The paper tigers roar at noon: Mizutama Honey Boy

“The number of persons or institutions by whom the existence of gay people–never mind the existence of more gay people–is treated as a precious desideratum [something wanted], a needed condition of life, is small, even compared to those who may wish for the dignified treatment of any gay people who happen already to exist. Advice on how to make sure your kids turn out gay, not to mention your students, your parishioners, your therapy clients, or your military subordinates is less ubiquitous than you might think. By contrast, the scope of institutions whose programmatic undertaking is to prevent the development of gay people is unimaginably large…”
— Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet (1990)

“Anthropologist David Graeber argues that we must move beyond the definition of value in terms of the economistic individual evaluating objects’ exchange value or use value and beyond the overly holistic and static structure of a society’s ‘values’, because neither is much help in developing social theory that accommodate people’s efforts to [change society purposefully] [ital mine]. Instead, Graeber encourages us ‘to look at social systems as structures of 
creative action, and value, as how people measure the importance of their own actions within such structures’ (Graeber, 2001: 230). I am interested in seeing what thinking in terms of characters and premises might do as a kind of ‘operating system’ on which dispersed participants work in their particular areas of expertise. Few people within the process feel that they have a tremendous amount of ‘power’, but they would likely concede that as a group they work towards common, or at least somewhat shared, notions 
of value. As one anime producer said to me in an August 2006 interview in which he discussed his enjoyment of script meetings, ‘You get hooked (hamacchau). You like the characters. They become like friends, and you want to spend time with them.”
Anime Creativity Characters and Premises in the Quest for Cool Japan by Ian Condry

The attraction of the manga narrative lies precisely in that it is not great literature. It a simple, small machine that sets out to do one thing.

MIZUTAMA HONEY BOY/ 水玉ハニーボーイ; 水珠HoneyBoy
Released: 2015 Author/Artist: Ike Junko.
Genres: Comedy, Romance, School Life, Shoujo, Sports

Honey boy frontspiece C0p4

(Mild spoilers ensue)

They riddle and corrupt the heart

Aside from a few publicly funded art galleries who go hunting for “inclusive content” to assure their next year’s grants, some of the oddest examples of “want more hoyay” can be currently found in Contemporary Japanese Visual Culture and the vernacular narratives that it spins out. Paradoxically, these are overwhelmingly straight-created fantasies of gay, lesbian, queer, trans*, inter-sex, asexual or just plain “non-conforming” identities and desires. Even if some of the creators are from minority identities, the overwhelming majority of their readers remain vanilla, boring “straight”. These go to their manga to dream in queer. That they so dare, in their society which is so fixated on outward shows of conformity and homogeneity, makes these dreams transgressive and that much more appealing. Those “in the (real) life” get to shrug their shoulders (or roll their eyes and grit their teeth) and wonder if the column inches are worth the confusion. The stuff is annoying, it seems to get in the way of realistic depictions of sexual and gender minorities but on the other hand, it does some small work pointing out a degree of dissatisfaction the mechanistic societal ideas about who should do what, why and to whom. Meanwhile a lot of weird manga characters get whomped up and turned loose to run about finding the true love that threatens to elude their readership.

Shoujo manga, seems to lead the way as the go-to genre for characters and stories that push at and play with the normative assumptions surrounding identity, sexuality, desire and gender conformity, all while at the same time-serving as a reservoir of stories that exalt frighteningly conformist ideals of the status quo. The real estate covered is sprawling, the inhabitants unruly and the readership more varied than one would first imagine. Shy girls find strong, good-looking boyfriends just as often as girl princes ride off into the sunset with rose maidens, cheered on by happy seme x uke BL couples. Many theorists from Rachel Matt Thorn on have pointed out that the shoujo genre has a habit of pushing boundaries and nibbling away at convention. Yup, it’s just romance tales for young women, pay not attention to the weird stuff behind the curtains but if you are wont to pay attention, why waste any effort on a piece of fluff like Honey Boy? This one is not only odd, but “wonky” in the sense that its pieces don’t quite fit together properly, or rather they hold together just well enough for fluff.

The harmless paper tiger bears strong fascination for the young

The first problem is the mangaka, Ike Junko. Honey Boy is penned by a very shoujo mangaka, an up-and-coming talent whose one-shots have been popping up in Lala Magazine since 2011. []

Lala’s readership is, per 2009 figures;

“97% female while the other 3% are male readers. Its age demographic consists of 4% percent for under-13 readers, 23.4% for readers aged 13–17, 20% for readers aged 18–20, 13% for readers aged 21–23 while the remaining 29.7% of the readers are aged 24 years old and up.[3] Readers aged 24 and up are the demographic of the highest percentage.[3]”
– ibid Wikipedia Lala

Previous/ other works by the mangaka include: See You Again (2011), Sabaku no Requiem (2011), Bear Bear (2012), Tsubakizaka Tricolor (2012), Sora no Yousei (2013) and The Thief and the Jewel Girl (2013), all are standard shoujo fare, some set in high schools and others in fantasy settings. The characterization, dialogue, action and emotional display center around the young heroine and sometimes include her female friends. The guys are all pretty standard bishie teen guys who the heroine can get interested in and happily-ever-after on.

Honey Boy drops a young gay-boy stereotype into the mix and then makes him straight.

Superficially, it looks like Ike Junko is a fan of Ayumi Komura’s Usotsuki Lily. Mizutama Honey Boy reads like an homage to it, or at least some of its female characters. Bits of Morinaga Miruku also seem to pop up out of the whirlpool and I’m sure I am missing the footnotes for an entire stadium full of venerable shoujo manga tropes and quirks.

What is a level-headed, competent and strong young woman to do, besides transferring to an all-girl’s school?

All the boys in high school are scared of Mei Sengoku (that family name!) or consider her a weird “warrior girl” or a “Samurai” and too many girls are writing her confession letters. Does she have to start deferring to any and all loudmouth young guys and/or walking pigeon-toed in order to have a normal high school life? Should she cut her hair short and go for the bifauxnen vibe? It would make for less time in the shower after a good sweaty Kendo workout. At least she isn’t being bullied (the women’s Kendo team captain? bullied? By definition she is un-bully-able), but still she feels something is missing.

Sengoku-san is a strong female lead, beautiful, intelligent and heroic in her day-to-day life. She doesn’t act deferential and soft-spoken and neither does she act genki or delinquent in order to pull it off. When she walks, she walks like a person who is going some place rather than a knock-kneed baby woodlands creature. She cuts a striking figure in her hakama and is seldom seen, even in civies without her shinai case. What she wants is to get on with her Kendo practice, keep her grades up, help people who need her help and make a few friends.

They drink no blood, they taste no meat

Perhaps in a more typical setting the boys would be all over ms. warrior. She is constructed as one of, if not the most beautiful woman in her school. There should be the athletic good guy and the slightly dangerous delinquent-ish guy competing for her attention, but they are nowhere in sight. Instead…

Shirou Fuji has family circumstances; a mom who wanted another daughter and a classically away-on-business father. A bishonen who runs more than a bit over the herbivore line to the point of effeminacy, his gender performance is nuanced towards what he likes (mostly domestic home-ec-ish stuff) rather than a full-on roll-out of cartoon dysphoria. That is if you look close enough. At first glance he is what can be un-charitably described as a flaming pooftah. His worst fault is that he is over-supportive to the point of being a parody of a classic helpful female chara. He is a boy Morinaga Miruku home-ec club heroine who won’t stop baking cookies and cakes for the one he admires. And yup, he makes a tasty bento too.

Make no mistake though, he is straight enough (or functionally straight enough) to thoroughly desire Warrior girl. He may like frilly things, might even crossdress every so often for situational reasons (Make mom happy, school festival, etc. this variant of shoujo is too chaste to suggest any kink) and may view intimacy only as a subset of overblown romance, but he is after her bod as well as her heart. He wants to marry her. He isn’t too particular about who will wear the bride’s outfit as long as Sengoku-san ends up standing next to him. More than a gender inversion of teen dating tropes, it is as if he has decided to do a full-on faux-yuri girl-crush on Warrior Girl, piled on top of every cliche of demonstrating domestic skill as courting that can be dredged from the pages of the shoujo genre…

With one glaring exception; he will be there to protect her.

Honey Boy has twigged to the fact that warrior girl can’t be in %100 full fighting trim all the time. Every hero needs backup and Honey Boy will be there to take the hit whenever she needs a moment to get her twisted ankle taped up. A guy will put himself on the line to protect the girl he has feelings for – them’s the rules. Once upon a time she carried him to the school infirmary and he will carry her as many times as needed to prove how moved he was by the experience. Whether or not he can pull off his odd courtship is where the fun comes in. Being strong is important to Warrior Girl, and she wants to be powerful enough to protect herself and those she cares for, so she is extremely conflicted about his efforts or even how she fits into his romantic notions.

yes you can Honeyboy C0p42

Both Warrior Girl and Honey Boy are straight yet superficially inverted variations on their proper assigned gender roles, though he is clearly a more fantastic construction, whomped up to serve as a foil for the “problems” that her independence creates. Guy’s manga have plenty of initially scary high achieving high school heroines, all with secret weaknesses and flaws ready to be exploited by a harem lead; in that respect Sengoku-san is drawn and superficially resembles any number of tall, dark-haired formidable and supposedly unapproachable high school beauties. On the shoujo side of the street, she most closely resembles Uso Lily‘s (and Sword Fighter Komachi‘s) Ashiya Komachi.

The small romantic bits are secondary to the what-if speculation about what kind of guy can be a comfortable and fun match for a high-achieving heroine, even as it carries the question off into a series of comedy skits. Honey Boy may be fey, but the cookies are good (not -too- sweet), he is solicitous to a fault, supportive, there for her in a pinch, doesn’t over-talk her, has empathy power to 9000 and shows enough attraction – including physical attraction – to flatter but never crosses the line. In short he is posited as an unlikely but almost perfect fantasy boyfriend for the young female readership; if they ever decided that they wanted to act in a self-confident, strong and forthright manner. And he is gently, persistently and actively courting her. He has promised that he won’t give up and he doesn’t, but neither does he overwhelm her (At first it looked like he was, but the over-gifting turned out to be the work of an otaku stalker)

The first problem with Honey Boy develops from the narrative structure borne out of the inversion. More and more screen time is spent on Honey Boy, until we almost have two girl leads, with both of them occasionally popping back into hetero-normative behaviour during romantic situations, then reverting to inverted roles to defuse the tension. Usotsuki Lily used to do this to great effect; the cross-dressing male lead “glowed” even more than the girl the day after they finally consummated their long romance. Somehow what worked with an average girl and a straight boy into crossdressing is unstable when it is done with a tsundere and effeminate quasi-gay guy.

In both instances:

“”The underlying perception of (girlish) femininity as unfavorable, is exemplified in the monographs by Fujimoto Yukari and Oshiyama Michiko. Fujimoto’s Where is my place in the world? (1998), one of the most frequently cited works in shōjo manga studies. Based on her extensive experience as a magazine editor, Fujimoto offers close readings of shōjo manga through the concept of gender.
Fujimoto argues that shōjo manga represents girl readers’ fear of sexuality, and hence their perception of “femininity,” a word which she uses almost synonymously with “female sexuality” in a derogatory tone (50). For Fujimoto, shōjo manga is a medium for women, a text that reflects the values of women most accurately, including the ideology of romance, which teaches female readers to dedicate themselves to love, whether mutual or unrequited (14). Men, she writes, do not fall into that “trap” because they know romance is another name for lust (25). Her negative casting of “femininity” is also evident in her interpretation of Boys’ Love, where she endorses the view that “beautiful boys” in shōjo manga (and yaoi) are nothing more than girls without the female body, and are hence liberated from (unfavorable) feminine sexuality, which for her is synonymous with passivity and objectification in the beginning (142-3).

Manga Studies #7: Shōjo Manga Research: The Legacy of Women Critics and Their Gender-Based Approach by Masafumi Monden

Honey Boy also seems to play out a rather simple form of a longstanding tradition of proto-feminist complaint; Welker noted it in a study of 40-year-old Japanese gay magazines. (Flower Tribes and Female Desire: Complicating Early Female Consumption of Male Homosexuality in Shōjo Manga by James Welker)  It periodically resurfaces; this 2012 viral YouTube short re-purposes it to a contemporary cause

Gay Men Will Marry Your Girlfriends []

Honey Boy also harkens back to the early 20th century Koha and Nampa typologies of Japanese male behaviour. Recall that the “soft” Nampa tribe was far more appealing to and by most accounts also more interested in women. The “hard” Koha were male isolationists, valuing a male homosocial, if not exclusive desire for males.

A further echo of this pops up in late 1970’s and early 1980’s western queer theory.
Per Sedgewick:

“According to that framework, there were essentially no valid grounds of commonality between gay male and lesbian experience and identity; to the contrary, women-loving women and men-loving men must be at precisely opposite ends of the gender spectrum. The assumptions at work here were indeed radical ones: most important, as we’ll be discussing further in the next chapter, the stunningly efficacious re-visioning, in female terms, of same-sex desire as being at the very definitional center of each gender, rather than as occupying a cross-gender or liminal position between them. Thus, women who loved women were seen as more female, men who loved men as quite possibly more male, than those whose desire crossed boundaries of gender. The axis of sexuality, in this view, was not only exactly coextensive with the axis of gender but expressive of its most heightened essence: “Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.” By analogy, male homosexuality could be, and often was, seen as the practice for which male supremacy was the theory. A particular reading of modern gender history was, of course, implicit in and in turn propelled by this gender-separatist framework.
– Ibid Sedwick Ch1 p36

So, gender non-conforming Honey Boy is less suitable for same-sex desire as he presents as less manly? This is complicated! Brain hurts!

For the young women readers, Honey Boy posits an extreme makeover of the qualities of an ideal boyfriend while it highlights, again in extremis, the dog-work behind the ideal of a proper supportive (usually female) role held up to them in their fave reading materials. All of the cookies, bento, cheering for their crush at sports events, walking home, waiting with the umbrella on rainy afternoons, shopping dates, skiving off from your school festival duties to fill in for a last-minute drop on your crush’s team, taking their place piloting the giant robot…

Having a Japanese high school crush is a heck of a lot of hard work!

This however leads to a further problem: as an effeminate male who is considered as verging toward gay by his classmates, he wields the threat of same-sex desire as a weaponised cliché against male aggression. Usotsuki Lily had a bit of this too, but when the trick is transposed from crossdresser-lite to okama-lite the undertones are meaner.

Fuit weaponized Honey Boy C1p32

There is however a floral background character portrait (Yo! Kio Shimoku! Still waiting…)

It could be worse; at least Honey Boy is not nominally attracted to other guys and Warrior Girl is a case of “only you”, although the possibility of such a dynamic lies lurking as an extra frisson for the readers. Honey boy feels good old-fashioned heterosexual male lust, but he doesn’t need to fake any romantic slip-covers for it; like the pseudo-gay males of BL, romance and lust are inseparable aspects of his unified desire. This is something that conventional straight males are supposedly incapable of. They are too self-absorbed and too busy over-reacting to hide their discomfort with the idea of subsuming any part of their nascent identity to another’s happiness.

Will Honey Boy “man up” for true love? What does that mean? Are the parts where Honey Boy earnestly declares he desire for Sengoku more “heterosexual” and “true” to his male nature than baking cookies?

The primacy of America’s most popular threesome, two dudes and an Xbox, is safe.” – The Lobster Dance, a blog.

When Honey Boy tries to use his gay threat nonsense to dissuade the not-really-a-suitor Kendo Boy from pestering Warrior Girl, he ends up making a rash wager and gets clueless Kendo Boy as a third wheel. After all, Kendo Boy promised he’d “go out with him” if the wager was lost. Kendo Boy may be an idiot but he doesn’t care one way or another about the norms surrounding sexuality, he probably doesn’t even care about intimacy or desire either. He just wants to perfect his kendo on everyone (and any critters) who stands in his way. At least he has one redeeming quality though; he loves his five unruly siblings and they love him.

A happy family is after all the good ending for a shoujo story. It helps to validate it within the narrative. Happy offspring will be raised and a living for them and two adults will earned, even if someone has to run the family dojo and someone else has to work at a pastry shop part-time and take care of the kids. Salaryman and shufu-hood as a future looks pretty remote for non-conformist couples of all kinds, but the dream of a cottage business is still dear enough in the hearts of the Japanese readership to paper over that problem.

They roar in chorus, not in tune

The expression of sexuality and gender and its place in our modern societies is a work in progress and the big stumble seems to be finding a nice simple rubric that can explain and organize everything and facilitate a societal consensus. The current liberal compromise in the West, especially the United States is that “presentation of self” eventually manifests innate characteristics and since these are innate it is profoundly immoral to social engineer against them. (as long as these stick to consenting adults, etc., etc..) Besides, creation arranged it that way for a reason, therefore there must be a benefit to its expression; natural is good, authentic is good. For want of a better term, I call this “the doctrine of authenticity“.

The drawbacks to taking this too far are obvious.

On the other end of the nightmare wasteland of easy answers lies the great promise of the social order as a construct and of its malleability. Secular prescriptive systems, the sociological and radical programs that supplant earlier religious attempts to mold societies all posit absolute faith that if social arrangements and structures are tweaked to reward and punish behaviors and expressions, then paradise is at hand; except for the sad need to break a few eggs for the perfect omelet to come. Since societies are a billion times harder to turn than ocean going oil tankers, the lag effects always call for more egg breaking.

Of course there are ways of negotiating between these extremes, but they are a bit hard to explain in a soundbite, and therefore far less satisfying or useful. When you try to yoke these onto a simple story line you sometimes get a brilliant synthesis, other times you get a hot mess, or worse, a warm one.

Innate is Honey Boy’s posited full fledged desire for Warrior Girl and her fluttering heart when his true feelings reach her. Learned is her masculine-ish warrior devotion to “getting stronger so I can protect” and his over-supportive interests in the domestic arts. It helps that both of them are idealized physical types; this story would be far more odd (and ambitious) if he looked like Genshiken’s Madarame and she looked like Yajimachi.

A bride img000022

All the above might drag a bit too much baggage into a simple romantic comedy manga aimed (primarily) at young women. Shoujo manga story lines and characters offer subtle variations to well-loved, well established standards; they are designed to be comforting familiar and reassuring. What remains, after all the tricks and inversions can be seen as the distillation of what is supposed to be safe and appreciated.

The one thing that seems to remain constant in shoujo manga is the romance. So far Honey Boy has used the residual tropes of physical attraction in a way that breaks the inversion spell and drops the characters back into their proper gender roles, if only for instants of hearts skipping a beat and forceful “I will have youtete-a- tete declarations of love. The guy is still proposing, the woman disposing. This is the catechism of shoujo manga, which is also one of its blind spots considering how often girls and women have to take the lead in real-life romance and even, yes, lust. So one would hope that the mangaka kicks it up a notch and finds some reason for Sengoku-san to pin Honey Boy against a wall and make his heart do a few doki dokis too.

Alas the current chances for Honey Boy’s fluttering heart are slim. Sengoku-san may occasionally have a glimmer of feelings for him, but she will continue to brush these away, because she has effectively friend-zoned him – or he had friend-zoned himself. The message is clear; not masculine enough is not good enough for a shoujo heroine.

So much for transgression.