I should probably start this by saying I’m a dude and I do not fully understand the female gender even at the best of times. Luckily that isn’t what this post is about, though it will touch on perceptions of femininity in anime. No the dish of the day is the division between the genres of Yuri and Shoujo Ai. If my own experience is anything to go by then I’m guessing you’ve probably stumbled across both genres at some point, perhaps more importantly you likely walked into one genre expecting the other because of a lot websites just use the catch all term Yuri to denote a series with any level of lesbian action, be it steamy girl-on-girl ecchi or romantic girl-on-girl undertones. These two things are very different and as such shows which feature one or the other behave differently and it’s the differences in behavior and storytelling within these two closely related genres that I’m going to talk about. From here on there will be some scattered spoilers.
So Yuri, true Yuri, is about physical action with regards to lesbian characters. Whether it’s a show that leans towards romantic and keeps the girl-on-girl action to kissing ala Sakura Trick or if it decides to go full blown ecchi, in order for a show to be labeled Yuri it needs some kind of physical intimacy. What this ends up meaning is that most Yuri shows are written with dudes like me in mind because I would be hard pressed to find a heterosexual man who can’t admit to finding lesbian action hot on some level. If I’m going to be honest with myself I can admit that Yuri shows are generally written on a more basic level than their Shoujo Ai counterparts because their main draw is the physical action, which is pandering to the male gaze plain and simple. I’m not going to say all Yuri shows are bad, Sakura Trick for instance was a show I thought was very cute because it incorporated more emotional intimacy elements into the story, but they are by design made to be a little trashier than Shoujo Ai.
The main draw of Shoujo Ai is the emotional romance and intimacy as opposed to the physical stuff. Probably the best example of Shoujo Ai is Maria-sama ga Miteru or St. Mary is Watching. It’s essentially a slice of life show that details the activities and adventures of the student council in an all girls school. Despite the lackluster description however, I found the series to be way more interesting than the typical slice of life, because it’s focus was about exploring the depth and growth of relationships between the six or so major girls on the student council. If I were to make broad sweeping generalizations I would say Shoujo Ai is written with a female audience in mind most of the time because it’s focus is on admiration-cum-romance and emotional intimacy. And to that end I do think Shoujo Ai hold itself to a higher writing standard because it is trying to appeal to an audience that fully understands women not an audience that is constantly being distracted by their boobs. For example I always felt that the most profound moment of Ga Rei Zero was when Kagura went to visit Yomi after her mauling at the hands of the Nine Tailed Fox kid. At this point in the story Yomi’s fiancé is forced by his family to give up on marrying her because she been left in such bad shape that she will be bed-ridden probably for the rest of her life. Kagura then goes to comfort Yomi and while the scene is tragic it’s also powerful at the emotional level. I feel like this relationship the creators really wanted to display because it was more intimate than any kissing scene could ever be. Yet most dudes I know, know Kagura and Yomi as those two lesbians from Ga Rei, which is ironic considering both girls are actually straight but have an intensely intimate relationship with each other on an emotional level.
I’m not going to say Yuri or Shoujo Ai is better than the other because that comparison ignores that fact they are aimed at different audiences and delivered in different ways. Yuri stories are generally more straightforward, they revolve around creating a scenario that will result in girl-on-girl action, like having both girls get locked in the gym equipment room. By comparison Shoujo Ai is much more subtle more often than not, it has its direct moments but the overall story has more to do with psychological pressure, atmosphere and the gradual growth of emotional intimacy like how in Maria-sama ga Miteru, the main girl actually rejects becoming her lesbian crush’s petite soeur (little sister) at first because said crush is initially using the main girl to get out of a responsibility she doesn’t want but much later down the road she can recognize the main girl when they get separated even though the main girl is in a full body mascot costume because the two have grown so intimate over the course of their time together. What I will say is that Shoujo Ai tends be more powerful in its storytelling whereas Yuri is more sexy. Both can be good or bad but each one is trying to do something very different and it’s up to the audience to find the genre that is right for them. An easy way to think about the division is this, Shoujo Ai is like a traditional shoujo series but where the both sides of the central relationship are girls. Yuri is more like the ecchi/harem genre except all the participants are girls. So if you don’t like Shoujo, odds are you will not particularly like Shoujo Ai, though I myself am something of an exception to my own rule since I actually prefer Shoujo Ai despite my dislike of traditional Shoujo. Anyway that should be enough rambling on about which kind of lesbian itch you want to scratch, now that you know the basic guidelines you can avoid the disappointment of walking into the wrong genre. Hopefully you enjoyed this post and I’ll see you in the next one.