A high-schooler named Kouta is crying in the rain on an empty street. He’s on his knees. All hope is lost. Yuu, an acquaintance with purple hair and pink barrettes, reaches out a hand. Though Kouta rebuffed Yuu earlier in the day, he’s come upon Yuu again on his way home. This only makes Kouta sob harder.
“It’s all my fault. If I were more like you, none of this would have happened. I had someone I loved, and something I loved. That used to be so easy to admit! I’m so pathetic and miserable. That’s why I could never look you in the eye. The sooner I forget about what I lost, maybe things will be easier.”
“What’s so wrong in admitting you like what you like? Tell me what you love,” Yuu responds.
Kouta stares longingly into the other’s perfectly drawn cat eyes and shouts out his love: “I love the Pompompurin my grandma gave to me. I loved it for a very long time!”
This confession is from Episode Two of Sanrio Boys, a social-media-campaign-cum-visual-novel-cum-manga-cum-anime that premiered in early January. For Sanrio, the famed creator and merchandiser of “cute characters” (most notably Hello Kitty, and obviously, Pompompurin, a golden retriever who “loves milk, anything soft and his mama’s cream caramel puddings”), the production serves two main purposes:
- It increases Sanrio’s footprint among middle school and high school girls.
- It aims to bring more and more boys into its kawaii cult.
But a third, perhaps an unintended consequence, is the incredible parallel that it makes to the experience of coming out as queer.
Andou Mai, the author of the manga on which the anime is based, has refused to speak to the media about Sanrio Boys, so we don’t know for certain. And promotional material for the show put out by Sanrio, Sho-Comi (the manga publisher) or Pierrot (the animation studio) makes no hint toward the queer reading of the show. So the closest admission we have is this still from the show’s ending theme where a rainbow appears between two characters who are often shipped together.
Nevertheless, what Sanrio Boys does for its fans is special. Most BL (boys’ love) and yaoi (gay pornographic) anime exist in a domestic world without prejudice or internalized homophobia. Even 2016 anime sensation Yuri on Ice, which focused as much on the intense romance between the two male leads as it did on its ice-skating conceit, eschewed any outside negative forces. Sanrio Boys, on the other hand, includes the wider context and culture, chronicling the different ways that its male characters come to terms with themselves and a world that may or may not accept them.
I’ve already mentioned Kouta, the series protagonist/audience surrogate, and his inner turmoil over Pompompurin, but the other main characters’ avowed or tacit love for Sanrio products lead to consequences as varied as the merchandise itself. Yuu is completely open about his love for My Melody (a bunny who adores almond pound cake and treasures the hoodie her grandmother made for her) but is still very “popular with both guys and girls” — except for his little sister (the only named female character in the show). She resents him for becoming so frivolous and flashy.
Ryou, the short beautiful blond boy who everyone thinks looks like a cute girl, inhabits the other end of the “outness” spectrum. He hates himself, cuteness and anyone like Yuu who is so unabashed in their love for Sanrio. In fact, he goes as far as to call them “hentai,” which means something totally different in the U.S., but in this context is defined as something between a pervert and a weirdo. Kouta smartly observes, “Maybe it’s more that he hates himself rather than us. Because I felt like that. Like something was really irritating me deep down.”
That said, we get close to some actual romance between Ryou and his foil Seiichirou, the tall, handsome student council president and archery club captain. In one scene, he confronts Ryou about his hate of the Sanrio Boys in a dramatic scene in which he holds the smaller boy close to his face and says, “People will only be honest when you’re honest with them!” And: “You have to face yourself properly!”
The parallels here to living in the closet and living outside of it are obvious, but there’s also something deeper and more rooted in psychology at play. Namely, transitional objects, or comfort objects. In this case, they’re obviously the Sanrio products, but more traditionally, transitional objects are things like teddy bear bears and blankets that “allow for the emergence of a child’s inherent sense of self,” according to Colleen Goddard in Psychology Today.
All the boys in Sanrio Boys developed their Sanrio attachments as kids, gaining ego, strength and comfort from them. And if you want to give this a queer reading, their ownership of this childhood passion is in some ways a reclamation of queer time, which “offers an alternative to the notion that one ought to discontinue particular practices or behaviors simply because one has ‘aged out’ of them,” writes Sara Jaffe in an article for JSTOR Daily. She even claims that, going off scholar Jack Halberstam, that “queerness is constituted by its difference from conventional imperatives of time.”
In some ways, though, whether these theories and meanings are true or not isn’t important. What really matters is how fans are experiencing it. “Even if they wrote a huge metaphor for coming out of the closet on accident, they still definitely wrote one,” says @samcb_. Overall, he says, “As a queer person, the ways this show depicts the internal and external struggles of coming out are pretty accurate, if a little melodramatic.” He hopes that, in the future, anime will face the issue of homophobia more head on, but that “it’s okay that they keep it ambiguous in this case. Even if you don’t relate to the queer side of the show, the message about gender norms still hopefully connects with people.”
Another fan, @RokudoKappa, is a self-proclaimed fudanshi — a boy in the so-called “rotten” subculture of those who love anime and manga that feature implied and canon gay romances. He’s a big fan of Yuu and Shunsuke, the stoic athlete who loves Hello Kitty, but he doesn’t think that the show is “about” homophobia. “I love the show bc it rly shows it is okay to like smth that others might find childish, immature or girly,” he writes to me. “People always say to me that I’m immature and childish and that I’m too old to be liking cartoons and anime for my age, and though I try to hid it, their words rly hurt me, so I hide. Sanrio Boys has taught and inspired ppl like me that it is OKAY.”
There’s a chance the show may at some point undermine a surface gay reading — in the manga, the boys eventually get paired off with girls — but, just as those girls don’t keep the boys from loving Sanrio, even that reversal won’t erase the vibrant queer fan community that’s sprung up around the show. Fans take from the show what they want; they always do. And that’s just fine, too.