One of the most pioneering and influential manga artists of the 20th century, Tezuka grew up in Takarazuka, a town in Japan known for its all-female theater troupe. Takarazuka plays are lavish, spectacular fantasies in which women play idealized men; the cool androgyny these “otokoyaku“, “boy-role-players”, exude is a key to its appeal. Tezuka was inspired by Takarazuka as well to create Princess Sapphire, a girl with both the “hearts of a boy and a girl”, who gets up to cartoonish swashbuckling derring-do. While actual sapphic content is minimal, Sapphire’s influence as a dashing gender-boundary-pusher echoes through most of the works on this list.
Yuri anime and manga focus on the intense relationship – sometimes but not always romantic – between two women. Although full of popular “types” and tropes like much pop culture, the amount and variety of yuri available in English has expanded in the past few years. Whether you’re a girl with a first crush, an adult seeking a realistic read, or someone longing for a rose-colored escape, let the women of yuri sweep you away!
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…which brings us to Oscar, one of the most influential characters in Japanese pop culture. A woman raised as a man by her soldier father, Lady Oscar Francois de Jarjayes grows up on the cusp of the French Revolution and is assigned as Marie Antoinette’s personal guard. Her devotion to duty finds itself at odds with the increasing misery of the population, and Oscar must decide how best to live up to her noble ideals. Oscar has love interests of all genders and is IMMENSELY popular with the court ladies; she has been parodied in countless anime (season one of Pokémon with Team Rocket, anyone?).
Although yuri manga and anime frequently put a gender-nonconforming protagonist or a sapphic couple front and center, sometimes the yuri content is a side note to a broader tale. In this quiet, wistful story, the world is slowly coming to an end and Alpha, an android, watches the decline from her little shop in Yokohama. A fellow android is besotted with Alpha and they share kisses, but the focus is watching the world slowly drift to ending, not with a bang but a peaceful sigh.
When the third season of Sailor Moon initially aired on Japanese TV, it became an instant hit in gay and lesbian bars because it featured Haruka and Michiru, a lesbian couple who were madly in love and got a happy ending – a rarity anywhere on the globe for 1990s mainstream pop culture. American companies, when adapting the show for an English-speaking audience, decided the characters should be cousins instead. Fortunately, the show has since been redubbed, and now Haruka and Michiru are free to playfully banter and angst with each other in whichever language you please. This couple was such a hit that for years after Sailor Moon aired, you could look at original yuri manga and go “that one’s the Haruka….and that one’s the Michiru.” It’s for a good reason. They’re marvelous. Check them out.
Eventually, Ikuhara, the director of Sailor Moon S who chose to focus on Haruka and Michiru’s relationship and a huge fan of pushing every envelope in reach, felt too stifled by the constraints of working on Sailor Moon. So, he left and threw every idea that experience had given him about feminism, toxic masculinity, idealized romantic partners, and more – the entire experience of being a queer teen – into Utena, arguably one of the most thought-provoking anime ever made. It’s certainly one of the weirdest and most surreal; while ostensibly the story of a girl who wants to grow up to be a “prince” and save others, Ikuhara tells the story in immensely stylized ways, with new absurdities happening nearly every frame. It’s weird. It’s dark. It’s a story about how fairy tales let us down and the importance of real person-to-person connection…in which a shirtless high school boy boxes a kangaroo in the middle of campus.
Anyone who’s ever had a crush on someone they shouldn’t will identify with Sumika, an athletic girl (her family runs a martial arts dojo) who’s hopelessly in love with her best friend Ushio. Ushio is also attracted to women, but…only adorable petite ones. Which is very NOT Sumika. The story begins as more of a wacky comedy but sobers up as their high school years continue, swapping trite hijinks for examinations of feelings and the difficulties that come with being something other than what society considers “normal”, whether that’s due to sexuality, body image, or anything else. Sumika doesn’t like herself very much….which is a shame, because Sumika is awesome. The reader roots for her to figure that out.
One of the current most popular authors writing yuri, Shimura’s breakout hit is the story of two childhood friends who grow up to wonder whether or not they’d like to be more. Most of the story follows Fumi, an out but shy lesbian, as she struggles with her sexuality and her questionable taste in women. The story is told in vignettes and glimpses, the most crucial moments of Fumi’s adolescence, for a tender and contemplative read. Shimura plays with certain yuri tropes, like the “traditional all-girls’ Catholic school on a hill”, but grounds them in a bittersweet world.
Alluded to in Sweet Blue Flowers, Japanese pop culture has a very definite (and romanticized) portrait of what all-girls’ private Catholic schools are like. This anime, based on a popular novel series, exemplifies those stereotypes – these are young women sheltered from reality in a peach-colored bubble, yet also learning to navigate their own interpersonal issues with the help of their “older sisters”, a position on campus that puts upperclassmen in mentor positions with underclassmen. Emotions are heightened. Tea is sipped. Neckties are straightened. We slowly watch these girls grow into elegant young women, pining for each other all the while.
What “Maria Watches Over Us” plays straight (er….never mind), Strawberry Panic parodies. This ridiculous story of not one but THREE competing Catholic private girls’s schools lovingly homages and mocks “Catholic schoolgirl romance”, taking everything that had been slightly ridiculous and making it EXTREMELY so. Yet despite its focus on humor, this anime also does what many yuri shrink from – two girls consummate their relationship, and are not thought of as less “pure” afterwards. (Every culture has its own battles with misogyny. Pubescent girl/girl relationships as “pure” is one of Japan’s.) This title is also available for checkout as streaming video on Hoopla.
This ongoing manga serves up two stories in one – the tale of the “sisters” at a Maria-like academy, where they all work at a tea salon…..and the story of the real girls behind those characters, who take on personas to work in a yuri-themed cafe. Hime, our protagonist, is a conniving yet ultimately good-hearted little gremlin who constantly lies to keep the peace and make others like her. Her coworker Mitsuki is coded neurodivergent and wants everything to be clear-cut; she finds her work relaxing because she knows exactly what’s expected of her, and what she needs to do to belong. They are supposed to play a pair of besotted silly schoolgirls. Can they make it work?
Girl meets girl. Girl….invites girl to join the aquarium club? Konatsu is new in town and, although her new class is friendly, adjusting badly to the move. She’s invited to join the Aquarium Club by Koyuki, a girl one year above her, and is instantly dazzled – both by caring for the animals and by Koyuki herself. Koyuki, meanwhile, is putting on a brave face for Konatsu but isn’t nearly as happy as she lets on. The two girls awkwardly fumble their way towards understanding, navigating over-attachment and communication hurdles. This is the slowest of slow burns, with tender yet boldly-inked panels and romantic attraction playing second fiddle to what each girl comes to mean for the other emotionally.
An ace love story for adults, Doughnuts Under A Crescent Moon follows two coworkers as they grow closer together and help each other through major life hurdles. At three volumes long, it paints a sweet yet mature picture of two people having an actual grown-up relationship – when they have an issue, they, gasp! they TALK ABOUT IT! A breath of healing air if you’re tired of Mess in your fiction.
Another memoir about dating (or the lack thereof) as a lesbian in Japan, Mieri’s story couldn’t be more different in tone than My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. Mieri has a Type for sure – she loves otokoyaku-type girls, suave and boyish, but she has a big problem: she tends to give too much of herself to them, and then when they leave, she’s left unsure how to pick up the pieces. Mieri’s self-esteem issues are illustrated literally, with her drawing herself as a cartoonish blob yet detailing the hot women in her life with care, and her sense of humor carries off what could otherwise have been a tragedy about breakups.
Sometimes, however, what you want isn’t a sweet and heartfelt story. Sometimes you want a soap opera, dark and trashy (affectionate), with emotions, especially angst, dialed up to eleven. Citrus is the story of two stepsisters – fashionista Yuzu and strait-laced Mei – who find themselves attracted to each other. They both handle this fact extremely badly. Other couples, with varying levels of melodrama, are added as the story goes on (in addition to this anime, there is an ongoing manga), but Yuzu and Mei’s Big Edgy Teen Drama remains the center of the storm.