A gay boy’s queering through anime

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Fandom at its earliest peak is magical. It is pure and based on fantastic notions that you, too, could actually possess superpowers, powers that have been with you all along. Illustration by JL JAVIER

There was something about “Ghost Fighter” (or “YuYu Hakusho,” its original Japanese title) that appealed to the queerness of my sixth-grade self. It had demons, very flashy wardrobes, cute boys who were shirtless in many episodes, and most importantly, queer and queer-seeming characters. The Filipino dubbed version, already on its second wave after a mid-‘90s run, aired on free TV around 1999. It was an event for the kids in my neighborhood. We’d watch the show in anyone’s house who either had cable or a clear enough GMA 7 signal that day. We reenacted fight scenes after school and debated which one of us could be Eugene (Yusuke), Alfred (Kazuma), Dennis (Kurama) or Vincent (Hiei). Everyone wanted to be the group as badass and powerful as Team Urameshi.

While “Sailor Moon” awakened my inner homosexual during the third grade, it was shows like “Mobile Suit Gundam,” “Flame of Recca,” and “Ghost Fighter” that gave me a chance to exist with the kids in my class and in my neighborhood. No one wanted to hang out with the effeminate boy who wouldn’t shut up about Celine Dion, song hits, and the Backstreet Boys. The pre-teen cliques in my hometown traded in teks, love interests, and cartoons (I had no idea what anime was then). I thought “Ghost Fighter” was a blessing from the gay gods so I could be “tolerated” by my straight classmates. Watching the series enabled me to speak their language; well, one dialect of it, anyway. It was the TV show. In our school and in our neighborhood, if you didn’t know “Ghost Fighter,” you were an outcast.

At home, we had no Cartoon Network, no Disney Channel, no Nickelodeon. Cable TV was a privilege for lower middle class families like ours, who subsisted from one provider’s paycheck to the next, hoping that our landlord wouldn’t hike up the rent in three months' time. I couldn’t even watch the final episodes of “Ghost Fighter” at home during its first rerun. I can’t remember why. Maybe my mom or my dad wanted to watch something else. I had to settle my beef with a boy in my neighborhood who called me bakla and punched me in the back so I could watch at their house.

It’s ironic that it took a Japanese animated series to give me characters that I actually wanted to be. Shows like “Ang TV” and “G-mik” were aspirational at best. They depicted the rowdy, ideal Filipino bagets that showed you how to have a good time. I wanted to be in them but I couldn’t recognize myself in any of them. They were too high up on a pedestal, too artista. It wasn’t until Dennis in “Ghost Fighter” that I found someone I could relate to. It made me think, “Hey, I want to be that guy.”

Dennis is a fox demon who, in his human form, is often mistaken as female because of his flowing red locks and slightly feminine features (apparently, he was called Denise in the Filipino dub until it was confirmed that Kurama was a he). Dennis is powerful, feared, and mysterious. The fact that his character had brushes of femininity only made him more endearing to my little gay heart. Dennis is probably genderqueer at best. I loved Dennis because he wasn’t a macho fighter who bulldozed the enemy at the ready, like Eugene or Alfred. He was intelligent, cunning, and his gorgeously meek appearance masked his killer instincts. My idea of a fully realized self was built on him—both his human and demon form.

The show also had other forays into queerness. One of the Sensui Seven, Itsuki, was clearly in love with Sensui. There’s the transgender villain, Miyuki, during the Taguro tournaments. Master Jeremiah, too, proved to be a woman after all. And Jericho sucking on a pacifier? Looks like a twink with daddy issues to me.

In hindsight, there was something about ‘90s anime culture that possessed a universality unlike the TV shows of today. Elaine Castillo touches on this in her debut novel “America Is Not the Heart.” In the book, which chronicles three generations of Filipino immigrants in the ‘90s Bay Area, one of the character’s last holdouts to being Asian was reading manga and watching anime. Castillo herself, who identifies as bi, grew up with anime such as “Sailor Moon” (her first awakening to queerness as well), “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” and “Fushigi Yuugi.” “We did have Taiwanese stores where we’d buy manga or would rent tapes,” she said. “There was a kind of community of people who would translate for each other because manga wasn’t always translated into English and even now there’s an online community of scan-lations, and that’s how I read ‘Naruto’ and stuff. So that was part of my daily life.”

Fandom at its earliest peak is magical. It is pure and based on fantastic notions that you, too, could actually possess superpowers, powers that have been with you all along. It made you feel that you, like your favorite characters, were also destined for something important, that there was more to life than the dullness of school.

These shows may not be the perfect representations of queer identities, but they forged early images of what we could be. For queer kids like us then, there was only anime. And these shows were fearless in treading territories that our Filipino teen shows were too afraid to even dip their toes in.

My friends and I would always comment on how lucky the new generation is, with shows like “Sex Education,” “Never Have I Ever,” “Love, Victor,” and “Steven Universe,” and gay romantic shows like “Gameboys,” “I Told Sunset About You,” and “Cherry Magic.” What my generation had were scraped together hints of queerness from shows (particularly their local dubs) that circled around very conservative ideals, seeing as these were meant to air on TV during peak watching hours for kids. I know that the Tagalized versions would never directly tell me that Touya and Yukito from “Cardcaptor Sakura” were lovers — despite the palpable homoeroticism — or that Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune’s domestic life was as close as I could get to seeing gay marriage in a ‘90s anime, at least that I know of.

In my young eyes, capable of seeing wonder, Dennis’s rose whip was as gay as a weapon could get. It turned the whip’s macho association with cowboys and ninjas on its head. With Dennis, the weapon represented something beautiful and overlooked, laced with thorns that were deadly in its deceptiveness. Kurama’s world was nothing like mine but his battles felt spiritually familiar as he advanced in each dark tournament, fighting in arenas against demonic macho creatures, using powers that could be subtle yet deviously brutal (the death plant seed is a particular choice as it turns any body into a monstrous bed of flowers). Dennis appeared calm and smart but capable of techniques that claimed the most savage executions in the show, such as a giant plant that drained every last drop of blood off an enemy, and a tree that fed its captive illusions, sapping their energy for eternity. The bloody triumphs of Dennis made me realize that winning isn’t about who’s the biggest or strongest, it’s about who sees beyond the smoke and mirrors of typical dominance and aggression and using their perceived strengths as their eventual downfall.

Plus, when Dennis transforms into a fox demon, he becomes a toned twunk, a fantasy that was perfectly aspirational for my payatot 12-year-old self. It’s a nudge of encouragement, that I’ll eventually get to my final form someday. Whatever it is.


This essay appears in the author’s forthcoming book “Brief Histories” to be published by Everything’s Fine this Nov. 5. Visit Everything's Fine on Facebook and Instagram for more details.