This Popular “BL” Anime Isn’t Actually BL

One of the panels I attended at Zenkaikon last month was called “Between Us Fujoshis & Fudanshis: A Conversation on Gay Romance Novels, BL, and Danmei.” I enjoyed it for the most part, but one moment that made me bite my tongue was when the panelists asked the audience to share their “gateway BL anime” and someone said Yuri!!! on Ice. This reminded me of a post I made in an anime group on Facebook back in 2021. That post read:

PSA: I’ve noticed a lot of people (both here and in other places) referring to Banana Fish, Yuri On Ice, No. 6, etc, as yaoi, and since this is a very very common misconception in the anime community I wanted to address this. 

Yaoi as a genre refers to explicit man-on-man sexual material; BL (boys love), on the other hand, is just like any other romance anime except the love interests are both male. Yaoi may contain romance but DEFINITELY has sex, whereas BL may contain sex but DEFINITELY has romance. Yaoi in itself is controversial because many people think it fetishizes gay men, but calling BL “yaoi” can be even worse because that suggests that any romance between men is inherently pornographic. You wouldn’t call your favorite romance anime “hentai” just because two characters are in love, would you? 

I personally adore both yaoi and BL, and while there’s definitely some overlap I wanted to make sure everyone is using the correct terminology. I [also] want to add that shounen ai is the same thing as BL; “shounen ai” just means “boys love” in Japanese. The difference between shounen ai and BL is the same difference between Shingeki no Kyojin and Attack On Titan.

I remember being a little nervous about receiving backlash but was happy to see almost entirely positive feedback. People left grateful comments including “Wow I honestly did not know that. Thank you for clearing that up!” and “I watch a lot of BLs and I’m guilty of using both terms interchangeably. I never really thought about it. Thanks for pointing it out.” Unfortunately, three years have passed since I made that Facebook post and yet this same conversation still needs to be had. 

A recent Screen Rant article that discusses the cancelation of the Yuri!!! on Ice movie describes the anime as “one of the biggest Boys’ Love series ever created.” This writer and the Zenkaikon panel guest are certainly not the only people to refer to Yuri!!! on Ice as BL: while doing research for my article on examples of LGBTQ representation in non-BL/GL anime last year, I discovered that it is listed under “BL” and “shounen ai” on Anime Planet. However,  I would argue that this categorization is not accurate.

The reason so many people consider Yuri!!! on Ice to be a boys’ love anime is because it is implied extremely heavily that two of the main characters, Victor Nikiforov and Yuuri Katsuki, are in a relationship. In episode 7, Victor kisses Yuuri in front of a large audience; however, it is technically unconfirmed whether Victor actually kissed Yuuri or if he just embraced him, because their mouths are covered by their arms (see below). They also exchange matching rings later in the series, but when another character sees these rings he congratulates them on their engagement only to be told he misunderstood. Still, most fans would argue that these discrepancies are simply products of censorship in mainstream Japanese media and that there is enough evidence that Victor and Yuri are canonically in love. So why wouldn’t it be safe to call the anime boys’ love, if it features two boys (or men, in this case) in love? It’s actually not that simple.

The issue at hand is not necessarily with Yuri!!! on Ice specifically, but rather with the use of the BL label in general. Firstly, categorizing boys’ love as its own genre instead of simply referring to these shows as romance anime comes with its own problems. That isn’t to say that there’s no benefit to distinguishing between them: for example, queer people may prefer to watch BL because it’s fulfilling to see LGBTQ+ representation, or because queer relationships are more relatable for them. People who enjoy BL for less “wholesome” reasons are also perfectly valid. A problem arises, though, when people are unable to distinguish between fiction and real life. It’s one thing to squeal over two-dimensional boys kissing; it is another thing entirely to fetishize, infantilize, and demean real people in same-sex relationships. I have noticed people using the terms “BL” and “yaoi” interchangeably even though yaoi refers to sexual relationships. As I explained in my above Facebook post, equating these two terms implies that all queer relationships are inherently sexual, and therefore this is just as inaccurate as calling all romance anime hentai.

But the bigger problem, in my opinion, is applying the BL label to an anime where romance is not the main focus. Take Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood for example. The main character, Edward Elric, has a romance with his childhood friend Winry Rockbell, and by the end of the series the two of them are even married with children. Yet it is unlikely that anyone would recommend Fullmetal Alchemist to someone who is looking for romance anime. Out of the four genres attributed to the series on MyAnimeList, the 11 tags listed on Anime Planet, and even the 47 tags on AniList, none of them are “Romance.” Romance occurs, and that love story involves the main character and is arguably important to the plot, but it’s still not the focus of the series. Singling out queer relationships in non-romance anime can be interpreted as advertising for the LGBTQ+ community and their allies at best, or as a warning sign for homophobic individuals at worst. It distinguishes same-sex couples as something separate from heterosexual relationships, which completely goes against the concept of equality. 

Although I do not believe Yuri!!! on Ice counts as BL (and certainly not as yaoi), it is important to note that I wouldn’t quite say it is an example of queerbaiting, either. This term refers to when a work of fiction is advertised as having two same-sex characters that may or may not be romantically involved yet never actually confirms any romantic feelings in canon. This technique appeals to the LGBTQ+ market but ultimately fails to include any real queer representation. SK8 The Infinity (one of my favorite anime of all time) is one popular sports anime that unfortunately uses this tactic. One of the most popular ships from the series is Reki Kyan x Langa Hasegawa, and although Langa’s mom mistakenly thinks Langa is talking about a girl he has feelings for when he is telling her about Reki, this is played off as a comedic misunderstanding rather than confirmation that Langa is romantically interested in Reki. The English dub baits fans even further by having Langa say “Reki, my love… of skateboarding.” For a mere split second, it appeared as though Langa had referred to Reki as his “love,” but that potential confession is immediately snatched away and Renga shippers are left with nothing but theories and fan fiction. 

Banana Fish is another anime that toes the fine line between queerbaiting and queer representation. Protagonist Ash Lynx kisses deuteragonist Eiji Okumura in episode 3 (see below) but it is soon revealed that this was just a maneuver to slip him a capsule containing an important note without getting caught by prison guards. Like with Victor and Yuuri, fans can interpret Ash and Eiji’s relationship as a romantic one based on more than just this one scene, but their feelings are never confirmed. Showing two men kissing is a huge step in the right direction for queer representation (especially considering how Victor and Yuuri’s alleged “kiss” is censored); unfortunately, though, this potential gay relationship meets a dead-end. A single kiss in a 24-episode series does not mean this complex and heartbreaking anime belongs to the boys’ love genre. 

The purpose of this editorial is not to shame anyone who refers to any of the aforementioned anime as BL. My goal in writing this is to educate fans about the nuances of queer representation and encourage readers to think critically about what homosexual subtext with no real confirmation of a same-sex relationship means for queer communities in the real world. Perhaps one day the world will recognize that love is love and there will be no need to distinguish between romance and BL; until society reaches that point, however, we need to be careful not to give too much praise to these crumbs of almost queer relationships.

About Gabby Bibus

Gabby has been obsessed with anime since she was just 9 years old, and is proud to say she has watched over 200 different series. But that’s not even her biggest claim to fame: she also lives on a farm with over 80 goats! Although anime and animals are her two favorite things in the world, she also loves music, books, and movies. Her day job is a middle school ESL teacher, and she is also a staff member at the New Jersey Renaissance Faire.

View all posts by Gabby Bibus

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