Professor, Institute for Global Education and Advanced Research, Oita University
Since the mid-1990s, in Japan the term Boys’ Love (BL) has signified a literary genre that includes both prose and graphic novels (i.e., manga), along with associated mixed- media works such as anime, computer games, CDs, and live-action films. BL works typically portray male homosexual romance, often contain sexually explicit material, and are directed at a primarily female audience. BL works have achieved great popular success: With as many as 150 BL works and thirty manga magazines published each month (Kaneda and Miura 2007), the overall BL market grosses more than 200 million yen per year. The wide international popularity of BL culture (Levi, McHarry, and Pagliassotti 2010; Nagaike and Suganuma 2012) is reflected in the fact that the American critic Dru Pagliassotti (2009) has even humorously coined a term for it: “gloBLisation.” Pagliassotti demonstrates how globalization has resulted in a complex hybrid between Japanese BL media and local manifestations around the world.
Specific stereotypes have been commonly employed as aesthetic devices in the portrayal of BL characters. Prior to the 2000s, most of the male characters depicted in BL were rather feminized—that is, androgynous—in terms of both their physical and psychological characteristics. Main characters are generally drawn as bishōnen (beautiful boys) with beautiful faces, similar to the portrayals of the girl characters in shōjo (for girls) manga, so that the genre is often called bishōnen mono (fiction about beautiful boys). Characters are often paired as seme and uke, or inserter and insertee, which leads to a relatively stable binary of associated characteristics, for example the seme as more “masculine” and the uke as more “feminine.” Further, scholars such as Mizoguchi Akiko (2000), Ishida Hitoshi (2007), and the contributors to Boys Love Manga and Beyond (2015) have pointed out that, during this period, self-identified gay characters in BL are generally portrayed in terms of a deviant, pathological Other. They are never depicted as protagonists, while self-identified heterosexual male characters who “accidentally” fall in love with other men and have sexual intercourse with them always assume that narrative role. However, in some BL works published in the 2000s, non(heterosexual) bishōnen characters, who are busaiku (not good-looking), gachimuchi (extremely muscular), or who self-identify as gay/transgender, begin to be depicted more sympathetically and thus receive some degree of acknowledgment. This recent diversification in the portrayal of male BL characters’ physical and psychological attributes, which has been called “new wave” BL, can be read as reflecting a potentially queer theoretical perspective that foregrounds non- or antimonolithic narrative forms. Kumota Haruko, who made her debut as a BL manga artist in 2008, is one of the leading figures of the “new wave” BL movement. An analysis of Kumota’s BL works enables us to achieve a deeper understanding of core elements of “new wave” BL.
Kumota Haruko gained an extraordinary reputation as a BL manga artist thanks to her second BL work, Wild Rose (Nobara; 2010). The Ōzora publishing company has published an anthology titled These BL Are Terrific (Kono BL ga yabai) yearly since 2007, and Wild Rose ranked third in popularity in 2011. The popularity of Kumota’s BL works derives from her unique and innovative narratives, which feature nonstereotypical BL characters as protagonists. Her works thus deviate substantially from the established pattern of so-called “mainstream” popular BL works. Her success as a “new wave” BL artist also results from the fact that she produces her works on a cross-genre basis. For example, starting in 2010, The Shōwa Genroku Era, Rakugo and Double Suicide (Shōwa genroku rakugo shinjū) was serialized in ITAN, a non-BL manga magazine, and received the Japan Media Arts Award (sponsored by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs) in 2013. In 2014, this work received the Kōdansha Manga Award, one of the most prestigious manga awards in Japan. Kumota is thus one of the most prominent “new wave” BL artists actively producing works in non-BL genres.
The main character in Kumota’s Wild Rose is Kanda, a man of about forty who is married and has a child. When he comes out as gay, this leads to a divorce. Subsequently, Kanda comes to hate himself, because he believes that his sexual orientation has ruined his family’s lives. Many of Kanda’s attributes, such as his age and external appearance, his explicit homosexual orientation, and the fact that he is married with a child, go beyond the generic limits commonly adhered to by mainstream popular BL media. As Kumota’s Wild Rose indicates, in order to characterize the present BL situation, special attention needs to be paid to portrayals of oyaji (middle-aged or older male characters), especially those oyaji characters who perform the role of uke. As Iwamoto Kaoru, a popular BL novelist, says: “I would like to give my vote to the uke-oyaji. In other words, I’m inclined to identify all of the oyaji in this secular world as uke” (Biburosu 2004, 153). This special attention to oyaji characters is reflected not only in Kumota’s works but also in those of other BL manga artists and writers. For example, in 2008, Yamashita Tomoko’s The Restaurant Akira (Kuimono dokoro Akira), which portrays its protagonist as a light-hearted uke-oyaji, ranked second in popularity in the These BL Are Terrific anthology. That year’s editor characterizes the current BL situation in this way: “One of the recognizably booming topics in 2008 is oyaji [. . .] We would like to ask what’s wrong with a work featuring a 32-year-old oyaji who plays the role of uke?” (Ōzora shuppan 2008, 5, 9). The oyaji constitutes a symbolic representation of established Japanese patriarchal society, which directly opposes the desires and cultural orientations of girls and women. In other words, the oyaji symbolizes phallic Japan, and its symbolic phallic power is denied to the Japanese girls and women who are objectified by it. At the same time, some girls and women have attempted to objectify the oyaji as a totally estranged “Other.” The fictionalization of the oyaji as a harmless, adorable uke character might suggest a subconscious female impulse to castrate phallic Japan.
Another aspect of Kumota’s characterization as a “new wave” BL artist is her portrayal of okama characters. The term okama used to be extremely derogatory, referring to highly effeminate gay/transvestite males. An okama thus rarely featured as the protagonist in BL works. Kumota’s “Mimi-kun series” in Wild Rose features a transgender character, Mimi-kun, who works at an okama bar, aiming to have a sex reassignment surgery in the future. S/he falls in love with a young gay man who only loves masculine men. The story has a happy ending when Mimi-kun’s lover accepts her as she is: a transgender person. As one BL critic, Kaneda Junko, comments concerning this work: “With regard to the human value of being natural, Mimi-kun in Wild Rose should be highly respected, as he achieves a happy life for himself as an okama” (Seidosha 2012, 82). Since the publication of Kumota’s “Mimi-kun series,” the number of BL works that feature okama as protagonists has increased. As previous BL works seldom represented an okama character as a protagonist, they revealed their limitations in relation to the depiction of sexual minorities. “However,” Kaneda continues, “the okama character in Wild Rose, Mimi-kun, achieves self-affirmation as an okama when his lover says to him that ‘nothing about you needs to change’” (ibid.).
Kumota’s Shinjuku Lucky Hole (Shinjuku rakii hōru; 2012), which ranked fourth in popularity in These BL Are Terrific in 2013, challenges another BL cliché: the romantic, monogamous relationship. As one BL critic comments: “Kumota’s Shinjuku Lucky Hole might not have been ranked so highly, when mainstream BL works still dominated the field a while ago” (Ōzora shuppan 2013, 47). The two main characters of this work are Hiyama Kumi, the thirty-three-year-old owner of a gay porn production company, who used to be a gay porn star playing bishōnen roles, and Sakuma (his first name is not revealed), the forty-year-old co-owner of the same gay porn production company, who used to be a yakuza and sexually trained Hiyama as a gay porn actor so that he could pay off his father’s debt. Even after his retirement as a gay porn star, Hiyama still sometimes appears in gay porn. The relationship between Hiyama and Sakuma does not develop according to one of the predominant genre conventions of BL, in which characters’ sexuality is generally expressed through the romantic force of a monogamous relationship. This aspect of BL is best exemplified by Nakamura Shungiku’s Pure Romance (Junjō romantika; 2002–), which is one of the most commercially successful mixed-media BL works, with a circulation of over 3 million. Despite the fact that Hiyama and Sakuma’s relationship does not follow traditional BL romantic stereotypes, it is clear that they are spiritually meant for each other. Thus, when Hiyama is seduced by his employee, Sakuma threatens to kill him, saying: “Hiyama belongs to me.”
As mentioned earlier, the BL “new wave” also introduces busaiku (not-good-looking) characters with positive attributes. These BL Are Terrific 2009 ranks Tanaka Suzaki’s That Guy Is My True Lover (Aitsu ga daihonmei), which features a busaiku protagonist, as that year’s second-best BL manga. As one of the editors of this anthology remarks: “We used to say that BL only means love stories about pretty-looking boys. However, contemporary BL even focuses on busaiku characters” (Ōzora shuppan 2009, 9). In Suzaki’s manga, Yoshida, an uke character, is very slight, with slanted eyes. He is very unpopular among his girl classmates. The girl characters in this work always mock Yoshida whenever he is with his lover, who is depicted as an attractive, prince-like character. However, despite having a busaiku character as its protagonist, this work was popular with a large number of BL fans. Yoshida was awarded Best Uke Character by These BL Are Terrific 2009 and as the second Best Uke Character by These BL Are Terrific 2010. Among the comments received from fans were, “The story featuring a busaiku character has parallels with the Cinderella story” (Ōzora shuppan 2009, 40–41), and, “Thanks to his not-pretty appearance, his attributes and behavior seem more adorable” (ibid., 41).
This proliferation of non-bishōnen characters, which we can see in Kumota’s works and those of other “new wave” BL artists, might be related to BL readers’ self-affirmation. The key phrase in this regard is, “Whatever you are, I will keep loving you” (donna kimi demo suki). As one critic-fan says:
In my case, I certainly feel relieved in reading stories about lovable oyaji characters, since they reassure me that I’m OK as I am now. Men are inclined to fantasize (or idealize) women and are sexually attracted to women precisely because women’s physical characteristics differ from those of men. However, honestly speaking, like the male body, the female body also has body hair, and it sweats. Women know very well that the real physicality of the female body is very different from the female body that has been idealized by men for such a long period of time. All women thus experience a sense of guilt and shame at the discernible gap between the fantasized female body and their real bodies. However, BL manga works like Uchida Kaoru’s, which depict gorilla-like uke characters, enable me to affirm that I’m also qualified to be an otome (pure, innocent maiden). A BL uke-oyaji character who is depicted with pubic hair definitely represents one of my alter egos. Another aspect of my alter ego also loves that image of an oyaji with pubic hair. (Seidosha 2012, 69–70)
In Kumota’s “Mimi-kun series,” Mimi-kun also tries hard to fulfill the desire of his lover, who is only attracted to masculine men. However, by presenting Mimi-kun with earrings and playing the role of seme in intercourse, the lover ultimately shows that he accepts Mimi-kun as a transgender person who has a female heart.
By enabling women to identify with “beautiful” male homosexual characters, previous BL narratives clearly reveal the inevitable conflicts involved in women’s attempts to express their identity and sexuality within a patriarchal context. In fact, these female fantasies represent women’s feelings of fear, anxiety, and internal conflict (Matsui 1993; Nagaike 2012). However, the subversive nature of “new wave” BL works becomes apparent in the challenge they implicitly pose to any limited conception of female identity. Whether the reader identifies with the seme or uke, in stories about oyaji, busaiku, and okama, a woman can imaginatively negate the male gaze that traditionally objectifies women as the “beautiful” Other. In relation to the problematic issues surrounding the peripheral location of nonheterosexual individuals in patriarchal societies, the deconstruction of stereotypical bishōnen characters in “new wave” BL may parallel the deconstruction of established stereotypes in such fields as feminism, gender/sexuality studies, postcolonialism, and so forth.
However, it is also possible for the proliferation of non(heterosexual) bishōnen characters in Kumota’s and other “new wave” BL works to be critically analyzed even further. For example, it can be argued that the wide range of choices available among character attributes in BL—associated with Azuma Hiroki’s theory of the database (Azuma 2009)—constitutes a basic premise for the endless moe (pleasure and passion attached to two-dimensional entities) that can be derived from such BL works. Azuma draws attention to the ongoing production of an endless “dialogue” among the specific elements that characterize each individual entity within a work. Following Azuma, we can read many of the characters and characteristics of “new wave” BL as elements that provide access to the database. Moreover, Azuma’s analysis of database consumption views the act of creating and consuming narratives (such as BL) in terms of moe, which can be derived from the consumption of such endlessly reproduced elements. According to Patrick W. Galbraith (2009, 2011), for example, female “pleasure-oriented” activities demonstrate the importance of moe forms of communication in BL more generally. The desire of BL producers and consumers to create and play out their fantasies manifests itself in the pleasure that they take in the specific forms of representation associated with BL.
An overview of BL shows that these narratives are not merely—as they have sometimes been accused of being—a manifestation of female “perversion.” In fact, BL can potentially represent women’s sense of fear (anxiety, internal conflict), hope (potentiality, challenge), and entertainment (enhancement of moe) within the Japanese socio-gender context. The subversive nature of some aspects of female desire is made apparent by the challenge that Kumota Haruko’s BL works implicitly make to limited conceptions of female sexual (and gender) identity. Another essential characteristic of Kumota’s “new wave” BL works is her frequent representation of what might be called “the reversible couple” (i.e., male lovers who frequently reverse sex roles between uke and seme so they can participate in both active and passive sexual pleasure). This subversive quality in “new wave” BL works like Kumota’s thus not only entails a liberation from the compulsory heterosexuality that exists in women’s realities and imaginations, but it also reveals BL to be, in Mizoguchi Akiko’s (2015) terms, a “transformative genre.” The current worldwide phenomenon of BL, its “gloBLisation,” consequently provides a means by which the complex psychological and political implications of an imaginative space that is important to a large number of BL creators/consumers, both in Japan and abroad, may effectively be analyzed.
- See Yano Research Institute, 2016, “Otaku” shijō ni kan-suru chōsa 2016, https://www.yano.co.jp/press/press.php/001628. ↑
Azuma, Hiroki. 2009. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Biburosu, ed. 2004. Oyaji tokushū gō. Vol. 12 of B-Boy Luv. Tokyo: Biburosu.
Galbraith, Patrick W. 2009. “Moe: Exploring Virtual Potential in Post-Millennial Japan.” Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies 5 (October 31). http://www.japanesestudies.org.uk/articles/2009/Galbraith.html.
Galbraith, Patrick W. 2011. “Fujoshi: Fantasy Play and Transgressive Intimacy among ‘Rotten Girls’ in Contemporary Japan.” Signs: Women in Culture and in Society 37, no. 1: 211–32.
Ishida Hitoshi. 2007. “‘Hottoite kudasai’ to iu hyōmei o megutte: yaoi/BL no jiritsusei to hyōshō no ōdatsu.” Yuriika 39, no. 16 (December):114–23.
Kaneda Junko, and Miura Shiwon. 2007. “‘Seme X uke’ no mekuru meku sekai: dansei shintai no miryoku wo motomete” [The world surrounding “seme X uke”: Searching for the attractiveness of male bodies]. Yuriika 39, no. 7 (June):8–29.
Levi, Antonia, Mark McHarry, and Dru Pagliassotti, eds. 2010. Boys’ Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland.
Matsui, Midori. 1993. “Little Girls Were Little Boys: Displaced Femininity in the Presentation of Homosexuality in Japanese Girls’ Comics.” In Feminism and the Politics of Difference, edited by Sneja Gunew and Anna Yeatman, 177–96. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood.
McLelland, Mark, Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma, and James Welker, eds. 2015. Boys Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Mizoguchi Akiko. 2000. “Homofobikku na homo, ai yue no reipu, soshite kuia na rezubian: saikin no yaoi tekisuto o bunseki suru.” Kuia Japan 2: 193–211.
Mizoguchi Akiko. 2015. BL shinka ron: bōizurabu ga shakai wo ugokasu. Tokyo: Ōta shuppan.
Nagaike, Kazumi. 2012. Fantasies of Cross-Dressing: Japanese Women Writes Male-Male Erotica. Leiden and Boston: Brill.
Nagaike, Kazumi, and Katsuhiko Suganuma, eds. 2013. “Transnational Boys’ Love Fan Studies.” Special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 12. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/504/394.
Ōzora shuppan, ed. 2008. Kono BL ga yabai! Tokyo: Ōzora shuppan.
Ōzora shuppan, ed. 2009. Kono BL ga yabai! Tokyo: Ōzora shuppan.
Ōzora shuppan, ed. 2013. Kono BL ga yabai! Tokyo: Ōzora shuppan.
Pagliasotti, Dru. 2009. “GloBLisation and Hybridisation: Publishers’ Strategies for Bringing Boys’ Love to the United States.” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 20 (April 20). http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue20/pagliassotti.htm.
Pagliassotti, Dru, Kazumi Nagaike, and Mark McHarry, eds. 2013. “Boys’ Love Manga (Yaoi).” Special section, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 4, no. 1.
Seidosha, ed. 2007. “BL Studies.” Special issue, Yuriika 39, no. 16 (December).
Seidosha, ed. 2012. “BL on the Run!” Special issue, Yuriika 44, no. 15 (December).