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Everyone who has a passion for Japanese culture is familiar with the vast range of terms that are used to describe specific concepts related to some specific features. In recent times, and in particular in the world of anime, many words were created to express certain meanings unknown to Western culture, or are often difficult to understand when you lack the basic knowledge to make a sense out of them. So, what Honey’s Anime will try to do with this article is to help you becoming clear about two words that have become hugely popular in today’s Japanese Yaoi/BL culture, that are seme and uke.
These two words come from the Japanese verbs semeru (to assault) and ukeru (to receive) and, in Yaoi/BL anime, refer to the positions the chief characters of a story take while performing a sexual act. In layman’s terms, seme is used for the character who’s on the top and takes the initiative, while uke is used for the character who’s on the bottom and passively undergoes his partner’s actions. In general, in Yaoi/BL culture, seme/uke also refer to characters’ specific physical and psychological characteristics: in most cases, the seme is depicted as the taller, bigger and more dominant one of the couple, while the seme is usually weaker, cuter, shier, and more submissive.
Well, this is the general rule, but nowadays, the concept of seme/uke has become broader. However the most famous Yaoi/BL-rated anime still show this strict subdivision. This is probably because, when we talk about “position” in these kind of anime, we’re not only talking about who’s on top and who’s on the bottom, but also about roles that authors tend to assign to characters in their stories. Let’s try to understand better what this all means!
Sexual but not homosexual
Have you ever asked yourself why seme/uke seems to apply to unrealistic homosexual relationships, reflecting the typical stereotypes of a male/female relationship? Well, we need to go back to the Seventies and the Eighties, when erotic market and sex industry were still a man’s thing, to understand why yaoi characters are depicted under those certain criteria.
Yaoi is a branch of shōjo genre, that has been created by women for female readers, when still they couldn’t express their sexual desire and perversions freely and had to hide themselves behind images of beautiful, delicate, and sexually inexperienced boys. Did you notice that classic yaoi characters never identify themselves as homosexual? They simply fall in love with another man in a natural way, never struggle about their unconventional nature, and they’re never hampered by their families or people dear to them. That’s because classic seme and uke were actually meant to mimic straight couples, and this also explains why the characters’ appearances resemble male and female typical physical features for lady’s anime.
Classic characteristics of seme and uke can be found in almost all yaoi works existing, but when it comes to those ones most faithful to vintage elements of yaoi stories, Junjō Romantica is one of the best examples.
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: April 2008 – June 2008
The first of three series, Junjō Romantica follows the young and feminine Misaki Takahashi’s adventures. Misaki is a high school senior, who’s not particularly brilliant and is having troubles passing his college entrance exams. Since his marks aren’t so impressive and he seems in need of help, Misaki’s older brother introduces him to his childhood friend Akihito Usami, a cool, smart and sexy author, who’s really happy to lend Misaki a hand. Unfortunately, Misaki doesn’t look particularly enthusiast to become Usami’s student. Misaki doesn’t like the kind of naughty books Usami writes, but still doesn’t know that the closeness to the hot writer will awaken his deepest and strongest instincts…
Just by looking at Misaki and Usami’s relationship and the scenario they’re moving towards, we can easily get all those classic features that make yaoi the genre it is. Misaki is thin, short, pure, and completely ignorant about eroticism. He really resembles the typical school girl in a shōjo anime, both in his physical characteristics and personality, while Usami is experienced and manly. Usami is everything a woman could ask for. Usami and Misaki are the perfect seme and uke in a perfect yaoi world, where no one is shocked or upset by the fact they’re two men dating and acting like a lovely couple, even if the society they live in is still quite cautious towards homosexual relationships.
Junjo Romantica Opening
It’s just a matter of roles
We all know Japanese society is devoted to roles and that it is structured according to a rigid scheme. This goes for work, family, and also romance, to a certain extent. So when we talk about relationships as perceived in the Japanese collective imagination, there are certain criteria that need to be respected in order for a couple to be perfectly balanced. These criteria include the roles that the man is supposed to play, acting as the strong, brave, possessive, and protective one, while the woman should be reluctant, fragile, cute, and caring. It’s always the man, being the breadwinner, who is the one who has to take the initiative and win his woman even at the cost of becoming abusive. The woman has to stay passive and let the man do as he pleases. Her unique role is to become the perfect wife for him and the perfect mother of his children.
This sounds kind of chauvinist and unrealistic nowadays, but this is the way of thinking that set the base for seme and uke’s ideals in the past, and that survived through the Nineties and the first part of the year 2000. Seme and uke in yaoi stories tend to behave in a way that reflects ideal schemes meant for a male/female relationship according to past concepts: their affairs always start as non-consensual, with the seme that has to force himself over the uke, but ends up with the two characters living a happy cohabitation, with the uke becoming the cute “wife” protected by his seme.
That’s a debatable point, but it’s also the rule that relates to specific roles assigned to seme and uke, that are the image of how a couple were – and sometimes are – meant to be in Japanese society. Though, by using male characters, authors deprive their stories of misogynous elements such as domestic abuse, female stereotypes, and violence. A good example to explain this point could definitely be Finder no Hyōteki.
Finder no Hyōteki (You Are My Love Prize)
- Episodes: 2
- Aired: February 2012 – August 2015
Akihito Takaba is a talented freelance photographer that, working on a tip, is close to getting a great scoop: Ryuichi Asami, a dangerous mob boss, and his underlings are selling illegal goods under his nose, and Akihito’s able to take a picture of the whole scene before getting caught. Fortunately, Akihito is smart enough to find a way to escape Asami’s subordinates, but he had underestimated the boss’ power. In the end, Akihito gets captured and the pictures he took destroyed by Asami, who has in mind a very particular way to punish him for sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong.
Finder no Hyōteki starts with a non-consensual relationship, in which the seme, Asami, imposes his presence on the uke, Akihito, making his life miserable. Asami stalks Akihito, locks Akihito in his room, and rapes him countless times. Asami claims to do it because he loves Akihito from the bottom of his heart, so much so he wants to make Akihito his lovely “wife” and take care of him for the rest of his life. Akihito, who’s very strong-willed, refuses to give in, but he’s not resolute enough against Asami’s charms and, in the end, always passively undergoes his will and decisions, just like a “good girl” should do – according to old ideas – when a man shows so much “affection” for her.
Finder no Hyoteki PV
Toward a realistic relationship free of stereotypes
Through the years, seme and uke’s concept has changed and has started to be much broader in terms of content and substance. Basic characteristics of yaoi anime still survive to these days, but typical roles meant for this kind of characters are slowly starting to disappear and make way for a more realistic type of seme and uke open to a wider range of possibilities. Uke is less and less depicted as a breakable and powerless young boy, while rebellious, surprising strong-willed, and independence seeking uke are becoming increasingly popular. Stoic seme that hardly show emotions and are particularly mischievous are leaving room for better structured characters, that still want to dominate, but have to accept the fact that they’re not in charge of making decisions for their uke anymore.
Maybe this reflects a change in the Japanese ideas of male and female roles in society, but this could also be signal of the fact that authors of yaoi stories and society, in general, are becoming more aware of the actual existence of homosexual love and relationships. Many more uke, in particular, are shown struggling with their sexual orientation, though this element is still weakly depicted. Characters, nowadays, are definitely more mature and well-structured than before, and a big change can already be easily perceived in an anime like Hyakujitsu no Bara.
Hyakujitsu no Bara (Maiden Rose)
- Episodes: 2
- Aired: May 2009 – October 2009
1928. Dheeden and Eurote are two warring countries that have been fighting for a long time. Many have died for the glory of their country, but Taki Reizen, commander of the Dheeden army and as beautiful as a rose, is still determined to continue this battle. His citizens adore Taki and perceive him as a symbol of pureness and strength as Taki is extremely harsh and determined during battle. However Taki can also be terribly insecure, though he never shows this side to his people. The only one to know this side is Klaus “Mad Dog” Von Wolfstadt, a rough, violent and ill-mannered soldier from Eurote, that’s tied to Taki by a promise they’ve made before the war started.
In an anime like Hyakujitsu no Bara, the relationship between the two main characters look deeper and more realistic, compared to the ones in previous anime. Clichés such as possessive and abusive seme--mad for his lover--and uke reluctant to accept his attentions still survive in this work, but Taki isn’t a submissive and inexperienced young boy anymore. He’s a grown up with an intense personality, capable of guiding a whole country through the hardest and bloodiest battles. Taki is a true leader. Hyakujitsu no Bara shows a timid attempt to actually talk about homosexuality. Its characters’ relationship makes a reverse course compared to classic seme/uke’s one, starting as consensual and then becoming non-consensual due to social pressures. Hyakujitsu no Bara definitely is one of these anime that paved the way to a new concept of seme/uke and yaoi culture in general.
Hyakujitsu no Bara Trailer
So, here we are at the end of our learning pathway that – we hope – was able to give you a deeper understanding of seme/uke binomial as it has been conceived and, then, modified over the years, according to changes in Japanese society and way to think. Seme and uke – alien to western cultures – has completely changed since the Seventies. They progressed from a merely matter of physical and behavioral features to a more complex and realistic kind of relationship that not only tries to give female author a way to talk about their sexual desire and issues, but that also tries to show the reality – and sometimes the struggles – of homosexual love, almost completely ignored until now.
If you feel like giving more examples, or you don’t agree with our analysis, feel free to leave a comment below! See you on the next article!