I personally believe that queer anime is something to be enjoyed 365 days a year, but Pride is a great opportunity to let people know about titles that might’ve escaped their notice. While LGBTQ+ media still makes up a tiny sliver of the 30-plus anime that are made every season (especially compared to what’s available in the world of manga), in recent years there’s also been a small but promising upturn not just in the number of titles with well-written queer characters but the range of genres they appear in. In honor of that exciting sea change, I’m laying out a buffet of titles to suit a variety of moods.
These are titles that didn’t quite fit the parameters of the list but are still well worth looking into. All of their characters are well-written and treated respectfully, but they’re not the primary focus of their overall excellent works.
Stars Align, a potent and tragically unfinished sports series about misfit middle schoolers playing tennis, includes not one but two sensitively handled trans characters: one is a supportive father-figure to the main character, while the other is the team’s manager Yuu, whose subplot focuses on coming out as x-gender (nonbinary). Horror comedy and “idol anime for people who don’t think they like idol anime” ZOMBIE LAND SAGA includes the beloved and much memed trans girl Lily Hoshikawa among its cast of undead starlets, all of whom embrace her as family. And the witty, sometimes brutal dramedy about teenage girls grappling with the social obfuscation around sex and puberty, O Maidens in Your Savage Season, includes a shy closeted lesbian in the main cast — but since she’s trapped in an unrequited plotline, it felt better to leave it here than on the main list.
Sweet Contemporary Rom-Coms
Kase-san and Morning Glories — Originally made as a short proof-of-concept music video back in 2017, this adaptation of the Kase-san series’ first volume blossomed into an hour-long film in 2018. This is a bright, pastel-colored series about a shy gardener falling for a boisterous jock, but it knows how to hit those familiar beats in a way that feels charming and fresh. While the manga ran for five volumes and continues with a sequel set in college, this standalone story is an easy feel-good afternoon’s investment. Viewers looking for a longer-form slowburn in their lesbian romance might enjoy checking out Bloom Into You or its spiritual predecessor, Sweet Blue Flowers.
Sasaki and Miyano — This story of two boys who bond over a shared love of BL might have a gentle, unhurried pace to its school comedy shenanigans, but it’s also deceptively smart. In between making affectionate jokes at BL fandom and the general awkwardness of being a teenager, the series manages to touch on pressures surrounding masculinity, consent, microaggressions, and the role of fiction in discovering your identity. It’s less a candidate for binging than a show to unwind with in small doses, but so far it’s the sleeper hit of 2022.
Absurd and Ridiculously Horny
Fairy Ranmaru — A group of fairies are sent to Earth to farm “Attachment,” an unspecified force that will supposedly heal their dying kingdom. Accomplishing this task requires magical boy transformations with a lot of crotch thrusting, once-per-episode musical numbers, battles in Madoka Magica-esque battle arenas, and sexy posing. It’s ridiculous on every level; it’s also 100% sincere, using its episodic storylines to tackle social issues even when it ends up punching above its weight class and showing up lesser, more cowardly anime by 100% committing to the homoerotic vibes it doles out early on. I can’t possibly sum it up in one paragraph, but it was one of my favorite shows of 2021.
Kandagawa Jet Girls — A horny jet ski racing series produced by the Senran Kagura guy and partially intended to market a PS4 game has no right to be as entertaining as this. Series composer Go Zappa’s resume is like a cursed metronome between extremely sketchy fanservice shows and unexpectedly charming character comedies. Somehow, Jet Girls is both. It’s undeniably a titty anime, as the rules of the central sport are geared entirely toward blasting characters’ clothes off with water pistols mid-race. There’s such an overload of impossibly large jubblies one grows kind of numb to it. But it’s completely bald about the type of show it wants to be from minute one and lacks the focus on unwilling stripping and humiliation that characterizes a lot of fanservice shows these days, and that multi-level lack of shame kind of comes back around to making it charming (although it sure would be nice if it weren’t set in a high school; thanks so much, anime). And like Fairy Ranmaru, this series commits where more cowardly titles might languish in the realm of cheaply deniable queer-coded titillation. You could’ve knocked me over with a feather when I not only got attached to the leads, but their chemistry actually paid off in the end. For everyone who still pines for the cheerfully idiotic butt-battling series Keijo!!!!!!!! but wish it were gayer, I have your solution.
Look, Genre Fiction!
Princess Principal — Spy girls infiltrate a boarding school in a vaguely Cold War-inspired steampunk world, and it’s awesome. The worldbuilding is done in broad strokes and the series leaves its military conflict unsolved in the name of paying off its interpersonal narratives (though the story is being continued through a series of films), but its aesthetic and character writing are both top-notch. And threaded through is a tender budding romance between princess Charlotte and seemingly emotionless lead spy Ange. There are a few other solidly enjoyable contenders for anime about star-crossed girls with assassination orders standing between them, like Riddle Story of Devil and the recent Executioner and Her Way of Life, but PrinPal stands out if you want something with more sincerity and less edgelord flare.
Flip Flappers — This coming-of-age magical girl series about two girls exploring the world of Pure Illusion at the behest of a shadowy organization (and also falling in love) is worth watching for its drop-dead gorgeous visuals alone. It’s something of a strange creature in terms of pacing, as head writing duties changed hands partway through from Yuniko Ayana to Naoki Hayashi–and thus from allegorical explorations of adolescence to a more straightforward conspiracy plot. But those early standalones are inventive, energetic, and written with a deft touch, and the character work and central romance have no problem carrying audience investment through to the end. Even with those peaks and valleys it’s still a delight, and despite coming out while the market was deluged with uninspiring Madoka imitators, it’s also refreshingly free of suffering porn.
I’m Crying But in a Good Way
given — School space cadet Mafuyu carries a beautiful Gibson guitar with him everywhere but has no idea how to play it, and eventually manages to badger guitarist Ritsuka into giving him lessons — but as they start getting closer, the unspoken origins of that guitar hang more and more heavily over them. Given tackles a lot of heavy subject matter around suicide, unresolved grief, and survivor’s guilt, walking a fine line of staying respectful while also not feeling too soul-crushingly depressing or dark to watch. A lot of times this is a grounded rom-com with a hobbyist spin for guitar fans, centered around two believable teenagers. Ritsuka and Mafuyu have great chemistry, and while the sequel films and ongoing manga aren’t as strong once it shifts to the troubled long-time history between their band-mates, the crisp eleven-episode TV series is by turns cathartic and gently sweet.
Land of the Lustrous — If you can bear the weight of a five-year-and-counting wait for a second season, there’s no reason not to watch the best CGI series of the past decade. Lustrous takes place in a future where humanity is extinct and the world is populated by genderless sentient gemstones. The youngest and weakest of them, Phosphophyllite (or Phos), is tasked with creating an encyclopedia to begin rectifying the generations of lost knowledge about their world, and about the moon beings constantly trying to steal their comrades away to make jewelry out of. Lustrous can be a dazzling action series and then pivot on a dime into unsettling body horror or quiet Buddhist-influenced melancholy. The trans resonance of this title goes deeper than just the neutral pronoun-using cast, as its overarching themes are deeply tied to connections between bodies, social roles, and selfhood. And while the anime might only wrap up at the end of an arc, we can at least anguish over Phos’ fate together as the ongoing manga appears to enter its final stages.
This is a Metaphor
Yurikuma Arashi — Kunihiko Ikuhara is such an influential figure in the history of queer anime that no list would be complete without at least one of his works. While he’s best known for stone-cold classic Revolutionary Girl Utena, all of his works get elbow-deep into themes relating to queerness, abuses of power, constrictive societal roles, and sexuality. Yurikuma is maybe his messiest title, as it tries to pack in a bunch of very dense themes despite having less than half the episode count of his previous two series. The result is an allegory about girls and bears separated by a “wall of severance,” and two bears who crossed this divide to seek out a girl with a murderous grudge against their kind. It takes three episodes to find its footing, but once it does this is a rich and emotionally powerful story which explores, among other things, how any intimacy between women is disregarded as “just friendship,” respectability politics, bullying and social media, and what gets defined as “acceptable” lesbianism in a male-controlled society. It’s A Lot and doesn’t hit every pitch it swings for, but it’s so bold and the overall effect so gutsy and moving that it feels like a crime not to give it a shout.
SARAZANMAI — Ikuhara’s most recent series builds off of the lessons he learned making Yurikuma, and while it has the weirdest premise it’s also the most straightforward in communicating its messages. Three teenage boys accidentally anger a kappa god and find themselves turned into kappa and conscripted into fighting zombies born from human desires. Doing so temporarily restores their human forms and gets them once step closer to earning a “dish of hope,” which can grant any wish. I’ve gotten deep into SARAZANMAI’s exploration of queer metanarratives, anti-capitalism, and police brutality for Fanbyte before, but beyond its Deep Thoughts SARAZANMAI is also just a joy to watch. Its teenage leads are sometimes agonizing in their familiar messiness, every battle is a musical number (because of course it is), and the series bursts (fittingly) with hope even when it goes to dark places. If you’re looking for something different and don’t mind many, many butt jokes, this is eleven episodes of joy.