Online Exhibition: The Diverse World of Manga: Shōjo Manga and Female Manga Artists: Breaking Social Standards: “Boys Love”

Breaking Social Standards: "Boys Love"

This is a relatively new genre of manga and light novels which depicts male-male romantic and sexual relations. However, Boys Love, or BL, does not necessarily deal with the realities of gay life. Rather, these stories are romantic fantasy, usually created by female authors for female readers, both of whom are often heterosexual. The term BL was coined around the mid-1990s, but manga works which dealt with homosexual relations began to emerge in the 1970s by the artists of 24-nengumi. Although the readership was young girls, the 24-nengumi artists willingly created boy protagonists to develop the drama freely from the social norm and gender roles posed upon girls. Some artists depict two male adolescent boys who develop a strong bond. By doing so they depict homosocial/homosexual relations, sometimes subtly and sometimes clearly and consciously. The stage is often set in an exclusive space and time where female readers will find no relation with their own lives. One example of such a stage is a gymnasium where only boys are allowed to stay. This embryo period of BL functioned as a mechanism for female readers not only to escape the gender suppression of the real world, but also to positively engage in sexual fantasy and explore sexual issues (Ueno, 130, 139-40).

Though this genre used to be niche, it has grown over time. Several BL magazines started publications in the 1990s, and today full shelves of large bookstores in Japan are dedicated to BL manga and light novels. Interestingly, studies suggest that the BL readership has expanded to male readers as well. BL remains fantasy, and generally does not depict the real lives of gay people, leading to criticism from the gay community for reinforcing the heterosexual norm of society. Despite that, it is also said that the popularization of BL may have contributed to the promotion of sexual diversity in Japanese society.

Kaze to ki no uta (The Poem of Wind and Trees), 1976-1984

Created by Takemiya Keiko, a key artist of 24-nengumi, this is one of the earliest works which described physical love between two boys. This work is set at a boarding school in Arles, France, and describes the lives of adolescent boys. Although this is a Bildungsroman type story focused on the psychological growth of the protagonist Serge Battour, the drama features his romantic but tragic relations with the other protagonist Gilbert Cocteau, whose name has become synonymous with 「美少年 (beautiful boy)」. In this drama, both boys had unfortunate childhoods. Serge is deprived of love by the untimely death of his parents, while Gilbert is treated as a sexual pet by his guardian and grows up without knowing love. Both boys, deeply suffering from loneliness, gradually develop an inseparable bond. The creation of Gilbert’s character is provocative. He is cynical, anti-social, delinquent, and is the subject of sexual desire for other male characters. He has very feminine beauty, and lacks any masculinity in his figure. For this work, Gilbert functions as femme fatale. At a time when erotic scenes were avoided and homosexual love was a taboo theme, this challenging work also described such dark themes as racism, sadism, homophobia, rape, prostitution, child abuse and incestuous relations. This work created quite a sensation at the time of its publication, but critics highly regard it for its literature value, and it has been regarded as a classic masterpiece.

Tomoi, 1985-1987

This work consists of short stories, and narrates the life of Tomoi Hisatsugu, who escapes from Japan because he feels like a misfit. In 1982, Tomoi comes to New York City to work in a hospital as a young intern. He falls in love with a German doctor named Richard Stein and becomes aware of his sexual orientation. Around that time, the number of patients who suffer from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the gay community begins to rise. Richard learns that one of his former boyfriends died of AIDS and decides to leave New York, breaking up with Tomoi. Overcome with grief, Tomoi eventually falls in love with his colleague, Marvin, who hides his sexual orientation and keeps a loveless marriage. In this tangled love triangle, Tomoi accidentally finds that Marvin is showing the initial symptoms of AIDS. Tomoi proposes him and they bow eternal love, while Marvin’s wife learns that her husband is a gay (pages 306-307).

In this work, Akisato Wakuni realistically describes the lives of gay people in New York City during the early 1980s. In those days, AIDS was still a mysterious disease spread amongst the gay community. The real gay liberation movement started in the late 1960s, much earlier than the time of this story. However in the early 1980s, both legally and socially, the cold and negative attitude toward the homosexual minority was far stronger than it is today. The fact that AIDS was first shown primarily from male homosexuals worked to strengthen homophobia, even being referred to as “gay cancer.” The Japanese had biased view toward AIDS and failed to take preventive measures. In March 1983 the Japanese Ministry of Health recognized the first Japanese AIDS patient as a homosexual man who had lived in the US, even though earlier cases existed through hemophiliac patients that had been infected by AIDS via unheated blood products imported from the US. The genre of BL started as a romantic and sexual fantasy genre for female readers. Though this plot is melodramatic, it deals with the prejudice and discrimination against the sexual minority while impressively narrating the vicissitudes of Tomoi and his emotions---loneliness and despair, as well as love and compassion.

Hi izuru tokoro no tenshi (The Emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun), 1980-1984

The protagonist of this “subversive” (Schodt, 182) work is Umayado-no-Ōji (Prince Umayado), who is known as the semi-legendary Prince Shōtoku (574-622), the regent for the Empress Suiko. Prince Shōtoku promulgated the “Seventeen-Article Constitution,” spread Buddhism in Japan, and initiated diplomatic relations with the Sui Dynasty in China. The title of this work refers to the letter sent from “The Emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun” to “The Emperor of the Land of the Setting Sun.” The story, however, describes young Umayado through the eyes of Emishi, a son in the influential Soga Family. The author Yamagishi interweaves historical truth and legend to create this fictional piece and presented Umayado as a prince who has everything but the one he desires. On the one hand, Umayado is respected and admired for his beauty and intelligence. On the other, his extraordinary talent arouses a feeling of awe among people who serve him. Moreoever, he is a super psychic, and his own mother rejects him for his unnatural power, leaving incurable wounds on his soul. While being unable to control his super power, he meets Emishi, then Umayado finds Emishi can (subconsciously) stabilize his power. Umayado regards Emishi as his alterego and falls hopelessly in love. Author Yamagishi successfully presents complex human relations and Umayado’s unrequited love, which dooms himself to despair.

Japan Foundation lecture "Boys' Love: The History and Transformation of BL in Asia"

Eroika yori ai o komete (From Eroica with Love), 1976-

Following the success of her slapstick comedy 『イブの息子たち (The Sons of Eve)』, author Aoike Yasuko probably attempted to create another love comedy featuring a decadent homosexual British noble, Dorian Red Gloria, Earl of Gloria, who had a secret identity as the art thief “Eroica.” However, the appearance of the uptight and conservative Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach, one of the best NATO intelligence agents known as “Iron Klaus,” changed the mode of the series to be a spy and gentleman-thief action stories in Cold War Europe, involving NATO, KGB, SIS, CIA and even the Italian mafia. This drama therefore developed into the atmosphere of popular Western spy action films. While the author was engaged with another work in the late 1980s, the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The conceptual background of the series was lost, but the series restarted in 1995, similar to the revival of James Bond. Having a military critic as an advisor, the new series narrates international conspiracies, reflecting real political/diplomatic situations in post-Cold War Europe, therefore lessening the elements of a homosexual love comedy.

As the presentation of this series shifted more toward a hard boiled spy action drama, the flowery expression typical of the shōjo manga genre was replaced with a realistic presentation. Throughout the series, Aoike’s drawing technique of the human body has developed significantly. At the beginning of the series, the two protagonists, Earl and Major, were both slender and had extensively long legs, but both now have the more masculine and well-proportioned figures of matured men. However, in reflection of the trends of the 1970’s shōjo manga artists, who were great fans of Western rock bands, the two protagonists maintain shiny long hair (Aoike, 32-39). Aoike’s drawing of constructions, uniforms, mechanics---such as rifles and tanks---are detailed and precise, which helped attract a male readership. At the peak of its popularity, this work increased the enrollment in German language courses in Japanese colleges and brought many Japanese tourists to the City of Eberbach, Germany. Consequently, the City not only prepared a Japanese language pamphlet with the illustration of Major Eberbach but also gave Aoike an honorary award and the figure of the boar, the symbol of Eberbach.

(Cover illustrations v. 2, 23, and 39.)