It’s no secret that homosexuality in Japan is stigmatized. This is directly reflected in anime where any depiction of gayness stops short of affirmation, leaving fans to put the pieces together. Some of this is certainly a cynical maneuver to stir up the fanbase but it also stems from a societal repression that being gay should be kept on the down-low (and further, a deeply-rooted sexual repression in general).
What’s interesting about repression is that it creates a dichotomy of extremes. In interpersonal relations you’re conditioned to avoid stigmatized topics but simultaneously depictions of the stigma in the media are grandiose, risqué and overtly glorified. It’s a release from the stigma so far removed from reality that it risks becoming fetishized. This is what has happened with yuri and, I’d argue to an even greater extent, yaoi. We’ll be focusing on the latter here.
Yuri!!! on Ice has been lauded for its depiction of a consensual relationship between two adult men. By all accounts it stands out from the sea of high school-focused BL series in that regard but when watching the series I couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t quite pushing the boundaries that people claimed it was. It’s scared to proclaim its characters as truly gay at every turn, leaving it to the fans to fill in the gaps. The kiss is obscured. The proposal is teeters around the idea of actual marriage with its non-affirmative language. Homosexuality is never addressed head-on, only as a fantasy.
Granted, Yuri!!! on Ice manages to have plenty of moments where its characters aren’t fetishized objects of desire but it’s not immune to it either. It still feels like it overcompensates for a cultural taboo by sexualizing its characters. This isn’t to say that sexualization isn’t present in anime portraying straight relationships but it’s not to the same extent. Simply put: straight characters are allowed to be “normal” more often than gay characters. Which brings me to Doukyuusei.
There are few depictions of homosexuality I’ve seen in any medium that are as normal as Doukyuusei. It’s awkward and messy, two people stumbling through mutual feelings as they grasp for a wall in the darkness. It’s uncomfortably real. Everyone had to deal with conflicting emotions in their teenage years and these two are no different. The fact that they’re no different is as progressive of a message as such things get, especially for a Japanese audience. Repeated for emphasis: Hikaru and Rihito are just two teenagers dealing with feelings.
Doukyuusei doesn’t make a big deal of it. When the two characters realize their mutual feelings and come to terms with them they begin dating; there’s no beating around the bush as is common in BL. There’s no glorification, it just is what it is. Sure, there are moments where they must face the stigmatism of society but it’s not used for dramatic effect. There’s no scene of overt fanservice or swelling orchestration to snap you out of the film’s reality, nor does it point fingers at how gay the characters are. It’s played straight, organic, normal. Yes, straight: you get the sense that if this were about a boy and girl it’d be depicted no differently.
Going forward, we need more stories like Doukyuusei that push the message that love is love and love is normal no matter which way you swing. It’s all ultimately the same. There may be different ways of coping with your feelings due to society’s stigma but we should be pushing media that breaks down those barriers. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for the Yuri!!! on Ices of the world (and indeed I find it to be a fine series) but I also can’t agree that it’s a progressive view of homosexuality when placed next to Doukyuusei. The best way to smash taboos is to present the taboo as being nothing but normal.