August Reading List

Hi everyone! This is the first of many posts where I’ll be reflecting on the BL/shojo/LGBT manga I have read or am currently reading. In the future, I’ll aim to post these lists at least twice a month and also track/discuss unlicensed manga I’m reading through scanlations. Definitely let me know if there are series you want to see me pick up–especially licensed works available through the library.

This list is not a collection of summaries or formal reviews, and it’s definitely not spoiler-free! That said, enjoy these thoughts and feelings and take from them what you will~

Thanks so much for all your support, and be sure to check out my Patreon if you want to help me pay my rent and keep writing!

Local Library
Go For It, Nakamura! (v. 1)

  • Fun! Feels quintessentially BL but also very modern
  • Inclusion of an unambiguously self-identified gay protagonist is a nice touch, makes for some excellent jokes and contributes to the modern sensibility of the book
  • The whole chapter about Nakamura picking up BL and becoming a fudanshi was incredibly charming, I loved it.
  • TENTACLES

I Hear the Sunspot (v. 1)

  • Gentle, tender romance
  • Thoughtful portrayal of disability; at times Taichi’s role in the narrative toes the line between advocacy and saviorism, but the inclusion of a girl who wants to date Kohei in order to fulfill a shallow fantasy about caring for a helpless ‘other’ helps bring that into contrast and emphasize how Taichi’s protectiveness of Kohei comes from an appreciation and respect for his dignity and humanity, rather than a paternalistic denial of it
  • Gave me heart palpitations

Continue reading

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!

“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.

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!