Flowers for Zoisite: How Sailor Moon’s iconic queer villains raised the bar

By: Vrai Kaiser November 16, 20180 Comments

CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of homophobia and transphobia. SPOILERS for Sailor Moon Season One and romances in Please Save My Earth.

Sailor Moon turned twenty-five last year and, despite a few rough edges, it’s aged remarkably well. The series has garnered deserved accolades for its strong female friendships, memorable visuals, and forward-looking representation.

But while the romance between Sailors Uranus and Neptune has rightfully earned praise and fierce nostalgia, the show’s other explicitly queer relationship gets surprisingly little notice. And that’s a shame, because while on the surface Zoisite and Kunzite are just another in a long line of villainous gay characters, they were remarkably progressive compared to both their contemporaries and what had come before.

Zoisite clenching his fist. subtitle: This might be my greatest challenge yet

The history of queer representation in anime and manga wasn’t doing so well when Sailor Moon premiered. While BL and yuri were beginning to develop as subgenres and showcase sympathetic leads, manga like Kaze to Ki no Uta (1976-1984), Heart of Thomas (1974), and Claudine (1978) were still predominantly tragedies set in the far-off, near-fantasyland of Europe.

Manga like Banana Fish (1985-1994) rode the line by cloaking the gentle love story between its leads in subtext, while the named gay characters were pedophiles and monsters of the worst sort; meanwhile, caper comedy long-runner From Eroica With Love (1976-2012) kept its openly gay lead and his deeply repressed object of affections in a never-to-be-resolved state of “will they, won’t they.”

Ash and Eiji in tuxedos, Ash kissing Eiji's neck; taken from the art book
The Banana Fish protagonists

By and large, queer and trans characters existed to be villains. In fact, their attraction to the same gender or their “deceitful” gender presentation were used to mark them as dangerous and aberrant, particularly if they hit on the hero in some way.

The mostly comedic Mara of Ah! My Goddess (1988-2014), for example, often hit on women in her more threatening arcs. It was also quite common to conflate additional monstrosities with queerness, like Dragon Ball’s (1984-1995) nazi pedophile General Blue or, slightly later but in the same vein, the agonizingly named Herr Mafroditte in Lupin III: The Pursuit of Harimao’s Treasure (1995).

Deriding these traits then became a way, particularly in shows aimed at male audiences, to reinforce the idealized normality of the heroes and further “other” and degrade the villains. Did the heroes of Yu Yu Hakusho (1990-1994) really need to grab trans woman Miyuki’s crotch before defeating her? Apparently so in the minds of the writers, because that’s what happened. The anime also felt the need to add an additional scene to reassure viewers that close friends Hiei and Kurama were definitely not, no way no how, smooching.

Even semi-sympathetic queer characters before and around Sailor Moon were highly pressured to assume heterosexual identities—their queerness was not a facet of their character but a flaw to overcome by story’s end. Issei from Please Save My Earth (1987-1994, a major influence on Sailor Moon) is a woman reborn as a man in love with his male best friend, who nonetheless ends up with the girl who pines after him by story’s end.

Trans lesbian Tsubasa Kurenai (Ranma ½, 1987-1996) was subjected to multiple attempts at “correction” to heterosexuality, ultimately ending her first appearance by revealing that she’s trans (or, in the parlance of the series, “actually a boy”). And we here at AniFem have spent plenty of time already discussing the myriad issues surrounding fan-favorite Nuriko, the only queer hero in Fushigi Yugi (1992-1996).

Even Sailor Moon director Junichi Sato would get caught up in this to a degree with Magic User’s Club (1999), where the flamboyant (and stereotypically handsy) Aburatsubo goes from chasing club leader Takeo to thinking that maybe he might be interested in the pining Nanaka after all (he hates women because he had issues with his mother, because of course).

Fushigi Yugi screenshot. Nuriko smiles coyly at a skeptical Miaka and says "I've abandoned the path of manhood for the sake of love!"
Nuriko in Fushigi Yugi

In the midst of all that context comes the first 46 episodes of Sailor Moon, airing from 1992-1993.

Perhaps because the anime ran in parallel with the manga from the beginning, it had the opportunity to come into its own. Like with several other projects Ikuhara has worked on, the anime and manga represent two distinct continuities, with multiple noted differences in character backgrounds and relationships.

The older/younger brother dynamic of the manga became a caring, mutual relationship between adults, with anime Zoisite in particular coming into his own as a visually older, more proactive, competent character with power and narrative weight equal to or greater than his partner. It proved to be one of the many aces up the anime’s sleeve.

Zoisite standing, arms outstretched, in front of an injured Kunzite

While there are good episodes to be found from the get-go, it’s when Zoisite steps into the spotlight as the enemy that the show truly finds its footing, using its monster-of-the-week format to tell interpersonal stories that either see the main cast strengthening their bonds or helping someone else.

The overall writing and sense of stakes levels up, but it’s helped by an especially strong and comparatively well-rounded antagonist. While Jadeite had stylish schemes and Nephrite was granted a last-minute boost of character writing before his death, Zoisite steps out of the gate strong. He has a distinct, memorable personality (as a snarky, vain, scheming little shit who’s happy to stab others in the back to advance himself), goals, and actively goes toe-to-toe with the heroes. He’s fun.

He’s also deeply devoted to his partner, Kunzite, a fact the show reveals without fanfare. Kunzite’s first appearance is not shocking because he and Zoisite are lovers, but because it reveals someone more powerful in the Dark Kingdom that our heroes will eventually have to face. Moreover, this establishing scene chooses not just to indicate via dialogue that Kunzite is a tactician, but visually that he’s gentle and reassuring to his partner.

Kunzite supporting an injured Zoisite. subtitle: Kunzite...

And despite showing some feminine-coded qualities like long hair, vanity, aestheticism, and a one-time willingness to disguise himself as a woman, Zoisite escapes the mold of the typical queer-coded villain in multiple ways.

Effeminate villains are often written as cowardly, but Zoisite is the most direct and efficient of the Four Kings in combat, mostly choosing to appear in his Dark Kingdom uniform while Nephrite and Jadeite disguised themselves as humans. And, put bluntly, Zoisite gets shit done. He takes a majority of the Rainbow Crystals for the bad guys and nearly murders Tuxedo Mask before the plot comes to the caped crusader’s rescue.

Nor is Zoisite coded as a sexual threat to the good guys, even in a PG-fashion. Queer-coded villains are often written to act suggestively during combat, implying the threat of assault against the hero or an out-and-out conflation of sexual desire and love of violence (see: Hisoka in Hunter x Hunter, Grell in Black Butler, Creed in Black Cat, Genkaku in Deadman Wonderland, Muraki in Descendants of Darkness, and on and on).

Zoisite’s fights are devoid of this. He’s threatening because he can and does try to kill people, not because he’s an implicit sexual deviant.

Zoisite shouting and bristling with a sweatdrop. subtitle: curse you, Tuxedo Mask!

While there certainly is a kind of tension in his spats with Tuxedo Mask, they read more as a rivalry—if anything, Tuxedo Mask is more likely to do the goading. Nor are any of the sailor guardians ever put in a position to comment on or display disgust at Kunzite and Zoisite’s relationship.

In fact, the protagonists never seem to catch on at all that two of their enemies are in love. It’s entirely a device meant to create more rounded characters. The fact that Kunzite and Zoisite love one another isn’t meant to mark them as loathsome or deviant; to the contrary, it’s the one redeeming thing about them.

Though they never kiss onscreen, they’re allowed to be intimate and openly display affection for one another. The series goes so far as to mirror Zoisite’s protectiveness toward Kunzite to Sailor Moon’s attempts to shield a wounded Tuxedo Mask—visually, their relationship is coded with the same intensity of devotion as the show’s central “miracle romance.”

Kunzite with a possessive hand on Zoisites hair

After Zoisite’s death, Kunzite is left a shell of himself bent on revenge, and his last words are “I’m coming, Zoisite.” If Queen Beryl is a reminder that love can be twisted to do evil, then Kunzite and Zoisite are proof that love—while not redemptive on its own—can bring out tenderness and good even in terrible people.

In other words, while they are queer villains, their queerness is not villainized. Instead, it’s as close as the anime could offer to redemption with the likely requirement that all the villains had to be killed off (since the manga was running parallel to the anime).

Kunzite holding a dying Zoisite, the two surrounded by falling sakura petals

Sailor Moon is not a perfect series. The manga certainly had its issues: Naoko Takeuchi infamously joked that Neptune and Uranus were in a relationship because “they had lots of time on their hands,” though in fairness even the explicit admission of their romance was seen as quite daring for 1998. Likewise, Uranus’ gender presentation in the manga divides fairly solidly as “masculine when her gender is being obfuscated/Usagi thinks she might be a boy, and feminine after she’s revealed to be a woman.”

The ‘90s anime’s most memorable moments of representation are cumulative, and almost all of the anime writers’ invention: Uranus and Neptune were given more time flirting together onscreen and dramatically showing devotion to one another; transfeminine Fish Eye both breaks from the villains to help the heroes and earns a redemptive rebirth; and there isn’t room here to go into the genderplay involving the Sailor Starlights. And all of that starts with Zoisite and Kunzite.

Kunzite handing a delighted Zoisite a rose. subtitle: not even this rose can match your beauty

None of this is to say that writing these sorts of characters would fly in 2018. There’s still a few stereotypes at work (the crossdressing plot in particular), and the “bury your gays” ending with only the vaguest hint toward reunion and rebirth is a tired story that ought to be retired from the hands of straight creators.

But in the context of when the show aired, they were outright revolutionary. And for characters that are so engagingly written and dear to many, it’s worth affording them respect for the path they helped pave—a path that many modern anime which insist on having queer-coded villains can’t even match.

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