I’ve been thinking about what I call “safe yandere,” or alternately “yandere aesthetic.”
Yandere character fetish feeds off many things. The notion of a character who’s so in love with another that she turns into a crazed axe murderer (and that this is a good thing!) is at the same time obvious and complex. It’s a realm of fantasy that, in my estimation, works by essentially being so hyper exaggerated as to feel real—like how food for astronauts is made extra spicy because the sense of taste is dulled in space.
Because yandere characters come primarily from media like anime, manga, and visual novels, there are many visual shortcuts to convey that quality. The thousand-yard stare, the creepy smile, the icons of sadism, and so on make portraying a yandere in a single drawing perfectly possible. What this also means is that this aesthetic can be extracted and placed onto characters who aren’t necessarily trying to trap their significant others in cement so that they can be together forever.
The first example that stands out to me is Jabami Yumeko in Kakegurui. She has all the visual hallmarks of a yandere, except she directs that primal energy towards the art of gambling instead of a person. She doesn’t take pleasure in hurting others so much as she does mutually experiencing the torrent of emotions that stir when everything is on the line.
Another is the teasing girl. They’re not exactly yandere—more like a midway point between that and tsundere—but they can serve a somewhat similar function. Nagatoro might be the most well known at this point, and her sneers evoke a kind of pain/pleasure combo that aligns with the general yandere for vibe.
The last example actually comes from the world of VTubers. The Hololive zombie girl Kureijii Ollie has a visual presentation that is very reminiscent of yandere, especially in the eyes, but her personality is far from it. I suspect that this contrast is part of her charm, though, and a reason she’s so popular. Incidentally, another Hololive member, Ceres Fauna is sort of the opposite: Her appearance is gentle but her words and demeanor can get yandere, especially in ASMR streams.
I don’t think separating out the visual component of yandere is a bad thing—far from it, in fact. It gives people the opportunity to assess themselves and what they enjoy, allowing for greater personal discovery. It also reminds me a bit of what has happened to the concept of vampires. Some people just want a specific sub-flavor of hotness, and that is okay.
I don’t know if we’ll reach a point where the definition of yandere has fundamentally changed and it goes towards the safe yandere. I doubt it, given the continued popularity of characters like Toga Himiko from My Hero Academia. But like so many things, I’d rather people be able to remember that this transformation has occurred rather than wholly adhere to some specific definition. History is important, even that of the yandere.
(And technically, all fictional yandere are safe precisely because they remain in the realm of fiction. Though that does mean VTubers can blur that line…)