Holigay Gift Guide 2013: All the Anime!

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Anime is frequently misunderstood in the West. A lot of people think it’s just kids’ stuff like Pokémon, when actually the majority of popular series among fans are aimed at teenagers and young adults. Others think it’s all about giant robots and kid superheroes, when in fact, there’s an anime for just about every conceivable genre of media you can imagine, from soap operas to Westerns to historical dramas. If you love anime (which, if the comments of my articles on it are any indication, many of you do) and want to expose some of your friends and family to it this holiday season, or want to dive into it yourself but don’t know where to start, here are some of my recommendations as a casual fan of the medium.

Princess Tutu

Recommended for fans of: Disney and Pixar movies, ballet (obviously)

The most obvious choice for Disney fans would be Hayao Miyazaki movies like Spirited Away, but I decided to make this pick something with a somewhat smaller reputation. Princess Tutu is the story of a duck who becomes a schoolgirl who becomes a magical ballerina princess. On the surface, that sounds pretty silly… but in truth, it’s one of the best anime you’ll ever see (and my favorite on this list, which is why it goes first). All the characters are actually trapped in a story controlled from beyond the grave by Drosselmeyer, a writer famous for his fairy tales with very tragic endings. The anime is really a work of metafiction, as the characters struggle against various fairy tale tropes and attempt to rework their fates into a happy ending. It also has a Fantasia-like musical soundtrack, taking various classical music excerpts and using them in ways that interweave with the story’s themes. You really can’t go wrong with exposing someone to this anime, unless they’re severely allergic to all things frilly and girly. It’s one of the best examples in the medium of something that appeals to both (older) kids and adults.

Cowboy Bebop

Recommended for fans of: Firefly and/or Futurama

Cowboy Bebop is considered an anime classic, and really, everyone should give this show a look. But it’s particularly recommended to people who love shows about plucky spaceship crews eking out an existence in an eclectic and often uncompromising universe, since that’s what the show is about: a colorful group of bounty hunters shooting down crooks and creeps in a futuristic, terraformed version of our solar system. I recommended it for fans of Futurama and Firefly since Cowboy Bebop seems to fit in-between those two shows: sillier and glitzier than the latter, moodier than the former. One of the best things about this show is that all but five of its 26 episodes are stand-alone, so you can jump in at any moment to get an idea of if you or your giftee might be interested. (For an idea of the show’s mood contrasts, I would check out “Mushroom Samba” and “Pierrot le Fou”.) Cowboy Bebop is full of references, lovable characters, a top-notch soundtrack, and is overall among the best that anime has to offer.

Baccano!

Recommended for fans of: Quentin Tarantino movies, Boardwalk Empire

Baccano! might be what would happen if Quentin Tarantino ever did an anime. It’s an ultra-violent, non-linear romp through Prohibition-era New York and Chicago, but where the gangsters not only control the whole cities, but appear to have some secrets to immortal life as well. The fact that the story skips around a lot makes it incredibly confusing at first, but it’s so much gory fun it almost doesn’t matter. If you know someone who likes mid-century glamour with lots of guns going off, and doesn’t mind throwing in some weird supernatural alchemy lore and total slapstick silliness (in the form of the bumbling wannabe criminals Isaac and Miria), this is the anime for them.

No. 6/Attack on Titan

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ymirhistoria

Recommended for fans of: dystopian sci-fi, like The Giver or The Hunger Games

This is a two-for-one recommendation, since these will appeal to different parts of a similar audience. No. 6 follows a boy named Shion, who is set to become part of the elite class in an ideal future society – until he meets another boy named Nezumi, a fugitive he helps nurse back to health. It gets Shion in trouble, and he’s forced to give up his privilege and, eventually, escape with Nezumi when he starts to uncover too much about what’s really going on in his city. And, yes, your eyes don’t deceive you when it comes to that screencap: Nezumi and Shion end up way more than friendly. Essentially, if you know someone who loved dystopian YA novels like The Giver or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, this is similar fare, except much gayer.

But what about messed-up future worlds that include queer ladies? For that, look to Attack on Titan, the most popular anime and manga series of 2013; if you’re on Tumblr, you’ve probably seen this thing all over your dash. It follows a group of teenagers training in a post-apocalyptic world to fight giant, deformed, man-eating monsters called Titans, who are constantly threatening their homeland. There are also a lot of mysteries involving how the Titans were created and whether humans had any role in giving birth to their greatest threat. Among the many fascinating characters, Attack on Titan includes a whole host of awesome female characters for a boy-centered fighting anime, including the geeky scientist Hange Zoe, stoic fighting dynamo Mikasa Ackerman, goofy big eater Sasha Braus and mysterious Annie Leonhart. And the two girls pictured above, Ymir and her crush, Krista Lenz. The anime (which just wrapped up its first season) hasn’t done much with them yet, but they’ve had plenty of development in the manga (comics), which means we’re likely to see more of them in future seasons. Fans of The Hunger Games will love this one.

(Note: The Attack on Titan DVD has not yet been released, but will be in 2014 – and in the meantime, you can gift someone a subscription to Crunchyroll, where the first season of the anime can be found on streaming video. Or the original manga by Hajime Isayama, of which there are currently nine volumes out in the U.S.)

The Rose of Versailles

Recommended for fans of: period costume dramas like Downton Abbey

This is a pretty old anime, and as the title suggests, it’s focused on Marie Antoinette – but not just her. This shoujo (anime aimed at teenage girls) classic also details the story of Lady Oscar François de Jarjayes, a woman raised as a man and now the head of the French Royal Guard. As one would expect with an androgynous female character in anime, a lot of the ladies at court swoon over her, making it a tad queerer than your typical romance set in 18th-century France. While Rose of Versailles is overall a very fictionalized account of the life of Marie Antoinette and the lead-up of the French Revolution (similar in its story to the 2006 Marie Antoinette film starring Kirsten Dunst), it’s impressive in its amount of historical detail and the research that went into it, sure to please any European history buff on your list. It was recently released on DVD in English after decades out of print.

Kino’s Journey

Recommended for fans of: The Twilight Zone and other dark and thought-provoking sci-fi

Kino is an androgynous teenage girl who travels the world with her talking motorcycle, Hermes, and each episode finds the pair in a different “country” (more like cities). Every country has its own interesting quirk, from appearing to be comprised of nothing but machines and no people, to forcing every new traveler to participate in a fight to the death. Like The Twilight Zone, each weird scenario usually leads up to some kind of meditation on human nature – and also like that show, Kino’s Journey tends to raise a lot more questions than it answers. It’s intelligent and frequently surprising, and is the rare story of its kind anchored by a truly awesome female character, who can more than hold her own in the many dangerous situations she finds herself in as she rides around the world. Another one of my favorites, Kino’s Journey is a good pick for anyone who likes shows that make them think.

Azumanga Daioh

via TV Tropes

via TV Tropes

Recommended for fans of: high-school ensemble comedies

Azumanga Daioh is easily one of my favorite “slice of life” anime. It follows a group of teenage girls, ranging from the boisterous Tomo to the studious Yomi to the spacey “Osaka,” making their way through high school, as well as their two very different teachers: crazy English teacher Yukari and more chilled-out PE teacher Nyamo. The cast even has a queer character, Kaorin, who repeatedly tries to deny her crush on imposing animal-lover Sakaki. The humor in this show is very “anime” – absurd, slapstick-y and over-the-top – but it should be charming to anyone who likes silly high-school shows, and wants something a bit different from the typical focus on romance and trying to grow up too fast. For all its strangeness (I’ve heard it called “Peanuts on LSD”), Azumanga Daioh‘s cast feel very much like people you might have actually known in high school, and its bizarre scenarios like inside jokes among your friends.

FLCL

Recommended for fans of: ’90s cartoon nostalgia

FLCL (pronounced “Fooly Cooly”) is easily one of the strangest anime I’ve ever seen, and mostly defies comparison or description – but it reminded me the most of some of the cartoons I would watch as a kid on Nicklelodeon and Cartoon Network, in both its wackiness and its rocking soundtrack (provided by Japanese alternative rock band The Pillows). It follows a middle-school boy who has an ordinary, dull life until, all of a sudden, a hyper pink-haired girl on a scooter runs him over, and proceeds to hit him with her bass guitar. This results in strange things growing out of his head that morph into everything from TV robots to his own guitars. Yeah. It’s that bizarre. The series also makes numerous references to both anime and Western media alike, including an entire scene mimicking the animation style of South Park. FLCL is surreal, but never takes itself too seriously, and is mostly just a weird, wild 6-episode ride.

Strawberry Panic

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Recommended for fans of: The L Word, Lip Service…any show that’s all about lesbians, basically

It’s kind of required that I include Strawberry Panic on a list like this, as it’s easily one of the highest concentrations of lesbian characters you’ll find in any media on either side of the Pacific. Strawberry Panic follows a group of high school students at the three all-girls’ academies that make up Astraea Hill, famed for its “inter-school relationships.” Every single girl in this is queer, and it’s all about their various romantic entanglements. There’s not much more to it than that; Strawberry Panic is basically a pastiche of various yuri (lesbian anime) tropes, and serves as a good gateway to the genre. Yet it can be quite funny and heartwarming (and even heartbreaking), along with being a refreshing example of queer romance being treated as just any other type of romance. (Then again, that’s easy to do when there are literally zero guys in your show.)


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Avatar of Rose

Rose is a 24-year-old Detroit native currently living in Boston, where she is working on her master's degree in musicology. Classical music, history, 1960s rock bands, cartoons, cats, Diet Coke, old movies and the Detroit Tigers are just a few of her favorite things. Besides Autostraddle, she has also written for Bitch and her own media-analysis blog. You should follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.

Rose has written 69 articles for us.

47 Comments

  1. Thumb up 4

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    I recently re-watched the anime that got me into anime, “Tenkuu no Escaflowne” (“The Vision of Escaflowne”), to see whether it was as strong as I thought it was when I was 14. Yep, that shit still holds up. It’s one of the few animes I’d actually like to own.

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      I recently did this with Fullmetal Alchemist (which wasn’t the first anime I watched, but probably the first that was truly good) and had a similar pleasant surprise. Sometimes it’s just that the nostalgia goggles are on tight, but sometimes the stuff we got into when we were younger is as fantastic as we remember!

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    Baccano! is best enjoyed if you acknowledge that it will make no damn sense to you the first 1.5 times through. After halfway through the second time through, though, it starts to make much more sense. Also, Isaac and Miria are the actual best. There is an episode called “Isaac and Miria Unintentionally Spread Happiness Around Them.” They do. It’s fantastic. Also! This particular series has a fantastic dub, and watching it in English will make it a bit easier to follow, so I recommend that.
    Also A+++ music in this one. More people should know about Baccano!.

    This doesn’t really pertain to gift giving, as it doesn’t look like the DVDs will be out until next year, but Gatchaman Crowds (available on Crunchyroll) is a short, beautifully animated series about the nature of being a hero and how social media empowers everyone to do so. Also fabulous music, transforming superheroes, and queer characters.

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      Gatchaman Crowds is awesome. Great music, great characters, interesting use of social media as a plot device…the only caveats I’d add are that the plot is crammed into 12 episodes (thus making it feel rushed and leaving out some details) and the heroine is something of a Mary Sue (though still likeable imo). Also, it’s apparently a huge departure from the original Gatchaman, though I haven’t seen that show so I can’t really compare.

      They are making a second season so hopefully more things will be explained there.

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    If anyone wants to watch any more anime with queer ladies they should check out “Aoi Hana”. :) “Blue Drop” was also super fun (and at times heartbreaking) and thoroughly enjoyable, although I felt a little cheated at the end.

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    I enjoy me the heck out of some anime (and out of this list, Attack on Titan especially), but one thing that frustrates me is Cowboy Bebop’s inclusion on almost every sort of “best anime to watch ever” list without anyone ever mentioning/noticing that two episodes are extremely transmisogynistic. I don’t recall the names of the episodes off the top of my head– Jazz on Jupiter and maybe something with Ganymede in it?– but they’re episodes 12 & 13. SPOILERS the plot includes a man who was experimented on with drugs by the government that made him grow boobs and become androgynous and there’s a lotttt of focus on how much of a freak he is and showing his body and eventually the viewer is supposed to feel sympathetic when he kills himself. While the case could be made that it’s not transmisogyny because the character is obviously not a trans woman– the government experiments were not voluntary, and he doesn’t want to be anything but a cis dude– but the episodes also drive home their point that anyone assigned male at birth who looks female kn any way is freakish and unnatural, and can never be happy. The part about the Evil Government using Evil Experiments that cause an AMAB person to develop breasts is also pretty transmisogynistic, because basically it’s taking something that really exists (HRT) and saying it’s unnatural, evil, etc., when many trans women rely on HRT to have any sort of a comfortable life. (There’s also a short part in episode 12 where Spike talks to a group of sex workers who are either crossdressing or trans women, presenting female but with visible stubble, low voices etc, and Spike is clearly disgusted by them.) I say transmisogynistic and not just transphobic or cissexist, because there is also SPOILERS an episode with a space trucker who presents and lives as male but is revealed to be AFAB and this character is presented in a good light, and Ed’s androgyny is shown to be cute and non-threatening, not the unnatural freakshow androgyny is presented as for an AMAB character.

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      You’re like the first other person I’ve ever heard mention this and I just want to thank you because even though bebop’s amazing there is definitely transmisogyny but NO ONE EVER TALKS ABOUT IT. even when I try and bring it up!!
      So THANK YOU.

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      You’re right that those episodes – “Jupiter Jazz” parts 1 and 2 – are quite transmisogynistic, and I’m glad you pointed that out and feel a bit stupid that I neglected to mention that, since that aspect really bothered me when I first watched them. That said, I still think Cowboy Bebop is a pretty essential viewing experience for anyone who is interested in getting into anime, because of its influence and its artistic excellence. And it’s hard to leave off an article about “recommendations based on Western media you like” since Bebop is probably one of the most “American” anime series there is, and has been a “gateway drug” to anime for countless numbers of people in the decade and a half it’s been around for that reason. However, I probably should have included a disclaimer or trigger warning (actually, probably should have done that for a few of the other titles on this list, for different reasons).

      (Also, I don’t it makes sense to say “just skip those episodes for the transmisogyny” since both of those are among the five “core plot” episodes I mentioned. The finale will be pretty confusing if you haven’t seen the “Jupiter Jazz” episodes.)

      I do take a bit of an issue with the part of your second comment about “uncritical praise” because this is a gift guide. There are plenty of deep analyses of Cowboy Bebop all over the Internet and academic scholarship, but this wasn’t really the place for that. I didn’t get “critical” about any of the other series here, either.

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        for sure re: this being a holiday gift guide and not critical anime scholarship– I was just venting because this is Autostraddle and thus a place that seemed like it would be receptive to that sort of critique/venting. can be annoying to explain what transmisogyny is and why people should care in other venues :p

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          Oh, for sure. Autostraddle’s definitely one of the few places on the Internet it feels like we can talk about these things. And I do suspect people likely wouldn’t take it well if you said it on an anime forum, even people who are fine with analyzing Bebop in other ways, since it’s such a sacred cow. (Which is silly; it’s not like it stops being great at everything else because it has some problematic elements in its portrayal of LGBTQ people.)

          And as I said, I’m sorry that I didn’t have something about that there, because I should have realized it since that was my own reaction to that episode. (Shows I need to rewatch Bebop, which really, is there ever a bad reason for that?) Honestly, though, even for some of the ones where I thought about putting some kind of warning (like Azumanga Daioh with the pervy teacher, maybe), I wasn’t sure how to word it in the context of a gift guide, like how I covered the “there’s dubious consent” thing in my review of Revolutionary Girl Utena.

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      I always got the impression that Ed (née Françoise) was AFAB. (I believe there is one throwaway line near the end of some episode with Faye exclaiming with disbelief, “You’re a girl?!” in reference to Ed.) So unfortunately that sort of loses the implication of a positively viewed androgynous AMAB character. Anime tends to be a lot more forgiving to androgynous ‘female’ characters than ‘male’ ones.

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    Surprised to see No 6 on this list because everything else is an excellent pick! imo I thought No 6 was too cliche/full of tropes and I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the characters or what they were doing :/
    For dystopian sci-fi, I’d rather go with Ergo Proxy or maybe even Ghost in the Shell (which actually had a good dub, say what). Neither are gay but I also find it hard to find good dude gay anime that isn’t weird with their stereotypes :/

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      Yeah, No. 6 is a pretty cliche example of dystopian sci-fi, and definitely not what I would say is the pinnacle of the anime medium (there are some favorites on here but this isn’t a “greatest” or favorites list). But I still enjoyed it, and I’ve noticed it has a pretty strong hold on queer otaku, as sci-fi that includes a prominent same-gender romance but as just one aspect of a larger story. It reminded me a lot of Malinda Lo’s novel Adaptation in that sense (although Adaptation is much better). So that’s why I decided to recommend it.

      And the thing about “good gay dude anime” is also probably why I like it, because even if it’s cliche in the dystopia genre, it isn’t really cliche when it comes to yaoi/BL – at least, from what I know of the genre. There’s none of the “rape is love”, huge power gap, seme/uke crap that makes most yaoi so bleccchhhhhhh. Nezumi and Shion seem like any other cute teen couple from different sides of the tracks, and the fact that they’re two boys is NBD. They’re what more gay anime should be.

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    Strawberry Panic is INCREDIBLY cutesy/sweet. That said, it’s a guilty pleasure that speaks to the soft spot that I keep hidden deep down. As far as yuri’s go, it’s one of the best IMO, second only to Aoi Hana. I only wish I had someone to share it with!

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    I LOVE Azumanga Daioh! OMG THE BEST. I can recommend something similar: Kamichu! It’s about Yurie, a little girl who discovers that she is a god. It’s filled with quirky humor (just like Azumanga) and populated with Miyazaki-esque spirits that only Yurie can see. Also, the animation is gorgeous. :)

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    This is fantastic! I’ve had crunchyroll for awhile now, but was so overwhelmed with all the options I didn’t know where to start. My brother tried to get me into Cowboy Beebop but it just doesn’t do it for me. I think some of the gayer things listed here will be a better starting place for me.

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    The fact that this list includes Kino’s Journey automatically wins it approximately 50 million points in my book. I might be slightly biased because it is one of my absolute favourites (and I run the biggest fan tumblr for the series), but I am constantly recommending it to anyone who enjoys thoughtful, philosophically complex entertainment.

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        My main is minesweeperaddict, but the Kino one is fyeahkino :)

        I’ve been a bit lazy about updating lately and the layout is in dire need of a makeover, but xD

        There is unfortunately not an easy way to get much actual discussion going on a platform like tumblr (and I’m not sure how well the lj community is faring these days), but the fans are a pretty good bunch~

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        I’ve actually been meaning to put together a fan directory, which I started doing on my old computer (at half the current follower count, whoops!). If I can get around to recovering the list I had from my old hard drive I’ll start up that project again.

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    You guuuuys. This is so relevant to me right now. I would like to suggest the Rorouni Kenshin series, sometimes better known as Samurai X. It’s the first anime series I’ve ever watched and I am obsessed. It follows the story of a former assassin who has vowed to use his sword only to protect people now to atone for his “sins”. However, he’s committed to nonviolence, turning the blade of his sword around, and defeating opponents without killing them (and mentally defeating them by droppin’ some wisdom).

    The stories that unfold are fantastic and heartbreaking. The main character is male, but I like that he has extremely feminine qualities. Also, there are a lot of strong women/women fighters in the series. Kenshin creates a family of (unrelated) quirky characters. The series is quite funny!

    It taught me much about life/myself.

    Anyway! You can watch the first episode online on youtube and probably the others I prefer to watch it in Japanese with English subtitles (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PvmcNKM-jEo), I think the voices fit the characters much better, but you can find it dubbed in English as well.

    I really appreciate this post. I plan to check some of these out!

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      If you ever get the chance to see the live action movie of Rurouni Kenshin, I get the feeling you’d love it. It’s very faithful to the first story arc of the manga, and the casting is pretty much perfect for a live action.

      I keep waiting for them to release it on DVD/blu-ray in the States, but so far I’ve only seen it screened at cons or film festivals.

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    For fans who enjoy what I would consider “lightly supernatural,” episodic anime, I’d like to recommend Natsume’s Book of Friends (also sometimes called by the Japanese name, Natsume Yujincho), and Mushishi.

    Natsume Yujincho is probably more easily accessible to people. It’s been very popular in Japan the last several years, there’s a gorgeous manga that’s been released in the US, and the editions being released by the American publisher are gorgeous. As for the story itself, it’s about a teenaged boy who can see spirits, and his attempts to fit in with the modern world around him. It goes through a range of moods, from light-hearted to bittersweet, and the cast are great.

    Mushishi is similar in that each episode involves the main character, Ginko, traveling from place to place and solving people’s problems. He acts something like a doctor, only one who deals with a form of life that most people can’t see–mushi. The cast of Mushishi isn’t as large as Natsume, and the episodes tend a lot more to the bittersweet, but it’s also gorgeous to watch and it’s certainly a bit different.

    Neither of the two series are exactly queer, unfortunately, although there is a female spirit who was in love with Natsume’s grandmother.

    To bring up the queer, though, Haibane Renmei. Rose, if you haven’t watched that series yet, you should give it a try! It involves a teenaged girl who wakes up in a walled-off city, to find herself in a boarding home with other young girls who have woken up there, unable to remember anything about their past lives. But they all have wings and halos, unlike the other people living in the city. Though there’s nothing explicitly like a love story between the girls, the sense of community among them is very loving, and there’s one girl in particular that I like to think does fall in love with the main character, and vice versa. It’s been a while since I last watched it, but the show leaves a strong impression, and never comes right out and answers many of its mysteries… but it’s one of those that’s perfect the way it is.

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      Mushishi has been on my “to watch” list for a long time, but I’ll definitely check the other two out as well! Haibane Renmei (I feel like I’ve heard the name before but not what it was about?) in particular sounds interesting.

      You know, for all the problems that yaoi and yuri have, anime can be pretty good at sneaking gay pairings or subtext into otherwise straight/non-romance-related stories, which is one of the things I love about it. (Though it makes it frustrating when people in the fandom continually deny that the subtext is there.)

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    Hey Rose! I always enjoy your articles and this one is no exception. If you ever need something to write about and don’t have an idea, I’d love to see an article that just talks about yuri or has recommendations within the genre(since I think you’re the only writer here who really says much about anime or manga.) Keep up the good work!

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