The Portrayal of Trans girls in Visual Novels and Its Connection to Characterization and Themes

[This post will include spoilers for Heart of the Woods, AIdol, and Heaven Will Be Mine]

While visual novels were initially a Japanese creation, there are now plenty of visual novels produced by non-Japanese studios. By default, these “Western” visual novels tend to be quite different compared to “Eastern” visual novels in many ways. One such distinction that I’ve been considering for some time now is how “Western” yuri visual novels seem much more willing to include trans girls as characters.

As someone who mainly sticks to yuri visual novels, I can vouch for only this particular genre as being inclusive. I have personally read through three in which trans girls are important characters and I am aware of at least two more. Meanwhile, I still have not come across any “Eastern” yuri visual novels that could qualify.

How these trans girls are presented in the yuri visual novels I’ve played through vary. By that I mean the visual novel can either explicitly state or (merely) heavily imply that a girl is indeed trans. And in my opinion, the manner in which the visual novel chooses to have the woman come out to the audience can be tied to the corresponding themes of the visual novel in question. Furthermore, hinting at instead of outright revealing that a character is trans also allows for subtle characterization and prevents a character’s only defining characteristic from simply being trans.

For example, in Heart of the Woods Tara mentions to Morgan that she had transitioned during high school, which had led to almost all of her friends abandoning her. Tara coming out to the audience (Morgan was already aware since they were intimate during the previous night) consequently provides additional insight into the dynamic between Tara and Maddie, who was the only one to support Tara. No wonder Tara is so hurt over Maddie’s decision to move on from the vlogging career they had started together years ago. To Tara, she’s losing her support, the dear friend who had accepted her even when everyone else turned away.

Yet she and Maddie, who spends a lot of time second-guessing her decision to quit, both fail to properly communicate. As they pointedly ignore the source of conflict by choosing to focus on other priorities, their relationship remains strained as a result despite their mixed feelings.

In a way, Tara’s approach in regards to “handling” the situation echoes how she discusses her transition to Morgan. Her transition comes up while Tara tries changing the subject in an attempt to lighten the mood during their serious conversation, but the fact that her high school years proved to be difficult is clearly evident to both girls. Therefore Tara decides to switch to another topic yet again, much like both Tara and Maddie stubbornly insist to pay attention to anything other their impending separation.

While this shaky parallel is merely conjecture (and it does makes sense to not linger on uncomfortable topics), I personally think it’s no mere coincidence that things look brightest when Tara and Maddie are honest and make up with each other later on. Individuals often rely on others for support, after all, and this is especially true for those who are LGBTQ+. People do change over time but Maddie remained Tara’s friend despite their differences, which made their reconciliation one of the best scenes in the visual novel (source: me).

Even though Tara is the only open trans girl in the three visual novels I cover, the timing of her breaking the news to the transition works well. By that point the audience is quite familiar with her, be it how she presents herself to others or how she privately thinks of herself. Thus her outing herself to the audience doesn’t overtake all aspects of her character since it comes after we’ve come to know her – Tara is a brash and charismatic flirt who just happens to be trans.

Meanwhile Hotaru from AIdol, while never outright outed to the audience, is still heavily implied to be trans. The tall lolita mentions in passing that her mother had wanted her to play with soldiers and toy cars when she was younger, for instance, and that her mother freaked out when Hotaru started painting her nails and curling her hair. The fact that Hotaru needs to take a certain type of medicine every day also becomes becomes pivotal to the plot during her own route. Unfortunately, Hotaru also suffers much like Tara did in high school since she gets confronted by a hate group during her route.

While some may be disappointed that Hotaru being trans relies on subtext, one could argue that this was a conscious decision which remains consistent with the underlying themes of AIdol. The protagonist, Hana, is initially obsessed, or even infatuated, with a virtual idol, after all, and she eventually comes to accept that love is still love even if her feelings are directed towards a virtual idol or another girl.

Thus I would argue that the hints regarding Hotaru being trans manages to be nuanced and adeptly balances upon a delicate line. Observant readers will notice the hidden meanings and will be relieved that Hana is so accepting of Hotaru (even though it seems that Hana herself hasn’t realized). Those who don’t pick up on the hints can still appreciate that Hana is willing to stand up against people who pick on Hotaru. As such, Hotaru being trans adds depth to her character without it being the sole aspect of her characterization or her route. It’s present without being overbearing, a quiet yet firm statement one can hear if paying attention.

Things are even less clear when it comes to Luna-Terra and Pluto in Heaven Will Be Mine, which makes sense given how often the visual novel flirts with cryptic metaphors and layered messages with multiple meanings. It’s a confusing game involving girls who can change the narrative and scoff at the fourth wall, after all.

But the hints of these girls both being trans are definitely there; the audience is just forced to read between the lines. Since the visual novel takes place in a sci-fi setting with giant humanoid robot-ships, pilots (which include both Luna-Terra and Pluto) speaking of their robot’s body as if it was their own body is more or less to be expected. Be that as it may, some of the narration which make such comparisons mention about hating their bodies or having new bodies is rather telling.

For example, there’s this leaked interview in which Luna-Terra states she wants a new start as for her reason for going to space, since people in this setting can actually live in space. To some, they might think that she just wants to get away from Earth and start life in a new place. However, I read this as a clear sign Luna-Terra wanted to transition back then (since this interview took place several years before the visual novel begins).

Two other instances really stood out to me in particular. The first was when Luna-Terra is experiencing a flashback in which she recalls her first meeting with Pluto, who can read people’s emotions or thoughts (from what I could tell, anyways) after Luna-Terra had started living in space. Pluto promising her to cut Luna-Terra’s “old dead name out of the story” like she did for her own during that encounter is a pretty obvious hint.

The second memorable moment happens to be my favourite exchange in the game. Even though the girls are on opposite sides at this point and are enemies on paper, the two can choose to take a stroll during which they nostalgically muse about both the past and possible hypotheticals. Luna-Terra eventually calls both her and Pluto very lucky (since they got to live in space) even though they weren’t the luckiest (since they weren’t born in space). She then proceeds to wonder if they would have had to wait even longer if they weren’t so lucky before Pluto reassures Luna-Terra by saying they would have found a way eventually. Therefore this conversation ties back to how Luna-Terra desired to live in space, which makes it really, really feel like she’s talking about their transitions during this particular scene.

Luna-Terra and Pluto being trans is thus buried under double-meanings, but that actually suits how Heaven Will be Mine is presented. It’s to be expected in a game where the tritagonists are, or are at least pretending to be, rebellious bad girls while fighting for causes that are morally grey, where the distinction between themselves and their Ship-selves are shaky.

Them being trans just ends up being another interpretation of what they mean when they talk about themselves or their bodies or how they’re perceived by others. The fact that the remaining humans on Earth consider them to be aliens after they were raised in space simply adds yet another layer of complexity and of them being othered. Do they want to be accepted by others despite piloting intimidating robo-ships, growing up in space, or being trans? The audience can decide for themselves due to the characters’ preferences for ambiguity, but I would say any or all three reasons applies depending on the situation. After all, much like Hotaru, Pluto and Luna-Terra being trans is just one aspect to their characters.

In conclusion, trans girls are featured more prominently in “Western” yuri visual novels compared to “Eastern” yuri visual novels. With that being said, them being trans is often subtextual. Whether or not that is something to be concerned when it comes to representation and inclusion will depend on personal preferences. Personally, I believe the fact that some are not completely outed to the audience is reasonable considering themes as well as their character profiles. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

8 thoughts on “The Portrayal of Trans girls in Visual Novels and Its Connection to Characterization and Themes

  1. Oh man, I really need to read Heaven Will be Mine…I love the idea of cyberpunk trans girls so much. The whole cyberpunk narrative/theme is such a good parallel with transitioning in general…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, they did a great job with the comparison and concept in my opinion. I think you’ll like it!

      I also still need to get around to reading through We Know The Devil, haha. Maybe when work settles down…I hope things aren’t too crazy for you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, I’m not surprised inclusion and representation for trans people is more prominent in western visual novels. Japan still holds fast to a lot of traditional values. The notion of standing out even a little bit is seen in a very negative light and it’s a shame when there are so many people there struggling to be themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

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