I’ve been thinking lately about shipping. Not about specific ships, but about the actual process. It’s a verb, after all. To ship. I ship, you ship, they ship.
It’s easy to say what a ship is. The process of sipping, the activity itself, feels a little more tricky to pin down. What does one have to do, to be engaged in shipping? When I watched Niles Crane pine over Daphne Moon for the better part of seven years and wished things would work out for him, was I shipping them? When I paid special attention to the sparse few moments of jokey flirting between AC Slater and Zack Morris as a teenager figuring out my own queerness, was I shipping them then? Or was it not until I actually started writing fanfiction that I became engaged in shipping?
Is it enough simply to imagine the two characters together? Is that all it takes: just to root for them when they’re on screen together? Or is there more to it? Does shipping require more than what the content creators provide? Do I have to share my headcanons? Do I have to create fic or art? Do I need headcanons and fan-fantasies about how it might happen, or how they might work together?
A fellow ‘Sarazanmai’ fan on Tumblr asked recently whether Ikuhara fans ship characters from his series as much as they do other anime characters, which got me thinking about the process of shipping, the work of shipping. Way back when I first discovered online fandom, shipping and transformative works were only one aspect of fan activities for me. When I started writing my own fic, it was a fairly even balance of gen and ship-focused stuff, with a roughly equal mix of het and gen ships. I don’t think I ever thought of myself as a shipper, even though I had favourite pairings to read and write. I do recall feeling adventurous the first time I wrote a rare-pair story (two minor characters from a seventies film, part of the ‘Starsky & Hutch’ six degrees fandom), based almost entirely on headcanons rather than any actual on-screen chemistry.
There were virtually no same-gender canon ships in the media that geeks were drawn to then, and my het ships of choice tended to come from unrequited love and pining rather than actual canon content (see above re: Niles/Daphne).
So shipping, as far as I understood it then, consisted of looking for clues – all the subtext and coded moments that creators may or may not have been deliberate about. What did that character mean by that line? Why did that actor choose that particular delivery, or touch the other character at that moment? Did the inclusion of that specific type of flower in the mise-en-scene have the queer coding we hoped it did? I remember obsessing over Garak/Bashir in DS9 in such a way, even going as far as to base my minor dissertation on it, as it gave plenty of material for my study of same-gender attraction in science-fiction. That, to me, felt like shipping – it was almost like detective work, looking for clues that the ship was real, even when the show’s writers insisted otherwise.
These days, I think content creators are much more aware of shippers in fandom. It doesn’t automatically lead to more inclusion of same-gender relationships – if anything, it feels like it contributes more to ship-teasing and queer-baiting. I see a lot of characters who come pre-paired, either in canon material or official artwork. Not often as fully canon relationships, but with enough subtext and coding that shippers can take the hints and run with them.
With regards to Ikuhara’s big four anime series, the shipping is already done. Utena and Anthy were clearly a romantic couple, or on the verge of becoming one. Touga, Saionji and Akio cavorted on beds and in cars with their shirts unfastened. Unrequited love was definitely at play between the adopted siblings in ‘Mawaru Penguindrum’, and ‘Yuri Kuma Arashi’ speaks for itself. ‘Sarazanmai’ had a whole-ass canon same-gender relationship, complete with a declaration of love, alongside Enta’s crush on Kazuki and Tooi’s blatant attraction to Kazuki-as-Sara in episode four. There’s little need to do the work of shipping with Ikuhara shows, because the ships, or at least the attractions that form the base of ships, are text rather than subtext. That doesn’t make them any less enjoyable; well-crafted inclusion of same-gender relationships or same-gender attraction is something I can definitely appreciate. But I do wonder sometimes how it affects fandom and fan works.
Fans of anime and manga do have a sizable amount of original content with same-gender relationships, in the form of BL and yuri (and please take a moment to re-read my earlier posts about this topic if your immediate response to this is a negative one). But it seems like fans who enjoy shipping same-gender pairs focus more on content that doesn’t have such relationships as canon.
Looking at two anime which premiered last year, ‘Given’, based on a BL anime and therefore coming with pre-shipped characters, has 178 works on AO3 at time of writing. ‘Kimetsu No Yaiba’, a shounen series with no real romantic content in its first season, has 2180 works on AO3 tagged as m/m, 620 tagged as f/m, and 97 tagged as f/f. ‘Love Stage’, several years older but again with actual canon same-gender ships, has just 41 works on AO3.
It feels like shipping, as a process, is still dependent on fans doing the work of pairing up characters as much as on actually creating transformative works based on those ships. It’s difficult to say whether this means fans who ship feel like they are doing the work of creating queer-inclusive content when original creators fail to do so, or if the process of shipping is done out of enjoyment as much as consuming the original content is. Add in the idea that shipping is a way of gaining acceptance and status in fandom, and it becomes yet more difficult to understand why shipping happens. Maybe there are as many reasons to ship as there are shippers.
All of this musing on my part coincided neatly with the latest episode of ‘The Case Files Of Jeweller Richard’, a show which definitely has reawakened my shipping muscles. The synopsis on myanimelist.net, along with the preview, gave me Gentle Gay Adventure vibes – the synopsis mentioned Seigi and Richard’s relationship ‘changing over time’, and the preview had plenty of lingering shots on their faces, with eyelines matching.
By the second episode, I was absolutely certain that the show was laying the groundwork for some kind of romantic storyline between the two leads. Richard makes a point of insisting that Seigi must not show prejudice towards any of his customers, including for their sexual orientation, right before a customer turns up who, it is later revealed, is a queer woman feeling pressured into marrying a man, after ending a seven-year relationship with a woman she loved. Richard’s ‘no prejudice’ message is repeated at the end, along with him scolding Seigi for referring to the woman as “people like her”, implying that there is really no difference between the woman and Seigi or Richard. There’s also the very minor subplot about Seigi putting real effort into making Richard’s tea exactly the way he likes it, and being very pleased when he finally makes a cup that Richard drinks entirely. Episode three shows us more of a developing relationship between Seigi and a female student, Tanimoto. She’s interested in minerals and gemstones, and encourages Seigi’s independent study (which isn’t at all required for his cleaning/errand boy job with Richard. But near the end of the episode, Richard makes a cryptic comment about how “love and compatibility are different”, suggesting that while Seigi and Tanimoto are superficially compatible – they have shared interests and are students at the same university – it won’t automatically lead to love.
I talked all this through on Tumblr with a couple of other fans, and at some point I realised – this is what shipping is, for me. Finding the little clues and hints that suggest two characters could develop a romantic relationship, teasing them out and piecing them together to work out how the relationship would develop.
Sure, shipping will be different for different fans, and I don’t particularly begrudge those fans who can ship characters simply because they ‘look hot’ together. But it does seem strange to me that people can manufacture a relationship that isn’t based on interactions and chemistry, especially when people ship characters who don’t even interact.
I must confess, I’ve sort of done that myself, with my Kouda/Tokoyami fics. The only interactions they’re based on are split-second shots of the two of them apparently hanging out in the background of other characters’ storylines. But I put that down to my long history of being drawn to the background characters and filling in the blanks in their histories and characterisation. Why is Kouda so often shown near Tokoyami? Why are they shown working together in the new opening for the second half of season four?
It’s likely that I ship this way because of my asexuality – because a character being ‘hot’ has zero effect on me. But I like my way of shipping – it feels like completing a puzzle and finding all the different ways the pieces fit together.
Sometimes, with the gradually increasing amount of queer rep in media (even in anime!), shipping feels like something of a luxury. I don’t need to ship Yuuri/Victor or Reo/Mabu, because they’ve already been shipped, but I’ll still read and write fanfiction. But it’s a luxury I’ll keep indulging in, because I’m far more interested in the characters who aren’t front and centre in the main story, and shipping is a part of filling in those blanks. I’m much more interested in how Zack and Bill became friends than how Levius got into Mechanized Martial Arts, and now I’m more interested in what’s going to happen between Richard and Seigi than between Seigi and Tanimoto, whose relationship is obvious and therefore not massively interesting to me.
I don’t go into every single story looking for ships. Of all of this season’s anime, I think ‘Jeweller Richard’ is the only one that’s led me to put on my shipping goggles. ‘Pet’ seems to have a ready-made ship in Hiroki/Tsukasa, and in ‘In/Spectre’, Kotoko’s precocious crush on Kurou is a bit too squicky for me to be invested in it. Most other shows, I’m there for the story. Sometimes, I wish other fans would ease back on the intensity and aggressiveness of their shipping, but as I’ve always said, it’s not my place to tell other people how to fan.
Shipping, for me, is work, but it’s work I’m happy to take on, because it gives me a whole extra layer to certain stories. At the same time, it’s a luxury, an extra sweetness to stories I’d enjoy even without the ships. I think it’s safe to say that shipping will continue as a focal point of fandom activity for a lot of people, even as we see more inclusion of same-gender relationships in original content. Because content is like building blocks, and fandom will find no end to the ways we can reassemble those blocks.
Note: Since drafting this essay, I have read the first chapter of ‘The Case Files of Jeweller Richard’ and my poor gay heart can barely handle it! Anything that isn’t plot is basically Seigi rhapsodising over how beautiful Richard is!