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.

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