Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Citrus anime.
Class S may no longer be its formal genre anymore, but its generic influence can be still felt in anime that play with yuri, or Japanese lesbian, tropes. Anime periodically invokes the settings and set-ups associated with Class S: all-girls academies, often private and prestigious; bouts of flirting between one female classmate and another; one girl playing a dominant, instrumental, even manipulative role… the other, a submissive, expressive, and even sheepish one; romances that are clandestine and forbidden; school loves that end where they begin. Homosexuality between girls is considered relatively tolerable in Japan, in fictional worlds and the realities outside them, at least until they graduate and grow up. When they do, they’re expected by society to get married to men and raise families with children. Unlike the puritanical parts of the West, the culture in Japan sees homosexuality as less a moral sin and more a social one. Japanese men and women are expected to contribute their part to overall community. Men do it by being breadwinners. Women do it by being mothers. Sans extraordinary means like in vitro, women can’t exactly give birth to children if the only people they’re having intimate relations with is their female partners.
Many anime nowadays refrain from playing with Class S tropes straight, even as they’re inspired enough to invoke their imagery. They comment on and subvert the Class S genre, which works under the assumption of a controlled and temporary environment. Psycho-Pass features an arc with a dominant female personality seducing a submissive girl. The show later pulls away the curtain as the plot progresses. The submissive girl is later murdered and mutilated into grotesque artwork, and the dominant female is revealed to be a serial killer. Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine features a dominant Fujiko, disguised as a teacher at an all-girls academy, seducing a seemingly timid student so she can filch her family heirloom. The tables are turned in just before climactic scene of sexual intimacy, where the student reveals himself as a male inspector and dominates Fujiko by stripping her nude and tying her up. Flip Flappers features Papika and Cocona being trapped in an illusory Class S universe. Papika and Cocona later escape it, suggesting that their arguably romantic affection for each other can escape the school-end confines of the Class S genre.
Given all these examples of Class S comments and subversions, what does Citrus do special?
As a disclaimer and qualification, I do understand that Citrus has a reputation of being problematic, an infamy that admittedly has some merit to it. The show features clear sexual assault and toys with arguable incest. I’ll get back to addressing the arguable incest, but for now, I will unambiguously assert this: sexual assault is a bad thing. It is a bad thing and remains a bad thing even when the assault in question occurs between one woman and another. The narrative of Citrus seems to regard sexual assault as problematic too, but it also seems to indulge in sexual assault often enough to be distasteful. The creator may be very well be having her cake and eating it too, utilizing sexual assault as formulaically as she does for its shock value even while she condemns it. To go on a tangent though, as inexperienced teenagers learning how to approach each other intimately and not exploitatively, the struggle for people like Yuzu and Mei Aihara to figure out what’s acceptable and what isn’t may realistically lead to missteps in a romantic relationship. The show does deserve some applause and consideration, if not all the clapping and uncritical reception, when it illustrates Yuzu fending and condemning Mei for her predations and both Yuzu and Mei of them feeling rewarded after they engage in a passionate and consensual act.
The ways Citrus is interesting outside of those issues primarily revolves around Yuzu. Aihara Academy fits the private, prestigious, all-girls academy check box to a Class S tee. Yuzu’s character concept, however, is aberrant to the classical set-up. She’s iconoclastic. She’s a gust of cool wind, breathing novelty into Class S stuffiness of timid, aggressive, and curious but risk-averse girls. Yuzu is an outsider, a self-proclaimed gyaru who’s easy-going, gregarious, rebellious, fashionable, and, at least initially, man-hungry. She finds handsome guys attractive, and initially tries to give a handsome teacher her cell number. Even as her affections shifts drastically from men to her step-sister, Yuzu doesn’t drop any of the other qualities that defined her earlier.
Her bashful self-consciousness and romantic immaturity aside, Yuzu leaves an impression on the audience that’s connected to how strikingly different she happens to be compared to her walking Class S peers. Gleefully and defiantly, from how she prepares her clothes and hair to the attitude she takes toward unjust status quos, she pushes back at the codes and norms that her school attempts to impose on her. In the face of her determined opposition, those codes and norms buckle. Yuzu upends the power imbalance of the Class S archetype relationship, playing neither a purely dominant role or the submissive one in her romance with Mei — switching back and forth between them in her horny teenaged confusion and her fussily kind nature, hankering always for a mutually intimate relationship with Mei while being willing to push Mei away when the relationship takes a turn for the exploitative. Both are dragging each other along, and both are trying to catch up with each other.
Citrus is also rather self-aware about the Class S genre that it’s riffing off. It’s self-aware to point that it will rather directly describe the audience, without mincing words, the specific elements that are commonly understood in a Class S set-up. For instance, in the face of a question by Yuzu about whether it’s common to for girls to hook up with other girls at school, her friend Harumi Taniguchi with a matter-of-fact response: They do, but they’re all just fooling around while they have the chance; many of these girls are already engaged to men, counting the days they can experiment until graduation.
Given that this self-aware answer by the show (through Harumin) wasn’t given as the lead up or punchline to a funny, my experience with stories being meta indicate either one of two things: (1) it’s being self-aware for its own sake (which I would argue is gimmicky and ultimately uninspired writing), or (2) it’s being self-aware because it wants to make a comment or a subversion of some kind (in order to further inform the conflict a character is facing). Yuzu’s affection for Mei, by all indications, isn’t a fad like in Class S. Yuzu’s love for her is further informed by her concern and efforts for Mei’s well-being.
Returning back to the arguable incest, I’m going to lay out this controversial (though personally interesting) interpretation of Yuzu’s and Mei’s lesbian-step-sister-lover dynamic though the lens of commenting on and subverting Class S. Yuzu struggles with trying to act like a responsible older step-sister before eventually succumbing to and embracing her feelings of liking her younger step-sister Mei romantically. Giving the creator the benefit of the doubt that she didn’t make these two girls newly christened step-sisters just because it was edgy — she certainly could have made them long-lost blood sisters or at least step-sisters with a history behind them to make the narrative more dangerous — my interpretation of the creator’s decision for them to be step-sisters is so that it normalizes them being lesbians. Given Japanese attitudes toward homosexuality, I think that it’s telling that the most sharply controversial thing in Citrus isn’t that it’s about a girl liking a girl.
It’s that it’s about a step-sister liking a step-sister. Never mind that the show’s timeline features a teenaged Yuzu and Mei becoming step-sisters recently and becoming romantically engaged almost immediately after… the mere whiff of that red meat called incest raises red flags. They distract audiences from being ick-ed or outraged by other controversial issues that draw less spectacle, like a homosexual relationship. The moral/social evil of a same-sex relationship suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad prospect. Reprovals from romantic relationships in Citrus happen less because the characters engaging in them (or attempting to) happen to be girls. Rather, they happen more because of sexual assault, manipulative domination, and arguable incest. Unfettered from the curse of the Class S classroom (because of incest, in part, of all things) the protagonists of Citrus are able to search and examine their feelings for each other at a deeper level than what the Class S genre could ever allow, absent its radical transformation into something new.
Class S popularized yuri in Japanese fiction, but only through a window informed by heterosexual expectations. Citrus, and other shows that have commented and subverted Class S, opened that window of lesbianism to the Japanese world outside.