Arts & Culture Opinion TV & Movies

Incest… in anime?! Why?

Japanese anime is using incest as a trope to build plot and character, but also just to draw an audience.

Friday night. You’ve finally gotten off school, mercifully with no homework. You take out your favorite snacks, tucked into bed, ready to rewatch your favorite anime. However, you forgot one thing about this show, and you get hit with the seven-ton African elephant in the room: the cute siblings introduced in episode five may just be banging each other.

Incest is something every anime fan has encountered when trying to enjoy a show. Whether it’s in shounen – a genre of manga and anime aimed towards boys, usually action and adventure – or shojo – content aimed towards girls, usually romance or slice of life – it appears when you least expect it.

Surveying the appearance of incest in recent anime and manga shows that writers are using weird sibling pairings for multiple reasons. Sometimes it’s a plot device, to keep things lighthearted and use this odd pairing as cheap laughs, or to portray a character as evil or fundamentally flawed and to build upon characters and their actions, so their characters seem more 3D and real. In shounen, it’s very rarely used for purely fetishizing reasons, but it still appears occasionally for this reason, where the target audience is very niche and… odd.

Obviously there’s many issues with using incest as a sort of subgenre, where it sexualizes the relationship between siblings. It’s especially annoying when it appears in random non-romance animes, like Bungou Stray Dogs, an anime which falls under the shounen category, contains action, adventure, and the likes. It also shows up a lot in slice of life anime and those centered closer to romance, like Spy x Family.

In some shows, the incest that appears throughout the show is less problematic, where the author uses it purely as overexaggerated sibling love and affection, and is usually displayed in more minor characters. These are used as cheap gags and laughs, when they appear and say something so outrageous that the audience is shocked into laughter, and they disappear again, not seen for the rest of the season. One such show is Spy x Family. One of the main characters, Yor, practically raised her brother, which might’ve been what led to his unhealthy obsession with her. His obsession over his sister doesn’t really cause any harm, and it’s mostly used for comedic effect, with this loving sibling relationship way overshot and greatly exaggerated.

In some other cases, it’s added to build upon the characters, to sort of show the audience how messed up and manipulative the characters are. In The Irregular at Magic High School, the brother is sort of “groomed” by his sister, with her being so overprotective of him that she would blow her lid if other women try to talk to him, seeing it as an advancement or competition for her brothers affection (nearly every girl that approaches him).

Sometimes incestuous relationships are merely suggested vaguely. In Jujutsu Kaisen, it’s unclear if the 30 year-old sister is actually pursuing sexual relations with her 10 year-old brother but the incestual implication is there. There’s been a scene where they’re in bed together and the sister is buck naked, and as the manga progresses, it’s seen that her brother displays an extreme obsession to the point he’d die for her. The fandom has speculated as to why the author has portrayed them in this light, but it seems to suggest subtly that the character may have dark secrets and moral shortcomings.

The most clearly problematic form that depictions of incest take in anime is when it is used in a way that is inline with pornographic tropes and meant clearly to titilate the audience. There are certain anime that use a “yuri hook,” where lesbian relationships are made so outrageous and fetishized to draw the audience in. Citrus is one such example. In this manga, the authors used the “lovers are step siblings” trope. Of course, step-siblings provides a convenient justification for fans and creators to claim that “technically they’re not related,” but I think we know that in real life growing up and being raised by the same adult forms familial bonds between people, and that romance that crosses that line is problematic in a way that shouldn’t be exploited in mainstream anime.

Although the intention behind most of these is just the author writing their characters in this manner as a way to frame them in an even darker light, to show how manipulative and “evil” people can be, no matter what side they’re on, these characters’ stories get warped and twisted when being viewed.

Whether depicting incest in popular culture normalises it and poses possible negative effects in society remains an open question. For now incestual characters are certainly horrifying audience members viewing these shows. Likely by design.

Header image: from the anime Ouran High School Host Club

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