What Role Are You Playing? Communication, queerness, and neurodivergence in Yuri is My Job!

By: Vrai Kaiser June 24, 20220 Comments
Hime and Mitsuki happily embrace while inside their expressions are confused and upset respectively

Content Warning: discussion of ableism and queerphobia

Spoilers for vol. 1-5 of Yuri is My Job!

Miscommunication is one of the oldest and easiest narrative devices in fiction. The tragic lovers die because of a miscarried message; the protagonist becomes convinced that they’re hated because they didn’t stay to eavesdrop for ten seconds longer; the reveal of a minor misunderstanding suddenly has the power to torpedo an entire relationship. For some, the concept is so overused that it’s automatically linked with contrivance and bad writing—and no genre faces this criticism more than romance. That’s what makes Yuri is My Job! so refreshing. In the process of building a will-they-won’t-they story, it explores the gendered, neurotypical, and heteronormative expectations that are built into social interaction.

Hime's internal monologue that she's putting on an act, and has been since she was a little kid

Direct vs Indirect

Shirasaki Hime has been constructing a perfect social mask since she was a young child. Her goal is to be loved by everyone and to marry a rich husband, and she works hard to create a public persona that fulfills the epitome of cute, ideal feminine behavior. She’s pretty, she’s obliging and sensitive to others’ needs without being asked, she gets along with everyone, and she’s charmingly sweet but also a bit childish, inviting others to fuss over her. Like Kare Kano’s Yukino before her, she has a sparkling exterior and a rougher, grumpier interior that she shows only to a select few.

In one sense, it’s an extreme comedy version of the “honne-tatemae” (public/private face) divide. At the same time, it’s also very gendered. Hime is well aware that she’s performing a role every day of her life, and that role is “lovable girl.” For her, social roles are a game that can be won, with a prize of wealth and comfort.

Hime dreaming of marrying a rich husband, and willing to fake being cute and sweet to accomplish that goal

Naturally, Hime’s love interest is her opposite number. Yano Mitsuki is earnest and blunt, with a profound sense of justice. She’s also staggeringly autistic-coded, perhaps the most relatably so of any character I’ve encountered in fiction. Yano is shunned by her classmates for her inability to read the room, and it’s repeatedly shown that she can’t sense when something is being implied but not said. On multiple occasions Yano becomes frustrated because she’s expected to turn down being invited somewhere without being told, and her attempt to call for the full-on repeal of dress code rules teachers hadn’t been enforcing only succeeds in stricter crackdowns. If Hime is the feminine ideal to an almost parodic degree, then Yano is failing both at a cornerstone of Japanese social life and at presenting herself the way girls “should” be.

The two form a close friendship in fifth grade when Hime agrees to accompany Yano during a piano recital. Each wants to treat the other well, but it isn’t long before their different communication styles come into conflict. Yano centers all of their hang-outs around practicing piano, passionate about being able to share her hobby with someone who understands (hello, hyperfixation); Hime, for her part, respects Yano’s dedication and enjoys spending time with her. But it isn’t long before their classmates interpret it as Yano forcing Hime to practice and try to “help.”

Unlike a lot of popularity narratives, Hime’s focus isn’t on whether hanging out with Yano makes her look bad; instead, she calibrates her responses to try and protect Yano’s reputation. She even calls her classmates on the phone and makes up an excuse to break plans with them so she can spend time with Yano instead, trying to show that she “always tells lies” in hopes that Yano won’t be hurt by things she might overhear in class. But when Hime goes so far as to drop out of the recital to protect Yano from bullying—without, crucially, telling Yano—the other girl lashes out and ends up getting Hime branded as duplicitous for the rest of elementary school.  It’s a great piece of backstory about characters talking past one another, where the problem is deeper than simply overhearing one wrong thing at the wrong time. Neither direct nor indirect communication is inherently better; what both girls lack is the ability to grasp the gap between their styles and make accommodations for one another.

As much as Yano’s directness causes her pain, the fight reveals the double-edged sword of Hime’s approach too: while she’s able to spare people’s feelings when things go well, the same tools that are key to helping her navigate social interactions can also be weaponized to paint her as the archetypal scheming woman. Her femininity is attractive to others only when it’s perceived as passive, and that lesson will haunt Hime all the way into her teenage years. 

Sumika telling Yano that she needs to perform her kindness to practice it

Social Practice and Service Work

In high school, both girls end up working in a Class-S-themed café, where all the waitstaff pretend to be students of the elite Liebe Girls Academy. Hime’s been blackmailed, Ouran-style, into filling in for an injured employee; but Yano, troubled by her tendency to hurt others accidentally, works there by choice. Her role as a Liebe student gives her a chance to work on her social skills in a safe environment. By their nature, customer service jobs come with a pre-set expectations of how both parties should act, and the skits that the servers perform are drawn from archetypes in manga, making it easier to study what a “studious senpai” or “nurturing older sister” type might act like and how to respond.

Yano also has coworkers who know her limits and back her up when she needs help, reassuring her that she’s not wrong or broken for being unable to sense unwritten rules, affirming her desire to be a kinder person, and making sure she doesn’t take on too many responsibilities alone. It not only helps demystify the world of social interactions into a set of rules that can be guessed at based on past experiences, but gives Yano confidence in herself and the ability to ask for clearer information or support rather than angrily shutting down. Aside from the literal acting she chooses to do for work, the series doesn’t push Yano into masking; instead, she learns coping mechanisms that make building relationships less intimidating. Yano isn’t uniquely flawed at something every “normal” character understands, either—everyone in the story is performing some of the time, because that’s part of what social interactions are.

Yano is able to explain that she doesn't mind not being invited, but wants to be told directly that her two friends want to be alone

If anyone’s struggling with a mask, it’s Hime. While Yano matured considerably in the years they were apart, Hime has tripled down on her lovable princess persona. She prides herself on being able to ace any social interaction, but completely fails to recognize that her best friend Kanoko is in love with her. Many of the problems in her thorny relationship with Yano come from her assuming that she knows the best course of action to achieve a certain emotional response and failing to take others’ agency into account. If Yano’s problem is barreling through without considering that not everything is easy to talk about directly, then Hime’s is that she’s so convinced she sees the big picture that she forgets, sometimes, direct conflict is the healthiest way to resolve a problem.

For Hime, the café is a source of intense stress. There’s a sense that on some level, Hime has always assumed herself to have the most complicated performance, while everyone else is easy to understand. She’s thrown incredibly off-balance by Yano’s ability to play a role as a server, and by the way the job exposes her lack of observational skills in certain areas. While working hard to mold herself into someone who’s adored by everyone, Hime never let herself develop much in the way of passions or physical skills. While having social skills is normally held up as a universal good, here it becomes as much a trap as Yano’s inability to read the room. Letting herself be vulnerable enough to show unpleasantness or confusion becomes a key part of Hime growing as a character.

Hime is flustered at being hugged into Mitsuki's boobs, lillies framing the screen

The Language of Queerness

Once Yano and Hime iron out the initial hurts from their shared past, the key conflict of the series boils down to one scary word: “like.” Yuri is My Job! is rife with meta-commentary on the world of yuri, and it’s especially interested in the complex range of feelings that “like” encompasses. The world of Liebe Girls Academy is premised on “schwestern” (sister) relationships that mimic Class-S juggernaut Maria Watches Over Us. Part of the employees’ job is essentially to play out ambiguous shipping material for their customers, who come back over the seasons to watch storylines unfold amongst the staff. 

At the same time, behind the scenes it’s emphasized that while schwestern bonds are intimate they aren’t necessarily romantic, and it once created a major rift among the staff when two of the servers started dating for real. While some characters prickle at the suggestion of their colleagues dating, for fear that it might break up the platonic found family among the café staff, others struggle with their explicitly romantic feelings—and while both kinds of relationship are treated as valid bonds worth protecting, they’re also both worlds away from the show the characters are putting on for their customers. 

Hime angrily yelling that Yano's "like" was just a lie she told for work

Because it’s not quite romantic or platonic but has a foot in each, the performance space of the café ends up worsening things for our main couple. When Yano, in her straightforward way, says that she likes Hime in front of all their customers, she’s being sincere about her feelings. To her, the person she plays in the café is the kinder, ideal person that she wants to become, and she doesn’t waver in that earnestness. But Hime, used to reading a dozen layers of social subtext, agonizes: what exactly does “I like you” mean?

LGBTQ+ anime fans can no doubt relate to Hime’s agonized uncertainty. So much of the legitimization of queer relationships in media is bound up in language, such that anything communicated non-verbally is defacto treated as potentially illegitimate. “The love that dare not speak its name” was historically rendered as coding or unspoken subtext, because saying the magic words meant being relegated to a punchline, pathology, or a quick death. Class-S (and western equivalents) treat queerness between girls in particular as transitory and not worth taking seriously. Even today, there are no shortage of anime that have used some variation on “I like you” between two same-gender characters only for some viewers (and sometimes even sequel series) to continue to treat that closeness as ambiguous

Yano and Hime lying side by side, eyes not meeting; Yano's fingers are in Hime's hair

Meanwhile, in the real world, young women and femmes in particular are left to struggle with the fact that physical closeness is permissible among platonic friends, but coming out as queer can mean being ostracized or even treated as a predator. Determining as a teenager who it’s safe to come out to, who you might be attracted to or just like as a friend, and whether you’re receiving coded flirtation or platonic closeness, are all common parts of being an LGBTQ+ teen. Struggling with the gap between fiction and reality is part of it too, and Yuri is My Job! folds both the positives and negatives of that tension into its central romance.

Hime not only has to struggle with defining Yano’s “like” but her own, and whether her unquestioned assumption that she’d grow up to marry a faceless (but definitely wealthy) man are even something she wants at all. And that’s what the series comes down to at heart: the fact that language is complicated, socializing is worse, and the difficulty in navigating those daily obstacles becomes more complicated when one is marginalized. It’s also about how hard it is as a teenager to understand other people, and how one of the biggest trials of growing up is learning the importance of both kindness and healthy conflict. And hopefully, it’s about two very different girls managing to fall in love and find their own happy ending.

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