LGBTQIA representation in anime has wildly improved in recent decades. While there's a strong history of queer-centered manga going back to the '70s, anime focused primarily on queer characters were much rarer up until relatively recently. In the '90s, most Boys Love anime -- also known as yaoi or shonen-ai -- were sexually explicit OVAs aimed at women. The first major televised Boys Love series is Gravitation, which has just turned 20. In its day, Gravitation was a phenomenon, but in retrospect, the series has not aged very well.
What is Gravitation?
The series started as a manga written by Maki Murakami. It was first adapted into a two-episode OVA in 1999 before expanding into a 13-episode TV series. Gravitation centers on Shuichi Shindou, a young man who wants to be the best singer in Japan. He's working on lyrics when the wind throws them into the grasp of novelist Eiri Yuki. Yuki verbally criticizes and humiliates Shuichi, but despite being enraged by the callous criticism, Shuichi finds himself drawn to Yuki.
The series follows their relationship, with Yuki gradually softening on Shuichi, going from a grumpy, verbally-abusive friend to a slightly more dominating, protective force with his own family drama and inner demons. Shuichi continues trying to find success with his band despite drama. Near the middle of the series, Shuichi explicitly states that Yuki is his and the two enter into a relationship, with Yuki offering to go on a date with Shuichi if he sells a million records. However, something seems to be seriously wrong with Yuki, since in private he keeps coughing up blood.
Why Was Gravitation So Popular?
On the surface, Gravitation seems like a straightforward romance anime. There's humor with an edge of tragedy and danger. This is probably why it appealed to many teenage girls, being a gateway drug of sorts to the harder, more intense world of yaoi fandom, of which Murakami was a fan. In fact, Murakami would regularly create some pretty hardcore doujin of her own manga, presenting pretty explicit content. However, Gravitation itself, while heavily suggestive, never goes too far into overt sexual content, making it accessible for a teenage audience.
When asked by Publishers Weekly why she made Gravitation, Murakami said, "I actually did it because there isn’t that much humorous boys’ love in Japan. It’s always about tears of blood, and 'if you die I’m going to die, too.' So I did it because I wanted to see it."
While Gravitation was successful as a manga, the anime really helped it take off overseas. It didn't hurt that the anime featured a ton of great songs. Later queer anime like Given would draw from Gravitation in this way, featuring characters in a band with musical numbers coming at key moments in plot development.
The Seme/Uke Dynamic and Abusive Behavior
However, while these were key elements to Gravitation's success, they are not reasons to watch Gravitation today. While the animation has aged poorly, the real problem with Gravitation is the way it fetishizes its queer characters. Gravitation employs the often criticized seme/uke dynamic, popular in yaoi at the time, where the "seme" is an aggressive character who attacks the "uke," who is more submissive. Often, this culminates in nonconsensual touching and abusive behavior. This trope has fallen out of favor in modern anime because, very often, it plays into the stereotype of the predatory gay man.
Another form of fetishization is to romanticize abuse. While Murakami tried to subvert and avoid many of the darker yaoi tropes from that time, she still employs them. Yuki is dominating and controlling. Early on, Shuichi is afraid to openly express himself because he fears getting Yuki angry. This is aided by the character designs, with Yuki looking far more mature and strong than Shuichi's softer, cuter appearance.
Gravitation is more humorous than other yaoi series of the era, but much of the humor, being centered around gay sex, results in the characters only further fetishizing gay relationships as overtly sexual, forbidden desires. This had its appeal to the target audience, but it turns gay men into objects for the pleasure of others.
In 20 years, LGBTQIA representation has improved. When comparing Gravitation to modern Boy Love anime, like Yuri!!! on Ice, the difference is night and day. Most modern queer romance anime center on the characters helping one another grow as people, with their love being taken seriously. Jokes aren't at the characters' expenses. Gravitation turns queer romance into a power dynamic, fetishizing rather than representing.