“…She said in a poised voice…”
There are a few things that commend the BL (Boys Love) genre to its creators and traditional core audience that madden the outside observer. Why can’t fujoshi just be satisfied with regular heterosexual pr0n? They could amp it up with more romance or schmexy and even change the characters so that they can act freer from societal restrictions; why do they have to use shadow-of-gay-men characters to act out their prefered bodice buster pulp fictions? If the characters are guys, why make them sometimes – but only sometimes – follow a strict formulaic script that ill-fits the bodies and what anyone who cared to ask would find out about IRL (In Real Life) guy:guy sex? Why does one subset of the genre insist that the story is far more emotionally poignant and melodramatically overwrought if neither of the two characters considered themselves “gay” before their fateful encounter? Does the problem with the BL genre lie mostly within the yaoi sub-genre and does yaoi even exist any more?
WARNING: Adult themes and over-consideration of traditions of Japanese cartoon intimacy, including sex below the cut. Part 2 of a 4 part series on limitations within Japanese vernacular visual narratives depicting intimacy. Snark. Some spoilers.
Work-in-progress warning: This series is under construction and as the sections shake out, I may return to this and other sections and mess with stuff. Hit refresh if returning. I’ll remove this when it feels done and dusted.
In the previous post, I set out an over-arching question for this essay series and introduced a straw man-ga ‘Too Het” work that advanced a minimal baseline for heterosexual intimacy. While nowhere near patient 0 status, Futari Ecchi serves to show what can work enough to do the job but grow stale, even unpleasant as it is oppressively repeated.
I need to take apart more of the dissatisfaction behind the catch-all dismissive. I am sure that some folks out there might adopt a rhetorical position that decries all intimacy that has the potential for, or even vaguely recalls procreative male:female sex as irreconcilably contaminated with the worst parts of all of human history…
But what if enterprising women downloaded it into guy characters, hooked marionette strings to it and made it dance?
More than a few summaries on Japanese BL (Boys Love) comics/ manga are out there for anyone who needs a refresher, but for now it is important to remember that the term is a catch-all. Most definitions situate the entire effort as an offshoot of shoujo manga – defined widely as girl’s/ young women’s gaze narratives. Historical views might even include early Bishonen (lit pretty boy) and gender-blurred girls’ comic variants from the 1970″s and earlier. The contemporary face of BL comes from published series and stories in magazines, that since the 1980’s have undergone significant evolution and diversity.
In contrast to these are fan-made, amateur and semi-pro “derivative”, “secondary” or “parody” works. These do not get published in magazines without a whole lot of lawyers because they appropriate (steal) popular non-BL characters, usually from guys’ adventure series and work their dreadful ways with them.
A massive, long-term project of copyright and trademark violation, yet publishers and authors by tradition are very cautious about bringing down the hammer. Gives off the stench of small-minded selfishness. Disappoints fans. Wrecks any free advertising effects. Dissuades guy readers’ rotten sisters from buying Shonen Jump. Some rights-holders do object: you don’t make naughty doujinshi of core Disney properties unless you want lawyers on top of the lawyers after your sorry ass. Reportedly Studio Ghibli isn’t too charmed with grubby amateur fingers on its charas either. Since rights holders can yank the leash at any time, these fanzines are chiefly sold as not-really-for-profit amateur efforts by their creators at conventions – the most prominent being the twice yearly Comic Market (Comiket). Thereafter they are re-sold as collectables by a network of speciality shops and online sellers.
These “thin books” individually may look tawdry but since 1976 have been the beating heart of manga culture in Japan. Doujins are where amateur artists practice their skills and renew their vows to the faith and %60-70 of the making and buying of them is done by women. Some historians in the field suggest that guy-gaze smut doujinshi initially followed on women-authored practices, at least until 2400 baud modems could be inexpensively hooked to phone lines and woefully underpowered personal computers. Big name guy theorists might spend 5 years debating “Otaku” in magazines and on culture panels — the women fans keep quiet and do their thing. Between rights-holders, real-life gay folk chiding them for misrepresentation and prurience, plus local, prefectural and federal political opportunists who randomly decide that an anti-pornography moral panic is long overdue, women fans keep a low profile even as they churn out ever-growing mountains of DIY smut (and plenty of happy huggy not too rude takes as well — it’s not all raunch. There are even original character stories in the pile, somewhere…).
With an organically evolved women’s fan consumer and producer tradition anchored in fanzines, a corpus of shortcuts and formalisms quickly evolved. One was undoubtedly born out of printing costs and page limits. Perhaps that is why some theorists argue today that yaoi is an obsolete category, even to describe Japanese fan-created, parody (aniparo) narratives. Printing costs per page are far more reasonable so contemporary efforts should have room for more plot and characterisation, instead of little but money-shot smut-scene pages. The pressure not to waste pages when they were difficult and expensive to create and print was a powerful force shaping the genre: cut to “the good stuff”. This practice became what was (and may still be) called ‘yaoi’ — a term derived from an older Japanese literary term of art for mise-en-scene or tableau works. Fine points of usage, history and definitions are easy enough to find.
Oh heck, that wikipedia excerpt:
“The term yaoi is an acronym created in the late 1970s by Yasuko Sakata and Akiko Hatsu from the words Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi (山[場]なし、落ちなし、意味なし) “No peak (climax), no fall (punch line/denouement), no meaning”. This phrase was first used as a “euphemism for the content” and refers to how yaoi, as opposed to the “difficult to understand” shōnen-ai being produced by the Year 24 Group female manga authors, focused on “the yummy parts”. The phrase also parodies a classical style of plot structure. Kubota Mitsuyoshi says that Osamu Tezuka used yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi to dismiss poor quality manga, and this was appropriated by the early yaoi authors. As of 1998, the term yaoi was considered “common knowledge to manga fans”. A joking alternative yaoi acronym among fujoshi (female yaoi fans) is Yamete, oshiri ga itai (やめて お尻が 痛い, “Stop, my ass hurts!”).”
Along the way, a quick set of rules for intimate dynamics between the two hapless guys soon took shape. One character came on strong and another was going to need convincing. Someone was going to be the aggressor and someone was going to act passive. A whole lot of simplifications were probably made up by getting wrong ideas from reading late 1970’s gay magazine dating classifieds — where else would a bunch of lady cartoonists go for background research? Mix with overwrought re-statements of heterosexual romance cliches and serve steaming hot. When the fangirls (women, fen) got together at doujin-swapping meet-ups and conventions and needed a quick classification and tagging system to print catalogs so everyone could find their favourites and get some idea about what was between the covers, I’m betting that once again they lifted the underlying organizing scheme, if not whole parts of the layout design from those gay guy magazine dating ads. There was no computer desktop publishing in 1977. Folks had to re-use what was already out there.
Now you have half of my stalled 5 part theory wank; The Naming of Parts, the other half involving stencil cut mimeographs. Wise of the Japanese patriarchy NOT to make it an absolute rule that only women could work at handgun assembly factories but they slipped up big time when it came to document copying duties at school and at work. One day, I’ll…
These formalisms are shorthanded as the seme x uke pairing rule. In practice, there are shelf-loads of variations for either, with each variant combination suggesting a modular set of plot possibilities. This helps to encourage high volumes of standardized output from amateur fan producers. Dungeons and Dragons fantasy plot mechanics arrived late in Japan but serves a roughly parallel purpose for male-gaze fantasy narratives; it makes spinning out iterated story-lines easy. Fujoshi were already doing something like intuitively rolling the dice with their appropriated characters – though usually with far more nuance. The “original” behavior traits of characters that make up a particular pairing would suggest a set of possible interaction tropes: how many other fujoshi would see and agree as to how well this take could “fit”? What alternative variations could be advanced? Upon what basis? This gets simplified for outsiders as the fujoshi “pairing fight”. Endlessly entertaining, yet to the casual observer in Japan, or to enthusiastic (mostly) women fans in “the west” (who had been doing related explorations since they decided that Kirk and Spock needed to get to know each other much better), these “rules” initially appeared far simpler than they were:
Unfortunately, the variations on seme and uke characters had very little to say about who was supposed to be or could be clingy. Or prone to seeking casual skinship. Or more likely to reach over and grab their lover’s hand while the two are out for a walk. Or steal a kiss or a nuzzle. The rulebook was all tops and bottoms, to the exclusion of more nuanced behavior traits.
A further problem lay in how the rulebook gleefully over-re-worked the spectre of “Too Het” when it came time to bonk. Uke is going to get pounded in the butt by seme because anal penetration is some ultimate display of trust and vulnerability yadda yadda yadda as well as an obvious and relatable analogue to heterosexual reproductive intercourse. Also the readership finds it amusing, if not poignant. Even more fun comes from the play between the original character dynamics of the guys in the adventure series and what they are chivvied into doing. The strong hero locked in a grudge with his longtime rival. Awwwwwww. If only they could BE MADE to realise that all that anger was hiding something… deeper.. feelings… shameful… yet… can’t stop thinking of him…
Here’s a 2000-ish typology that was written, partially as a joke piece describing 1980’s and 1990 yaoi sex scenes. The genre has evolved since but this is a trace of an amazingly resilient tradition. It also tracks closely with the yaoi-ish BL alluded to in Kio Shimoku’s Genshiken (Ohno, Ogiue c.a: 2004, anime 2007) and then by the fangirls in Genshiken Nidaime‘s club (2009-2015).
“C. Mating ritual
Seme and uke exchange calls. ‘Kawaigatte yaru.’ ‘Iya da!’ ‘Omae wa kawaisugiru.’ ‘Hanase!’ ‘Ashi wo hiraite.’ ‘I-iya da. Ngh! Aaahhh–‘
Seme sucks uke’s groin area. This makes uke’s anus lubricate. (Note: this first step is optional. Usually in short stories it’s the uke who sucks the seme’s groin area.)
Seme sticks finger into uke’s anus, draws it out covered in either lubricating liquid or blood, according to taste. Licks finger.
Seme manipulates uke’s glowing cone of light (qv). This makes uke’s anus lubricate more.
Uke comes, blowing bubbles from his mouth.
Seme penetrates uke’s dripping anus while manipulating uke’s overflowing phantom penis (qv). Uke comes repeatedly while crying and biting on his arm.
Change of position. (Mandatory) If they begin with uke on his hands and knees, this is followed by uke lying on his back, uke sitting on the seme’s lap facing outward, or uke sitting on seme’s lap facing him (the Preferred Position for the [uke’s] final orgasm.)
Sex is over when uke has no more bodily fluids left in him. Uke says either at that point or next day, ‘Datte ore wa (seme’s name) ga suki da.’ (But I really love you, Seme’s Name.) This is intended to explain why uke has put up with rape and /or all those unwanted multiple orgasms at (literally) the seme’s hands.”
Mary Jeanne Johnson, Yaoi Field Guide, Aestheticism.com (est ca 2000) archived at:
Atavisms aside, a few other particulars are noteworthy. No one has any premature-ness or impotence problems and the uke, as sometimes-woman-analogue enjoys/ suffers multiple ejeculative orgasms. From other discussions on this trope, it was also traditional that the seme (aggressor) locks themselves into a silent (or grunting) frenzy of thrusting and does not come until the very end. This is because he is emotionally inarticulate and yet consumed with mad possessive lust. Did I mention the STFU part? A note to fujoshi’s boyfriends may be in order.
Fine, fine; straight sex in manga looks like humping and BL/yaoi sex looks like humping. Doujinshi aniparo yaoi looks like overdone humping. It all looks like humping. I have no complaint with humping either in theory or practice BUT IS THAT ALL YE KNOW AND ALL YE NEED TO KNOW? Like, even if you are going to get there, must the rules and conventions all dictate a relentless dash to the hump finish line, to the exclusion of all but the most token nods to any other fun along the way?
Are you still going on about printing costs?
By the standards of any “smells like Too Het” checklist, the over-emphasis on anal intercourse appears to come dangerously close to a fixation on symbolically re-enacting straight reproductive sex for straight women readers, at the expense of a more nuanced presentation. If not, then why didn’t the lads do a whole lot of somethings else? The women creators and fans argue that bad romance play acting — including all the rapey- because- they- are- guys- they- grab- first- and- bullshit- later- when- addled- by- lust stuff — is performative and turns the real-life dangerous nastiness that women have to put up with, back onto guys – to be re-enacted out as entertaining spectacle and fetish.
Besides, add the rotten girls; “they don’t always hump. Sometimes they go shopping together for curtains.”
Hey wait! Weren’t they supposed to be sworn enemies? “Yup; that’s why they hurl ritual insults and talk dirty at each other as foreplay.”
Can’t they at least cuddle? “Sometimes, but they both have to be snowed in by a blizzard in a mountain cabin; one of them badly injured and the stove running low on firewood. Someone could freeze to death if they didn’t…”
I’m feeling woozy. Sounds like a giant steaming pile of stale clichés, mixed in with rough pr0n, turned up to 11 and smeared onto hapless, innocent shonen manga guy heroes. They wouldn’t do that and you can’t go claiming that all shonen action-adventure heroes are secretly gay!
“That may be changing, and who said anything about them being gay. If even one of them was gay it would be boring because — pauses to choose words so it doesn’t sound like the fujoshi project considers all “real” gay guys man-sluts — …it is more romantic when forbidden love strikes like lightning, they go mad with shame and desire and then suddenly the two are shouting: “I’m not gay it’s only you!””
Rotten girls don’t care what or who get trampled by your fantasies, as long as they look like guys.
This does not bode well for the “everybody’s fujoshi girlfriend” effect; the mid-2000’s conceit, played out in the first Genshiken, that if a guy otaku could get past the disquieting hobby reading materials enjoyed by fujoshi, one might be able to hook up with a very adventurous girlfriend. Smells like “Too Het” is still underfoot all over the place and her comics aren’t much better than Futari Ecchi back issues for inspiration. Retreat each to your respective work and household same-sex socials and drift apart like proper Japanese couples.
Except that fun yaoi-ish thin books are only part of the BL tradition. At this point I am way past being in the perilous position of “mansplaining” BL. What I don’t know about the genre could fill 3 exhibition halls at Comiket. Nevertheless I have noticed a few things in my extremely limited forays into the genre. Commercially published BL is far more into narrative and character dynamics than money-shot panel doujins. All the theory and experts in the genre stress that the inter-relational dynamics between characters and how this emphasis in the narrative is almost an invisible, omnipresent secondary character — or at least “meta-setting” for BL romance stories. And since they are drawn as cartoons, it is not surprising that a mangaka would show it as well as say it.
Another stream of theory on BL advances the notion that BL guys are composite characters; either upgraded men or male field exploration units that afford women readers the opportunity to enjoy reworked romance tropes in settings where the characters have agency, independence, male strength and do not have to deal with the everyday, inescapable grind of institutional sexism and objectification. Not surprising then that one of these upgrades or freedoms, along with the freedom to love outside of society’s norms would also be to express simple physical intimacies with far less reserve than uptight heterosexual couples can. Just two buds rough-housing. Ain’t male friendship wonderfully untroubled and pure? (squeee…)
“This rule-book seems to be full of exceptions!”
At this point in this essay should trot out a long list of titles with excerpt panels to advance this point but as I am feeling ornery, I will drag out a negative example, an exception that may or may not “prove the rule”.
Kinou Nani Tabeta?/ What Did You Eat Yesterday?
Seinen manga by Fumi Yoshinaga.
Weekly Morning Magazine, Kodansha, November 22, 2007 – present 14 Volumes
What Did You Eat Yesterday? at first looked to me like a lite BL replay of Cooking Papa. Happy couple, the “salaryman” does most of the cooking for their partner both because he enjoys cooking and as a sign of affection. Yoshinaga-sensei is a near-legendary shoujo mangaka [https://www.mangaupdates.com/authors.html?id=638] who also has fun with an ongoing BL doujin series. A BL mangaka suggests a BL series. When I skimmed over the first few chapters, what struck me was how the author had gone out of her way to remove any indication that this relationship was in any way unlike a mundane heterosexual cohabiting relationship. Respectable, restrained, recipes at the end of each chapter.
It took a disappointed review from a senior blogger to point out to me what I had missed:
“I was very much looking forward to a story in which the protagonist is gay, has a relationship and then the story happens, but very disappointed with the lack of any connection between Shiro and Kenji. They may as well have been roommates. Shiro’s gayness is both talked about and shown as normal, but completely stripped of any affection of any kind. Shiro shows no tenderness towards his lover, his family, his coworkers, clients or self.”
–Erica Friedman, “LGBTQ Manga: What Did You Eat Yesterday? (English)” Okazu (blog) April 9th, 2014, http://okazu.yuricon.com/2014/04/09/lgbtq-manga-what-did-you-eat-yesterday-english/
So I went back and skimmed through it again. I didn’t even have to read much because I was looking for actions, not words. Touching, skinship, hugs, glomps (a term I will use as shorthand for the ubiquitous BL hug-from-behind), where are they? It is not as if the couple are completely devoid of concern for each other but the story appears dead set on hinting poignantly at it, in the manner of the “things unsaid” school of relationship stories. This might be just a bit too nuanced. Or is this a variation on the old BL chestnut that men are emotionally inarticulate?
Tabeta is not really a BL manga but neither is it a modern gei-comi. It appears instead to be some manner of “gay guy couples are non-threatening, boring and reserved, even more than straight couples” exercise created for a straight audience (perhaps even an especially rotten audience) to de-fetishize Japanese gay males. For some reason, that appears to also mean NO CUDDLES! Lookie, they don’t climb all over each other when they get home. They are exactly as emotionally cauterised as stereotypical manga/ anime straight married couples. Mid 40’s gay “Cooking Papa” endlessly gripes about the household food budget. Aside from Kenji cutting Shiro’s hair and praising the meals and Shiro once patting his head in reassurance, no physical contact is shown, let alone hinted to be happening off-stage.
As a project to de-fetishize gay guys to a Japanese “mainstream” readership, the later Otōto no Otto/My Brother’s Husband by Gengoroh Tagame does a far more accessible job even if the didacticism of both projects is visible just below their surfaces. Tabeta tries too hard and over-restates the manga/ pop-culture cliché of the sexless, relentlessly utilitarian and uncommunicative Japanese heterosexual marriage. Heck, Tabeta is almost as grim and functional as a Showa era arranged marriage.
I suspect heavy-handed editorial pressure. Maintain course and speed, do not divert. do not engage. Do not frighten any straight-gaze horses with any sign of same-sex physical affection or play to any BL tropes for the straight-gaze audience!
Again; no cuddling!
Kinou Nani Tabeta? is anti-BL drawn by a BL mangaka (1)
In contrast to Tabeta, what few contemporary “happy, huggy” BL stories I have stumbled upon are not shy when it comes to showing physical affection beyond intercourse. Furtive touches, hugs, glomps, whispered words and all the other tiny little displays of affection, longing and desire that one used to expect from (heterosexual) romance are out in force.
If some evil gummint conspiracy turned the “don’t touch me !!!” ray on the straight characters, it seems to have had no effect on the queer charas within their midst. In fact, it is as if these characters now bear the burden of acting such tender gestures out for the rest of us.
What of made-by-and-for-gay-guys gay comics; gei-comi and/or bara? I plead complete ignorance, with a lack of descriptive academic historical surveys – at least those contemporary with the rise of women’s BL to the present – as mitigating factor. Before that, guy gay owned any discussions of minority sexualities and gender expressions in historical Japan, starting with monks and samurai page-boys through to post WWII dodgy popular science-of-sex magazines. [See this post for a quick survey tour: https://heartsoffuriousfancies.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/your-own-private-game-of-laplace/]
Straight folks sticking our noses into gay magazines are going to walk away with all kinds of wrong in our heads anyway, unless we have some background in sociology and anthropology and can recognise how competing visions of in-flux social identities can be proposed, advanced and advocated for through pop culture discourse. Thomas Baudinette has a number of essays on how geography and identity interact in the Tokyo region gay communities as such identities are reinforced and contested. Recently he also has published an interesting introductory survey of evolving themes in Japanese gei manga magazines, with a classification tally for a few years of one of them. (“An evaluation of physicality in the bara manga of Bádi magazine” https://www.academia.edu/2654198/An_evaluation_of_physicality_in_the_bara_manga_of_B%C3%A1di_magazine see also his other articles in the bibliography section). There remains enough grad-student tally-to-database work left with publications within the time from the mid-1970’s to the present to fuel a few decades of masters and doctoral theses. Eventually straight folks who do too much kitchen sink sociology and need a wikipedia summary and/or fujoshis looking for realism tips will have an easier, lazier time of it.
For now, the practicality of raiding gei-comi to increase the general vocabulary of physical intimacy visual tropes remains unknown.
The same cannot be said of what, at first glance appears to represent lesbian desire.
Next post, part 3: Yuri (which is taking longer than I thought…)
(1) …and that is all I am going to venture on Tabeta, although folks with a taste for speculative pattern matching may want to hunt up a Deb Aoki-involved convention panel report, plus a subsequent interview with Gengoroh Tagame and indulge in wild, if pointless conjectures as to the calculating ruthlessness of Japanese publishing companies.