Content Warning: Several of the comics discussed include adult themes or adult situations.
Yuri, the genre focused on female/female romantic relationships. It started in the early 70s with the publication of Shiroi Heya no Futari. These early works often ended tragically with one of the characters dying. This changed over the years, and in the late 90s, manga magazines, like Mist Magazine, were full of yuri stories where the couple ended up happy. The growth of the doujin works, small fan made comics sold at conventions such as Comiket, gave authors a chance to gain fans before making their professional debut. This career path may be familiar to those who have followed artist like Noelle Stevenson or Kate Leth who started with fanart and moved on to making their own successful comics.
LGBT rights in Japan are still on shaky ground; gay marriage is still not legal, and just a few years ago Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara called gay people “deficient.” This has created a culture where most LGBT stories deal with the self hatred and bullying that are common to queer people growing up in that environment.
The genre has experienced an explosion in popularity with both the invention of digital comics and with the growth of the LGBT comic communities in Japan—with that growth there is now a lot of yuri manga, and not all of it is good. Here’s an introduction to some of the yuri authors who I think not only create good work, but bring something unique to the table.
It could be argued that Milk Morinaga is the most popular contemporary yuri artist. Her manga Girl Friends is a bonafide New York Times bestseller, and her work is often pointed to as a good starting point (which I agree with). Importantly, though, her works avoid some of the major pratfalls of the genre, such as insinuating that the characters are merely “playing at love” by dating someone of their gender. While frustratingly her characters don’t often use words like “gay” or “lesbian,” they are written as queer women.
Morinaga is most known for her energetic style and adherence to romantic drama tropes, expect many almost-confessions and misunderstandings. If you can get past that, you’ll find a body of work with characters that have a lot of charm and heart. Her manga Kiss, Sigh and Cherry Blossoms Pink explores the moments after a confession, making it not only a rarity in yuri, but in most romantic genres.
Her work is infamous for the high amount of Drama—Drama with a capital “D.” Love triangles, horrible relationships, and just general angst. Sometimes all that is rewarded with a happy ending, and sometimes it’s not. That’s just how life is, and her work reflects that. Her manga Fragments of Love stars an emotionally distant girl who is used to being taken advantage of in relationships, which is quite a tone shift from the relatively happy world of most yuri. If you feel like other author’s works are too cheesy and predictable, then she might be exactly what you’re looking for. Takemiya Jin is one of the few authors in yuri I’ve seen write an emotionally abusive relationship with enough tact to not make it feel exploitative.
Her art style is stark, with very little in the way of shading. This eventually causes problems, as her characters can begin to look the same. When characters from previous works show up it may lead to you checking through her entire career to see if that character is someone we’re supposed to know. The idea of all of her work taking place in the same world makes it feel like a real world. But her art and the lack of variety in character design can add more trouble than it’s worth.
If the work of Takemiya Jin is too dour or intense then perhaps this might be more your speed. Minase Ruruu has yet to put out a long manga, instead specializing in short one-offs with the occasional sequel. Her work is extremely lighthearted, with barely an argument or worry mentioned. Relationships are formed with little “will they won’t they,” and there’s no mention of the dreaded “but we’re both girls!” If you are looking for pure fluff, you can do a lot worse than her. Combine that with a soft looking art style and you get a work that is very cute.
Her work is also more explicitly sexual. Despite that, it never feels pornographic. This is due to the fact that more focus is put on the character’s love for each other and their relationship. Titillation is never the end goal of the comic, although it may be a goal along the way; the characters are just honestly expressing their want of a physical relationship. Of course, this is going to turn off people who want more of an innocent romance comic or don’t want to close a window every time someone walks in.
If the last two are on the opposite ends of the spectrum of what yuri can be, then Amano Shuninta is right in the middle. Her works are both fluffy and dramatic, providing a great median. The carefree Yukemuri Sanctuary offers broad comedy and simple romance that makes it an easy read. Watashi no Sekai o Kouseiuru Chiri no You na Nani ka is a more serious look at the lives of several gay women as relationships start and fall apart.
This variety is important in showcasing her range both as a writer and an artist. Her comedies often have over the top reactions that might be more home in a gag comic, like Azumanga Daioh or Lucky Star. Her drama is definitely weaker. The characters’ motivations often get muddled in ways that make re-reading a must and a bit of a chore. That said her strong art and the unique stories she tells manages to offset the flaws in her writing.
While she’s most widely known for her work designing the characters and writing the manga to the popular 2015 yuri anime Yurikuma Arashi, she has been making yuri for much longer than that. Her stories offer a fresh break from the more traditional setting of all girl’s schools by having the majority of them take place between women in their mid-twenties to thirties. Even the stories that do take place in schools, such as her longest work Hanjuku Joshi, explore the minefield of coming to terms with your sexuality, gender expression, and what you want from a romantic partner.
Despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, her works never feel shy about throwing a few jokes in, which makes them rather cheery reads even if they dip into melodrama on occasion. Her character design is great, allowing her characters to look just as unique as the characterization she gives them. Those designs combined with an art style that lets her stretch to get the best expression out of them and a deft hand in storytelling makes her one of the best.