Vrai talks Boys’ Love (BL) and yaoi manga with special guests Devin Randall and Masaki C. Matsumoto!
Recorded: Sunday 2nd September 2018
Guests: Devin, Masaki
0:01:55 Past experiences with BL
0:17:41 Fear of misrepresentation
0:26:56 Is BL fetishization?
0:28:45 Complimenting or replacing gate literature?
0:32:54 Sexual assault
1:03:16 Value of representation
Want to hear more from this week’s guests?
- Devin is @DevJackRan and his website is Queer Fudanshi
- Masaki is @QueerESL, and you can also find him on Medium and YouTube
VRAI: Hello, and welcome to Chatty AF, the Anime Feminist podcast. I’m Vrai Kaiser. I’m an editor and contributor at Anime Feminist. You can find me on Twitter, @writervrai, and if you check my pinned tweet, you can see all the things I freelance for.
Today, I have two very special guests with me. If you two would like to introduce yourselves?
DEVIN: Hi. My name is Devin Randall. I am a freelance writer. I write for a couple websites like Instinct Magazine and Gay Pop Buzz. On top of that, I’m a writer for the creative world. I’m a playwright, so I have a play going on in Philly next month, dear Lord. And I have my own blog and YouTube channel, Queer Fudanshi, where I talk about LGBTQ and BL media. Oh, and you can find me at @DevJackRan on Twitter.
MASAKI: All right. Hi, my name is Masaki. I am a writer, freelance writer, and also a YouTube video creator, and I started drawing illustrations last year, so that’s what I do. I have an Instagram and I post my illustrations there; queer-themed illustrations. And my writings… You can find my writings on my website, but most of them are Japanese—in Japanese. But I have some English writings. You can go check out Gimme Me a Queer Eye: GimmeaQueerEye.org. That’s where you can find my stuff.
VRAI: Cool. And if y’all are interested, we’ll have links to their @s and websites down in the shownotes, so be sure to check those. And today we are talking about BL, a very large and formidable topic, We will not be able to cover everything.
VRAI: All right. So, I think a good, easy way to wade into it is: Do you guys wanna talk about your earliest… How did you come across the genre? Sort of your earliest experiences with it.
DEVIN: So, I’ve been into BL for a decade now. To the point that I was definitely a little too young to be reading BL.
DEVIN: But I got into it first through an anime. Through the anime Mirage of Blades.
VRAI: I’m so sorry.
DEVIN: Yeah. Yeah. But, I mean, hey, it opened the door to better things. If you don’t know, Mirage of Blades is an anime about… How do I quickly explain this? It’s about a group of spirit warriors, and they fight demon ghosts. Stuff like that. And they’re reborn into bodies every time they die, and they kind of relive lives. So they’re like past souls in a way.
And the main character has a tormented relationship with this other guy who’s like his second-hand man, to the point that there is a sex scene in it. And, at the time, I was like, “Oh, what is this?” Being a little gay boy, you know. And so I looked up Mirage of Blades and then I looked up yaoi, and that’s what kind of started me down the path.
MASAKI: All right, so my experience… My first experience with BL was… I think I was around 11, 12 years old. Just about when I was exploring my sexuality and some of the differences that I was starting to notice between me and other people, other boys and men, older men. I think I saw accidentally a cover of a Hikaru no Go BL book that was on shelves in the bookstore near my house. And I was just a little elementary school kid glancing over that aisle, trying not to be caught. [laughs]
I was so… I thought it was just a regular Hikaru no Go book, but apparently, the characters were too intimate on the cover. So… I realized it was sort of a sexual thing going on in the book. I wanted to buy it, but I was too embarrassed because I was… I didn’t even know the word “gay,” I think, back then. So, I was too afraid.
I would go to the bookstore maybe three times a week just to look at it from afar. And I wanted to buy it. I wanted to buy it. And it took me I think a year and a half maybe to actually gather up my courage to take that book. I’m sure it was a very unpopular book, because it was sitting there for the whole time. But I grabbed it, went to the cashier, and it was easier than I thought. And that’s how—
DEVIN: [crosstalk] It’s kinda–
MASAKI: —I started. Oh, I’m sorry.
DEVIN: I’m sorry, I interjected. It’s kinda funny how we both had similar experiences of being younger gay kids and kind of not having the words for our feelings and yaoi helped us in that, in that trajectory, I guess.
MASAKI: Right. Totally.
DEVIN: And definitions. ‘Cause I had another similar experience once I was a little down the road. I was fortunate enough that my library had a few yaoi or BL books in the…
MASAKI: They did?
DEVIN: [cracking up] Yeah. Rin, which is a book about archery, a high school archery club. They had that, and I was reading it, and I remember I had scheduled to pick it up early, but then I got there earlier than that, so then I was looking for it, like, “Where’s the book? Where’s the book?” And somebody was just claiming it to put it in the pickup aisle. And I had a moment of, “Oh God. Do I talk to her? Do I wait for her to put it in its spot?” So I was thinking of that when you told your story. We have very similar beginnings.
MASAKI: Yeah, yeah. The next thing I experienced with the bookstore environment… I was in a bookstore. A different bookstore. In a little bit bigger town, and I found a gay magazine with photos. Nudity and everything. And I saw it.
I was curious, ’cause I was starting to realize that I was gay. I grabbed it, and I opened it—because back then, that was 15 years ago, bookstores did not put the block-plastic-thing around those books. I opened it, and I was so… Honestly? Disgusted.
Because with all the BL books that I had read so far, I had this image in my mind that, when I grew up to be an adult, I would be in a relationship as beautiful and dramatic as that BL. Right? [through laughter] So I looked at all those pictures, and I’m so grossed out. I think that was very homophobic, but that was my honest reaction to that.
DEVIN: I wouldn’t say it’s homophobic.
MASAKI: BL… Ah, okay. Maybe a little bit homophobic. [laughs] Yeah, so… I grew up with BL.
DEVIN: [crosstalk] I mean, I get where you’re coming from.
MASAKI: Yeah. Yeah. You feel it? Yaoi and BL, it helped me much more than gay media, back then as a teenager.
DEVIN: And I totally understand what you’re saying, ’cause gay media is very different from BL, ’cause they’re catered towards totally different demographics. But gay media can be so graphic in a way that even though BL… Yeah, it’s definitely graphic. Gay media, magazines, are so “sex sex man sex meat sex sex.” You know.
DEVIN: Whereas the yaoi and BL definitely does have floweriness of romance and love, as a general [tone], I guess.
MASAKI: Right. Right. On top of that, the gay media and the gay porn that I was looking at in that bookstore was very focused on bear-type gay men, and hairy… That’s actually the mainstream genre of gay pornography in Japan. Even until today. I’ve always distanced myself from that kind of representation.
VRAI: Have either of you read or enjoyed or found it wasn’t for you with gei komi—or bara, as it used to be called. As I understand, that’s seen as pretty derogative now.
DEVIN: Oh, is it? I didn’t hear about that. I’ll have to look into that. Hmm. But, yes, to answer your question.
VRAI: It’s possible I am misinformed, but yes.
DEVIN: Oh, I’m sure you’re fine, don’t worry. And, to answer your question, yeah. I’m not a fan of bara. Which is weird, because it’s supposed to be catered towards gay men, but the graphic-ness of the bara genre, especially with the most-known… sorry, I’m having so many tangent thoughts.
DEVIN: The most-known mangaka whose name I am now forgetting… Ah, why can I not remember his name? I’m just gonna do a quick Google. But the most-known mangaka of bara is so graphic with his sexuality of the scenes. It just makes me feel distanced from it. Just the graphic-ness, even for me, is just too much. But let me look up his name real quick.
VRAI: Gengoroh Tagame?
DEVIN: Yes! Thank you.
MASAKI: Yeah! I was thinking… Yeah.
VRAI: Yes. English listeners probably are most familiar with him through My Brother’s Husband, which is not his usual fare.
DEVIN: That’s actually what I was gonna recommend. I had just thought that. That was one of the tangents of, “Oh, that’s a good manga to recommend.” So, we’ll come back to that later.
But just… Yeah. With the bara genre, I found it to be so grotesquely—I define it as “grotesquely”—graphic that I just can’t get into it. Of course, that’s mostly with him and genre comics like him. It’s not the entire genre, but because of that, it’s left a sour taste in my mouth, I guess. Bit of a graphic metaphor, but okay.
MASAKI: I remember a tweet by a Japanese person who saw the televised version of this manga. The one that you mentioned.
DEVIN: My Brother’s Husband.
MASAKI: The Husband… yeah, yeah. The tweet said, “My mom watched it. She loved it, and she said, ‘What other comics has he drawn?'”
DEVIN: Oh… Oh, yeah. That’s unfortunate.
MASAKI: He was speechless. He couldn’t say anything.
DEVIN: Yeah, that was just a setup for failure.
VRAI: So, Masaki, do you have any thoughts on gei komi, or Tagame, or other authors?
MASAKI: I really am not familiar with any of that.
VRAI: No worries.
MASAKI: I’ve seen some, maybe three, four episodes of those mangas in random magazines, ’cause I used to work for the Center for Gender Studies in a university, and they had a queer library, and they had those magazines, and I was killing time reading them, so I think I read some, a really small part of it.
And I was… The more I read it, the more distanced I felt from the gay community. So, I’m sure that’s not the case for many other people, but that was what happened for me with bara manga.
VRAI: You mentioned, when I asked you to come on here, that you’ve read some BL, but you’re not a huge fan. What kept you from… Are there particular factors that kept you from getting really involved in the genre after those kind of “personal discovery” moments when you were young?
MASAKI: Right. I used to read quite a lot, but I just… It wasn’t like I was trying to follow a particular author or particular genre or subgenre. I would just go to the BL aisle in the bookstore and look at the covers, and if I liked something, I’d buy it. And if I like it, I keep it. If I don’t like it… maybe those books that I didn’t like are sitting at my parents’ house now. [laughs] I hope my father doesn’t find it.
MASAKI: Yeah, I think… I went to New Zealand at 16 and moved to the States at 18, and I lived outside of Japan for a total of five or six years, and I think I just didn’t have access to BL over that period of time. Except, you know, some fanart or fanfiction that I could find on the internet. And my English wasn’t good back then, so I could only consume BL in Japanese.
So, I think it was a problem of access back then. But then, after years of not reading any BL, I came back to Japan, and I think I was now a little more mature than before. Mature enough to sort of see through gender.
When I see a heterosexual romance, TV drama, or when I read a novel about a romantic relationship between a man and a woman, I can see more of that. I can see more than heterosexuality there. I can see more of a human-to-human interaction, human-to-human emotional… I can see deeper.
So I didn’t really have to… I think BL was sort of like my retreat from the heterosexist outside world when I was a teenager. But, when I grew up, you know… now I’m an adult. And I don’t need specifically man-to-man narratives to understand my sexuality and deal [with] and accept my sexuality. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons. And also I… it’s not like I don’t like BL anymore, but I think I don’t need BL anymore.
MASAKI: Not as much as I did.
VRAI: Are you then, I guess, more invested in the more sincere representation types of stuff? Like Shimanami Tasogare or just legitimate works by queer people for queer people? Or you’re just content with the heterosexual stuff because you’re comfortable in who you are, and you’ve kind of reached that point?
MASAKI: I think I’ve seen enough positive representations in… Not big, very popular works, but I’ve seen very nuanced and very sometimes heartwarming, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet, representations of homosexuality in manga, novels maybe that were written by a nameless person on the internet.
And it’s not like I’m happy with heterosexual content, but the weird thing is, there have been some TV shows or movies in Japan that people say depict homosexuality very positively, and I am so freaking scared to watch them or read them. Because if I go to that movie, for example, I go in with really high hopes, and I’m used to being disappointed.
So, there is a TV show called Ossan zu Rabu. It’s “Old Man’s Love” if I translate that literally. It was very popular, and not only among queer people, but it was a huge success. And I haven’t watched it. If I see a clip of that drama on Twitter, I skip it, because I’m too scared to see the depiction of homosexuality that’s there, and people like it, but I’m like, “What if I don’t like it?”
DEVIN: I get what you mean. The fear of misrepresentation or just getting it wrong. I feel like every now and then you just gotta risk it, you know? Just every now and then… Yeah, some stories are gonna disappoint. The creators are gonna disappoint, but there’s some that are gonna be fantastic. Some that are gonna be so meaningful to you that your heart is crying. You know?
MASAKI: Right. [laughs]
DEVIN: You’re missing out on those opportunities by being fearful of the bad ones.
MASAKI: Yeah. One of the things that really surprised me is that some newer creators—maybe not big names, but people who create stuff on the internet—I follow some of those mangaka. I see my professional mangaka… not necessarily queer. But, when I read them, their works, there are queer elements to it.
And I’m surprised to see… It’s not explicitly gay. It’s not a gay-themed work, but it’s there. Queer stuff is there. And I dunno if it’s a generational thing, or a cultural shift is going on, but I think I’m pleasantly surprised at that. Especially because I don’t have any hopes for good queer representation in manga or novels.
DEVIN: And you… I dunno how to phrase this. You made me think of social media and how it’s made BL more accessible to us, and especially the creators. Because just a couple days ago I was on Twitter, and someone retweeted a Korean creators’ webtoon, and the creator was commenting in the thread, and that just made me think about how more accessible all this stuff us, all this content, all of this BL, is and the creators are to us now.
That wasn’t really possible ten years ago. Ten years ago, would you have been able to point out the face of a BL creator? Probably not. So it’s very cool how the internet and social media… I mean, we’re having those whole conversation right now, you know? It’s wonderful how the internet has made all this easier for us and more accessible.
VRAI: I did want to flip this on its head a little bit and ask you, Devin, ’cause I think for us in the US regions, particularly English-speaking, generally, but specifically in the US, accessibility was a major issue.
I think that with a lot of specifically young, queer folk reading a lot of BL… We didn’t have access to novels or the stuff written by more obscure authors, so I guess I’m saying… Would you still be into BL, you think, if you had the full range of options? Is there a tropey-ness there that appeals to you? I was growing up in the mid-2000s, so it was, “Well, here is Gravitation and also some really, really bad light novels that Juné has put out.”
DEVIN: We’ve been through so much. Oh, Gravitation.
VRAI: Oh my God.
DEVIN: ‘Cause that was around the same time when I got into Mirage of Blaze. I saw Gravitation as well. That was some scary times.
VRAI: My poor, naive soul thought that that was comparatively progressive because there was a female character in it.
VRAI: No, Gravitation, is not good, actually. But, God, did I have feelings about it.
DEVIN: Didn’t we all?
VRAI: But I guess my question… So, there was, even when you were younger, a little bit more available, but still, it’s… I think the most popular stuff, the most popular BL, gets translated into English, so I guess, if you had access to not just the most popular stuff, but also—
VRAI: Yeah, to everything, including by indie queer creators in Japan and all that stuff. Would you still be drawn to BL?
DEVIN: I think yes, but, wow, I would be so confused with what to read and what to watch. ‘Cause with BL, like you said, early 2000s, it wasn’t that accessible. Like I said, I was lucky enough to have a library that had one or two stories there. Shout out to Mount Laurel, New Jersey. [chuckles] And on-demand had a few yaoi anime available, like Mirage of Blaze, Gravitation. But those were so far and in-between, you had to go online to look at scanlation places and read the bare minimum of stuff.
And, nowadays, there’s so much out there. There’s Korean webtoons, Chinese webtoons, there’s Thai BL dramas, there’s Japanese BL dramas, Japanese yaoi. There’s all kinds of stuff out there. But even then, yeah, it’s still the most popular stuff out of each area, so if I had the whole ocean of options, I would be so lost. But I think I would still be interested. I mean, let’s face it. I’ve been reading yaoi for ten years now. I’m committed. I’m in.
DEVIN: It might change to varying degrees in the future, but I think I’ll still… There’s this one comic, which technically isn’t BL, but it’s about two girls reading BL, and it’s about an elderly woman whose husband died, and she’s now just waiting to die, which is super sad. But she randomly comes across a BL comic, and she reads it, and she’s like, “This is amazing.”
So, she goes to a bookstore and she meets the cashier at the bookstore, and she’s like, “Hey, is there any more of this?” And the girl’s like, “Yeah, they’re over here.” And the girl, who’s kind of a shy, quiet girl, was like, “I like BL, too. Wanna be friends?” And the older woman’s like, “Yes!” Sadly, I do not remember the title of this thing so I can’t say.
MASAKI: [sadly] Aw…
DEVIN: But it’s so good
MASAKI: That sounds wonderful, though.
DEVIN: There are only, like–well, in English, there are only only about four chapters out right now. But it’s so good, and every time I see it update, I’m like, “Oh, yes!”
So, I don’t remember what the point of that story was, other than sharing, but just… It was worth it. I love that story.
MASAKI: It was worth sharing. Totally worth it.
DEVIN: And just the ocean, the vast possibilities, would make me a little confused but, like the older woman, I see myself, at that age, still reading occasional comics here and there.
VRAI: Feel free to tell me that you super don’t want to talk about this if you don’t want to talk about this giant issue, but I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up: how do you guys feel about the eternal question of “Is BL fetishization of gay men for predominantly straight women?”
DEVIN: Oh, absolutely, 100%. 100%. But it’s one of those things where you have to sit down and think, “Okay. How much can I allow and how much can I be offended by?” With our culture nowadays, we’re offended by everything. And it’s justifiable to be offended by the fact that yaoi is gay romance for women.
That said, I’m a gay man and I love yaoi. I can still appreciate it, and it’s still something that can be celebrated. It’s just we also have to recognize that, hey, this is fetishization of gay romance. But, as long as it’s not going too far—and don’t ask me what the line is for “too far”—I am willing to accept it to a degree. I’ll point it out, but that’s about it.
VRAI: Certainly I remember being on the internet in the mid-2000s in those Gravitation days where it was very much this thing of people would be super into either official BL or fanworks, ships. And were super into those, but were really overtly and loudly disgusted by actual queer couples, and I feel like that’s certainly a hard line we can all draw together.
VRAI: This issue of “How much is this interest in fiction translating to actual support for human people?”
VRAI: I sometimes wonder if maybe the pushback against BL is this question of “If there were less of this, would there be more work by queer artists or for this demographic?” Like, is it taking away…? Almost seems to be the feeling.
DEVIN: I personally… I don’t know if I can comment on this, because I’m not from Japan. Fun fact: I’m actually going to Japan for the first time in October. That’s exciting. But, I can’t talk about the culture of Japan.
But in my mentality, the way I see it, I feel like yaoi has made things a little better, just because it has created this visibility of, “Oh, gay men.” You know? Someone who will read this comic—I know there are people out there, but—someone who will read a yaoi comic will at least have the awareness of gay men, gay feelings. Gay feelings. [chuckles] But, you know… I feel like that has made it possible for queer art and interest for other queer stories and for queer artists out there to produce.
So, I don’t necessarily think it’s been a… yaoi has [not] created a void in queer stories; I feel like it might have actually helped.
MASAKI: I totally agree, actually. I think when we think about BL creators, there’s this image of a heterosexual woman trying to draw out BL—gay romances—but I personally know people who are very into BL, people who create BL who also are queer. And there’s a lot of people like that.
So, kind of going back to the question of fetishization, BL fetishizes gay people, but it doesn’t do that no more than NL fetishizes women. NL… I don’t know if that’s a word that people see in English, but NL means “normal” love. Which basically means heterosexual love. NL… A lot of people who are BL fans and creators oppose the usage of that word, NL.
DEVIN: Whoa, yeah.
MASAKI: Because, you know, it’s like “gay” is abnormal. [aughs] But, there’s a lot of equally sexual content catered to heterosexual men that, I think… I think they are more problematic.
DEVIN: Yeah, figured.
MASAKI: And I’m not trying to rank, you know? [laughs] But I think there’s… The vast majority of sexual, maybe a little pornographic, anime, manga, and novels—I think the vast majority is NL. What they call “NL.” And the problems that exist in NL don’t usually call out—[correcting self] “Don’t usually call out?” Don’t get usually called out. [laughing] I’m hearing myself in my headphones, I’m like, “that doesn’t sound right.”
VRAI: [crosstalk] I was with you, I was with you.
MASAKI: So, I’m not trying to compare two different genres because each of them is too big to generalize about. But I think when we critique BL, we also have to be aware of the fact that we also have a very big genre of art and work that is very… at least equally problematic.
VRAI: I see what you mean. BL has something like freaking Ten Count, but in shoujo, you’ve got stuff like Black Bird, which is just straight-up glorifying a horrible abusive partner. I certainly think that there is a certain amount of misogyny… Not to say the fetishization issue is not important or not there. Like both of you said, I think, also… But also: “Hey, here’s a thing that women enjoy. Stop that.”
DEVIN: Yeah. I mean… The whole… I’ve noticed especially with dramas, there’s this whole trope of a rich jerk. “Oh, this man will treat me terribly. But he’s rich and pretty, so it’s okay.” All the different versions of Boys Over Flowers, and… Why does that drama have so many different versions? They just did a Chinese version a couple months ago, I think. Excuse me.
VRAI: There’s so many good shoujo, but they keep making Boys Over Flowers.
DEVIN: Yeah, they keep making it over and over. They made one in America, but it was terrible. There’s a Taiwanese one, Korean, Japanese has one or two… There’s all kinds. And it’s just the glorification of this, “Oh, he’s a jerk, but he’s rich and pretty!” And he kinda changes, depending on the version of the story that you’re watching.
Yeah, so that’s one of the problems with heterosexual romances that I see constantly. But I want to also add, going back to BL and the fetishization of gay romances, that it is [reservedly] kind of getting better? I’ve been noticing a kind of: “Let’s actually represent gay male stories.”
MASAKI: It is!
DEVIN: There’s this whole trope of “I’m straight. I’m not gay—except for you. I’m only gay for you.”
MASAKI: Oh, gosh.
DEVIN: But lately I’ve been noticing that more stories, from the jump, will just be about gay characters. “I am a gay man.” And, in fact, there was this one story, which, again, it’s not in my notes so I don’t have the name of it, but there’s a story about this blogger—I think he’s a food blogger—and one of his fans decides, “Hey, I love you. I’m gonna move in with you. I’m gonna be your lover now.” Which low-key is stalker-y and creepy.
But they actually promoted the comic by… The mangaka was like, “This is a real gay romance. I interviewed people.” And, at first, I was offended, like, “Oh, now we’re selling the pitch as, ‘Oh, Real Gays, everyone!'”
DEVIN: I was like, “Oh, okay. This is actually being representative.” So, there is a kind of shift happening in BL, which is cool.
VRAI: By the way, if you think of any of these titles later, just email them to me—
DEVIN: [crosstalk] Yeah! I’ll email ‘em.
VRAI: —and I’ll put them in the show notes. So people can find these nice, sweet things.
DEVIN: I’ll be up at 1 AM in the morning like, “Oh! That’s what it was!”
VRAI: Yeah, that’s… That’s as good a time as any.
I did also want to talk about that shift, and what things you see that used to be common in the older stuff that’s going away now, or nice, new tropes that are more positive that are cropping up.
DEVIN: Let’s see… I’ve already talked about two. Accessibility, like I said earlier. The ability to access it—that’s what “accessibility” means—the ability to read manga or BL anime; being able to read Korean stuff now.
I actually have an app—I believe it’s Lezhin; I still don’t know how to pronounce its name—the Korean comics’ site. I have an app for it. So, I can just read Korean BL comics on my phone. That’s amazing to me, for the kid who had to read stuff online through scanlation sites. So, the accessibility…That aspect is really cool.
VRAI: Although, I do hope that Lezhin is paying their artists now.
DEVIN: Yes! ‘Cause they had a whole scandal… I made a video about… I’m sorry for the editor if I just made a whole spike there. Anyway, I made a video about, “Hey, this is Lezhin. You should subscribe.”
And then some people in the comments were like, “Oh, but they’re kinda low-key terrible at paying their artists.” And then I looked into it and it is… There’s a whole shady business going on there. So, hopefully they do end up paying their artists. I know it ended up getting to be where the government is starting to get involved, and they are actually suing two artists because the artists were badmouthing them ’cause they weren’t getting paid.
So, there’s a whole bunch of scandals going on involving… And this is mostly because—sorry, I’m going into News Story Devin mode, but this is mostly because the Korean webtoons, webcomic, market kind of exploded in the past ten years. Because, again, with that accessibility, not only in Korea but also internationally. And so there are no legal ramifications for companies that underpay their workers. So the government is now like, “Oh, we should probably start actually regulating this whole business that’s just boomed in the last five to 10 years.”
VRAI: “Maybe we close this one.”
DEVIN: “Yeah, maybe we should actually start looking out for the people instead of just helping the companies.” But, tangents of tangents. That accessibility is something that I’ve seen in BL and that’s really cool that it’s just kind of skyrocketed so much.
VRAI: Yeah, and you see… because of the roots of the genre, I think a lot of the issues you see in shoujo romance happen in BL, too, that they’re kind of moving away from, like less assault? Less assault.
DEVIN: [laughs] And that’s definitely something I’ve seen in the BL community. Conversations about rape, assault. Why are these stories so prevalent in this genre? There has been pushback, though, of, “Guys, if you don’t wanna…”
I often find, now, in comics, where the translators will put a note like, “This involves rape or assault. Heads up. And so if you can’t read past this after reading this thing, don’t complain to us.” Where it’s partially warranted. Okay, you gave your warning. Cool.
But, also, there shouldn’t be such a negative pushback to the idea of, “Let’s talk about getting rid of rape culture in yaoi or BL.” So that’s, I guess, a conversation that’s blossoming now in the BL genre that it’ll be interesting to see where it goes.
VRAI: Yeah, yeah. Nice to see that convo being had. A little depressing that most of the manga that get adapted to anime are the ones that are still pretty assault-heavy, while in manga, there’s kind of this flourishing of other stuff.
MASAKI: I think one of the things that’s been getting better is that… In addition to accessibility and also the less assault thing, I think we are also seeing much more diverse—different kinds of characters in BL. Sometimes age-wise, sometimes body-type-wise.
Like Vrai said, some characters… Sorry, it was not Vrai. Sometimes the characters identify themselves as gay. And sometimes they’re confused. Just like many queer young people are. And I also remember reading BL back in the early 2000s. The occupations were very limited. Jobs that the characters had. Some of them are singers.
DEVIN: I’ve never noticed that.
MASAKI: Some of them were teachers.
DEVIN: Now I’m gonna have to go back and look. Interesting.
MASAKI: Yeah. It might be biased.
DEVIN: It might’ve just gone over my head. Don’t worry.
MASAKI: [laughs] Maybe it was my preference, I don’t know. But, yeah. I think that’s one of the things that has changed dramatically in the past 10, 15 years.
Related to the rape culture thing, conversations about rape being had in the BL community. I think the BL community is where the conversation about rape and assault is most rigorously had. We don’t see many people, consumers of heterosexual romance manga or sexual, pornographic manga or anime, talking about making less rape depictions.
The conversation that we are having in the BL community and beyond is sort of like… I think it’s going to lead to a broader conversation about representation of women and queer people in general. I think it can become a bigger conversation.
VRAI: Yeah, that’s a good point. It’s… Yeah, it seems like… Why is this the only genre that quote-unquote “has” to have these conversations? The fact is more that this is an issue in every genre and BL is a community that is choosing to try and look critically at itself and move forward, even in fits and starts. Which I think it deserves credit for.
VRAI: So, as we kind of get towards the end of the hour here, I wanted to talk about basically recommendations. Stuff you have read that you think is really solid, either just because it’s good or, “Well, here’s an interesting… If you’re interested in the history of the genre, here is an interesting thing to pick up.”
DEVIN: Well, the two or three things that I did not know the titles for off the top of my head. But I have a list. I have so many recommendations. Okay, so… First, Honto Yajuu by—and I apologize if I butcher the Japanese language. I’m so sorry—by Yamamoto Kotetsuko. Which is about an heir to a yakuza clan, and a beat cop—like a “Stand in the corner and watch the children walk to school” kind of cop—who fall in love. The healthiest and most charming relationship in all of yaoi, absolutely, hands-down.
VRAI: Sounds adorable.
DEVIN: It is great. And it’s still ongoing, hypothetically. It’s one of those things where it’s not usually being updated and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, this is a thing, still.” But there’s multiple chapters out there. 36 or so, off the top of my head. Just came up with that. I dunno if that’s close, but it feels like it… chapters out there. So, you can go read that, and it’s great.
Moving on. Next is Jackass! Who Said You Could Touch Me? or just Jackass by Scarlet Beriko. This is currently my favorite yaoi manga. It’s one of those stories where a lot’s going on. They’re about these three friends in high school. One is this classic “I’m gay and proud! I go to the gay section of Tokyo. I hang out with my older man boyfriend” and he’s just chill and having the time of his life. And then a classmate of his is a classic bully who actually low-key likes him and he’s dealing with that on top of his relationship with an older man who’s like, “I’m too old for you. Let’s stop this.”
And then, the main… That’s actually the side story, but the main story is about this kid who’s being raised by his older sister, and his feeling of, “I don’t want you to have to feel obligated to take care of me. I feel responsible for a burden because you are so young and you have to take care of me.” And, on top of that, his need to be on top of everything is being messed up because his other best friend is falling in love with him, and he doesn’t know what to do.
There’s also stuff… The other best friend happens to have a fetish of undergarments, so, heads up. But, other than that, it’s generally a very charming story to me.
[melodically] Let’s keep going on my list of stuff.
VRAI: Please do.
DEVIN: If you’re a fan of really erotic stuff—you know, heads up for you. One story is Yatamomo by Harada. Harada is a very well-accomplished creator. A very dark and… Harada’s great because—
MASAKI: I love Harada.
DEVIN: One: wonderful artwork. Beautiful artwork. But, two, it’s really compelling stories, like Caste Heaven-–is that Harada? I believe it is. If I’m wrong, I’m sorry. But, Yatamomo is specifically about… Now that I’m saying that, I don’t think Caste Heaven is Harada.
But, anyway, Yatamomo is about a couple of idiots. One is this little boy who—heads up, mature rating—a little boy who had to be a prostitute when he was younger. He was on the streets. And so he kinda has this mentality of “sex is the answer to everything.” And then he meets this guy who… I don’t remember what his job is, but he’s generally this “I take care of broken things” kind of guy. And he’s like, “Momo, you don’t need to use sex for everything now. I love you. I’ve got you.” And, then, of course, there’s all kinds of sex happening in between that.
So, it’s this charming story with a whole bunch of smut on top of that. So, if you’re into something like that, go ahead and check it out. And then… You know what, I have one more. Sigh. Okay, sorry. The yaoi person is talking, sorry.
VRAI: You have feelings. It’s good.
DEVIN: I have feelings and thoughts and I want to express them! Next is My Brother’s Husband.
DEVIN: Which we talked about a little earlier, by… Sorry, his name escapes me again. I know it’s TG… I know his initials, but I don’t know the rest.
MASAKI: Gengoroh Tagame.
DEVIN: Yes! Thank you. And it’s totally different than his regular stuff. Normally he’s all about muscular bodybuilder men having sex and rape and poop play. For real. That’s why I’m not into his regular stuff.
But this one is the total opposite, where it’s a family-friendly story about a single father raising a little girl who’s seven or so. He had a twin brother who moved away to Canada because he came out as gay and his brother didn’t accept him. And, sadly, the brother died in Canada. And so this man suddenly appears at their door one day, saying, “Hey, I’m your Canadian brother-in-law. I married your brother and I came to Japan to experience Japan and meet my other family.”
And so this is a story that’s so wonderful for being about… It’s light and happy and comedic, but it also is kind of dark about “Oh, lost family.” Having just lost family members and single parenting and raising a kid and all the worries of homophobia and “Am I submitting her to too much?”
So, it’s so endearing. Like we said, it actually ended up getting a live-action version, which I haven’t seen, but the reviews were very good about it, so I understand it to have gone very well. So, go check that out. And, if you are in America, it has been legally licensed in America, so you can go buy it. It’s probably in the bookstore right now. Go get it!
MASAKI: That’s awesome. [laughs] Go get it!
DEVIN: And last but not least… Or, at least, I’ll stop here. Just some BL live-action recommendations, because my readers were really into Thai dramas when I started with Queer Fudanshi. And so I’ve watched a few Thai dramas now, which you can usually watch on YouTube.
My absolute favorite one so far is Part-Time Series, which isn’t just BL. It’s about a bunch of college students in their first year of college, so everything happens, from one girl trying to go into a modeling agency, one character is trying to keep his job as a coffee waiter. And all kind of things happening. And then there’s one side story of this BL romance between a guy who wants to be a boxer and this rich, spoiled boy who’s like, “Love me.” And I actually adore that, because it’s so real, and it’s also so inclusive. Every letter of the LGBT community is represented in this Thai drama. It’s just really cool.
And then, lastly, if you’re into the more typical squeamy, cheesy boys’ love romance, there’s My Bromance, which is about… How do I explain this? It’s actually based off of a movie, but this is a—there’s a movie and a TV drama, and the TV drama flips between the past and the present. In the past, these two step-brothers ended up falling in love, but it went terribly. Very quick summary. And then, in the present, it’s, “Oh, they’re reuniting for the first time in five or more years and now they’re like, ‘Are we still in love with each other? What’s going on?'” And it was presented so well by the two main characters that, to this day, I’m just like, “Yeah. That was a good one.”
So, anyway. There’s my list. That’s a whole list, but there you go.
DEVIN: Oh, Yuri on Ice! The anime. Fantastic. Okay, done.
VRAI: For the two people who still haven’t watched Yuri on Ice.
DEVIN: For the two in the back, over there. Get on it!
MASAKI: [laughs] Oh, God.
VRAI: Masaki, have you been reading or watching anything you like?
MASAKI: Oh, God. I have such a short list. [laughs]
DEVIN: Oh, no, please. I went over, so you’re good.
MASAKI: [laughs] Well, I… I don’t have specific titles or books. But I would recommend… I’ve always been a fan of dark-themed, sort of sad stories, so before I go to my recommendation, I… One story that I still remember from my teen years is about this American guy and Japanese guy. And the American guy, I think he was stationed in Japan post-war. He was working for the military, and they fall in love, but they don’t say anything to each other. But they are very attracted to each other. And they started having intimate relationships, but then… when they finally start having sex, they are interrupted by the Japanese guy’s parent.
And the American guy goes back to America, and that’s it for the first half of the episode. And then later on, the Japanese guy is in his 70s now, and the American guy shows up as a ghost. And… So there’s no real sexual relationship there, but the sadness of the story just… It really got me. And I still remember that story.
So, I love those BL stories that may not result in happy endings. Or even breakups. I think I like the fact that it’s neither a happy ending or a sad ending. It’s in the middle. They still love each other, but they don’t form a typical relationship. So, based on that kind of preference of mine, I think I would recommend Yugi Yamada and Shouwa.
Yugi Yamada is… She’s been making lots of books. She’s, I think, one of the most popular BL creators. I don’t know if she’s being translated into English, but I really, really recommend you read it. Like we’ve been talking about, some BL characters nowadays are starting to identify as gay. Just like that, Yugi Yamada’s works and Shouwa’s books, they have gay characters who obviously identify as gay.
There is a lot of stuff going on in their books, but there’s this one gay guy and he likes this other guy, but then he is in a relationship with another gay guy, but that middle man doesn’t identify as gay. Or… [laughs] There’s this playboy kind of promiscuous gay man who has had feelings for his roommate. There are scenes where the other guy sort of returns feelings, but then things don’t go well, and in the end, they are still roommates. [laughs] Their love is going nowhere, and I love that.
DEVIN: [laughs] All right.
MASAKI: [through laughter] Yeah! So, if you… I don’t know many people who like that kind of stories, but…
DEVIN: Sounds good.
MASAKI: Yeah. If even one person listening to this likes that kind of story, I would really recommend Yugi Yamada and Shouwa. Some of their stories end up in a happy ending, so you should read them.
VRAI: Sometimes you just want that bittersweet stuff. It scratches an itch. I had a couple recommendations, too, for anyone listening out there. First, Fumi Yoshinaga in general is really great, but, specifically, I wanted to recommend What Did You Eat Yesterday? which is this domestic series about a middle-aged gay couple. One’s a lawyer, the other’s a hairdresser.
It’s really nice and grounded. It’s definitely extremely slow-burn. This is not a series you’re going to… if you want a lot of sex or even a lot of very physical intimacy, it took them six volumes to talk about their problems with their words.
DEVIN: [crosstalk] That’s good that they’re talking. Lots of yaoi couples don’t do that.
VRAI: They still haven’t kissed on-screen. Yes, yes it is extremely about getting older and all of those very mundane concerns that usually when you’re reading a big, emotional Feelings romance are kind of, “Eh, we’ll worry about that later.”
Also there have been a lot of cute one-shots published in English, recently. Go For It, Nakamura is a Rumiko Takahashi-style slapstick, almost, series about this gay teenager, Nakamura, who’s so awkward, and he just wants to—not even get together with his crush; he just wants to make friends with him. That’s as far as he can manage is “I’m going to make friends with this boy,” and it’s just nice and funny and the characters are sweet and it’s really endearing.
I’m also a big fan of—it’s a little rough around the edges ’cause it’s from the ‘90s, but—I’m a big fan of FAKE, which is a cop drama. Dee is sort of the… the loose-canon cop who gets partnered with Ryo, who is new on the force, and he’s very uptight and prim-and-proper. And it has a little bit of the problem where Dee is kind of the pervy, shoujo boyfriend who’s always pushing their partner to go further than they’re a little comfortable with—although there’s no sexual assault in it, which is nice. It always stops before any rape happens. And it’s a nice slow-burn with a lot of police procedural plot, and I loved a lot.
And also From Eroica with Love, which is an old ‘70s series about a thief named Dorian Red Gloria, who is very flamboyant and has a cadre of beautiful men who do his job for him, and he collects beautiful art, and he pines after Iron Klaus, who is a German military officer who works for NATO, and is as repressed as the day is long, and they have 40 years of unresolved sexual tension, and it’s amazing.
MASAKI: Sounds like it’s amazing.
DEVIN: [laughs] Sounds good. Yeah.
MASAKI: Just wanted to quickly make a note that Yugi Yamada and the show that I recommended, they are not free from the rape culture, and some of the works, they have assault scenes. So, just be warned.
DEVIN: Yeah, I was thinking, too, the Yatamomo… I mentioned that it’s a mature warning, but there is that in there as well. So, warning as well.
VRAI: Okay. And I think most people who read BL know that that’s always going to be a danger, but it’s nice to have the content warnings going in. [pause] Anything else we didn’t cover [crosstalk] that you guys wanted to talk about before we wrap up?
DEVIN: [crosstalk] Okay, one more. Because I skipped over it because I was trying to [unintelligible].
DEVIN: I promise! I promise! Okay. This is actually a Chinese one, and it’s Here You Are by DJUN. And it’s about… It’s about a college couple. I think it’s a software engineer or something like that who’s in charge of—he’s basically an orientation leader at his university, and he’s taking care of the freshman. Being this friendly face for the incoming freshman class.
And there’s this one tall, quiet dude who is so quiet that people think he’s being standoffish and rude, but really he’s just a “quiet, shy giant” kind of guy. And this junior upperclassman is this outspoken, “Yeah, I’m gay. What of it? I’ll fight you if I have to” kind of character who is just my favorite. He’s so endearing in his authentic self-ness.
And it looks like they’re gonna be in a relationship. We don’t know yet, but it’s getting there and I love it and it’s just a really heartwarming story with a great lead and an interesting romantic interest. I’m not too into the giant, but I respect him. And, yeah, that’s it. Here You Are.
VRAI: Oh no, I forgot one as well.
DEVIN: We can go for the next hour.
VRAI: Oh no.
VRAI: We could do this all day.
I Hear the Sunspot is a two-volume manga series that is sort of a college slow-burn about this—a young man who basically wants to… He’s working towards becoming an interpreter in college. He basically wants to slack his way through classes, and he ends up taking notes for another student who has partial hearing loss, and it’s kind of about their slow growth of a relationship, but also about the issues with having a non-visible disability.
And it’s really interesting and grounded and… well-received, I believe, by readers with disabilities. I really liked it a lot. Yeah, it’s good. It’s good and I had feelings, and yeah. It’s another one that’s not super sex-intensive. They have awkward makeouts, but mostly it’s about the realities of, “Oh no, we want to get together. How do we act like adults?”
DEVIN: And it’s always nice to have those comics that aren’t just about sex and smut. That is like, “Oh, there’s feelings and relationships and conversations happening here, not just shirtless men.”
VRAI: Eh, you know, sometimes you want your smut and sometimes you want your grounded slice-of-life. It’s good to have both.
MASAKI: Okay, so, uh, this is not a recommendation, but…
VRAI: [hesitantly] Uh…
DEVIN: We’re going for the next hour.
MASAKI: No, no. [laughs]
DEVIN: [unintelligible due to garbled audio and crosstalk]
MASAKI: Just wanted to mention that when we… Shipping is criticized. A lot of people say that you are reading too much into the original work. You are reading homosexuality into the original work. But when we watch TV shows, in general, like Grey’s Anatomy—
DEVIN: Can we talk about that, though? Anyway…
MASAKI: [laughs] Yeah, a lot of the TV shows and movies… Not every person is explicitly depicted as heterosexual, right? So, that… They might be queer. They might identify or they might be living—they might be transgender, who just do not expose their gender history. You know? Those characters that we see in every single TV show and movie, manga… We don’t know who they are. We don’t know what kind of identity or background, personal history, they carry.
VRAI: Yeah, no, I think as queer folks a lot of the time, we’re so used to not being explicitly depicted on screen that we find space in that lack of denial. I think that’s definitely a thing.
MASAKI: It’s like the reverse is also true. People are reading too much heterosexuality into a lot of stuff.
DEVIN: Yeah, true. Yeah. I absolutely get it. I mean, with… And I personally take this to more of a Hollywood perspective of, “Oh, these characters that are being announced as LGBTQ are being presented so that it’s kind of a mystery spot.” Like, “Oh, if you know, you know.” Or, like, if you can read between the lines… That can have its good points and its bad points, you know?
Like the whole… I dunno. I think in movies like the recent Power Rangers movie with the Yellow Ranger—Trini, I believe her name was? She had one scene where she was like, “I’m not like my family,” and everything. Because if you interpret the headline with “She’s talking about the fact that she’s gay,” you would know and that would be empowering. I certainly found it empowering. But I can also understand people who are like, “That wasn’t enough. I need more. We need actual confirmation.”
So, I dunno… I’m taking this with the Hollywood movie perspective, but this is definitely something that’s happening more of, and I feel like we’re still figuring out what’s the good place of the—not being “out there” out there, but also having enough confirmation for everyone.
VRAI: Yeah. For sure. [laughs] One to grow on.
MASAKI: Sorry for bringing it down at the last minute.
DEVIN: No, you’re fine!
MASAKI: I just remembered that I wanted to say that.
VRAI: No, it’s good. Thank you for bringing that up. I think it’s always relevant.
Alright, well, thank you—both of you—so much for agreeing to come on here. I think this has been a really great conversation, and I’m pleased that you guys were going to spare some of your time.
DEVIN: [crosstalk] Thank you for having me. It’s been fun.
MASAKI: Thank you for having me. Yeah, it was fun.
VRAI: All right. And thank you, listeners out there. Again, be sure to check the shownotes. We’ll have some links to some of the stuff we’ve talked about today.
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