The Witch From Mercury, the latest entry in the long-running Gundam franchise, not only features the series’ first lead female protagonist, but also proudly centers a queer romance. In Gundam’s 40+ year history, there has been plenty of gay subtext, queer secondary and tertiary characters, and fan shipping, but never anything as explicitly stated as The Witch From Mercury and its lesbian protagonists, Suletta Mercury and Miorine Rembran.
So when Bandai Namco Filmworks recently tried to distance the series from its queer connections, fans were understandably furious, and pointed to a history of queer-coded anime being stifled by corporations attempting to uphold a cultural status quo.
The Witch From Mercury’s series finale aired on July 2, 2023. It delivered a clear and very queer ending for Suletta and Miorine, to the delight of fans. But not even a month later, a stealthy, eyebrow-raising edit to an interview in Gundam Ace magazine was followed up by a completely backwards PR statement from Bandai Namco on the Witch From Mercury official Twitter account claiming that the relationship between Suletta and Miorine is now “up to viewer interpretation.”
The Witch From Mercury walks back queer representation
In the print version of the interview for the September 2023 issue of Gundam Ace, Suletta’s voice actor, Kana Ichinose describes being moved by the closeness Suletta and Miorine share “as two married people.” Two days later, an edit was made to the digital version of the magazine, removing the word “married” from the interview and changing Ichinose’s statement to read more like “the closeness of the two of them.” The edit was immediately noticed by Gundam enthusiasts on social media, and spread so quickly that Bandai Namco thought it best to clarify the situation, claiming that a rogue editor at Gundam Ace added the word “married” to the interview as their “own interpretation.”
The idea that the word “married” was added by the editor and not spoken by Ichinose herself seems unlikely. Ichinose’s enthusiasm and obvious emotional investment in playing Suletta and the discussions with her co-star Lynn (who voices Miorine) on the radio program for the show MajoRaji indicate she understands what their relationship is. In the final episode, Suletta and Miorine are seen with matching rings that animators chose to have sparkle brightly in the sun—drawing more attention to their status as a married couple. Though it’s difficult to prove whether or not Ichinose actually said the word “married,” it’s clear that she is supportive of Suletta and Miorine’s romance, and the removal of the word certainly raises eyebrows.
Kotaku reached out to Bandai Namco for comment.
The Witch From Mercury has courted a passionate fan base since its debut last fall, many of whom are queer. The official Twitter (or X) account for Witch From Mercury has the largest following of any Gundam series, sales of the Gunpla mobile suit models are at an all-time high, with Witch From Mercury kits selling like hotcakes, and the series brought new fans to a franchise that had been struggling to grow its audience. By all metrics, Witch From Mercury is a hit, and should have Bandai Namco ‘s full support. And yet, a series of bone-headed PR moves that fall in line with Japan’s baffling conservatism and lack of acknowledgement of same-sex marriage have fans fed up and frustrated.
Polling numbers from 2019 indicate that 10% of Japanese people identify as LGBTQ+ which is actually higher than the United States (7.2%). Yet representation is stifled, and positive portrayals in media are undercut by higher-ups and politicians, despite the artists behind a project knowingly injecting queer themes into their stories. Queer themes like Suletta’s nails, as seen in The Witch From Mercury’s finale. The artist that drew a close-up of her hand leaves the nails on her index and middle fingers shorter than her ring and pinky. Shorter nail length, specifically on certain fingers, is notoriously considered a marker of queerness in femme-identifying people. So, it’s implied that Suletta is keeping those nails trimmed for Miorine’s benefit.
Japan has a troubling history when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights and protections. Courts in the country have been split on the still-upheld ban on same-sex marriage, the recently passed Equality Act is at best a half-measure towards acknowledging queer people deserve basic human rights, and transgender people face a series of archaic roadblocks on their way to legal recognition of their gender. Individuals often remain closeted to avoid harassment or workplace discrimination where a lack of protections can create toxic work environments. Sadly, it’s unsurprising that media like The Witch From Mercury would be subjected to a conservative attempt to reframe its narrative. This has happened before.
The Yuri! On Ice effect
What happened to The Witch From Mercury is sadly all-too-familiar. Look no further than the fate of 2016’s smash hit Yuri! On Ice, which tells the tale of a struggling figure skater, Yuri Katsuki, who is coached back to success by the charismatic and undeniably handsome Victor Nikiforov. Similar to The Witch From Mercury, the pair’s relationship is explicitly laid out in the story, and the characters also exchange rings. It was, and still is, celebrated as a landmark anime for LGBTQ+ representation. It received acclaim in Japan, winning Animation of the Year at the Tokyo Anime Awards as well as a number of fan-voted awards. It has consistently been named as one of the top anime of the 2010s by IGN, Anime News Network, and here at Kotaku.
In what seemed like an obvious move to capitalize on the success of the show, a feature-length Yuri! On Ice movie was greenlit almost immediately. But six years later, a statement from Studio MAPPA CEO Manabu Otsuka essentially says that despite the show being a hit, the company didn’t make a lot of money off of Yuri! On Ice, and as such, the movie likely won’t happen.
Back when Blu-ray sales mattered to the anime industry, Yuri! On Ice torched the competition, selling nearly double the amount of discs of its nearest competitor, the juggernaut franchise Love Live. The runaway success of Yuri! On Ice led to MAPPA’s heightened profile in the industry, which helped it secure the rights to produce Attack on Titan’s never-ending final season, the massively popular Jujutsu Kaisen, and the second season of Makoto Yukimura’s viking masterpiece, Vinland Saga. For MAPPA to claim that the Yuri! On Ice movie isn’t financially viable is disingenuous and contradicts standard industry metrics for success. MAPPA could release the Yuri! On Ice movie tomorrow and it would be a guaranteed hit. Which begs the question, what is the hold up?
Speaking out against the anime production committees that dole out the work to animation studios is a dangerous game. In most of her press for Yuri! On Ice, creator and director Sayo Yamamoto played nice, answering softball questions that never directly addressed the very obvious love playing out on screen between Yuki and Victor. But, in the Yuri! On Ice fanbook “Go Yuri Go!” from 2017, Yamamoto claimed that Yuri! On Ice had been censored outside of her control and that she had to fight to keep a kiss between Yuri and Victor in the final cut of the show.
Since then, Yamamoto has not gotten any other projects. To have arguably the biggest hit of 2016, receive critical acclaim from your own industry, and then not be given any work doesn’t add up. MAPPA has tied Yamamoto to the Yuri! On Ice movie project and essentially strung her out for six years, leaving her in a kind of anime purgatory. In an industry where the slightest scandal can lead to blacklisting, the idea that Yamamoto is being punished for wanting to go all-in on a queer narrative is not so far-fetched.
The Witch From Mercury is still queer
One of the major themes that the Gundam franchise returns to time and again is acceptance and understanding. The father of Gundam himself, Yoshiyuki Tomino, has been writing stories for decades pleading with the audience to find that understanding and embrace one another. The Witch From Mercury feels like a huge step towards realizing that dream, specifically as it relates to the LGBTQ+ community.
The Witch From Mercury delivered on what it promised from episode one. In that first episode: Suletta is named as Miorine’s groom after winning a mobile suit duel. When Suletta asks Miorine if the two of them can even be bride and groom, Miorine states “it’s common here, I guess where you’re from is a little more conservative.” Now, with the entire series complete and the PR mess left in its wake, that line holds even more weight, and it seems ever more likely that the team behind The Witch From Mercury fought tooth and well-manicured nail to even give us as much queerness as we got.
Just say Suletta and Miorine are married. There’s no reason it has to be this hard. Yet the anime industry seems to be beholden to a few crusty conservatives who don’t want The Gays in their media. The response to Bandai Namco fumbling the bag has been a thorough drubbing on social media. But while putting the company on blast is satisfying (and certainly justifiable) for fans who feel betrayed, there is a dire need for tangible change, one that can only come from within these companies creating the content we love to watch.
The Witch From Mercury represents just the latest example of the ways in which queer narratives in media are still marginalized. If you’re going to greenlight a gay giant robot and politics show, let it be a gay giant robot and politics show.