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I love this genre of anime, but I'm in no way a guru or anything. Of course, I'll give it my best shot to explain this, and let's keep this (mostly) casual, shall we? Unless you want me to turn this into a boring encyclopedia entry... Please say no.
Before we begin, I would like to state that half of this article is purely opinion based. And while manga publications (Yuri Hime) are one of the main driving forces of the genre, I’ll be focusing more on the anime side of things.
Here we go!
You were watching an anime one day and noticed the two main female leads were acting way too close – as in way, way, WAY too close. You now know that they were more than friends, because of the frequent hand-holding and kisses that were way more than mere pecks on the cheek. Clearly, by definition, the girls were lesbians, but what do you call them in anime? And is there a specific genre for girl-girl relationships in Japanese media?
Welcome to the wonderful world of Yuri.
What is Yuri?
Yuri is a great word, you know. You can safely talk about girls loving other girls without rousing suspicion by saying the word “lesbians”. People would probably think you're talking about Yuri from Red Ale—okay, I'm sorry. That joke is so old, it's making me feel old. *ahem*
Yuri, or Girls Love, is a term used for content in Japanese media (anime, manga, and literary works) involving romantic relationships between women, both sexual and non-sexual in nature.
Yuri is not only restricted to female targeted genres like "shoujo" and "josei". It also features in male targeted genres like "shounen" and "seinen”. Yuri-esque interactions are currently one of the most popular forms of comic relief and fan service delivery.
The word yuri literally means "lily", and is a somewhat common Japanese female name. In 1976, Bungaku Itou – editor of Barazoku (a magazine geared primarily towards gay men) – first used the term Yurizoku (Lily Clan) in reference to female readers in a column of letters called Yurizoku no Heya (Lily Clan’s Room). It is unclear whether this was the first usage of the term because a different magazine column used the word yuri in place of “lesbians” in communications, and doujinshi circles were already using the term to refer to lesbian-themed explicit or non-explicit works.
East Vs. West
The term yuri is used in a slightly different way in the West than it is in Japan. However, the core meaning remains the same. It is just the type of content that is different.
In the West, yuri was initially used to describe the sexual side of the girl-girl genre, with the term shoujo-ai (girls love) – following the same pattern of the established Western term shounen-ai (boys love) – then being coined to describe the purely platonic part of the genre. The term shoujo-ai in Japan is not used with the same connotations as it is in the West, and in fact, is often in reference to notions of pedophilia.
Luckily the West is adapting to the original usage and while shoujo-ai as a term is losing relevance on some big anime-related websites, it is still somewhat usable in other parts of the web.
Girls Love is used by Japanese fans most notably in the doujinshi community, where events with names such as “Girls Love Festival” are held. Major publications rarely, if ever, use the term and will instead use yuri as a general term.
So pretty much, as word of advice: stick with the original term “yuri”. Don’t use shoujo-ai while in Japan, or better yet, don’t use it at all.
Yuri in the Real World
As far as I can remember, Strawberry Panic, Kannazuki no Miko, Simoun and Maria-sama ga Miteru were the shows that sparked people’s interest in yuri in the TV anime world and ever since, we keep getting handfuls of shows that are centered around a yuri theme. However, this is still somewhat of a niche genre and one-shots are still quite common. It’s very rare for a yuri anime to end up financially successful and with several sequels, as is the case with so many harem, slice-of-life, and shounen anime.
While bonafide yuri shows pop up every now and then, yuri themes are present in other genres and are mostly used as a form of comedic relief and/or fan service. Such themes are found in many slice-of-life shows with all-girl casts (Sabagebu, Non Non Biyori, Yuyushiki, Kiniro Mosaic). Although these shows are labeled as slice-of-life, fans categorize these shows as “yuri-centric” mainly because the main characters are all female, with emphasis put on strong girl-to-girl friendship. There are no male love interests to be found and the humor revolves around the girls being put in awkward and often suggestive situations. Spotting any subtext is the name of the game here.
To bring things together, yuri can be divided into 3 distinct categories:
- Yuri-centric slice-of-life (very common)
- Non-explicit yuri (uncommon)
- Explicit yuri (very rare)
Yuri Anime Examples
Here are 3 yuri anime that are one of the best examples for each of the three categories. The list will start off with a light-hearted show that has content mostly containing cute stuff and yuri-centric humor instead of the more explicit stuff. Before you start, please be warned that one of the 3 entries contains nudity and other sexual content.
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: July 2011 - September 2011
A prime example of an all-girls anime, Yuru Yuri is centered around the daily lives of Akaza Akari and her friends Toshinou Kyouko, Funami Yui, and Yoshikawa Chinatsu. The group of friends form the Amusement Club – a club with activities that consist of basically lazing around and doing random fun activities.
There’s nothing much to be said about the story of Yuru Yuri since there is basically no main plot. The main draw of this show is the funny, lovable characters and the hilarious and oftentimes awkward situations. It’s chockful of great yuri-centric moments and if you want to dive into the yuri world, Yuru Yuri is a good starting point.
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2014 - March 2014
A very recent yuri anime, Sakura Trick revolves around the love story of Takayama Haruka and Sonoda Yuu. It is one of the tamest and innocent stories in the category, but makes up for this with lots and lots of kissing scenes. Often cheesy and slightly cringe-worthy, Sakura Trick is accessible and light-hearted enough for newcomers to try out an actual yuri anime with no complicated stories and explicit scenes. Did I mention there is lots of kissing here?
Sono Hanabira ni Kuchizuke wo - Anata to Koibito Tsunagi
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: July 2010
An OVA featuring the couple from the third visual novel of the same name, Sono Hanabira ni Kuchizuke wo - Anata to Koibito Tsunagi tells the short story of Sawaguchi Mai and Kawamura Reo and how they went from confession to love-making.
The OVA is barebones in terms of story and character development, but it’s enough to establish the girls’ relationship with good amounts of love-making scenes that are quite explicit, but tame enough… hopefully you get what I mean? Anyways, Sono Hanabir—let’s call it SonoHana—is one of the very few true yuri hentai that is cute and well animated. After you’ve finished watching shows like Sakura Trick, go and try out SonoHana and finally witness yuri in its entirety.
Oh and the character designer is Sakai Kyuta who did the character designs for Strawberry Panic (TV) and Sakura Trick (TV).
Revolutionary Girl Utena
And there you have it, folks. I do hope that this explains the important bits of the yuri genre and that the examples I’ve provided are to your liking!