Street Fighter 5 came out two years ago, and I still can't stop thinking about how homoerotic the tutorial is. I don't know who wrote the English translation for the tutorial, which features young rivals Ken and Ryu sweating through a workout under the direction of their master Gouken, but I can't let it go.
I've always considered Ken and Ryu the perfect odd couple. Ryu is the pensive wanderer who starts out serious even before Gouken's death and becomes all the more introspective after that trauma. Ken may share Ryu's Dragon Punch training and grief over Gouken, but he has always had an ostentatious attitude. I prefer to choose his fur-lined magenta gi in SF4 to match his bravado.
Like the rest of Street Fighter's cast, Ken and Ryu's characterisation leaves plenty to the imagination, relying on familiar archetypes (the strong but silent Japanese ronin, the fun-loving American) to paint a quick picture. The downside of this sparse storytelling is that it allows for the shorthand of slapdash stereotypes.
The upside is, there's not enough canon to directly contradict most character interpretations. There's no evidence that Ryu and Ken aren't ex-lovers. In fact, given the sexual tension oozing off of SF5's tutorial, I would argue there's some evidence that they are.
The SF5 tutorial features character illustrations and costumes for young Ken and Ryu that look pretty different from their default older models in the base game. Ken, ever the showboater, wears a bright red gi with the sleeves ripped off, his long blond hair pulled into a ponytail. Both young men wear sweat bands, tied in back with two long ribbons twirling behind them. They look their fightin' best.
Gouken kicks off the lesson by knocking down Ryu with a fireball. Ken looks on in smug satisfaction as Ryu kneels, supplicating. Gouken admonishes young Ryu: "Ponder where you've been, and ultimately, where your fist will lead you." Ryu repeats, uncertain, "Ponder my fist?" ("Phrasing," I shouted at my TV.)
Gouken harrumphs and leaves the boys to their practice.
"Looks like you got laid out again, huh," Ken teases. "Anyway, it's amazing how you always find great places like this." The waterfall in the background does make for a charming date spot.
Ryu stands up. "Oh, hey, you recovered already?" Ken says. ("PHRASING," I shouted again.)
"I want to take another look at my fist," Ryu tells him.
After some hot-and-heavy sparring, Ryu and Ken take a moment to catch their breath. "I'm starving here," Ken says, bending over and shooting a look at Ryu, his favourite snack.
"I have something that I want to try out," Ryu confesses. "I'm starting to… feel something."
Ken laughs. "I don't know what's this feeling you're chasing, but I'll help you try and figure it out!"
Ryu moves closer to Ken, his steps slow but confident. He reaches out to stroke his sparring partner's face with surprising gentleness. He tilts Ken's chin towards his own… just kidding! This is the part where he releases his V-Trigger charge.
"Whew!" Ken exclaims, his face dazzled with sweat. "I'm completely exhausted." Ryu, also slick with perspiration, agrees.
"Did you get a good look at your fist?" Ken asks.
"Good enough to learn that I still have a long way to go," Ryu responds, clenching his fingers once more. Ken chuckles.
Do I even have to say "phrasing" again? Much like Ken, I'm exhausted! I think just about everything that Ken and Ryu ever say to one another is evidence that they have gotten it on, but come on. This tutorial puts all of my theories about Rainbow Mika and Nadeshiko's totally super-real relationship to shame! It makes F.A.N.G.'s Disney villain voice and flowing purple robes look downright subtle!
Canonically queer characters don't show up often in fighting games, and when they do, they tend to get painted with the same stereotypical brush as other fighters. For example, the over-sexed villainess Juri embodies the "depraved bisexual" trope.
She sexually harasses her opponents regardless of gender, such as the straight-laced ex-cop Chun-Li, to whom she says, "Back for another beating, officer? Maybe you've got a little schoolgirl crush?" Capcom hasn't ever confirmed Juri's sexuality, and her queerness is only implied through sexually charged threats.
Eagle, a Street Fighter character inspired by queer icon Freddie Mercury, had some lines in the Japanese port of the game about not being attracted to women, but that dialogue got removed from the North American version.
Furthermore, given that Mercury identified as bisexual and not homosexual, those lines could have used a bit more finessing.
I don't look to fighting games for nuance or subtlety, but it would be nice to see some characterisation that subverts the stereotypes even slightly. Capcom designers have tried to improve some past errors on this issue, though, by working with GLAAD to change some of the transphobic lines that other fighters directed at Poison ahead of her appearance in Street Fighter x Tekken.
I don't think Capcom intends for Ryu and Ken to come across as lovers in this tutorial. If anything, the sexual tinge to the writing indicates the extent to which Capcom doesn't think anyone would assume this. This scene doesn't read as queer-baiting or homophobic mockery as much as a Tobias Fünke-esque series of unintended but undeniably homoerotic innuendos.
I don't want Ken and Ryu to flirt by accident. I want them to do it on purpose. But since they won't, I'll have to settle for the mistaken date the tutorial offers. I admit, it's nice to see them happy for once.