhood.
What makes this interesting is that Yoshiya Nobuko was a feminist and a very open lesbian, who cheerfully flaunted the gender norms of the time and had a decades-long relationship with another woman—not exactly the type one would expect to propagate the concept of same-sex love as a meaningless phase.
That’s because she really wasn’t—she was writing lesbian relationships in the only way they could get published at the time. During the rapid modernization of the 1920’s, there was immense societal and government pressure for girls to stay pure and virginal until marriage so that they could become “Good Wives, Wise Mothers.” Relationships between girls were seen as an acceptable way to practice affection for married life, and harmless compared to heterosexual involvement that could result in pregnancy, but they were acceptable only so long as they didn’t get in the way of the final goal—marriage and motherhood. Depicting a committed lesbian relationship between adults, such as the one Yoshiya herself had, would be bordering on treason.
This is, perhaps, the reason that so many of her stories end unhappily—because her only other option would be for her girls to enter the sphere of heterosexuality, which was often depicted quite literally as a fate worse than death. And considering how widely read her work was, there’s no doubt that even these heavily compromised depictions opened some girls’ eyes to their own sexuality. After all, if there’s one thing us queer folks are good at, it’s reclaiming flawed works. Even within the constraints of the time, Yoshiya supported herself and her partner by writing lesbian fiction—it’s hard to call that anything but subversive.
Of course, the Class S subgenre has become something quite different since then. Decades after its decline, it was brought back into the spotlight in 1998 by the hugely popular light novel series Maria-sama ga Miteiru (Maria Watches Over Us). MariMite, like its generic predecessors, is set in a Catholic girl’s school and depicts emotionally close, asexual “romantic friendships” between upperclassmen and their underclassmen sœurs as a codified tradition of the school—and by extension, one expected to end with graduation.
The main difference between MariMite and Flower Tales is context, but the importance of context cannot be underestimated—when MariMite was published, homosexuality had been decriminalized in most countries, the global LGBT and feminist movements were in full swing, and there had recently been several landmark cases ruling against discrimination based on sexuality in Japan. What was subversive and boundary-pushing in 1920 is merely regressive in 1998. To blindly copy tropes without considering their significance is to completely miss the point.
For an example of a creator who carries on Yoshiya’s intent, one need look no further than anime director Ikuhara Kunihiko. Despite managing to fit a frankly astonishing level of dark and disturbing content into a prime-time TV slot for his 1997 anime Revolutionary Girl Utena, one thing he wasn’t able to depict was the two female leads kissing, leading to misguided insistence from fans that “they’re just friends!” that continues to this day. This is despite the naked motorcycle makeout session that closes out the 1999 follow-up film Adolescence of Utena, permitted by Ikuhara’s freedom from the censorial oversight that comes from working in TV.
His most recent series, 2015’s Yuri Kuma Arashi (Yuri Bear Storm), can be read, in part, as an interrogation of Class S tropes: the protagonist and her “best friend” appear to have a chaste romantic friendship—until we see them lounging naked in bed together in a clearly post-coital manner. The series ends with the possible deaths of the main lesbian couple—but they’re happy together in the world they find themselves in, finally free from those who would persecute them, and their love inspires other girls to seek out love with each other. Like Flower Tales, their ending may not be perfect, but it is rebellious and inspiring and optimistic even in its tragedy. And this time, we get to see them kiss.
Censorship, whether overt or not, has always been a high hurdle for queer representation. This is no less the case in the US than in Japan, with kids cartoons as the battleground du jour. So tune in two weeks from now for a followup looking at the ways lesbian representation in shows like Legend of Korra and Adventure Time is following a similar arc stateside.