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Inside the problematic undertones of yaoi and fetishisation of queer people in anime

Shonen, shoujo, seinen, josei, isekai, mecha, kodomomuke… for an avid enthusiast, the list of anime genres is bottomless and every category has its unique set of subgenres to binge-watch. For the uninitiated, however, the Japanese film and TV animation style is synonymous with a deeply problematic—depends who you ask—genre called hentai (read: animated pornography).

Although 2022 witnessed anime’s rise to global prominence with the live-action remake of Cowboy Bebop, iconic tributes to Sailor Moon and even Kanye West admitting that his “biggest creative inspiration” is Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk film Akira, chances are that if you declare your love for Japanese popular culture or stream Otacore playlists in public, you’d immediately be hit with an “I bet you have some weird kinks like scat since you watch anime.”

Majorly linked back to ‘gainaxing’—the technique of illustrating a female character with buoyant breasts minus a bra, then animating every single physics-defying jiggle and bounce they are subjected to—in several mainstream anime, it’s not surprising to see SFW shows being looped into the same category as hentai. The fanservice side of the industry does not help this case either, nor does the questionable fanart of characters surfacing on forums like Reddit.

This generalisation has, in turn, pushed genres like ecchi and harem into being perceived as the prime fodder for ‘otakus’ or ‘weebs’ on the internet. Even if you only adore shonen anime like One Piece, Bleach and Fullmetal Alchemist, you’re automatically deemed as a simp and closeted perv with no pull game, who probably has posters of ‘waifus’ like Zero Two or Marin Kitagawa lining their wardrobe and car seats.

Although hentai continues to romanticise problematic tropes like incest, paedophilia, and bestiality along with the gross objectification of women for male pleasure, I hate to admit that this is just the heterosexual side of the industry. Enter the wildly-divisive world of yaoi and yuri—genres hinged on LGBTQ+ relationships that routinely succumb to toxic narratives in order to attract its most rabid fans.

What is yaoi?

Derived from ‘Yama nashi, Ochi nashi, Imi nashi’ meaning “no climax, no point, no meaning,” yaoi is a genre of anime, manga, video games and movies that surrounds same-sex relationships between men—typically made by and for the viewing pleasure of heterosexual women. Yuri, on the other hand, is the female equivalent of yaoi focusing on explicit lesbian relationships. As opposed to the former, yuri is not marketed towards a single demographic of viewers and its audience comprises horndog men, women, and everyone in between.

The term ‘yaoi’ was coined in the late 1970s as a subgenre of shoujo manga (illustrated works aimed at a young female audience). At the time, several terms thrown around included shounen-ai (or boys love), which refers to stories about non-explicit gay relationships that focuses on the romantic, emotional and joyful side of queer lives. In contrast, yaoi was used in a self-deprecating manner to refer to amateur fan works (doujinshi) that base their entire existence on sexual themes and scenes—excluding all sorts of plot and character development whatsoever.

Having “no climax, no point, no meaning,” yaoi hence continues to feature male characters who are more than just friends but not exactly lovers. This ‘in-between, not-quite’ status has essentially paved the way for the genre to leverage homophobia as a mere plot device to heighten drama or to prove the angsty love between the leads.

A genre rife with problematic tropes

If you’ve been active in the anime scene, you’d have undoubtedly heard echoes of certain shows that are off limits if you want to stay as a “soft stan” in the community. Be it opening theme music (Body, body! Body, body, body!—if you know, you know) or certain scenes (think sticky, melting vanilla ice cream that you’ll never look at the same way again), most of the references made can be traced back to media that fall under the yaoi genre.

Heck, even though I managed to mention both the toxic and scarring anime minus their names in the paragraph above, chances are that you’ll still end up watching them at one point in time—given the way the curious algorithm works both on social media and in our heads. Some call this a ‘rite of passage’ but I prefer labelling the journey as yet another medium to endorse yaoi along with all its problematic tropes.

First off, yaoi has a big rape problem. Instead of being presented as a crime with an assaulter and victim, rape is transformed into a measure of passion that ultimately showcases the ‘uncontrollable’ attraction felt by the seme (‘top’ or ‘the attacker’ in the relationship) towards the uke (‘bottom’ or ‘the receiver’—yet another problematic trope labelling roles in same-sex courtship).

Almost all yaoi stories feature at least one non-consensual sex scene as the uke later forgives and falls for the seme, thereby pardoning all sense of responsibility associated with the violent act. Simply put, rape is love in yaoi.

Next up is “It’s okay if it’s you”: a trope that downplays same-sex relationships in both yaoi and yuri alike. Synonymous with “I’m not gay, my boyfriend is,” most yaoi suggest that the characters are straight—except for just one person. I mean, that’s fine in real life, you do you as long as it doesn’t hurt the other human involved. In some yaoi works, however, homosexuality is likened to nothing more than a schoolyard fantasy that men just ‘grow out of’ over time if their significant other leaves them for their toxic female ex.

In the genre, ukes are also majorly treated as objects of pleasure with… self-lubricating booty holes that need no prior prep before penetration by literal lightsaber penises (in the case of censored yaoi, that is). In some instances, characters who clearly look like minors are passed off as working adults. And don’t even get me started on yaoi’s obsession with misogyny, gaslighting, incest, and rape drugs. The list is endless but the problematic contenders depend on who you ask, given how most people link the genre’s popularity to the claim that “girls like fiction more than realism.”

3 shounen-ai anime worth streaming in 2022

Now, if you’re someone who had never heard of the term ‘yaoi’ before reading this article, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sudden surge in listicle content popping up on your Google Discover and FYPs. But if this article has piqued your interest and you want to check the genre out for your own reasons, I’d like to hook you up with some shounen-ai anime instead before you click off.

While the two categories in question have been used interchangeably, initiating yourself into shounen-ai will help you get a better and healthier perspective in case you later decide to try yaoi. That being said, here are three shounen-ai anime worth streaming in 2022 and beyond:

1. ‘Given’

Music has the power to heal and Given’s portrayal of this fact hits all the right notes. The 2019 anime by Studio Lerche narrates the story of Mafuyu Satou and his high school peer Ritsuka Uenoyama. With a passion for guitar, Mafuyu convinces Uenoyama to help him master the instrument—later joining his band as a lead singer. As Mafuyu falls in love with music, he falls in love with life again and learns how to let go of his dark past and embrace new chapters in life.

The anime is filled with screenshot-worthy quotes and music that will continue to live rent-free on your mind for years to come. The story also delves into the relationship between the band’s bassist Haruki Nakayama and drummer Akihiko Kaji who redefine queer joy one episode at a time.

2. ‘Yuri!!! on Ice’

MAPPA’s Yuri!!! on Ice is probably one of the most famous figure skating anime out there today. The 12 episode-long sports series follows an up-and-coming Japanese figure skater named Yuuri Katsuki who gives up on his passion following his crushing defeat at the Grand Prix Final. Captivating his idol, Russian skater Victor Nikiforov, with his own rendition of the latter’s free skate programme, Yuuri is then coached by Nikiforov to rediscover his dreams and aspirations.

The sweet notes of respect, adoration and even humour between the two make the series a must-watch even if you’re not into the whole sports X shounen-ai genre. And believe me when I say this, Nikiforov is bound to end up as your phone wallpaper the moment you finish bingeing the anime. Season two, when?

3. ‘No. 6’

This 2011 adventure anime from Studio Bones tells the story of Shion—an intelligent boy who lives a privileged life within the walls of No. 6 (one of the six city states that was built after the world was ravaged by war)—and Nezumi, a convict who the former meets through a chance encounter. Over the course of 11 episodes, the leads build a romance that centres on respect, support and understanding, all within the framework of a dystopian society.

(Spoiler alert!) What’s more is that both Shion and Nezumi manage to make it out alive in the end, thereby flipping the bird to the ‘bury your gays’ trope that has gripped LGBTQ+ anime ever since its conception.

Meet the ‘itasha’ enthusiasts flaunting their love for Japanese pop culture on their cars

“Typical otaku,” “weeb shiz” and “waifu hell” are some of the terms the internet uses to address people with varied interests in Japanese popular culture. Although herd mentality, these criticisms are enough to make fans think twice before donning a Tokyo Revengers’ jacket or streaming Otacore in public. But what happens when Japanese pop culture clashes with car culture to create an entire subculture of enthusiasts—dedicated to building safe spaces for expression and self-identity?

Welcome to the graphic world of itasha, a customised community where cars are your canvas and your interests define your palette.

What is itasha?

Originating in the 1980s, the term ‘itasha’ initially referred to imported Italian supercars with flamboyant designs. Over time, however, it has been perceived as the portmanteau of the Japanese expressions ‘itai’ or ‘itaitashii’ (meaning ‘ouch’ or ‘painful’) with ‘sha’ (meaning ‘vehicle’). Together, they literally translate to ‘painful car’—with other internet-birthed spin-offs including ‘painmobile’ and, of course, ‘weebmobile’.

What makes an itasha unique is its focus on styling with Japanese pop culture decals. From dedicated stickers to full-blown wraps and paint schemes, each design ultimately resonates with the owner’s interests across anime, manga, video games, music idols, television series, dramas and ‘doujinshi’ (fan-created or self-published works). When these tastes bleed onto motorcycles and bicycles, they’re known as ‘itansha’ and ‘itachari’ respectively. ‘Ita-taxis’ have also been a hot debate within the community for decades.

While the itasha style of decal is said to be inspired from other vehicle-decoration fads like ‘dekotora’ (decoration trucks) and ‘bosozoku’ (motorcycle clubs), its roots can be traced back to the 1980s—when people in Japan started decorating their cars with plushies and stickers. Then came the early 2000s, where the concept started gaining traction alongside the advent of colour printing technology and the establishment of online communities in general.

By 2007, the then-underground subculture hosted its first ever convention called ‘Auto Salon’ in Japan. The following year, more than 600 itashas from across the country attended the event. Ten years later, the community proceeded to organise ‘Itasha Tengoku’—the world’s largest itasha exhibition in Odaiba, Tokyo—with live music, talk shows, award ceremonies and wrapping booths. Not only did the convention witness international participation, but it also attracted attention in terms of both art and business.

Today, the cars in question—previously only seen in places like Akihabara (Tokyo), Nipponbashi (Osaka) and Ōsu (Nagoya)—have amassed a global audience who are dedicated to redefining itashas as more than just a “customising fad” while living their lives in the fast lane.

One such enthusiast is Janelle Fulgoni, for whom itasha combines her love for anime and cars in a single subculture. “My first itasha was a 2002 Suzuki Vitara,” she reminisced. “I bought it in June 2017 and immediately started placing anime stickers on the windows, then finally had the hood wrapped in April 2018.” Although intending to customise only the hood at first, the enthusiast ended up with a full-blown itasha masterpiece by March 2019. “I then bought my ’97 Mazda Miata in April 2020 and had it fully wrapped by May,” Fulgoni added.

Meet the ‘itasha’ enthusiasts flaunting their love for Japanese pop culture on their cars

In terms of the versatility of the subculture, Fulgoni believes that a car doesn’t have to be “sporty, cool or modified” for it to be considered an itasha. “There are some people who don’t care about modifying their own [vehicle] or have a non-Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) car but would love to show dedication to their favourite anime character or series,” she told SCREENSHOT. “It’s definitely self-expression, a way to show your interests and is always different from person to person.”

A love-hate relationship

Now, I know this won’t count as an investigation if I don’t address the aspect of itasha being subjected to cringe culture. Yes, I’m backtracking to the “painmobile” and “weebmobile” claims the internet has been firing towards the community. TV Tropes refers to this pain in question as “either the car being a self-acknowledged eyesore, or the painful embarrassment which the owner is expected to undergo when explaining to his (it’s almost always ‘his’) family and friends exactly what the hell he was thinking.” Say less.

“I’ve had a few comments on social media, mostly Reddit, from people who just absolutely hate anime and have a general misunderstanding of the people who are into the hobby,” Fulgoni admitted, when asked about the feedback she’s witnessed to her cars. “And I’m always assumed to be a guy,” she added.

At the same time, however, the enthusiast also acknowledged how the response has mostly been positive. “I love seeing people get excited when they see my car in the grocery store parking lot or when I catch them posing and taking photos,” Fulgoni continued. “I constantly get thumbs up or lights blinked at me while driving or hear people yelling from afar how much they love my car.”

That said, the ‘pain’ angle of itasha culture allegedly extends to its customisation process. Simply put, itashas are considered “painful for the wallet” due to the high costs involved. To confirm these claims, I turned to Fulgoni again. “It’s definitely not a cheap hobby and takes dedication,” she explained. Although the enthusiast considers herself lucky to know good artists in the industry with whom she’s struck good deals in the past, the budget required for the modifications was still considerably high.

“My Suzuki cost me a total of $2,480 (£1,854) and my Miata was $3,045 (£2,276). And that’s not even including any of the extras like decals, customised wheels, floor mats, seat covers, licence plate frames, interior and other exterior modifications,” she continued. Ouch! I’d still itasha the heck out of my car even if it meant going broke though. I mean, look at it this way: humanity has been modifying automobiles for decades now. Cars have essentially been perceived as an extension of the driver—ultimately modified to reflect their personality and interests. So when will the internet stop transferring the hate Japanese popular culture is already getting (which I am yet to understand exactly why) onto everything else in relation to it?

Given how that question is bound to ensue even more hate, this is exactly where itasha conventions and meetups come in. Similar to AnimeCon, they create a welcoming platform for people to huddle around shared interests in itasha culture. And one of the most prominent hosts at the forefront of such events is Senpai Squad. Initially formed as a group of Audi enthusiasts based in Houston, Senpai Squad has evolved into a brand which currently represents the automotive, anime and gaming community as a whole.

“Senpai Squad is all about ‘expression, passion and style’, so we use itasha as a way of expressing our love for anime through art and car culture,” Kim Nguyen, the founder and owner of Senpai Squad and The Weeb Stop, told SCREENSHOT. “We believe that being able to express ourselves through the things we love is important, and we fully support the freedom to show our love for anime in any way possible. Itasha is a way to do that on a bigger scale.”

Although the brand doesn’t necessarily design, print and install itashas, it fulfils its mission by facilitating the culture with curated events for both owners and attendees to enjoy. “We do provide our customers with a wide variety of stickers they can choose from if they want to start small though. They come in many shapes, sizes and styles, so if there’s an anime you love, we’re sure we’ll have something to offer,” Nguyen mentioned. Look at these cuties, I’m sold:

A quick scroll through Senpai Squad’s Instagram feed will plop you among frequent announcements of events that you can attend. Hosting everything from cosplay raves to pop-ups and itasha showcases, the brand collaborates with other major figures in the industry to bring enthusiasts dedicated platforms bustling with energy and goosebumps. “Our audience loves going to our shows because of how welcoming they are,” Nguyen said when asked about the general response to previous raves organised by the brand. “Anime fans are the most fun people out there and the atmosphere in those events is always great.”

The founder believes that cosplays and other visual manifestations of one’s interest in Japanese pop culture at such shows automatically result in attendees vibing with each other—without having met before. “Which is always a lot of fun and a perfect way to make new friends,” Nguyen continued.

“Our main goal is to have a safe and comfortable space for our fans and supporters, where they can enjoy music and party with their peers. And since we pride ourselves in the culture, you can pretty much go to any of our shows, feel safe and even make friends with the people around you without the fear of being judged.”

“We’re all about love here!”

In order to get an insider perspective of the community, I asked Fulgoni—who has attended meetups and displayed her cars in large anime conventions—about her experience with the same. “Let me tell you, the itasha community is amazing! Everyone I’ve met and talked to are just awesome, friendly people and I’m much older and a woman than the average itasha owner,” the enthusiast admitted. “Both my husband and I have only had positive experiences and it’s a great way to meet new people.”

Cringe culture is dead

If you’re still reading this article, chances are that you’re already an itasha fan, are curious about the community, or absolutely despise the subculture. Believe me, there’s no in-between. Regardless of your purpose, however, know that cringe culture has expired its shelf life in 2021 alongside cancel culture. Today, itasha is an integral part of car culture where confidence is key and you let your hobbies and interests define your visual personality—be it via sun reflective prints or dakimakuras as seats. Itasha is also not just “putting waifus on cars,” nor is it necessary for an owner to cosplay at such events.

“Don’t worry about what others think,” Fulgoni advised. “Not everyone shares the same hobbies or interests and don’t let negativity ever turn you away from what you’re passionate about. For every negative comment you may get, you’ll receive 10 times more positive [ones].” The itasha owner also recommends to avoid fussing over your car being a non-JDM. “Just express yourself!” she added.

As for Nguyen, the founder’s advice is to do you for you and no one else. Given how everyone is bound to have their own opinions in life, it’s imperative to focus on what brings you joy. “This is exactly the reason why we created Senpai Squad to begin with because we all know what it’s like to love something fiercely and have other people laugh at us because of it,” he explained. “In our events, this is the kind of behaviour we stay away from and the very reason why we create a safe space. We’re all about acceptance, love and our shared passion for anime!”

Five years down the line, Nguyen believes Senpai Squad will stay true to its core vision, but on a larger and more global scale: “We’re always coming up with new ideas for products and events, so be sure that we’re not stopping here. We’ll keep growing and we’ll keep creating a safe environment for anime fans.” So the next time someone clicks their tongue when you mention itasha in a conversation, look up, whisper “tatakae,” offer to take them to the next event in town and watch them fall gracefully into one of the most wholesome communities to ever spur into existence.