Boys' Love, also known as BL or yaoi, has a problematic history. While representations of queer romance are invaluable, the genre has propagated some extremely toxic tropes over the decades. Given this, much of the criticism yaoi receives is warranted, and many of the relationships depicted in manga and anime have been damaging to the queer community. Fortunately, as anime as a whole has evolved, so has BL. More and more often, positive queer representation has been normalized.
Newcomers to BL could do no better than start with anime that depicts healthy queer relationships, and many of the more famous -- or infamous -- yaoi shows simply don't make the cut. Great BL should showcase healthy, loving, and consensual relationships between boys, no matter the storyline.
Updated on July 27th, 2021, by Leah Thomas: While BL still has a lot of growing up to do, progress is being made. Since this list was published, a few more heartwarming queer anime have debuted and proved wholesome enough to meet the standards of this list.
10 Spiritpact Is Flawed But Proves Queer Characters Can Occupy Other Genres
Tanmoku Ki is a renowned and powerful exorcist. Keika is a young, foolish boy who dies in a freak accident. Tanmoku offers Keika a deal – to become his spirit shadow, which in turn will allow Keika to maintain his bond with the human world even in his spirit form. Keika agrees, and thus begins a tumultuous relationship between two strong-headed, stubborn men, neither of whom wants to give in before the other. There’s constant bickering, but the bond that gradually develops between them under these deeply unusual circumstances proves deeper than either of them intended.
While Spiritpact is far from a perfect series and many fans would tell newcomers to read the manhua instead, the character dynamics prove nuanced enough to earn the series a unique place among BL series. More shounen-ai than yaoi, Spiritpact is a decent example of the slow progress shows are making toward incorporating queer characters into genre stories.
9 Beryl And Sapphire Is A Step Forward
Though every episode is no longer than 8 minutes long, Beryl and Sapphire manages to make some solid strides. This donghua (Chinese animation) shows the progression of love between two boys who are constantly placed in unexpected scenarios.
In certain scenarios, they’re young schoolboys, while in an alternate reality one is a knight in shining armor down on his luck, who can only get in the good graces of his king if he defeats the Devil (who happens to be his love interest). The show features several mini-arcs, all of which are explored intermittently between other arcs, constantly keeping fans on their toes. One thing is certain, however: love will win.
8 Classmates Gives Queer Fans A School-Life Love Story
The central premise of Classmates isn't especially unique, but that's precisely the point. For too long, queer fans have been denied the basic joy of watching a simple love story unfold.
When reserved, introverted honor student Rihito Sajou meets Hikaru Kusakabe, an outgoing student who struggles with his studies while both of them are attending a school chorus class, Hikaru decides to help Rihito with his vocals. So begins an extremely endearing and pure tale of first love between two young boys. The movie is a thoughtful, subtle thing, and the art is beautiful in its simplicity. On the whole, Classmates is a charming, affecting story.
7 No. 6 Combined Sci-Fi & BL With Nuance
No. 6 is a flawed series, but it remains groundbreaking. Rarely does anime find a plausible balance between queer romantic elements and a larger, more ambitious story, and rarely is queer representation present in the midst of sci-fi dystopia. No. 6 recognizes that queer characters should be characters in their own right and that queerness shouldn't be the only aspect that defines them.
Shion, an elite resident of a city known as No. 6, lives life in an oblivious utopia until he meets Nezumi, a fugitive from beyond the walls. Years later, a more cynical Shion reunites with Nezumi again and helps him, giving up his comfortable life to see the truth of the world. Shion and Nezumi resolve to fix what's broken in an unbalanced world, and their relationship sprouts from a shared cause and shared hope.
6 Mo Dao Zu Shi (The Untamed) Altered An Industry
Fans of The Untamed have only grown in number in the past few years. A novel that became a donghua and then became a profitable live-action series, Mo Dao Zu Shi manages to toe a very fine line between progressive, solid storytelling and avoiding censorship from the Chinese government. Given the constraints MDZS has had to contend with, its success is truly a landmark, and proves that what the public wants and what an oppressive society allows are often at odds.
The donghua version of the story is beautifully animated. Set in a version of ancient China rife with supernatural elements, the story focuses on Wei Wuxian, a dark magic cultivator, who resurrects after his death and reunites with the man he loved, Lan Wangji. As in No. 6, queer characters take part in the story without romance being the central point of the story.
5 Heaven's Official Blessing Proves BL Donghua Has Legs
Given the groundbreaking success of Mo Dao Zu Shi, author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu had big shoes to fill when it came to writing a sequel series. Fortunately, she proved up to the task, and Heaven's Official Blessinghas also received an excellent donghua adaptation.
Xie Lian was once a powerful god, but as centuries have passed, he's fallen from grace. When he returns to heaven, he's a shadow of what he once was, with hardly any followers to his name. In heaven, Xie Lian meets Hua Cheng, a Ghost King who instills fears in others. But Hua Cheng helps rather than harms Xie Lian. As Xie Lian continues his journey, he's accompanied by San Lang, an expert on Hua Cheng who becomes very near and dear to his heart.
4 Umibe No Etranger Is Perfectly Realistic
Long before Umibe No Etranger hit cinemas in Japan, the hype for this queer film about summertime love began building online. The premise is nothing remarkable, and in a sense, that's precisely the film's charm. For too long, queer fans have missed out on even the simplest, sweetest depictions of young romance, the joy of seeing representation from a cinema seat.
Shun Hashimoto hopes to be an author, but things become harder for him after his parents abandon him for being gay. When he meets Mio Chibana, an orphaned high schooler, by the sea in Okinawa, the two grow close. But summer ends, and Mio leaves, and Shun is left alone. By the time Mio returns to Okinawa, things aren't what they were, but perhaps these two still have a chance at finding happiness together.
3 Yuri!!! On Ice Remains King
Even now, five years after it debuted, Yuri!!! On Ice deserves all the accolades. Yuri!!! On Ice was a mainstream commercial success, a sports anime that never denies its queer elements and allows its characters to develop with nuance. The show was directed by a female director and featured a central romance between two male leads, and still managed to be an ode to the professional sport of figure skating.
Most importantly, Yuri!!! On Ice is a pure joy to watch, at times suspenseful, at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking. Fans demanding a sequel won't be satiated by the prequel film MAPPA's releasing, but every moment with these characters has been welcomed with open arms by a universal community.
2 Given Addresses Heartbreaking Truths
Released in 2019, Given was the first BL anime to air in a primetime slot on Japanese television. Beyond this, Given is truly the cream of the BL crop, a realistic story about coping with trauma and grief. The final episode of the series is truly cathartic and captures perfectly the ways loss can forever alter one's world.
Highschooler Mafuyu Sato finds himself approached by a classmate, Ritsuka Uenoyama, who helps him tune and play his guitar. Mafuyu doesn't say so, but the guitar belonged to his first love, who committed suicide. When Ritsuka hears Mafuyu sing, he begs him to join his band, and through music, these frustrated, lost young men begin to find a way forward again.
1 Banana Fish Deserves Its Cult Classic Status
Banana Fish isn't easy to watch, and that's half of what makes it so brilliant. Based on a hugely popular cult 80s manga by Akimi Yoshida, the story centers on Ash Lynx, a young gang leader in New York City who's seeking answers about a mysterious drug that led to his brother's murder, and Eiji Nakamura, a young Japanese man who joins Ash along the way.
While Banana Fish was written before BL was defined as its own genre, its central characters are clearly in love, and the original manga quickly gained a diverse mainstream audience as an action series more than a love story. These days, the manga is credited as a forefather to solid BL representation. It took three decades for Banana Fish to receive an anime adaptation, and the final product, devastating though it is, is a masterpiece.