Story Pile: Lycoris Recoil

Lycoris Recoil is a 2022 action thriller anime about a pair of girls working to prevent terror attacks in Tokyo, while they get to know one another and become GOOD FRIENDS, while a plot happens around them. You know the type, right?

I am going to talk about things all through the series, I am going to spoil major twists, I am going to Talk About This Show. This serves as a spoiler warning, but also a content warning; this is a show that features guns, lots of guns, police shootings, medical tension, terrorism, bad dads, and dead probably-gays. It’s an action thriller anime set in a terrorism-wracked Japan, don’t imagine you’re getting something else just because there are girls on the posters.

Lycoris Recoil is your typical form of a Cute Girls With A Special Interest genre, where that special interest is covert ops counterterrorism. The story starts following Takina Inoue, a Lycoris working the exciting job of protecting Japan’s peace through missions she’s assigned from the secret organisation Direct Attack. But wouldn’t ya know it, on her first mission, she messes up! Aw beans!

In the tradition of failing on mission one, she then gets kicked from her on-the-fast-track-for-promotion, top-of-the-class, you-haven’t-messed-up-once style status to the obligatory you-have-messed-up-and-lost-everything status, resulting in her getting bounced from the central offices with the nice water cooler and the sodas in the fridge, down to the middle of nowhere, to work in the LycoReco cafeteria alongside another Messed Up Bad Lycoris, Chisato Nishikigi. They’ve got no budget, no support, their coordinator is old (like, thirty), and how good can this other loser be?

Based on that, Takina has to just overcome this mess up, do the missions right, and get herself out of this slump! It’s the classic setup for your come-from-behind loser story!

Except her coworker Chisato isn’t here because she sucks, she’s here because she’s a walking talking john woo movie in spanx. Takina is not the main character of this story, the one good player who has to learn to relax as she helps elevate a group of losers, she’s the eye-level character for observing the LycoReco staff and particularly Chisato. Chisato, you see, is here because she, also, screwed up, kinda. Direct Action thinks she screwed up, because she didn’t kill someone they wanted her to kill. In fact, she doesn’t kill anyone they want her to kill. Chisato uses specialised bullets that only ever disable or stun people, (which yes, is silly, considering these bullets do go through metal and wood), but this also lets her do moves that are cool as hell, and lets them show her unloading multiple shots into hard targets and makes the gun less ‘instant kill’ and more ‘balletic fight’ element.

Oh and she’s bulletproof.

Not that she can’t be hurt by bullets, but that anyone who shoots at her misses. Anyone. She’s so good at Guns, she can avoid being shot at by just observing the way the shooter behaves (which yes, is sillier, because she does it even when she can’t see the shooter). Chisato is simply the best at this particular genre of ‘doing things with guns,’ and that’s why Direct Action hasn’t gotten rid of her.

It’s not that Takina isn’t good, it’s that Chisato is categorically better than everyone else, and freed from fears of failure and the threat of mortality in most situations, it means that she gets to consider Direct Action, the project, in terms of its goals and ambitions, and make choices, rather than just comply with this organisation that holds over you all your opportunity for advancement. Chisato, in this context, decides that she wants to not kill people, and fight to protect people.

And that’s your kick. That’s the story.

Now, how gay is it?

When we talk about queerness in anime there’s a lot of different systems ratcheting into place that can make people heavily invested in the genre look absolutely bonkers.

This guy grabs this other guy’s sleeve and pulls on it, with his eyes not visible? Oh wow, they’re fucking, that’s incredible.

Anime experts

This can be extraordinarily weird when you recognise that there are openly and tangibly queer anime, anime that Asks And Tells in the most blatant way. If nothing else, there’s a lot of hentai studios out there. When there are openly and canonically, not-kidding no-really queer media out there like Yuri on Ice, the fact that a large portion of the supposed queer representation in anime is always at best implied or created by extension of existing ideas. Ranma 1/2 is a seminally important queer text made by a woman who definitely wasn’t trying to make one and is probably also a homophobe (just based on statistics and age). I won’t name names because I don’t want to deal with people who are permanently brainboiled in online discourse about how ‘no really, this is obviously queer’ when I describe that a lot of queerness in anime has to be implied.

Now this is in part because anime is a really conservative industry. Not the art form – the industry. The people signing cheques are paying for genre media for merchandising, and that means that mostly, you get a lot of stuff that looks like it can be monetised in similar ways and the quality of the media itself is less important than what it is. Anime is not a rich industry and yet, the people who are paying money to get the anime made tend to be people who make conservative choices and who want to appeal to an audience they like.

In anime, of course. Manga has the whole doujin scene and lower production costs and that is a space where queer shit is really everywhere.

With that in mind, then, how queer is Lycoris Recoil?

Gunna level with you: We don’t get a kiss. We don’t get a confession. We don’t get admission of the homosexualities. What we get instead is merely in the ‘deniably adjacent’ space. It’s not in the next category over – you know, the ‘real reach’ style where characters just engaging with one another is enough to declare them canonically yuri – but instead, there’s a bunch of signifiers that look in aggregate like the story is guiding towards these two girls banging.

In the same way that Sk8 The Infinity is an incredibly gay show that features nothing gay, Lycoris Recoil is a really gay anime. The girls go on dates. They dress up together. They inspect each other’s underwear. They work together, they fight together, they take care of each other, they move in together after one date and become roommates and they learn each other’s little tells. They go to the aquarium and reference other queer anime. They run away to Hawaii together to run a food truck. And yeah, you may point out that none of that is canonically gay, and you’re right!

There’s also the way Chisato has two male mentors who the story really implies are banging. If Captain Kirk was getting laid in Star Trek, then Chisato’s dads were fucking in this.

There’s this image, that chances are, you’ve seen before, which is an optical illusion, sorta. If you look at the image one way, you see two people facing each other, about to kiss, or talking to one another, or inspecting itself in the mirror – just a bunch of different interpretations. If you look at it in another way, you can see a silhouette of a candlestick or vase or something like that. This is an enduring image in a variety of kid’s books, and it’s often framed with this misformed question ‘what does this depict?’

Because it depicts both, as far as you can perceive it. The nature of semiotics means that the message being decoded is part of the message – I might parse it as something else entirely, like seeing maybe a river inlet from above, or a date stamp, all just because those are shapes I more powerfully associate like this.

This image presents you with multiple things that are not related to one another, despite sharing a frame and boundaries. What matters is how you’re looking at it, what details are standing out and meant to represent a surface while you engage with it. As long as you have it in mind and consider its importance, you’re left with different impressions and, like this illusion, if you blink, you might find yourself in a totally different frame where the same objects stand out to you starkly in how they present the same visual information.

These ideas are shaped by the same boundaries and the same frame, but they are not the same ideas, and the ideas do not have to have anything to do with one another. I want to direct your attention to this image, to this vase, to this image that is faces and a river and a candlestick, because Lycoris Recoil is a thing, and another thing, and another thing, and none of these things have to have anything to do with one another.

First of all, perhaps the first reason I like this anime, the easiest to see, the easiest to grasp: This series is rad and full of stuff people like me find obviously rad. It’s got sick gunplay and stylish action sequences, and they’re juuuust long enough that the tension exhalation at the end is a huge relief. It’s so fast and it doesn’t pad that out the way that anime often pads out combat sequences, but it doesn’t get confusing!

And then it’s about this walking talking war of a woman who is rad, and she has a bestie, who contrasts with her and they’re probably crushing on one another, you know, the way that other girls comment on them asking if they’re gay? And Chisato has these great ideas, these things that form how she approaches the world, like how she talks about how important it is to do what feels honest to her, and then capping that off by saying she’s going to go beat up the bully that was mean to Takina.

The greater spread of the series, though, it doesn’t just rely on these small moments. There’s this greater, spreading idea about secret organisations and ideology of the wealthy that distribute their mercies at wild and random, and how that creates ideologically framed obligations, and those obligations are at the behest of the kind of people who buy into the random distributions of secret wealth. It’s this great little spilled wad of spider silk where if you buy into it, you’re stuck, you’re tangled up, and if you stand outside it, it’s just a blob. You can boil your brains in ‘well of course this is a reasonable moral quandrary’ and then the second you stop buying into the idea of it, you can realise that’s fucking nonsense.

Chisato stands apart from this ideology and its demand, and then refuses to be lied into an ideology. There’s a worldview this moral quandrary demands, and she rejects that worldview as she rejects the quandrary. Chisato refuses to kill, and when forced by conspiracy to despair and kill in order to save herself, she refuses, because her own moral framework rejects the premise of the conspiracy. She’s willing to walk away from everything and die rather than kill against her morals.

That’s awesome.

Then there’s this other thing, another way to look at the vase, where this story is about how fucked up it is the level of social control we exert on women in general?

The universe of Lycoris Recoil is one where the social controls and standards women are held to is just a hyper-real version of the one we already have. Women are used because women get to be invisible and they get to be invisible because they are meaningless – because nobody would expect danger from a schoolgirl, even in a world with guns. This creates this contrasting pair of demands; women are the most dangerous thing in the world (really), but also they are helpless because they exist to obey the orders of the social order (also really).

The appearances and presentation of women are a repeatedly examined detail. How they dress, how they are allowed to present, the ways that they are supposed to look and the ways they’re meant to behave. They drill on things, and the opening presents waves of these girls, all made to look like one another, moving in a cloud, onto the task of what we already know is sometimes fatal and almost always results in someone dying. The world exists as it is and gets to support itself entirely because of how it controls women…

… and women are more complex than that.

(I mean, the idea they’re schoolgirls is also fanciful, I mean when you have two jobs and your own apartment and no parents taking care of your bills, telling me you’re a teenager is a goddamn lie, but whatever).

Chisato doesn’t want to be a Lycoris, she’s good at it, and she likes doing it, but it’s not her big dream. Left to her own devices, notice how she keeps wanting to do things like give people food and hang out with her (not-really-)girlfriend. Her desire is to do good, to take care of people. That’s enough for her, that’s all she wants and she’s a great hero who exists to press out against this system that tells her how to be what she is. She doesn’t want to abandon being a girl, or cute, or fun, or happy – she’s okay with some of the things she’s had imposed on her – but she doesn’t want them imposed.

Oh and then finally, most damningly, holy shit, this world is a fascist dictatorship and the narrative doesn’t think that’s a problem. These characters are kill squads! They disappear terrorists, but they don’t actually make things safer, because there are still police around, and those police are terrible at de-escalation. It’s a little second-amendmenty of the narrative to be all ‘look, just give people a gun and the power of the gun will compel the world to change,’ but then it doesn’t seem to think that’s a good thing.

But also, this whole structure that lets Chisato and Takina get into these super cool fights where they get to look cool rely on a world full of violent crime in a fascist police state that’s killing and removing people extrajudicially in the name of preventing terrorism but which nonetheless still has an ongoing supply of non-stop terrorists to have to deal with. Terrorism isn’t a natural phenomenon, it’s a response to deprivation and political disempowerment and factors of radicalisation.

Know what might radicalise a population? Living in a fascist police state!

And then at the end of it all… it’s not like they get rid of it. The characters get out of it, that’s great, but they don’t fix it. After all the fighting for big ideas and the safety and wellbeing for people, they don’t stop the threat represented by a system that can periodically murder people without any due recourse.

I can understand the feeling at the heart of Lycoris Recoil with its seemingly ‘whatcha gunna do’ neoliberal wishy-washy ending. The problems – in my life and in the story – are big and vast and I cannot address them; I’m not nearly as badass as either of these girls, even if it’s easy to imagine being able to do what they do should make you powerful enough to change things. I can’t even find people in meaningful positions of power – the Lycoris have an entire death squad designed to take them out if they get out of line, and the story about toppling that structure may involve a re-envisioning of the world that doesn’t have room for cool things in this setting. Like, the whole story is about how cool Lycoris are but it’s also about how the Lycoris shouldn’t exist.

It is, as always, easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

It all just depends on what part of the vase I focus on. If I’m looking at the Lycoris organisation and the stated facts of the setting where occasionally they disappear people, this place sucks. If I look at Takina, I think about how unfair it is that you can work as hard as possible to the extent that your identity itself suffers and you’ll still never be treated fairly under The System that tells you the problem is you didn’t work hard enough. If I’m looking at Chisato, I think about how ironclad devotion to your ideals and a willingness to do violence to protect them is, itself, a way to build something or resist the very corruption that brings you into existence.

I don’t think Lycoris Recoil was ever made to be this intentionally deep. I think it was made to sell merchandise of cute girls and airsoft guns. I think that’s why I find myself liking it so much: I don’t feel like this is a series with a specific point as much as a narrative that wants to include things it likes, and that inclusion has created this strange, misshapen vase.

Time to time, I am reminded of this tweet:

me: i am fundementally opposed to the monarchy and the church as ruling powers. history is a record of their atrocities

my therapist: that’s fair

me: but i love it when the chosen king reclaims his divine sword and leads his army in glorious battle

my therapist: who doesn’t

And I think about it so much more when I think about Lycoris Recoil.

I love this anime, I love these characters, I enjoy the story, I love how it stands up for big ideas it believes in. It seems amazing at the things it’s trying to do a good job of, and it’s full of cool things for characters to do.

And I turn the vase a little more as I set it down.