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Beyond The School Cathedral: How Yuri Grew Up

by Nicki “YuriMother” Bauman,

Up until five or so years ago, if you wanted to check out some yuri anime or manga (media about romantic and sexual relationships between women) you had only a few options. You would get one of a small number of titles that would almost inevitably feature two high school students – probably a naive and bubbly younger student and an elegant star – at an almost impossibly prestigious and secluded all-girls school. Sure, a couple of series spiced the formula up with some action, but it was the same story, the same characters. This monotony was yuri for a long, long time. But suddenly and rapidly, the genre's landscape is now shifting, allowing for exciting new stories.

Nowadays, not only do English and Japanese readers have a treasure trove of titles to select from, they now feature exciting new settings, a variety of sub-genres from science fiction to isekai, and a more diverse cast of characters. One of yuri's most popular new breeds, "shakaijin yuri" (which means people that are part of society, in contrast to students), depicts adult women navigating life and romance in the real world.

To understand how yuri has grown up into the complex and rapidly expanding genre it is today, it is essential to look back at its origins and understand why school settings would become so ubiquitous in the first place. Back in the 1910s and 1920s, Japan was a rapidly changing environment for adolescent girls. First, as Japan began to increase relations with the rest of the world, western literary works started to seep in. Among these were children's novels focused on young women, such as Lousia May Alcott's Little Women, which helped affix concepts of sisterhood and romance into their young audiences.

Simultaneously, single-sex schools for middle and upper-class children, usually founded by religious organizations, rapidly appeared in Japan, with over 200 such institutions existing by 1913. Girls' schools fostered bonds of admiration between the younger and older students – the senpai, or "onee-sama," and kohai. Many of these relationships had genuine affection and desire, but society considered them short-lived and non-sexual, a result of contemporary attitudes of homosexuality as a transitory bond between pure girls. As such, the relationships were accepted as a natural stage in young women's development as they prepared to become wives and mothers.

Girls' literature of the time, known as Class S works, depicted these relationships as fierce, platonic bonds. These were not yuri relationships and characters as we would likely consider it today, full of girls dramatically grappling with their feelings for each other, perhaps after a sudden unexpected kiss or confession. Instead, they portrayed idealized sisterly romantic friendships.

S literature is highly influential to the yuri genre. Nobuko Yoshiya's Yaneura no Nishojo and Hana Monogatari were both incredibly popular (especially the latter) at the time, and include imagery that was later adapted into yuri hallmarks. Their secluded secret rooms and piano duets were, decades later, imitated by the likes of Maria Watches Over Us and Strawberry Panic.

Hana Monogatari - Nobuko Yoshiya

Class S declined in literature and reality over the next several decades due to increased censorship by the Japanese government and the decline of girls' schools. However, many of its ideas remained and reemerged in shoujo manga. Shoujo manga in the 1970s began exploring ideas of gender and sexuality. Among these works was Ryouko Yamagishi's Shiroi Heya no Futari, arguably the first yuri manga.

Like S literature, Shiroi Heya no Futari was set in a secluded Catholic boarding school and focused on the deep bond between two female students. It explored ideas and language related to love and affection, themes notably repeated in recent yuri works Bloom Into You and Whisper Me a Love Song. It was S literature but in manga form, an evolution that became the standard when yuri finally began to grow and develop thirty years later.

Resine (Shiroi Heya no Futari) and Yuu (Bloom Into You) both realize their feelings

The most recent revival of S relationships was in the 1990s. This period brought three definitive works that would help catapult yuri into a new epoch: Sailor Moon, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and Maria Watches Over Us. All three utilized S imagery and themes, but while the first two, guided by a new era, were much more subversive, the greatest accomplishment of Maria Watches Over Us was to bring the Class S revolution.

Maria Watches Over Us copies proto-yuri ideas: a private religious school where only elegant and pure young maidens could attend, an emphasis on senpai-kohai relationships where the younger girl would call her senior "onee-sama," and deep, powerful romantic friendships. The series became a blueprint as yuri magazines like Yuri Shimai began spawning in the early 2000s. As publishers worked to find niches and audiences for these works, Maria Watches Over Us provided a profitable and successful framework they could manipulate for different ages and genders.

Consequently, the vast majority of yuri works at this stage focused on girls in school, often in a withdrawn environment separate from the confines of the natural world. They were yuri fantasies where no man existed and girls could live out their romantic and sisterly relationships in sprawling fields of lilies and secret gardens. Some series took these aspects at face value, like Kisses, Sighs, and Cherry Blossom Pink and First Love Sisters. In contrast, others like Kannazuki no Miko employed science fiction and mecha elements to appeal to male audiences.

School yuri works surged in popularity as publishers continued to push its imagery. For example, Strawberry Panic presented an overturned parody where consumers could voyeuristically gaze into the private life of elegant young women in a fantastic and "pure" atmosphere. It began as a mere series of magazine features before being catapulted into a full-fledged multimedia series with manga, light novels, anime, a radio show, and a visual novel.

Strawberry Panic short story from Dengeki G's Magazine - Story: Sakurako Kimino, Art: Chitose Maki

Occasionally during this period, a work focusing on adults like Akiko Morishima's The Conditions of Paradise would appear, offering a brief and exciting foray away from the gilded halls of fantasy school life. Still, publishers inevitably continued to push for more and more school yuri stories. Even today, the most successful yuri works like Bloom Into You, Citrus, and Whisper Me a Love Song continue to rely on schoolgirl yuri tropes. However, slowly but surely, the genre is growing up and moving outside the classroom into the real world.

It's challenging to pinpoint precisely what changed in the past 10 years that allowed yuri to break free of its sisterly school narratives. No singular event or series forced the genre's evolution, but a rapid cascade of outward and inward factors allowed it to break free. These ranged from the creators and audience of the genre to the internet and the new opportunities it applied. Internet platforms like Pixiv and Twitter provided creators and mangaka new venues to post and experiment with without traditional publishing and editorial processes. While creators have been putting out original works and doujinshi since long before such websites existed, the digital world afforded a degree of success and popularity that was previously much more unlikely to achieve without a publisher's support and marketing power. For yuri, this phenomenon meant that works less attractive to publishers, which is to say ones that were not school romances, could still find an audience. Two such titles were Kabi Nagata's My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness and Kurukuruhime's Yuri Life.

Yuri Life was a collection of short, typically one-page stories about various lesbian couples living together. While many of the characters were ridiculous and fantasy imaginative for comic effects, such as one story featuring a grim reaper and her roommate, they had a familiar setting: reality. Not set at a private all-girls school where elegant young ladies pledged themselves to each other and dressed as princes and angels for dramatic horse races, it was in the real world. Further, Yuri Life derives much of its humor from more mundane, less exaggerated situations, like one woman cheering up her partner after a professional setback.

Yuri Life - Kurukuruhime

On the other hand, Nagata's work is as far removed from schoolgirls and fantasy as possible, as it is an autobiography documenting the author's genuine struggles with depression, an eating disorder, and her sexuality. Not only was this work a drastic change from traditional yuri stories, but it was also incredibly successful. The volume won the 2018 Harvey Award for Best Manga and spawned further installments My Solo Exchange Diary, My Alcoholic Escape From Reality, and My Wandering Warrior Existence.

While Pixiv and Twitter gave artists the chance to share visually stunning creations and beautifully illustrated stories, writers also leveraged the internet to disseminate their yuri narratives. Three yuri fantasy series, Sexiled, Roll Over and Die, and I'm in Love with the Villainess, began as web novels on Shōsetsuka ni Narō. They all went on to find mainstream success, with each being licensed abroad and adapted into a manga series. These stories stand distinctly apart from Class S-inspired stories, with nary an "onee-sama" insight.

Despite their magical worlds, many of these works navigated real-world issues. Sexiled author Ameko Kaeruda was inspired to write the novel, which follows women fighting against ingrained sexism and gender inequalities, after hearing about Tokyo Medical University lowering the scores of women taking the entrance exam. I'm in Love with the Villainess heavily features discussions of LGBTQ+ identity and society, including the importance of representing them in media, conversations about stereotypes of queer people, and depictions of struggles around sexuality and gender identity.

The emergence of sub-genres also furthered yuri's growth and evolution. All of the Narō web novels previously mentioned are fantasy, but other sub-genres such as science fiction are thriving in yuri as well. The popularity of Rikimura Mizoguchi's special yuri issue of S-F Magazine proved so great it was reprinted before release, a feat achieved only once before in the magazine's then 59-year history. However, this was no lucky fluke. The continued success of yuri sci-fi works like the haunting Otherside Picnic and Last and First Idol, Gengen Kusano's Love Live fanfic turned hard sci-fi descent into existential dread, only further prove that audiences are eager for other forms of yuri storytelling.

Otherside Picnic - Anime: Liden Films & Felix Films

Indeed, consumers in Japan and abroad are eager to see yuri outside the schoolyard. In Japan, I'm in Love with the Villainess won 5th place in AnimeJapan's "Manga We Want to See Animated." Furthermore, yuri news site Yuri Navi, which frequently hosts reader polls, has seen yuri set outside of schools, like Miyako Miyahara's Even If It Was Just Once, I Regret It, surge in popularity.

Overseas readers also help push the marketability of these yuri stories. Until recently, foreign markets were a small slice of the yuri publishing sphere, but the genre has exploded onto the scene in the past few years. Now, every major American publisher is actively licensing yuri. But foreign audiences do not take to every title.

When Tokyopop attempted to publish Maria Watches Over Us in Germany, it did not sell particularly well. The tropes, sisterly relationships, and transitory romance of S-inspired works did not scratch audiences' itch. The rather prudent content of S relationships did not meet their standards or relate to their experiences. As Verena Maser pointed out in her presentation No Place For Lilies during the 2021 Mechademia conference, German readers – and I would expand that to most Western Yurijin – are used to more liberal depictions of homosexuality.

Fortunately, publishers can now license works featuring more explicit romance between female characters. Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon, Days of Love at Seagull Villa, How Do We Relationship?, and Sexiled all ranked higher in popularity on English storefronts like Amazon and Bookwalker Global than school romances. Audiences crave these series! It is to the point where even manga like Conditions of Paradise, initially published in 2008, was just released in English in 2020.

How Do We Relationship? - Tamifull

However, there is one factor that raised the popularity of shakaijin yuri and pushed the genre to evolve even more than the internet or audience demand: the creators themselves. Yuri mangaka have long been pushing for different types of stories. As previously mentioned, Akiko Morishima has created yuri with adult characters for over a decade, but plenty of other artists worked to include these stories as well.

One of the most revolutionary ways to show grownups in a yuri series is to place it in conjunction with school romance. Series like Bloom Into You and Girl Friends gave readers hints or glimpses of their characters in adult life. The former has a chapter of the manga and an entire volume of the light novel spin-off, Regarding Saeki Sayaka, devoted to its subject in college. However, the most substantiated transition for a high school series into the real world is Hiromi Takashima's Kase-san and Yamada, a follow-up to her popular Kase-san series, continuing the titular characters' romance after graduation.

Bloom Into You: Regarding Saeki Sayaka - Author: Hitoma Iruma, Art: Nio Nakatani

Anthologies provided others with avenues to feature adult characters. When Kadokawa published the first issue of its Éclair series, many mangakas took the rather loose theme of “yuri” to new bounds. Izumi Kawanami seized the opportunity to create shakaijin stories with plots that differed from the "girl-meets-girl" storylines common in modern school yuri. Her entry, "My Cute Bitch," followed two women, one of whom is trying to date a man despite her lack of attraction to his gender, moving into an apartment together. Another chapter by Taki Kitao sees two women baking a pie together. Other anthologies like Whenever Our Eyes Meet and Chocolate focus entirely on adult characters. When Futabasha began its anthology series Syrup in 2019, the very first volume focused on adult women.

It is not just the creators that focused on adult stories. Plenty more transitioned from schoolgirls narratives to shakaijin ones. Nio Nakatani is a prime example of this phenomenon. If you trace her contributions to the Éclair anthologies – which are all bound together chronologically in Farewell to My Alter – you would see a shift towards tales of adult lesbians dealing with natural feelings and consequences with long-term relationships.

With audiences looking for different stories, mangaka desperate to give it to them, and repeated proof that yuri featuring adult characters could perform well, publishers finally increased production of shakaijin yuri – rather dramatically so.

Even as recently as 2015, we would only see one or two adult-centered series like Yuuta Nishio's After Hours a year. But a plethora of yuri exploring diverse themes with grownup casts is now available for consumers to enjoy. Days of Love at Seagull Villa follows a woman healing after her boyfriend left her for another woman. Still Sick sees a young woman help her coworker rediscover her passion for art and manga. Our Teachers are Dating is a fluffy and spicy romp through a passionate and adorable relationship. There are so many excellent choices!

Still Sick - Akashi

Tropes and traditions define yuri. While the genre has enjoyed a fascinating history—crossing demographics, periods, and mediums—schoolgirls and spiritual, sisterly relationships were always its core. Now, thanks to technology, audiences, and creators, we are starting to see these traditions break down and the genre grow up. The tireless efforts of its proponents crafted a mighty, thunderous change in the once stagnant genre. Yuri is finally venturing outside of the classroom, beyond the wondrous fantasy of secluded spaces for elegant young women, past fleeting, youthful expressions of affection and romance, and out into the real world.

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