Kase-san and Queer Thirst: Depicting sexuality in a “pure” yuri manga

By: Saori Mitsueda August 14, 20190 Comments
Kase kisses Yamada's head as Yamada blushes

If you’re a fan of yuri, you’ve most likely heard of the Kase-san and… series. Written by Takashima Hiromi, the series revolves around the evolving relationship between Yamada, a member of the school’s beautification committee, and the eponymous Kase, the star of the track team. Originally serialized in the “pure yuri anthology” Hirari, the candor with which the series treats its protagonists’ love has made it one of the more popular yuri series in recent years.

However, I disagree with it being categorized as “pure” yuri, for one simple reason: Kase-san is not actually that pure!

A girls' locker room. Yamada is wearing a bra and glances over at Kase-san, who is fully clothed sipping a drink, looking at her. Both flush slightly.

“Purity” is most commonly used as a shorthand for chastity or sexlessness, and generally refers to stories that don’t engage with sex at all. Though Yamada’s sincerity and innocence is part of Kase-san‘s appeal, the way it engages with the girls’ sexuality is just as important. Sex does exist in Kase-san, and while the series focuses primarily on Kase and Yamada’s emotional relationship, it also explores their physical relationship and sexual attraction to each other from the very first chapter.

This is not an accident, as Takashima has demonstrated an understanding of the limitations of “pure yuri” multiple times. In the first volume’s afterword, she mentioned asking her editor what “pure old men” came up with the magazine’s “pure yuri” slogan; and in the second volume, she wonders if the series hasn’t gone beyond pure yuri by now. 

A doodle of a woman leaning back in a chair saying "Hirari's slogan. Pure yuri. What pure old men came up with that?"

These are jokes, yes, but they do point towards an awareness of pure yuri’s sexlessness as being a constructed fantasy, rather than a reflection of real-world asexual demographics’ realities, and Takashima’s desire to challenge that fantasy. Sometimes these challenges to “purity” are direct, like an unusually sensual indirect kiss between Yamada and Kase in chapter three, but just as often they take the form of more subtle, even mundane expressions of sexuality. 

Consider the following two panels. While on the phone with Kase, Yamada innocently mentions that she just got out of the bath. Kase’s silent speech bubble and her following awkward reply to Yamada communicates precisely what she’s thinking about—Yamada, naked—without requiring that Kase herself, or her thoughts, be visually represented on the page.

Yamada lies in bed talking on her cell phone. She says "I just got out of the bath!" Then glances sideways nervously. A speech bubble coming from the other end of the phone reads "....."
Never before has “….” said so much

Most of the more obvious examples of sexual desire in the series likewise come from Kase, who is easily the more self-aware one in the relationship. But Yamada is no stranger to wanting to look at her girlfriend’s breasts either, even if she’s not consciously aware of it herself. 

This recontextualizes her innocence as being a product of her personal lack of knowledge on the subject, rather than an example of ambiguous sexuality imposed from outside the story. Such ambiguity often allows for characters to be read as not gay even if they’re in a same-gender relationship (with their lover being an “exception,” per se).

As Kase-san develops from slice-of-life comedy to romantic drama, these scenes become less frequent—understandably so, as they’d deflate the narrative tension—but never disappear completely. Even as the first series reaches its climax, scenes like Kase getting flustered at the idea of Yamada wearing a maid apron demonstrate a continued interest in subtly portraying the girls’ sexualities.

Yamada Googles "Two girls more than kissing," then flushes and shouts "WHAT?!" and what appears on her laptop
The way Yamada clumsily learns more about what being in a relationship entails is often played for humor, but is also a refreshingly grounded way of handling the subject

And even in the girls’ first time having sex, great care is taken to frame the moment in a respectful manner. By avoiding leering close-ups of body parts in favor of focusing on their expressions and interactions with one another, the moment side-steps around any pornographic potential. The focus is instead given to Yamada and Kase’s mutual affection for one another, as they take this momentous next step in their relationship. It’s the natural conclusion to the series’ approach to framing sexual attraction.

This sets the sexual content in Kase-san apart from fan service-driven titles. Fanservice—gratuitous framing of characters in a sexualizing/objectifying manner—exists, as the name implies, to titillate the audience. At its worst, it’s massively obtrusive, basically stepping between a work and the audience, so that it can point at a character and say “This character doesn’t matter. They’re not a person worth caring about, just body parts.” 

Meanwhile, Kase-san rarely frames its characters’ bodies sexually, and when it does, it’s always from a character’s point of view. Rather than being pointless sexual content, these shots say something about the characters involved, and invite the audience to identify with them as subjects instead of objects.

Kase leans over Yamada on a bed, kissing her

Kase-san frames its sexual themes in a way that simultaneously allows for the romantic and interpersonal aspects of sex and sexual attraction, while also denying the viewer the opportunity to breach the characters’ privacy. This method of framing also affects readers’ ability to engage with the series, especially if they identify with the characters.

When a work dehumanizes and objectifies a character, it is also, by proxy, treating the members of the audience who identify with them in the same way. But the opposite is also true, and a work that respects its characters is respecting its audience. With that in mind, it’s clear how female fanservice-driven anime alienate female audiences, both straight and queer—and how Kase-san welcomes them instead.

A blushing Yamada tugs on Kase's sleeve and says "Please lead the way."

This indirect approach could be especially useful in other series, not only gentle romances like Kase-san, but also in works that deal with potentially triggering material. For example, many stories that include sexual violence choose to portray it in graphic detail. 

While fans may defend this as necessary to, say, show the villains’ monstrousness, it’s mostly just an irresponsible way of handling a sensitive topic, risking not just alienating but actively harming members of the audience. But rather than avoid the topic entirely, it should instead be approached sensitively, while considering the impact it might have on the potentially affected audience members.

Kase and yamada leaning against each other and smiling, with a heart above their heads

In the grand scheme of things, Kase-san is a rather unassuming series. There are no theatrical statements or climactic confrontations, just two girls falling in love with each other. Even at its most dramatic, Kase and Yamada generally resolve their conflicts through ordinary, healthy communication.

With this modesty, the manga proves that even topics that are consistently mishandled in fiction can be written in respectful and affirming ways. Exploring sexual desire can result in a cute and heartwarming story, rather than intrusive fanservice. All it needs is an empathetic outlook toward its characters and the readers that they represent.

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