A Hideous Thing Inside: Pruning the Lily Garden with Yuri Kuma Arashi and Flip Flappers

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While much has been written about Ikuhara Kunihiko’s magnificent unravelling of yuri as a genre, Yuri Kuma Arashi (2015), little has been said about one of its earlier antagonists Yurizono Mitsuko. Despite serving as little more than a footnote in its scathing treatise of those who are marginalized by society’s normative structures, another lily in Arashigaoka’s vast flower garden, she is nevertheless a figure that is worth highlighting for context arguably casts her beyond the superficially clear-cut role. Another in Ikuhara’s long line of the unchosen, Mitsuko serves as the antithesis to the prim and proper delicacies which the genre exudes as she reworks them into tools which offer her an advantage, but more importantly – a means of survival.

Arashigaoka is an institution built upon a delicate foundation of tea parties and ribbon-tying, furtive glances and blushed apple cheeks, all girlish whimsies unfurling insofar as the genre will permit. Through a predominantly western lens, realms fuelled by あこがれ-driven exchanges appears to seldom facilitate legitimately queer readings and thus prove to be something of a contentious issue. But to contextualize potentially challenging elements we must first flip the calendar back to the early 1900s, not quite the halcyon days of yore which purveyors believe the genre is ostensibly drawing on, but a reality fuelling the country’s prosperity in the midst of political and social turmoil. Upper-middle class ladies were expected to hone traditionally feminine virtues such as modesty in preparation for their role as good wives and wise mothers who would tend to the household while their soldier husband was away at the front. To that end society considered it a necessity to neutralize potentially rebellious leanings which led to enforcing demure methods of conduct via behavioural instruction manuals, magazines sensationalizing incidents of those ill-fated enough to stray from the correct path.

Although female sexuality being a hot-button issue is something which frustratingly persists to this day, in order to safeguard Japan’s future ludicrous superstitions such as women retaining the blood of previous sexual partners took hold, positing that those engaging in promiscuity would taint the paternity of those harbingers of hope who were expected to usher the country into a radiant era. Heterosexual unions outside of the marital sphere were actively discouraged due to their inherent vulnerabilities, yet on the opposite end of the spectrum same-sex relationships were considered to be a natural developmental stage that would enhance one’s character, rarely parsed as queer. They were often believed to be transitory in nature and void of physicality, characterized by immature longing which would be abandoned upon reaching adulthood. While such relationships did fall under scrutiny at one point, pedagogical journals nevertheless assured that they were in line with desired modes of conduct, believing that girls possessed little to no sexual urges in turn preserving their chastity, and eventual role as a good wife and wise mother.

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You’ve heard all this before for it’s a hegemonic framework that facilitated the sowing of lily seeds, buds emerging due to the labours of figures such as Yoshiya Nobuko and her sentimental meditations. Even if emotionally-charged moments were to transpire between two characters, air crackling with electricity, they would be swathed in layer upon layer of ambiguity in order to further stimulate imaginations. Void of tangible viscerality, romantic friendships of this nature were seldom written with physical attraction in mind, latent intimacies conveyed through hidden modes of interpretation. Nebulous swirls of longing rarely curl around the target of a character’s affections for the romanticized distance is part of what rendered these tales so gratifying for the younger reader, and it is a quality found in yuri works published to this day. Through maintaining an appropriate level of distance it becomes possible to endure girlish emotions without the salacious components irreversibly tangled up in heterosexual relationships and by proxy, adulthood. This cements Yurizono Mitsuko as something of an anomaly for she is desire personified, explicitly asserting ownership of her sexuality in a manner which poses a threat to a barren garden where flowers may grow but never flourish; a genre characterized by sweet, sweet stagnancy. Where distance is appreciated she instead closes the gap through id-driven whims, carving out her own subversive space.

This is achieved through the exploitation of a barren empire and its reductive stances which only serve to suppress its denizens, Mitsuko transforming delicate modes of conduct into tools to ensure she goes unnoticed by ruinous forces. While delivering Sumika’s eulogy she highlights a number of respected virtues in line with the genre and its innate elegance, noticeably drawing on floral imagery to convey her purity; a white flower for the deceased, black lilies festering in tandem with an understanding of conventions for the living. When Mitsuko later rises from the mist, the proverbial ghost of Sapphic past, it is by no means a coincidence that she can be found in the interstice between moon and forest, inside and outside the story’s narrative confines. Flitting about the grounds as she pleases, Mitsuko revises the chronology as she pleases, freely commenting on others, while simultaneously serving as yet another malevolent impulse that Ginko must transcend in order to develop a healthy mode of love with Kureha.

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Even Mitsuko’s introduction boasts a metatextual awareness, coaxing Sumika in honeyed tones while caressing her hands. Upon claiming that they could be “good friends” it is worth highlighting her breezily borrowing from the genre’s lexicon, conveying coded intimacies through narrative patterns which the powers that be consider appropriate. Indeed, as far as Arashigaoka is concerned, it is perfectly acceptable to transmit all matter of provocative inclinations so long as they are channelled via ambiguous modes of conduct, avoiding detection. ‘Friends’ are reduced to abstract and pliable concepts which convey a myriad of interpretations, fleeting and to be girlishly cherished. Moments before Mitsuko enters the fray, emphasis is placed on a lily in full bloom; its royal blue backdrop brazenly echoing the manner in which Dezaki Osamu highlighted floral motifs throughout Onii-sama e… (1991), a visual staple… Only for a scissors to then enter the frame, glinting, cleaning cutting the stem which serves as a highly audacious statement of intent addressed towards both the audience and, on a broader level, the genre itself. It is an action which stems from Ikuhara’s refusal to indulge in the audience’s desires to see girls coyly lacing their fingers together, all lovelorn gazes bereft of intimacy. What instead unfurls is an explicit treatise on queerness and sexuality, which is where Mitsuko in all her explosive physicality enters.

It is worth mentioning that despite Mitsuko appearing to be sexually autonomous she emblematizes a savage, somewhat Mephistophelian clause as she is unable to pursue her desires freely; an Unchosen whose longings are left to fester in the genre’s margins, amongst closeted Unchosens who are perfectly content with forever remaining invisible, playing along with S clichés. Mitsuko is a victim of the hegemonic structure which she frivolously abuses, abandoned to its collective shadow with her sexuality stifled. This leads to deeply unhealthy repressions which similarly manifest in abusive modes of behaviour unleashed on those other Unchosens found within her class, in turn propagating a catastrophic id-driven cycle which only serves to hinder the marginalized. As a result of Mitsuko’s charming demeanour and her position as class representative, she is able to worm her way into the still hearts of these girls with ease, using the Exclusion Ceremony as an excuse. Throughout these proselytising exercises in hatred an emphasis is tellingly placed on ‘friendships’, not potential relationship candidates, as it seeks to portray fellow Unchosens in a negative light by reducing them to scapegoats. It is a pitiful cycle which the work as a whole seeks to break free from.

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The spirit of defying established normative structures which the genre slavishly adheres to lives on via the fifth episode of Flip Flappers (2016), an avant-garde exploration of queer girl adolescence as viewed through the lens of episodic wonderlands drawing extensively on Lacanian psychology. As Cocona allows herself to be pulled into Papika’s orbit, her subconscious responds in kind by whisking the pair off into an oppressively sterile realm which tests whether their nascent affections are doomed to fester within the accepted transitional stage or flourish beyond it. A microcosm of Yuri Kuma Arashi’s thesis, Pure Echo’s repetitious arrangements illustrate the stagnancy which emotionally-driven affairs bereft of both physicality and sincerity harbour the potential to lapse into. As the episode lavishly pays tribute to Dezaki’s winding halls, a jaunty harpsichord swells alongside Cocona skittishly blaming Pure Echo’s delineations for her tense responses whenever another female character gets up close and personal, despite it serving to heighten her awareness of a burgeoning sexuality. True to conventions, although lily motifs richly adorn the realm it is up to Cocona to prune them herself as an ultimate means of recognition.

Impulses spiral further out of control through a number of suggestive sequences, most notably the one which occurs within the sanctity of Cocona and Papika’s dorm room. They exchange yearning gazes wearing frilly nightdresses; fingers laced together while drawing on the natural world to convey coded intimacies which context permits them from explicitly articulating. It is a scene inundated with desperation not unlike the ones which Yoshiya would have penned, e.g. Yaneura no Nishojo (1919), passion elevated as confessions hang in the air through evocative ellipses and silences. However unlike Akiko’s ATTIC where she is free to explore and subsequently pursue her attraction free from society’s unyielding trajectory, an oppressive presence lingers in their room leaving affections blooming in the shade of the episode’s equivalent of the Invisible Storm – nameless, faceless creatures that can only giggle as genre staples spill from cavernous mouths. It is only when Cocona and Papika mutually dispel the haze of romantic friendship do their reciprocated affections enable them to gather the strength to defy that repressive mass, symbolized by a talisman gained at the end. As a means of acknowledgement Pure Echo disintegrates, an explicit pruning of the realm’s garden, with the girls venturing into the outside world.

Through eschewing formulaic narratives with an emphasis on surreal storytelling, it is certainly comparable to Kureha and Ginko’s genuine affection sprouting from a bed of deeply unhealthy meditations on queer female sexuality the likes of which Mitsuko’s existence tragically posits. As the genre continues to prune lilies which once stifled physicality and blocked the path towards acceptance, magnificent journeys of self-discovery will take place, with their own personal flowers at last able to blossom.

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2 thoughts on “A Hideous Thing Inside: Pruning the Lily Garden with Yuri Kuma Arashi and Flip Flappers

  1. Kastel says:

    Just read this post years after it is published.

    My take on the yuri genre is similar to yours: it is beginning to blossom into a discussion of sexuality sometime in the future. But until then, yuri will be seen as pure and stuff.

    Take, for example, Yurirei or as I like to call it Gay Ghost Girls. GGG here is the GAR version of all these yuri sensibilities, even having a scrne where the ghosts go “we aren’t lesbians, we’re yuri!” It has offended the sensibilities of a yuri/Saki vn blogger I follow and he still gets death threats since he read it. I don’t think it’s bad, but it does show the resistance to all of this.

    An “abstract” exploration of lesbian relationships is therefore needed in order to work and comply with the perceptions of society there. I would argue this is the same in the West — LGBT literature in America suffers from being targeted at only LGBT readers while other folks aren’t exactly part of the choir being preached. A highly artistic form — abstraction — is needed to make the ideas more palatable to a mainstream audience.

    Sakura no Uta by SCA-JI has a chapter dedicated to sexuality and even criticizes the yuri mindset, putting it as a sort of bad end. In that chapter, the narrator of that route dives into a highly abstracted, almost Utena-esque route to finding her own sexuality. Before, she just makes sex jokes about licking her best friend’s vagina. But here, her desire parallels the black-and-whiteness of the gender binary. The visuals evoke a magic to all of this essay-ish mess of sexuality and gender.

    It is this high abstraction that levels discussions of sexuality and gender to a grander level than a low, albeit more practical, idea. For many people unconcerned with these ideas, they would not understand the themes of YuriKuma and FlipFlappers in a down to earth fashion. The fact it is “easy to understand” makes them ask, “What is the problem? Just accept your sexuality and move on.” But to abstract it forces the readers to think about what they are reading or watching in a more than obvious way.

    They will look at each scene as hardly as they need to when understanding a scene. Much like how you describe how the visual composition affecting the themes of Yurikuma, they will have to come up with similar approaches to appreciate the theme more.

    This idea of abstraction reminds me of something I learned studying directing. You cannot make an actor cry by telling them “Cry.” You have to make the actor genuinely cry, so what should you do? You have to make the actors abstractly think about the things that made them cry and why they cried. It is this kind of thinking that makes an actor crying believable instead of fake tears.

    Making people think hard through abstraction is a complicated process. You could say it’s harder when people are concerned about pretentiousness and the such. But seeing these works exist and execute properly shows that it is doable. It takes time for lily buds to grow and blossom. So until then, keep on watering them.

    Like

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