Love, Sex, and Power in Fruits Basket

I wrote about Akito Sohma’s internal and interpersonal struggle with power in Fruits Basket, and how her story shows us what healing looks like for AnimeFeminist! This piece was in the works for a long time, and I’m incredibly grateful to my editor and the AniFem staff for their hard work in helping it come together. I hope you all enjoy!

Experiencing abuse from a young age, lacking a healthy vision of how to love and be loved, can resonate through a victim’s life for years, even decades. This is explored thoughtfully and compassionately in the classic shoujo manga Fruits Basket.

The series tells the story of the Sohmas, a family cursed to transform into animals of the Chinese zodiac when embraced by a member of the other sex. Not only does it grapple with a legacy of abuse, but it also raises profound questions about the nature of love and power and explores the role sex plays in both. These themes come through particularly clearly in the head of the family and “God” of the Zodiac, Akito.

Click here to read the full post!

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Noda Sensei endorses BL work “Yuki to Matsu”

Some fun BL news from back in January; thanks for the rec, Noda-sensei!

Kamuy Central

SourceChil Chil,Natalie

Noda Satoru has given his endorsement to a BL work, Yuki to Matsu,by Takahashi Hidebu. His endorsement appears on the obi (belly-band) ofthe second bookof the series.

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Feminist Fujoshi and Fanthropological: A fan’s-eye view of BL fans

Hey everyone! The Nickscast, the guys behind the podcast Fanthropological were kind enough to bring me on to talk about my experiences with BL fandom; we had a great time talking about the politics, peculiarities, and personal significance of BL and BL fans. You can find the episode on fanthropological.com and your favorite podcatcher!

Also, we forgot to bring it up on the recording, but if, like the Nicks, you’re new to BL and not sure where to start, check out Khursten Santos’ BL Manga Starter Kit on her blog Otaku Champloo. It really showcases the diversity of BL manga and suggests some series that are personal favorites of mine. Also check out the 100% Consensual BL List hosted right here on FeministFujoshi! You can find TheNickcast on twitch, twitter, and their website. If you liked what you heard here, be sure to go show them some appreciation!

2018 Boys’ Love Anime Announcements

Via AnimeNewsNetwork:

Yarichin Bitch-bu

TOHO began streaming a promotional video on Saturday revealing an anime adaptation of Tanaka Ogeretsu’s boys love Yarichin Bitch-bu (Playboy Bitch Club) manga. The anime’s “first episode” will be an original anime DVD (OAD) that will bundle with a limited edition version of the manga’s third compiled book volume on September 21.

Ten Count

The wraparound jacket band on the sixth and final volume of Rihito Takarai’s Ten Count boys-love manga revealed on Monday that the manga is getting an anime adaptation.

Dakaretai Otoko 1-i ni Odosarete Imasu

Aniplex opened a website on Sunday to announce that Hashigo Sakurabi’s Dakaretai Otoko 1-i ni Odosarete Imasu. (The Most Huggable Man Has Threatened Me) manga is getting a television anime adaptation that will premiere this year.

Clearly it’s an exciting time for BL anime adaptations! Still, although we could get adaptations that toss the bring out the best in both series while minimizing their flaws, I’m pretty apprehensive about Yarichin and Ten Count in particular. I would love to see the anime throw out the consent issues in Yarichin while maintaining the manga’s irreverent, unashamedly explicit tone, and for the troubling romanticism of Ten Count to be forgone in favor of something darker and more intentional in its depiction of a relationship based in manipulation and unequal power. It’s also possible that these adaptations will be perfectly faithful to the flaws of their source material–we’ll just have to see!

“Things We Forever Pursue”: Excerpt from Comic Natalie on Akimi Yoshida

Hey everyone! Comic Natalie ran a really interesting article promoting a book about Akimi Yoshida’s work and creative influences over the course of her career, which was released around December 25th in Japan for the 40th anniversary of Yoshida’s debut as a mangaka. Based on what I can muddle out from google translate, it looks super cool, and features answers to fan questions, dialogues between Yoshida and other prominent Japanese artists and critics, and more! The article itself runs a couple of interview excerpts from the book, and I found this bit from a 1994 conversation Yoshida had with Kaoru Kurimoto (AKA Azusa Nakajima) especially neat:

Yoshida: “California Story” is based on Yutaka Mizutani and Kenichi Hagihara’s “Battered Angel,” isn’t it? “Midnight Cowboy” knew without saying that. It was the influence of the American New Cinema of the 1970’s that first inspired me to draw things.
[…]
Nakajima: Is that not just the origin of “California Story,” but the origin of Akimi Yoshida herself?
Yoshida: All origins.
Nakajima: That’s it (laugh)
Yoshida: In this case, I will do my best. Because of this, when relationships between men appear in my drawings, physical relationships are not absolute. That is the origin, so I can not imagine.
Nakajima: Surely.
Yoshida: A kiss or something comes out but it does not contain any homosexual physical relationship…
Nakajima: Because the image is of Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.
Yoshida: Yeah. So it does not lead to bed. In other words, it seems that the baby chick looked first at what she saw as a parent.
Nakajima: “Imprinting,” right?
Yoshida: That’s why it is something that I will pursue forever.

It’s super intriguing and illuminating to me that Yoshida was so strongly influenced by American New Wave cinema–one of the most striking things about Banana Fish is how much texture and character New York City has as an environment! It also shows us how she was able to imagine possibilities beyond the heteronormativity of her influences while still being constrained by them; she was able to write deeply intimate, and even romantic, relationships between men, but these relationships were still ultimately non-sexual and distanced from “homosexuality.”

Please take this translation with a huge grain of salt, as I really just lightly edited google’s translation, and can’t guarantee that it’s super accurate or reliable–I absolutely welcome any corrections! That said, I hope this is an interesting, informative little highlight, and really encourage everyone to check out the article and the book for more information about a genuinely fantastic mangaka.

Transnational Readings of Yaoi Fan Culture: Feminism, Fujoshi, and Globalization [Excerpt]

Here is an excerpt of an essay I wrote for a Women’s Studies course on transnational cultural movements during my last year of college (2015/2016); I had a lot of fun researching the history of BL cultures in Japan and the West, and then interviewing self-identified BL fans I had connected with through my college anime club and FeministFujoshi. Here’s a dropbox link to the full essay! Enjoy, everyone.

Fujoshi is a Japanese word meaning “rotten girl,” frequently used to describe female fans of yaoi: Japanese fanworks created primarily by women for women that depict men in same-gender intimate relationships (Galbraith, 2011, p. 212; McHarry, 2003). Both the terms yaoi and fujoshi first appeared in fan communities and have been (and often continue to be) used in playful self-mockery (McLelland, 2015, p.55, p. 169). Yaoi is also referred to as “Boys Love” although this term is more often used to refer to commercial products—most notably comics, but also novels, audio dramas, and games—rather than fanworks (McLelland, 2015, p. 5). For the sake of clarity, as well to highlight the fact that many fan artists go on to participate in the commercial BL industry and many artists within the industry still create fanworks (Lees, 2006), in this essay I will use “Boys Love” and its abbreviation “BL” as an umbrella term for both commercially-produced works and fan-produced works. Fujoshi represent not only a subculture, but almost inarguably a mainstream audience within Japan, with the BL industry grossing approximately 21.3 billion yen per year (Yano, 2010), and since the early-to-mid 2000s there have been an increasing amount of young people in the West becoming fans of this genre, creating thriving new subcultures. In this essay I will examine how these young people are reading and creating BL differently and similarly to the original Japanese fanbase—how they have transported and transformed this subculture.
[…]
While fan translations of From Eroica With Love, a 1979 shojo manga with (loosely defined) BL themes, circulated through amateur press associations in the US as early as the 1980s and the Aestheticism Boys Love fanzine began in 1996 with its companion website coming online the year after, events which suggest significant BL fan cultures were already developing, the first Yaoi-Con was not hosted until 2001, with the first BL original video animation, Kizuna, released on DVD the year after (Pagliassotti, 2015). Interestingly enough, Kizuna was released through Ariztical Entertainment’s Culture Q Connection line of LGBT films, with the company currently describing it as “the first gay male Anime [sic] to be released on DVD in the US” on their website (Aritzical, n.d.). This release of Kizuna as media specifically for gay men demonstrates how different cultural understandings of homosexuality in the US and Japan influenced the reception of this material in these different societies. Mark McHarry touches on this in his article “Yaoi: Redrawing Male Love” in which he quotes Mark McLelland saying that “The traditional understanding of homosexuality as a particular style or ‘Way’ of enjoying sex is still faintly discernible in certain media texts which speak of homosexuality as a ‘hobby’ [shumi] or a kind of ‘play’ [asobi/purei]” (as cited in McHarry 2003). Where Western understandings of homosexuality currently emphasize a largely fixed identity which is an intrinsic and integral part of the individual self, Japanese traditions of same-gender intimacy, such as nanshoku, or sexually intimate mentor relationships between adult men and adolescent boys, leave a lingering perspective which conceptualizes same-gender eroticism in terms of behavior and free-floating desire.
[…]
The racialized and gendered implications—as well as transnationality—of BL as a cultural phenomenon are evident even from its beginnings; Tomoko Aoyama, in her essay “Male Homosexuality as Treated by Japanese Women Writers” discusses how many female Japanese writers depicting same-gender intimacy in the 60s and 70s drew from Western influences, using Moto Hagio’s early manga “November Gymnasium” and its more developed manifestation, Heart of Thomas as one example of early BL manga’s frequent use of Western settings and characters, or Western influences when set in Japan (within the context of a wider body of Japanese literature written by women), and its purpose and effects. She writes, “The setting of a German gymnasium [in Heart of Thomas] works, because it is fictitious….The choice of young boys rather than young girls, and a German gymnasium rather than a Japanese school would appear to have been made…to avoid the ‘sticky’ restrictions of realism” (Aoyama, 1988, p. 188-189). Here, she emphasizes the additional distance that a Western setting and characters—in combination with the use of boys rather than girls in the narrative—creates between the story and its author and audience, thereby allowing for “free artistic expression,” (Aoyama, 1988, p. 189) for the author to explore different, often darker themes such as death, incest and more without being held back by the discomfort of personal vulnerability; because these comics did not depict Japanese women, they created a space for their authors, and arguably their readers as well, to explore issues that affected or interested them as Japanese women more confidently.

It also worked to create a kind of Occidentalism—reproducing an idea of “the West” that is unmarked, assumed to be coherent and stable. Toshio Miyake’s analysis of Axis Powers Hetalia, an amateur Japanese gag comic depicting nations anthropomorphized as young men provides a useful lens through which to look at the use of Western settings in early shounen’ai manga that Aoyama describes; Miyake discusses the way in which the overrepresentation of Euro-American nations in the text of Hetalia, as well as the popular character pairings in dojinishi, produce unquestioned representations of existing hierarchical geopolitical relationships, thereby reinforcing key logics of Occidentalism (Miyake, 2013, para. 4.3-4.6). Although Heart of Thomas and works like it do not literally represent anthropomorphized nation-states, their highly romantic, aesthetic depictions of setting and character that tie wealth, philosophy and romance to the West certainly carry occidental implications. Aoyama describes one novella, Koibito-tachi no mori (translated to Lovers’ Forest): “Though this story…is set in Japan, European flavor is apparent…characters are treated almost as part of the extremely gorgeous and occidental props” (Aoyama, 1988, 192). Although Lovers’ Forest was a novella that preceded early BL comics, and Aoyama states that there is no evidence of direct influence, the parallels between this and early BL works such as Heart of Thomas remain clear: use of Western settings, characters and philosophies that emphasize romanticism and intellectualism.

In a more modern context, there is still a clear emphasis on the romantic appeal and sexual dominance of the West in BL manga. Kazuhiko Nagaike’s article “Elegant Caucasians, Amorous Arabs, and Invisible Others: Signs and Images of Foreigners in Japanese BL Manga” examines representation of racial others, particularly White people and Arabs in monthly magazines that serialize BL manga; Nagaike discusses the racial implications of the large presence of White (or mixed-with-White) and Arab characters in BL, particularly the ways in which they are consistently portrayed as sexually dominant—as the seme in, to quote Miyake, “the boys’ love/yaoi code of seme (active, stronger, penetrating character) and uke (passive, weaker, receiving character) pairings” (Miyake, 2013, para. 4.5; Nagaike, 2009, para. 9). Nagaike argues that this parallels larger sociopolitical ideas regarding the feminine East in opposition to the masculine West, framing White characters as “superior others” in BL works (2009, para. 15-16). In contrast, Arab characters, also primarily represented as seme, are inscribed as “symbols of eroticism by means of Orientalistic images of harems and polygamy” (Nagaike 2009, para. 20), certainly masculine, but still depicted in a mysterious, largely unchanging and feminized vision of the Middle East. This reaffirmation of Western dominance and representations of Orientalist ideas of Arabs in BL texts (not to mention the conspicuous absence and negative depictions of non-Japanese Asian characters and Black characters) demonstrate women’s romantic fantasies’ complex entanglement with racism, something which is especially critical to examine in the context of BL’s globalization: as Western fans read their own fantasies and desires into works depicting Japanese women’s fantasies and desires, problematic racial dynamics are reinterpreted through a more globally dominant perspective, and this creates new points of fan engagement and complications surrounding representation and power in BL fan cultures.
[…]
My own original research—personal interviews conducted over a period of approximately a week—also deals heavily with…transnationality and its implicit, part-and-parcel transformations of the source material….I found significant similarities to—as well as significant differences from—scholarship on BL fan culture both in Japan and the West, and will compare anecdotes and experiences related to me in these interviews to Patrick Galbraith’s essays “Fantasy Play and Transgressive Intimacy” and its slightly revised version, “Moe Talk” dealing with fujoshi culture and practices in Japan. I found Galbraith’s assertion that “How female fans of BL in Japan talk to one another…is not only pleasurable, but also productive of new ways of interacting with the world of everyday reality” (McLelland, 2015, p. 153) also very applicable to the BL fans I interviewed—one interviewee recounted to me a game she played with her friends very similar to Hachi, Tomo and Megumi’s “moebanashi,” or “moe talk,” sessions, which she termed “AU [alternate universe] where,” in which she created couplings or scenarios involving her friends—and, on occasion, strangers—playfully reimagining the world around her in terms of potential relationships and fantastic escapades which allowed her to engage with her everyday surroundings in new ways (A. Caliguiri, personal communication, March 13th 2015). However, one of my interviewees expressed a perspective directly counter to that of Tomo, Megumi and Hachi, stating that she did not identify as a fujoshi specifically because she associated it with “those girls who make everything into yaoi”—she went on to concede that she did occasionally find herself coupling characters from series that were not already BL, but stated that this only happened when there was a significant amount of subtext or connection between the characters, joking, “I don’t make everything into yaoi, I make yaoi into yaoi” (S. McKinney, personal communication, March 12 2015). The homosociality of BL fan culture was also apparent to me in my interviews—in the communication cited above, I spoke to two friends at once, and witnessed a great deal of physical affection between my correspondents. Additionally, toward the end of our time together we all began to exchange BL titles and authors we enjoyed, creating a kind of temporary and temporal intimacy through these texts reminiscent of Galbraith’s “surface intimacy” (Galbraith 2011, p. 214, 216; S. McKinney & E. Patel, personal communication, March 12 2015).

A few of my interviewees had actually experienced some degree of contact with Japanese fans, and frequently described the people they had encountered as more “mellow,” with one correspondent explaining, “Like you know how a lot of kids here go through a weeaboo [fanatic, often racist to some degree] phase thats [sic] more teenagers being obnoxious?? That didn’t really happen according to my [Japanese] friends” (S. Young, personal communication, March 8 2015). Another interviewee who had studied abroad in Japan expressed that an interest in BL was “less of a big deal” for Japanese fans, and that he felt interest in BL was more stigmatized in the US, with Japanese fans better understanding that BL fans could have other interests (M. Clogston, personal communication, March 14 2015). In contrast to this perspective, when I asked another interviewee if they had any contact with Japanese BL fandom, they related their experience of seeing the well-known Japanese cosplayer Reika at Yaoi-Con 2014, where, when she was asked if she knew any differences between Japanese and American BL fans, she said Japanese fans had vicious “ship wars” or fights over preferred yaoi couplings, and asked if that was common in America. The audience responded with a resounding affirmative and according to my correspondent, Reika replied, “well, I guess there’s no difference, then” (R. Wang, March 13 2015).

Marco Pellitteri discusses the spread of anime and manga throughout Europe, particularly Italy, writing, “I have recast the term [transculture] as transacculturation…to emphasize the process of cultural growth in a positive, or at least neutral, sense” (Pellitteri, 2011, p. 214). This process of transacculturation is happening with Boys Love media on a far larger, more global stage than ever before, with a growing body of scholarship exploring its many manifestations and implications, and fans exploring BL more and sometimes even in more conscious, complex ways. While researching I was overwhelmed by the amount of enthusiasm I was met with from fans of anime and manga and BL itself—nearly all the people I interviewed and several people I did not interview expressed a desire to read the finished version of this essay, and members of Davis Anime Club suggested I present on this topic at an upcoming anime convention. Transnational Boys Love fan cultures display complex negotiations of power, interpretation, and imagination that are always in play and always changing, but there are also incredible amounts of joy and excitement in these cultures: people are reconfiguring desire through politics of race and gender and nationality, people want to know more and more and more; like Hachi said of The Great Wave of Kanagawa reinterpreted through a yaoi lens: “‘This is so great! I never thought such a thing.’…Tomo commented that the person had gone ‘too far’…but this was delivered as a positive assessment, demonstrating well that play is the exultation of getting carried away” (Galbraith 2011, p. 226).

The Subversive Use of BL Tropes in Dogs and Swallows

Gido Amagakure is best known for his long-running seinen manga Sweetness and Lightning, but he’s actually explored a wide variety of genres–including BL. In his one-volume title Dogs and Swallows (or 犬とつばめ), high school student Kaede Yamada is reunited with and–this is BL, after all–falls in love with his childhood playmate Taiju Noro as he attempts to come to terms with the death of his older sibling, Asahi Yamada. Throughout the volume, Amagakure brings his trademark sensitivity to themes of grief and gently subversive portrayals of masculinity to the table while deftly utilizing classic–even cliché–BL tropes. To be clear, I’m not arguing that these tropes are narratively justified in that they “make sense in the story,” but rather that Amagakure intentionally and carefully uses these tropes to further develop Dogs and Swallows’ central themes.

First is the issue of consent; the prevalence of disrespect for others’ sexual boundaries in BL is a constant frustration for fans who find the normalization of sexual assault distasteful. Thankfully Amagakure’s characters are never actively cruel to one another, and the manga is featured on the 100% Consensual BL List! However, in instances such as Noro kissing Kaede without his consent, or Kaede protesting of pain during sex, Amagakure makes these communication problems significant thematic threads that run throughout the whole narrative, affecting Kaede’s and Noro’s character arcs. When Noro springs a kiss on Kaede in the middle of the volume, it’s largely played off as a light-hearted, comedic moment, but it also indicates that the romantic connection between the two is still immature (and, when information about Kaede’s relationship with his abusive father is revealed, suggests that he remains emotionally guarded with Kaede.) In contrast, when Noro and Kaede have sex at the end of the volume, the focus is on the two finally communicating, serving as the culmination of both characters’ development: Noro outright asks for what he wants, thereby making himself emotionally vulnerable, where Kaede, who has been consistently depicted as self-centered and lacking awareness of others, chooses to compromise.

The actual sex in this scene is beside the point–in fact, Kaede ends up getting too light-headed for the couple to continue. What’s truly significant is the emotional intimacy gained by their communication in this context. Amagakure’s depiction and framing of these interactions is by no means perfect, but it is used purposefully and sensitively, gently guiding its principal male characters toward a healthier relationship to their emotions and better communication with each other.

Secondly, Amagakure uses his characters’–and in particular Kaede’s–heteronormative attitudes (the exclamation of “but we’re both boys!” in disbelieving protest is a well-trod cliché in BL) as crucial characterization that plays an integral role in setting up Kaede’s character arc. In the volume’s 2nd chapter, as Kaede and Noro are roughhousing on Kaede’s bed, Noro ends up hugging Kaede, who protests with the classic, “you said you liked girls!” However, Kaede’s protest is used deliberately and well in this context: Kaede is consistently characterized as somewhat oblivious and self-centered–in fact, this interaction is directly preceded by Noro specifically reflecting on these qualities, and, notably, Noro never expresses any hangups about gender in his attraction to Kaede. This frames the scene with an emphasis on Kaede’s flaws, rather than implying that the idea of romance between two boys is especially shocking or unbelievable.

Additionally, Amagakure gently challenges both the previously discussed “we’re both boys” trope and the BL genre’s fantastical utopias, where heteronormativity and homophobia are completely avoided; this can be seen in how Kaede is forced to confront his fears and questions about not only Asahi’s gender non-conformity, but his own vis a vis his relationship with Noro. When Kaede meets Shimaba, a former cram school student of Asahi’s, it’s revealed that Shimaba was in (unrequited) love with Asahi and had discovered their penchant for/”hobby” of wearing women’s clothing. Through his introduction and this reveal, Shimaba provides Kaede with an older, more mature outsider perspective, in particular demonstrating an easy understanding of and acceptance of difference that Kaede struggles to grant himself as well as his sibling.

As they talk about Asahi, Kaede asks, “Did nii-chan want to be a girl?” while thinking, “I could ask the same thing about myself…because I’ve been kissing Noro.” Obviously this line of questioning conflates gender and sexuality, but it also functions as an indication of Kaede’s character growth, from knee-jerk rejection of difference to rethinking the assumptions he has taken for granted about his own identity. Additionally, through the juxtaposition of Shimaba’s relaxed confidence with Kaede’s–and, to a lesser extent, Asahi’s–anxieties and uncertainties, Amagakure depicts gender non-conformity as something that can be unremarkable, while insisting on complicating the BL fantasy (or at least, incorporating human complexity into the fantasy.)

Although this particular trope may be common to anime and manga in general, as opposed to BL specifically, the beautiful, androgynous, crossdressing boy (in some incarnations referred to as ‘otokonoko’) is a well-known character trope. Interestingly, Asahi almost entirely averts this trope: they are a working adult rather than a teenager, are not depicted as particularly beautiful, and most importantly, struggle with and question their own identity. The narrative even explicitly asks–although it declines to actually answer–whether Asahi is transgender; through this, it engages directly and sensitively with Asahi’s struggle instead of making it into a joke or a bait-and-switch. The otokonoko can definitely be a fun character, but it’s genuinely refreshing and interesting that Amagakure chooses to avoid this more conventional depiction of amab gender non-conformity in favor of a representation with more depth and nuance.

Amagakure’s use of the tropes and hallmarks of the BL genre is purposeful and thoughtful; even the most basic requirement of the genre, romance between two boys, is explored and thematized in ways that could not be achieved in a story about heterosexual romance. In particular, falling in love with another boy forces Kaede to question and confront his identity, and ultimately his own deviance from gender norms helps him empathize with Asahi and gain closure surrounding his death. Asahi “finally smiling” in Kaede’s memory at the end of the volume feels earned because Kaede has struggled for it and grown from it.

To be clear, I’m definitely generalizing about BL here–it is a delightfully pulpy genre that is incredibly diverse and rapidly changing! There are other authors, potentially even many other authors, who are playing with, subverting, averting, and deconstructing what exactly a BL text can look like. This is also not to say Dogs and Swallows is without its flaws; Amagakure mostly either works a little harder to justify his use of tropes and clichés or implicitly challenges them only by averting them, as opposed to meditating explicitly on why these tropes are so common/useful and where they fall short/normalize harmful (or even simply complacent) attitudes toward consent etc. Despite all these caveats, I found Amagakure’s more intentional use of these tropes genuinely compelling. Kaede and Noro’s relationship is messy–Noro is pushy and guarded, Kaede is oblivious and self-centered–but their stark sincerity and Amagakure’s subtle, gentle take on the genre’s clichés and conventions make this an absolutely worthwhile read.

Manga Review: Stolen Heart

Finally getting around to posting a real review for this blog! Many thanks to cyanparade on twitter for bringing this book to my (and many others’) attention.

Stolen Heart was first published in 2002, with a story by Maki Kanamaru and art by Yukine Honami, and while it definitely bears many of the common shortcomings of the early 00s era of BL (and the genre as a whole), it does have its own distinct charm. The book includes 4 stories over the course of 6 chapters, the first three chapters being one story and the fourth a spin-off, while the last 2 are stand-alone; the story cyanparade referenced on Twitter is chapter 6, and–spoiler alert–it’s the highlight of the book.

Honami’s art is lovely, with excellent paneling that reads very fluidly and balances both the story’s romantic, atmospheric elements and its humor. I especially love the look of the first story, with its deep black tones and excellent depiction of motion!

The characters are very likable, if somewhat archetypal–the ‘rougish thief who abides by his own moral code’ and ‘spoiled tsundere bocchan’ we meet in the book’s first story are endearing, but not well-developed enough to complicate any entrenched genre conventions–including, unfortunately, BL’s uh, difficult relationship with consent. This relationship is a particularly egregious example, with the thief repeatedly violating his partner’s boundaries, even beginning their relationship by drugging him in order to sleep with him. This behavior is even explicitly called out, only for the narrative to frame these protests as petulant and cruel.

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Above, just to emphasize: bocchan brings up entirely reasonable parallels between his sexual assault at the hands of a stranger and his treatment at the hands of the thief and is subsequently slapped. His statement is framed as selfishly motivated and unnecessarily hurtful, acting out because he is lonely and insecure, rather than the completely correct and reasonable action it actually is, and he is punished for it by his partner and the narrative.

This is a horrible way to represent the consequences of sexual assault, and also makes it harder and harder to root for the couple as the story continues. The moments of genuine affection between them become incredibly frustrating, tainted by the complete disrespect and disregard the thief has shown for the boy he supposedly loves. It sucks, basically.

The ending of this story does raise some interesting questions regarding imperialism, monarchy, and the transfer of power; although bringing up imperial expansion from the perspective of the conquerors, even in a very romanticized and only pseudo-historical setting requires raises difficult questions that this chapter mostly ignores, I really do like the way the panels below touch on the impermanence of all political regimes. Additionally, the reveal that the kingdom in which this story is primarily set was originally stolen from the thief’s family further underwrites this conception of political power as inherently limited in and by time and space. It’s a nice bit of writing in an otherwise very, very messy story.

The next chapter, “Be Nice,” is a Cinderella reimagining with some uncomfortable possessiveness and class-based power dynamics–the protagonist’s love interest, who is also his master while he is a servant, coerces him into having sex with a couple of other nobles and then gets pissy and jealous when the protag complies with his explicit demand. The ending does soften the blow a bit, suggesting some narrative unreliability via the reveal that the thief has been telling this story all along (as if we needed more reasons to dislike this character!) It also features a gag panel with a BDSM-related subversion of the aforementioned class dynamic, which I found really fun.

It is worth mentioning that even though I tend to enjoy this flip of expected seme-uke dynamics, BDSM/kink cannot fix or compensate for an otherwise unhealthy relationship. Realistically, trying to do so will probably only make things worse, and I think it’s cruel to depict a relationship based on jealousy and coercion and then try to play off those elements of the established dynamic with a joke. Additionally, despite this reversal, the thief’s narration is not significantly problematized in the narrative–the ending may hint at more balance in the relationship, but the story we get is still the story we get, which makes this chapter a tough read.

The characters in “People Are What They Seem” border less on cliche than in Stolen Heart‘s first two stories, but I also found them less memorable. “People” is a high school story with a disorganized but earnest protagonist named Tomoyuki Naruse and Fujiyoshi, a bunny ears lawyer (er, student council president.) The relationship development between Naruse and Fujiyoshi feels rushed: Fujiyoshi ignores Naruse’s repeated requests to be left alone and Naruse demonstrates little reciprocal interest until he becomes suddenly hurt at finding Fujiyoshi in a seemingly compromising position with another student. There are also a few distateful jokes about sexual harrassment and one about incest–there is no actual incest, but Fujiyoshi and his brother are overly affectionate (in the vein of pet names and forehead kisses–it’s a little weird) and the narrative plays that ambiguity for some uncomfortable laughs.

The story does bring up some genuinely interesting questions, with Naruse declaring–title drop!–“people are what they seem” and arguing that how people choose to present themselves reflects on their character. This perspective is even validated by the narrative, with Fujiyoshi commenting that he “has a point.” However, these themes by and large go undeveloped; the narrative hints that ‘people are what they seem’ may not be a bad thing through Naruse’s burgeoning affection for Fujiyoshi, but after the climax where Naruse realizes his feelings for the prez, the story returns entirely to the status quo. The narrative fails to fully commit, instead repeatedly undercutting its own line of questioning with largely unfunny jokes. This left me dissatisfied, and is the primary reason I found this the weakest chapter in the volume.

On a brighter note–finally!–the last story is my personal favorite, and I would argue the most feminist-friendly. “Kiss Scandal” revolves around Collin Rudd, a US Senator in a relationship with his secretary, Paul; when their relationship is exposed they are forced to deal with the personal and political consequences. It’s a short story that deals lightly with homophobia, and while it does border on sentimentality at times, I still found it really enjoyable. The two men are presented as intellectual and social equals despite one being in a typically subordinate position–plus switching!

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I found this afterword super charming–it’s definitely embarrassing to be reminded first-hand that these stories are overwhelmingly written by women who have very little to no contact with actual gay people and gay culture/s, but I prefer it to heterosexual arrogance in telling stories about gay or bi characters. This is a reason, not an excuse–other people may feel differently, and that’s completely reasonable!

The chapter mostly focuses on Paul’s insecurities with regard to 1. Collin potentially leaving him to marry a woman and 2. (relatedly) standing in the way of Collin’s political career. This definitely edges toward unpleasant tropes given that it’s stated Collin is bisexual, but I think the narrative manages to avoid most potentially icky implications due to the specificity of Collin’s career and the fact that Collin makes it very clear he wants to marry Paul. Paul’s anxieties seem more reasonable and sympathetic given that Collin’s career does place him in the public eye and invite extra scrutiny on his relationships, and Collin’s readiness to commit dodges the gross biphobic stereotypes (unfaithful, basically straight, etc.) that usually accompany this sort of narrative in Western media.

Unfortunately, it still doesn’t quite manage to completely avert biphobic tropes–the narrative validates Collin’s guilt over ‘hiding’ or ‘lying’ about his sexuality by not being upfront with the media and his constituents about his relationship with Paul, and publically discussing his interest in women (implicitly, doing so without mentioning his interest in men.) This comes across as clumsy, failing to account for the ways in which coming out can pose very real dangers for LGBT people. It’s meant to demonstrate Collin’s honesty and integrity to the audience, and it does do that successfully! But it relies on common, unfair assumptions about how gay and bi people should navigate the world that lack nuance and understanding. >biphobia sp?

The story starts in media res, which helps Collin and Paul’s relationship feel very grounded as the audience is welcomed into the pre-existing familiarity between the two characters. One scene allows us to literally look at Collin through Paul’s eyes, as Paul’s internal monologue works with the visuals to establish not only love and attraction, but Paul’s genuine respect for Collin’s political ideals and ambitions. And even better, it’s made clear that this respect runs both ways when Collin suggests that Paul could run for office!

Obviously this is still very much a romance; Paul’s line about love taking precedence over dreams above is sweet, but definitely idealistic and sentimental. I think skewing more realistic in this genre is more a different kind of moe than trying to tell a story for gay/bi/queer people, but >value in women’s media/medium, and it’s still genuinely pleasant to read a romantic, mostly light-hearted story where the characters are equal partners who respect and admire each other. There are definitely other BL mangaka who are doing this and doing it well, especially in recent years, but it’s enough of a rarity that I’m excited and pleased every time I encounter it.

I like these characters and find their affection for each other satisfying and believable, and that’s never marred by rape jokes or disrespect played off as teasing the tsundere; that’s a pretty low bar, and it’s important to remember just how low it is, but these are tough times and I do try to count my blessings where I can!

Stolen Heart as a whole is a really mixed bag–it has solid visual storytelling as well as some genuinely interesting, thoughtful thematic beats, and the last chapter is a delight! But it also features multiple stories that misrepresent consent and sexual violence in deeply frustrating ways, which isn’t something that can be easily swept aside. If you can find it used or at a library (…unlikely, unfortunately) and none of the issues above are hard limits for you, it’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour or so, but it’s absolutely not something I would recommend to everyone.

Some titles I would recommend for BL fans who find some aspect of the story or storytelling appealing but are put off by the skeevy relationship dynamics:

  • Heart o Nusumu no wa Dare da (Who Will Steal Your Heart) – a mostly low-key, romantic and sentimental story ft. a master thief
  • Hashire! Ouji-sama (Run, Run, Prince!) – political intrigue with bonus democracy
  • Rin! – also illustrated by Yukine Honami, with character growth and a sports story (archery) outside the central romance, very sweet! Available published by Juné, currently out of print but still available used for an affordable price.

I hope this post has been useful and/or entertaining for all of you–thank you so much for reading and for continuing to follow the blog!

Yuri!!! on ICE and Boys Love?

Hey, everyone! Someone over on tumblr asked me what I thought of Yuri!!! on ICE, the imitable, the incredible, the sensation that rocked anime fandom, and I’m pretty happy with my reflection on the relationship between the series and the BL genre, so, crossposting! Let me know in the comments if you have any additions, fact-checks, alternate perspectives, or if you just enjoyed the post! Thanks so much everyone.

yoi ask

Hi! Thank you for this question–I adore Yuri!!! on Ice. It’s a little embarrassing how much I love it, actually. Since I’m answering this question on this specific blog, it’s important to me to be clear that I don’t think YoI is BL; the anime is TV-original, so it’s not marked for a specific demographic the way most manga are, and neither Sayo Yamamoto nor Mitsurou Kubo have previously worked on BL projects. Also, Yamamoto in particular has depicted same-gender sexual and romantic attractions/relationships in her previous directorial works Michiko and Hatchin and The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, so to me it seems more likely that she’s continuing in that vein rather than having…suddenly developed an interest in BL.

Matt Thorn, an awesome translator and shojo manga scholar, has actually said that YoI feels more like yuri than BL to her. I can’t say whether I agree, as I just…don’t read yuri (I wish I did!) but I think it’s a fascinating take on the series.

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