Not “Just a Phase”: How Bloom Into You challenges common yuri tropes

By: Alex Henderson June 5, 20190 Comments
Sayaka staring at Touko's back through a curtain of hanging flowers

Trying to figure out how romance works when you’re a teenager—especially a teenager who isn’t heterosexual—can be a befuddling mess, and few shows I’ve seen capture that like last year’s Bloom Into You. The yuri series captures the ups and downs of self-exploration, relationships, and identity, but it also has a lot of metatextual commentary about romance as a genre woven into its coming-of-age story.

Media—be it novels, manga, love songs, or movies—presents a certain set of common tropes that informs much of our idea about love and what it should look like. Bloom Into You interrogates these tropes and their potentially harmful influence, especially on young people, making it a story that provides important queer representation in fiction as well as talking about representation in fiction within the story itself.

Sayaka's hand reaching toward but not quite touching Touko

The narrative (and this thematic undercurrent) mostly focuses on main couple Yuu and Touko, and there is plenty to talk about there, but today I want to explore the character of Sayaka. She’s introduced as Touko’s best friend and loyal right-hand-gal when it comes to student council business, but is soon revealed to have troubles of her own despite her elegant appearance. For one thing, Sayaka is secretly in love with Touko, but is intent on keeping those feelings to herself because she (supposedly) doesn’t want their relationship to change.

The unrequited same-gender crush is a trope common to anime. Probably the most famous example is Cardcaptor Sakura, where the protagonist’s best friend accepts that her feelings will never be returned but nobly vows to stay by her love’s side and offer support. At the other end of the spectrum, of course, are comedic takes like Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles where the one-sided queer crush is played as something funny and ultimately creepy.

Sayaka definitely doesn’t fall into the latter category, but she’s also elevated from simply being the loyal, pining best friend by the show’s deeper exploration into her feelings and her sexuality. A mini-arc in the middle of the series dives into Sayaka’s past and gives her some time in the spotlight. In the process, the “pining best friend” is just one of the tropes the series ends up exploring and picking apart.

Two middle school girls kissing, fingers entwined, faces obscured

Bloom Into You’s seventh episode opens with a flashback to Sayaka’s middle school days, when she attended a private girls’ school. The flashback shows her running to meet an older student (referred to only as “Senpai”) who confesses her love for Sayaka and asks her to begin a relationship.

Sayaka’s narration goes through her thought process, in retrospect: at first, she thought it was strange, this idea of girls dating other girls, but she soon realised that the relationship made her really happy. A montage shows Sayaka and her Senpai laughing, sharing lunch, and tenderly adjusting each other’s neckties in a very domestic and intimate display of affection.

However, this doesn’t last. Sayaka reveals that once her Senpai graduated into high school, they saw each other more and more infrequently, the days stretching out into weeks. Eventually the two reunite, only for Sayaka to experience her first breakup.

An image of a hand and a girl's school uniform, with the subtitles "I mean, girls don't date other girls. Right?"

According to Senpai, they “aren’t kids anymore” and “shouldn’t keep pretending to date.” Senpai announces that they were “just going through a phase” and asserts, to an increasingly heartbroken Sayaka, that “girls don’t date other girls. Right?”

With the relationship ending on that note, Sayaka represses her newly-discovered feelings—to the point where she transfers to a co-ed high school to get herself out of that all-female environment (and, presumably, away from the girl who broke her heart). Her resolution to not fall in love again falls apart when she meets Touko, however, and the rest is history.

Throughout the episode, Sayaka still expresses her desire to keep her feelings for Touko hidden. Her reasoning is that she doesn’t want to ruin their friendship, but it’s fairly clear that a hint of that repression still lingers. All in all, Sayaka is living a fairly unhappy, isolated existence full of discomfort with herself… but that begins to change when she meets some people just like her.

Sayaka staring at Touko's back through a curtain of hanging flowers

Following Sayaka’s unhappy flashback, the main characters—and audience—meet Miyako, a woman who runs a café. Touko, Sayaka, and company are surprised to see one of their teachers, Riko, enter the café and greet Miyako with some familiarity. The moment where Miyako welcomes Riko home strikes Sayaka with particular significance.

Later, driven by curiosity and impulse, Sayaka returns to the café and, alone with Miyako, tentatively asks her if she has any kind of relationship with Riko. Miyako simply replies “Yeah, she’s my girlfriend.”

The frankness of the answer takes Sayaka by surprise. Recognizing the reasoning behind Sayaka’s query, Miyako asks Sayaka if there’s a girl she likes. While a little reluctant at first, Sayaka opens up to her about her situation with Touko. It’s implied that this is the first time she’s talked with anyone about this, and it’s a relief to get it off her chest with someone who understands and doesn’t judge her.

This bonding scene is where the episode ends, and it’s a massive departure from where the episode began. The middle school flashback is all in cool tones and marred with heartache, but the café conversation feels warm and soft and inviting. It’s a beautiful moment of catharsis for Sayaka, and I’m sure a beautiful moment of catharsis for a lot of viewers, too. It also gives Sayaka the boost of confidence she needs to orchestrate another great moment of emotional closure.

Episode Eight opens with Sayaka running into her old Senpai—that is, ex-girlfriend—in a train station. Senpai apologises for putting those weird thoughts in Sayaka’s young, impressionable mind. Thank goodness she’s gone back to being a normal girl!

Sayaka suppresses what is clearly a fountain of rage and coolly thanks her, before running over to link arms with Touko in a very openly affectionate way. She bids her ex a very final “farewell” with a deliciously petty and confident smile, leaving her gaping while Sayaka, comfortable with her sexuality (or at least, a little moreso than before), strides out hand-in-hand with Touko.

Sayaka smiling. subtitle: Farewell

This mini-arc of Sayaka’s plays on, and critiques, a lot of common tropes and ideas surrounding queer sexuality and romance. The first, and perhaps most painful, is the statement at the heart of Senpai’s breakup speech: “we were just going through a phase.”

This is an ideology often used to dismiss explorations of identity (be it in regards to gender, sexuality, or both) in young people. While it’s true that identity in this regard is often fluid and the way a person identifies can change over the course of their life as they learn more about the world and themselves, “you’ll grow out of it” is still a knee-jerk reaction couched in heteronormative thinking.

Sayaka’s ex speaks about the relationship as though it was a game of pretend they played, a childish habit they should drop as they grow into Proper Adults. It speaks to the idea of the “training wheel relationship”: that young girls are expected to have emotionally intense, intimate friendships, but when they reach a certain age it’s deemed natural and appropriate that they will grow out of these and transfer that dedication to heterosexual, romantic relationships instead.

Sayaka's senpai smiling. subtitle: We were just going through a phase

These ideas were codified as tropes in media such as Class S, a historical genre of manga and novels recognized by many as the ancestor of modern yuri. Sayaka’s flashback invokes a lot of hallmarks of the genre: the backdrop of the fancy, private all-girls school; the intimate-but-not-too-intimate displays of affection like the necktie adjustment and feeding each other bites of food; the romantic framing that remains notably chaste and rooted in intense emotions; and, most importantly, the “graduation” from that relationship and the implication that it cannot exist beyond the confines of that quaint, youthful setting.

Given Bloom Into You’s emphasis on how fiction influences people’s ideas of romance (especially in Yuu’s character arc), these comparisons feel very deliberate. Sayaka internalizes the words of her Senpai, just as many readers internalize the ideas put across in these stories. Girls only date other girls in very specific situations confined by societal norms. In the real world, those kinds of relationships “just don’t happen”… which is what makes the introduction of Riko and Miyako so groundbreaking.

Sayaka's senpai looking down and away. subtitle: Sayaka-chan, I'm sorry, but we're not kids anymore

Riko and Miyako are doing double-duty here, both in-text and on a metatextual level. In-text, they provide mentor figures for Sayaka and proof that romantic relationships between women can and do exist outside of those restricted, Class S-style parameters. They did not grow out of their queerness, and it was not “just a phase.” They provide this affirmation to Sayaka, but they also provide it for the audience.

Many yuri titles (especially the series currently licensed in English) center around high schoolers and young protagonists, so it’s rare to find representation of adult queer couples within them. The same is true for a lot of western YA literature—queer teenage protagonists are increasing in number every year, but queer adult role models for said teens remain in comparatively short supply.

It’s important for young queer people to see themselves represented in the fiction they consume, but it’s equally important for them to see mature adults in healthy, happy queer relationships—a vision of the future, if you will. Proof that this sort of thing is possible.

Miyako holding a finger to her lips across the counter at the cafe from Sayaka.

Talking to Miyako certainly has that effect for Sayaka. In just meeting her, she finds validation in knowing she’s not the only one, and in hearing Miyako so frankly declare “that’s my girlfriend!” she realises that she doesn’t have to be ashamed. Miyako provides not just sage advice, but a feeling of solidarity, and an alternate way of thinking about herself that goes against the negative ideas she internalized after being dumped by her homophobic Senpai.

Miyako and Riko become recurring background characters for the remainder of the series, and the little glimpses into their domestic life are a delight to watch. They behave like any other long-term couple: they check up on and support each other, they bother one another playfully, and they generally go about their business in the most blissfully ordinary way imaginable. It’s a sight you don’t often get to see in fiction, and it’s refreshing.

It also balances out the messy and complicated relationships between the teenagers in the series, and again, provides a hopeful vision of the future. It highlights that Yuu, Touko, and Sayaka are in a weird transitional stage in their lives, and assures us that one day they will sort themselves out.

Miyako sitting across from Sayaka. subtitle: Well, back when I was your age, I also thought I had to keep everything a secret

Bloom Into You represents a variety of queer experiences in a variety of layered, complex, flawed characters. Had Sayaka been the only one, sadly pining over her best friend while repressing her feelings, she would have fallen more heavily into the sorts of negative tropes and problematic depictions that tend to traditionally follow sapphic characters around.

However, she’s just one member in a cast of multiple queer characters with distinct personalities and experiences across a full spectrum, from the questioning and experimental Yuu to the wise and happily-partnered Miyako. As with all representation, variety is the spice of life, and one of the things that makes Bloom Into You so important is that it shows a range of queer characters each on their own personal journey.

It shows that there isn’t only one way to experience being queer, and gives the audience a range of characters and stories to connect with. If you don’t relate to Yuu, you might relate more to Sayaka, or maybe you’ll see yourself more in Riko.

Miyako kissing her girlfriend

On top of that, it takes the time to deliberately unpack and critique the tropes that usually loom over portrayals of queer characters. Sayaka’s personal mid-series arc firmly rejects tropes like “it’s just a phase” and hangovers from Class S, not just showing that they’re hurtful but also providing a positive alternative.

Sayaka begins in an unhappy place but, with some guidance and a positive role model, comes to be more comfortable with herself—enough to become more comfortable with her feelings for Touko (although, as of the end of the anime, the romantic tension between them remains unresolved) and to tell her ex-girlfriend and her harmful ideas to shove it. It’s a rewarding story, both for its in-text character arc and for its metatextual commentary.

About the Author : Alex Henderson

Alex Henderson is a writer and fledgling academic, currently working on a thesis about queer representation in fiction. She has reviewed books for magazines, been published in fiction anthologies, and applies her analytical brain to anime, superheroes, pop culture, and other fun things over on her blog The Afictionado. You can also find her attempting to be terribly witty on Twitter.

Read more articles from Alex Henderson

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