Listen, I love Yuri!!! On ICE. Sayo Yamamoto is one of the single most talented directors working in anime right now, and literally anything that gets her more attention is something I can get behind. I watched the episodes week to week over streams when I was first dating my wife. It’s an important show for me and many other people. But it can be just a little bit tiring to see it treated like the one-and-only queer anime in existence, often by well-meaning viewers who just don’t know where else to look. So in honor of Pride Month let me, an anime Old, help you out.
I’ve limited this list to five items for simplicity, but I still want to give a shout-out to gems like charming idol show with a well-developed, sympathetic trans character ZOMBIE LAND SAGA, multi-generational masterpiece with a queer-coded lead Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, beautiful “this is blatantly queer but the directors were oblivious shitheads about it” trainwreck Samurai Flamenco; and grounded, nuanced meditation on love’s complexities Bloom into You. And that’s not even scratching the surface. There’s a whole world out there of unsung queer anime to discover — including this summer’s upcoming guitarist love story Given.
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Cocona’s quiet life is interrupted when a mysterious girl named Papika pulls her into a land called “Pure Illusion.” Soon Cocona is traversing alternate universes under the orders of the organization Flip Flap and its unknown agenda.
A magical girl series with a seriously surreal psychedelic tint, Flip Flappers is a gorgeous queer coming-of-age tale. Its enthusiasm is infectious from the word go, and it has a talent for using its bizarre dream logic to dig into adolescent fears and make some pretty pointed commentary on the “just a phase” Class-S subgenre of yuri. The various worlds make for dynamite stand-alone episodes that also weave together effectively as a character study of its leads.
The series did change scriptwriters halfway through, marking a somewhat notable shift from Yuniko Ayana’s metaphor-heavy first half and Naoki Hayashi’s more plot-driven second half (which, in the switch from a female to male writer, also brings in some annoying spatterings of fanservice), but the sweet and earnest romance at the story’s heart holds things together and brings it in for a satisfying and emotional conclusion.
Shion lives a happy, privileged existence in the domed city of No. 6, which is ripped away from him when he helps a young runaway named Nezumi escape. Years later, when a plague begins to spread through the city, and Shion becomes a target for witnessing too much, Nezumi appears to return the favor.
Demand is high for genre fiction that also features queer characters, and No. 6 is just that. Bless its heart, it has never met a dystopian sci-fi cliché it didn’t like, and I say that with all the fondness in my heart. It is downright satisfying to see stories that are taken for granted as normal or obvious with queerness melded in. More visibility in stories that aren’t designated as contemporary romance means more normalization of queer identity, and this show’s earnest story about uncovering the rot beneath a supposed utopia that only benefits a privileged few fits the bill.
Nezumi and Shion also, despite their archetypal appearances, break the expected molds of gay male anime couples in a number of ways: friendly, naïve Shion has a violently protective streak while hardened survivor Nezumi is terrified of his own buried softness, and the true hook of the series is watching them lean on and learn from one another.
The series ran for only eleven episodes despite being based on a series of nine light novels, which forces it to cram in its wilder plot details at a breakneck pace. But its quiet moments and bittersweet-but-hopeful ending stay with you long after the credits roll.
The This Boy… Series
Four 30-minute love stories — This Boy Can Fight Aliens, This Boy Caught a Merman, This Boy Suffers From Crystallization, and This Boy is a Professional Wizard — focusing on themes of technology, communication, and consent.
Soubi Yamamoto is something of a wunderkind auteur in the world of anime—she premiered at just 21, and while she’s only directed one anime series in a traditional studio setting (Meganebu!), in less than a decade she has produced four short-form romances that she wrote, directed, and largely animated by herself. The aesthetic of these series recalls a motion comic, with relatively simple movement but gorgeous and memorable visual design, and all four have managed to make it to legal streaming platforms.
The standout by far is Professional Wizard, Yamamoto’s last project before a currently ongoing creative break. It interrogates workaholism, mental illness, and tying one’s self-worth to their job in tandem with depicting a meet-cute between two working adults. Each of the others have memorable and accomplished moments, and they’re unique in the BL sphere for their emphasis on reaching a healthy relationship dynamic and maintaining platonic as well as romantic relationships. Bite-sized and heartwarming, they’re a tragically overlooked treasure.
Land of the Lustrous
Long after humanity has become extinct, a race of gem beings inhabit what remains of the Earth and are hunted for jewelry by the mysterious Lunarians. Phosphophyllite, the youngest and most fragile of the gems, is tasked with creating an encyclopedia that will catalogue the forgotten knowledge of their world.
One of the most breathtaking anime to come out in recent years, Lustrous is a beautifully crafted meditation on growth and selfhood with gut-clenching twists and a deft eye for body horror. And no, it has nothing to do with Steven Universe — the two were developed more or less simultaneously and take their similar premises in different thematic directions.
Phos makes for a fantastic protagonist, growing from naively overconfident and eager to doggedly determined as their body becomes an extremely literalized metaphor for what they give up in pursuit of the truth. The series’ entire cast is agender, using “they” pronouns in the anime and avoiding pronouns in the manga translation (a real step up from how the nonbinary lead of 2003’s Kino’s Journey was handled), and the show’s themes – about the body determining one’s societal role and how suffocating that is – resonate strongly with transness even if it’s never named directly.
Imaginative and often funny despite its melancholy themes, with breathtaking visual direction that set the bar for CG animation, it’s absolutely not one to be missed.
Revolutionary Girl Utena
Utena Tenjou came to Ohtori Academy looking for the prince who gave her a rose-crest ring many years ago. Instead, the ring links her to a strange underground competition at the school, where students duel for possession of the Rose Bride, who’s said to hold the power of revolution.
This is going to be preaching to the choir for many, but there’s a reason that this series is one of the ironclad classics of anime. Over the course of 39 episodes, Utena interrogates issues of gender, sexuality, fairy tales, abusive relationships, toxic masculinity, genre conventions, and how oppressive systems trick the marginalized into working against their own self-interest. It also features an episode where a girl spends an entire episode slowly turning into a cow, and another that ends with the student council president boxing a kangaroo.
Kunihiko Ikuhara is one of the biggest names in anime, and his shows (Yurikuma Arashi, Penguindrum, and the recently completed SARAZANMAI) have an intimidating reputation as Extremely Intellectual Series. While it’s true that his shows benefit from a rewatch or two, what often gets lost is how enjoyable it is to just go along for the ride the first time. Ikuhara is good at character drama and has a downright bizarre, extremely goofy sense of humor that offers plenty to the first time viewer. Utena in particular is very good at teaching a viewer how to read its symbolism: the first arc is fairly straightforward, and the second takes the time to include little arrows on-screen pointing to recurring imagery just so you know that this is important.
But even if you don’t have a working knowledge of Demian or can’t figure out what the hell the Shadow Girls are talking about, that stuff isn’t necessary to get sucked in to Utena and Anthy’s romance and the realization that nobly deciding you’re going to rush in and “save” someone isn’t the same as actually listening to them. It’s a show that grapples with dark and difficult themes beneath its bright demeanor, but it displays care and responsibility every step of the way. Honestly almost every Ikuhara series is pretty queer (except for Penguindrum) and pretty great, but Utena still stands head and shoulders above them all.