The phrase “representation matters” is used in a variety of wildly different cases to express support for or emphasise
the need for greater inclusivity in media and society at large. Within that context, the depiction of LGBTQIA+ experiences, identities, and issues has become more common with the world of anime and manga not being exempted from either this phenomenon or the accompanying scrutiny. Beyond discussing the simple idea that representation matters, however, it is equally important to question what kind of representation matters or, more precisely, whether there is a singular right way to go about it.
A few months ago, an official statement regarding The Witch From Mercury caused controversy, outrage, and debate on the value of textual – or canon – confirmation within a story narrative. This was, after all, the first Gundam series without a male lead and ostensibly the first to depict an openly gay relationship between its two protagonists. Yet, although these two characters spend the entire show’s run engaged to each other and are at the very least implied to have gotten married, there is no wedding or even a kiss. It lacks any direct confirmation to rubber stamp the subtext of their mutual feelings.
This ambiguity later allowed Bandai Namco room to assert that the nature of their relationship was open to interpretation. It is important to question whether the absence of explicit confirmation in the end truly undermines the relationship depicted over the preceding 24 episodes. Would a wedding scene matter more than, or work as a meaningful substitute for, the mutual expressions of support, companionship, and the emotional bond portrayed throughout the story? Rather than asking whether an anime somehow proves the validity of its representation, it may be more constructive to consider how that anime and its characters made us feel.
Of course, this issue is bigger than just The Witch From Mercury. Other LGBTQIA+ characters and relationships in
prominent anime series over the years have been similarly undercut by later developments and alterations. For instance, one can turn to Sailor Moon and how the English localisation of that anime converted Michiru and Haruka from a lesbian couple into… cousins, while also changing Zoisite from an openly gay man into a woman. In another example, the creators of The Legend of Korra famously had to work within limits imposed by Nickelodeon to be able to deliver their vision for the relationship between the show’s leads. Time and again, whether in Japanese or Western productions, decision makers at the top level tend to meddle in the kinds of stories that can be told with the broadly
In a world where it is not always possible to count on explicit confirmation, it is necessary to assess representation based on what it does rather than merely what it proves. With the pattern of characters seeming to fall just short of direct confirmation, it is worth considering which conditions contributed to the writers adopting a less direct approach. This is not to suggest that a story can be beyond criticism just because there might have been underlying reasons for the form of representation within it. It is simply necessary to bring a degree of nuance into how we all engage with anime and the representation therein.
Needless to say, there is still immense value in stories that engage more overtly with LGBTQIA+ themes and related topics. It is easy to end up wandering the wilderness while attempting to dredge up the tiniest morsels of representation in mainstream anime, but digging slightly deeper reveals a trove of stories with more textual emphasis on the identities of their characters. At their best, these stories can help people to understand their own experiences and identities, while also aiding in dispelling homophobic and transphobic stereotypes and stigma.
As an arbitrarily selected example, Oto Toda wrote a manga anthology titled To Strip the Flesh, which directly tackled issues of gender dysphoria and gender identity. In it, the protagonist of the titular one-shot story starts out as a prisoner of other people’s expectations. He is caught between his desire to live true to himself, his desire to live up to the hopes of his parents, and the fear of what may happen if he were to fail at living up to either set of desires. This outline is for anyone who has grappled with the prospect of coming out to their family and depicts this situation effectively because Toda explicitly set out to portray a transgender experience. The afterword contains an interview with a message from Toda about the importance of learning, and that is what this form of representation is best at – enabling the reader to learn more about themselves and the world around them.
It is necessary to point out that direct textual confirmation does not necessitate the creation of stories built on experiences of strife or suffering. I’m In Love With The Villainess started airing in the first week of October and, from its first episode, staked its claim as successor to the chaotic energy and gay romance that characterised The Magical Revolution of the Reincarnated Princess and the Genius Young Lady earlier in the year. Both of these anime happen to bear the traits of an entire subset of escapist anime, that being the Isekai genre, carrying an element of
wish fulfilment as a result. In this way, representation can present a form of vicarious experience, a function that provides immense value for people in situations that do not permit them to pursue true self-expression.
As is by now self-evident, representation comes in different forms, and fulfils different objectives. Some stories may be more or less direct in how they portray LGBTQIA+ characters, but there is value in a world where they all exist alongside each other. The most important thing to consider is what impact the story has, not whether it happens to check a few boxes in any given direction.