Beyond the Bear Storm: Morishima Akiko, yuri mangaka

By: Ariel 'Solowi' Nakandakare September 19, 20180 Comments
A two-page spread of Ginko from the Yurikuma Arashi manga

CONTENT WARNING for NSFW images, discussion of sexism and homophobia.

Morishima Akiko’s been writing manga for over 20 years, which is quite the accomplishment considering her circumstances: She began in an age where lesbian manga was not exactly the easiest way to start a career, and it took her around 10 years to make a living drawing exclusively yuri manga.

She had the chance to cross paths with pretty much every known name in the field of yuri manga, but still hesitated when Kunihiko Ikuhara, director of Revolutionary Girl Utena, asked her to work with him on Yurikuma Arashi – what would become her first animated project.

Over the course of her career, she’s tackled a lot of sensitive subjects in her works, like queer sexual exploration and unclear relationship boundaries in late-teens and early adulthood, much of which seems to have been inspired by personal experience. However, she’s not an author who’s easy to get into, having both a complicated publication history and a tendency to fall into problematic tropes from time to time, which can make it hard to know how to approach her pretty extensive catalog.

Despite a few imperfections, though, there’s one thing we can be sure of: this is the story of an openly queer mangaka who really loves to write about women falling in love with other women.

The cover of Anise magazine and two cover pages from Morishima's work

Morishima Akiko began in the late 1990s. Like many other mangaka, she started as a doujinka in her own circle known as “Girlish,” making Sailor Moon doujin and illustrated books about sexuality. Eventually, she got her professional debut at Anise, a now-defunct magazine for lesbians and bisexual women.

Her first serialized manga was Happy Picture Diary (2002), a romantic comedy in the 4-koma style about adult women dating each other that dealt with the ups and down of being gay or bisexual in Japanese society. She also published a cute one-shot called “Off time,” about a lesbian couple in their thirties-to-forties talking about their feelings about growing old.

Both pieces show us a few hallmarks of the author: her positive way of handling same-sex romances, female sexuality, and adult relationships, as well as her tendency to design round characters with soft-looking cheeks and shoujo-esque appearances.

Two years after Anise went under, she started working at Comic Yuri Hime (a magazine published by Ichijinsha), where she released her first major successes. But before talking about that, there’s a pretty unknown period of her career for most of us outside Japan that stretches between 2002 and 2009. It’s during these seven years when most of Morishima’s non-yuri manga were published.

two side-by-side covers from Comic Yuri Hime

The first one was a seinen manga called Shopping no Joou (2002), which she co-created with Usagi Nakamura, the maker of Gokudo-kun (sometimes translated as Jester the Adventurer). Finding her drawing a manga about fashion is no surprise, considering how remarkable her outfits designs are (especially uniforms).

After that, she made a couple of comedy shoujo and even a historical manga set in feudal Japan called Oedo Tote Shan (2007-2010), which was published in the seinen magazine Manga House. Comedy is almost never missing from Morishima’s stories, and these works were no exception. Mixing her outstanding humor with her keen fashion design, all in a completely different era, it’s kind of a shame that Oedo Tote Shan is both her only historical manga and also pretty much unavailable outside Japan.

The last work she made without a wlw couple as the main focus was Seigakuin Kouka Daigaku Yakanbu (2009), the story of a girl who enters an engineering college after graduating from a Catholic school, switching out the refined all-girls ambience for a world filled with men. It’s not only a great comedy, but also includes bisexual and asexual representation.

covers from Morishima's historical manga with the cast lined up on it

As an aside, Morishima studied architectural design herself, so while her backgrounds may not be highly detailed, they are very clean and have a nice sense of perspective. The compilation work Rakuen no Jouken (2007) has a five-chapter story involving a trip to Malta, which includes some of her best backgrounds.

It was also one of her first contributions at Comic Yuri Hime, the magazine that became not only where she published her most famous manga, but also where she developed her career alongside fellow mangaka like Morinaga Milk, Fujieda Miyabi, Amano Shuninta, Saburouta, Namori and Minakata Sunao–just to name a few!  

Her first serialized work for Comic Yuri Hime was Yuri-Yuri Kenbunroku (2005), a humorous autobiographical manga about her adventures in the (let’s call it) “glamorous” world of a yuri mangaka. As mentioned before, Morishima grew up and began her career in a time when stories about women-loving women were pretty scarce. She didn’t just create the stories she wanted to read, but also changed the way certain tropes were addressed.

A fine example of this is the “idealized girls’ school” trope, which she tackles in Hanjuku Joshi and Seijun Shoujo Paradigm (both from 2008) by drawing from her own experiences at an all-girls school. Both stories begin with reality quickly smashing the main characters’ idea of a perfect all-girls school.

the cover and character sheets from Seijun Shoujo Paradigm

Girls, especially teens, aren’t “pure.” They aren’t perfect. And they shouldn’t have to be. How would a perfect romantic relationship even happen in the middle of such a chaotic period of life filled with doubts, insecurities, and new challenges around every corner? In Hanjuku Joshi, characters explore themes like sexuality, gender perception, and what it is to be in a romantic relationship.

Ruriiro no Yume (2009) is another compilation that, just like Rakuen no Jouken, focuses mostly on relationships between adults. It’s also the part where talking about her works in chronological order becomes tricky, since half of the stories in this anthology are related to at least three different works. “Soft Boiled Fujoshi,” for example, is a Hanjuku Joshi side-story focusing on one of her secondary characters.

“20 Musume x 30 Otome”’s first two chapters are in Rakuen no Jouken, while the last two are in this compilation. The story is about a relationship between a woman who just turned 20 and another one who just turned 30, with both of them having no idea what it means to date someone of the same sex.

The front and back cover from Renai Joshika

The stereotypes about lesbian relationships in Japan play an important role here: The one that fetishizes relationships between women as “pure and idyllic” and the one that fetishizes them from the opposite direction as “sexy and perverted.” Both are represented by the older woman’s roommate, whose ideas about what love between women “should be” are constantly disregarded by the protagonist.

“Honey & Mustard” is, interestingly, a one-shot that became a side story of a later work: Renai Joshika (2009), a manga about romance between office ladies working at the same company. While the main story is simple, the side stories are quite… complicated. Not only because it’s about two adult women spending fifteen years trying to figure out what kind of relationship they have, but also because the whole story is scattered across five different works.

The story’s final three chapters didn’t appear until Hajimete, Kanojo to (2013), where Morishima looks back at some of her early works in Comic Yuri Hime. It’s an introspective exploration of several couples’ dynamics, where Morishima plays with structure by turning the main character’s love interest into the new protagonist or showing us how a relationship between teenagers is doing now that they’re both adults, along with the reasons why it took them so long to finally establish themselves as a couple.

The covers of Rakuen no Jouken and Ruriiro no Yume

Supportive relationships are Morishima’s forte, but Renai Hoshi File (2012) provides one of her most wholesome examples: “Love Flower” is the name of a short three-chapter story about a lesbian couple who are celebrating their 10th anniversary together when they find a young girl crying in the rain after being rejected by her female upper-classmate. They give her shelter, console her, and even exchange contact info and agree to help her with her crush. It’s a sweet story no matter how you look at it.

Renai Joshika and Renai Hoshi File are probably the safest choices when picking a first read from Morishima’s time in Comic Yuri Hime, particularly if you’re not comfortable with things like relationships between a minor and an adult (Hanjuku Joshi, Onna no Ko Awase, Ruriiro no Yume), incest (Seijun Shoujo Paradigm), or messy compilations (Rakuen no Joken, Ruriiro no Yume, Hajimete, Kanojo to).

After Renai Hoshi File (and speaking of those less-safe choices), she went back to high school stories in her last publication under Comic Yuri Hime, a particularly erotic anthology called Onna no Ko Awase (2013). The round, curvy, and soft way she designs her characters proves to be not only great for comedy, drama, and wholesome stories, but mature ones as well. And while fluffy characters may be her selling point, she frequently uses androgynous designs, not because she follows the trope of “one woman acting like a boyfriend substitute,” but because she is aware that among LGBT people there are some who prefer a more ambiguous gender identification.

side-by-side coverse from the Yurikuma Arashi anime and manga

The last couple of years have produced a second boom in Morishima’s popularity, especially when she co-created Yurikuma Arashi (2014) alongside one of her long-time idols, director Kunihiko Ikuhara (Revolutionary Girl Utena, Mawaru Penguindrum). She handled the characters designs and had creative control over the manga, which features an alternative story about the same world and characters. Morishima always had a preference for writing adults over teens, so the manga versions of Reia and Yuriika have much more development that in the anime.

Sexual exploration is also handled in a more grounded way compared to the anime – not crude, per se, but certainly with much fewer euphemisms. This has been her way since her early days at Anise: to show that girls and women think about sex, talk about sex, and have many more ways to physically express love beyond kisses, hugs, hand-holding, and touching their arms while praying together under the ever-watching eye of Maria-sama or whatever.

Speaking of making a clearly gay story be explicit about skinship, she also produced several Akuma no Riddle anthologies in collaboration with her fellow mangaka (and current girlfriend) Minakata Sunao, the illustrator and character designer of Akuma no Riddle.

A sketch of Morishima and her partner dressed as characters they've created

Currently, Morishima is working on a sequel to Hanjuku Joshi, 10 years after she published the original manga. If you’ve enjoyed her stories over the past two decades and want to see more of her stuff licensed outside of Japan, please consider supporting her in the future. Her first work to be released in the west will be the Yurikuma Arashi manga in 2019 (via Tokyopop), and Seven Seas Entertainment has a monthly survey where you can request new licenses.

Lesbian and bisexual women deserve more light, fun-to-read stories with happy endings. And you can bet Morishima Akiko is gonna keep doing them.

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