An opinion piece on a dead Japanese romance genre.
(Heavy spoilers of Maria-sama ga Miteru and Aoi Hana are in this post)
Class S (otherwise known as クラスS, Kurasu Esu, and abbreviated as either S, Esu, or エス) is a genre of girl’s fiction in which two schoolgirls form an emotional and/or romantic bond with each other. A common scenario would center around a mutual crush between an upperclassman and an underclassman.
These “sisterly” relationships frequently do not involve kissing and other such activities because the bonds are supposedly not meant to be physically intimate. Said bonds are also considered to be temporary “phases” and those who cling onto them are treated as immature and childish. After the two girls inevitably part ways, they then move onto heterosexual relationships.
Class S was inspired by 19th century Western female literature, such as Little Women and A Little Princess, which were translated into Japanese in order to teach female readers about being a “good wife, wise mother.” However, this also introduced Western concepts of female friendship and sisterhood to Japan, which then led to the creation of the aforementioned genre.
Due to its influence and prevalence in real life (at one point, it’s estimated that eight out of every ten schoolgirls had experienced Class S relationships), the genre was banned by the Japanese government in 1936. Despite never being able to recover as a genre, Class S helped give rise to the yuri genre, which initially revolved around the core concept of Class S: two girls of school age being romantically involved.
The “S” can stand for a myriad of words, including “sister” or shoujo.
Some girls probably do go through “experimental phases” while they’re growing up. For instance, there’s the “LUG” (Lesbian Until Graduation) phenomenon that often occurs in universities in real life. The women who participate in “LUG” could actually be considered bisexual so their behavior could make some sort of sense. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to believe that some characters in Class S stories are the same way.
However, the compulsory tragic ending, where the two girls break-up and focus on heterosexual relations after reaching a certain age, could be considered dismissive towards lesbians’ sexual orientation. Because for some characters, such schoolgirl relationships are not just a phase. They are genuinely homosexual. Yet the heteronormative lens, which insists that “proper relationships” should happen between a man and woman, that is inherent to this genre tints all of these schoolgirl bonds and downplays them as mere “practice” for “real relationships.” The fact that the girls who refused to “outgrow” this particular phase were considered immature does not help.
As a result, it is readily apparent why people would take offense to characters being portrayed in such a fashion.
As stated earlier, Class S died out as a genre in the early 20th century, but early yuri literature and media incorporated the core concept of Class S. As a result, there are various yuri anime series that are very much inspired by Class S literatue.
For example, Maria-sama ga Miteru is considered the modern interpretation of the Class S genre and is one of the spearheads for the yuri genre. In MariMite, the implicit emotional bonds from Class S stories are consequently made overt due to the sœur system (where sœur is French for “sister”). Under the sœur system, a second-year or third-year student assumes the position of grande sœur (“big sister”) and chooses a younger student to become her petite sœur (“little sister”). The grande sœur then gives the petite sœur her rosary, the symbol that represents their union, and promises to guide the petite sœur much like an older sister would.
Be that as it may, several characters avoid the mandatory parting that is characteristic of Class S stories since they insist that they will remain sœurs beyond graduation and for the rest of their lives. However, Sei, the one character who is unambiguously lesbian, suffers from a broken heart because Shiori, the younger student whom Sei loved, resolved to become a nun. Sei even desperately attempts to use the sœurs system to tie her lover down and prevent her from leaving, but it still proves to be unsuccessful.
In a similar vein, Yumi, the down-to-earth main character, occasionally worries about her grande sœur, Sachiko, who is expected to marry a man in order to carry on the family name as the eldest and only daughter of a wealthy family. And in the end, Yumi and Sachiko, the primary sœur relationship in MariMite, do end up parting ways. It should be noted that this is only covered in the light novels while the anime adaptation ends prematurely.
Framed within the context of the anime, Aoi Hana also borrows several themes from Class S literature . Fumi, the shy wallflower main character, has a physically intimate and romantic relationship with her cousin, Chizu. However, the relationship abruptly ends because Chizu marries a man. Kyoko, another schoolgirl, loves Yasuko, Fumi’s upperclassman, but Yasuko never returns Kyoko’s feelings because she actually loves her male teacher, Masanori. Yasuko and Fumi do end up dating, but they eventually break up and go their seperate ways.
Interestingly, the only successful relationships depicted in (the anime adaptation of) Aoi Hana are heterosexual. There’s Masanori, for example, who married Yasuko’s sister, as well as Chizu’s marriage to the unnamed man. Despite the fact that Chizu is considerably older than Fumi (and thus isn’t a schoolgirl), the way she breaks off her relationship with Fumi in order to marry a man is reminiscent of the classic Class S setup.
It’s also intriguing that Yasuko opts to pursue a homosexual relationship after her teacher rejected her feelings – in Class S stories, the order is typically reversed. Finally, Yasuko, who attempts to restart and rekindle their broken relationship, is told to grow up by Fumi. However, Fumi is not considering Yasuko to be immature for clinging onto their homosexual relationship, which is the common line of thought in Class S literature; she is actually frustrated and tired of how Yasuko started a relationship with her despite yearning for someone else (I go into more detail about Yasuko’s selfish behavior in this post).
I only recently realized that the majority of yuri series that I enjoy are at least partially entrenched within the trappings of the defunct Class S genre. This is particularly true for anime. As a result, it feels like many of the “true yuri” series (Cute Girls Doing Cute Things shows unfortunately do not count) essentially use the same formulaic setup. The fact that both MariMite and Aoi Hana briefly mention that several characters are performing a stage adaptation of Little Women is consequently amusing to me: it’s as if both series are paying homage to the Western literature that gave birth to Class S which then paved the way for modern yuri.
Perhaps I only feel this way because I have yet to experience some of the yuri classics. But as I stated earlier, early yuri was influenced by Class S literature, so perhaps this is just the accepted norm. (As a side note, I originally planned to include Strawberry Panic! in this post, but it’s been several years since I’ve watched the series and the details were hazy. Providing a vague analysis of the anime classic that includes the name of a sweet fruit in the title would have not been fair to the series).
This troubling trend notwithstanding, I find myself drawn to these shows. In a world rife with shows that feature outrageous premisses and ridiculous drama (I’m talking about NTR: Netsuzou Trap) or unacceptable amounts of fanservice (such as Sin: Nanatsu no Taizai), more dramatic shows that progress at a slower pace is a sight for sore eyes. Such are the options for yuri anime, or anime that attempt to pander to wider audiences while attempting to remain yuri. Nevertheless, meeking obeying the tropes of Class S literature, which MariMite and Aoi Hana seem to do at times, is still problematic.
What I would like to see is more yuri anime that do not feature an overt heteronormative slant. Let girls stay in love with girls, please. It does not have to be a phase.
I’m not saying that yuri anime should stop including misery. Sure, if shows go out of their way to make sure LGBTQ characters suffer, then viewers and fans could become disillusioned. They could start to believe that characters and people who do not snugly fit within the heteronormative spectrum are predestined to be oppressed (which is simply an unacceptable belief).
But the opposite could also be harmful – portraying everything in an overly idealistic light can cause shows to seem unrealistic. Such series may not resonate with viewers and may prove easy to dismiss. A healthy mix is probably what’s ideal, in short. Let girls stay in love with girls.
On the other hand, yuri manga and yuri visual novels are faring better at avoiding the potential pitfalls of the Class S genre. The mediums do not limit themselves to schoolgirl settings, first of all. As a result, there is a distinct variety, in regards to settings, that is noticeable absent in yuri anime.
And even if a series does take place in a school, the series does not necessarily adapt the conventional (and unpleasantly heteronormative) yuri tropes out of complacency. In Zeria’s post about Kase-san, she talks about how two girls, Yamada and Kase, are in a relationship that avoids the controversial tropes inherent to the Class S genre. There’s no “LUG” to be found here as Yamada and Kase do not automatically break up upon graduation from high school. The girls also aren’t fluffing each other up to become wives to future husbands. The end result is a well-executed series that depicts a healthy and loving relationship between two relatable and organic characters.
We need more of that.
Let girls stay in love with girls.