Queer media, escapism and self-discovery in Sasaki and Miyano

By: Anthony Gramuglia May 27, 20220 Comments
sasaki and miyano cupping one another's faces against the sunset

Content warning: Discussion of queerphobia and transphobia

Spoilers for Sasaki and Miyano

One of the most impactful new anime of 2022 is Sasaki and Miyano, a BL series centered on a fudanshi named Miyano, who ends up sparking a friendship with his upperclassman Sasaki. Sasaki’s infatuation with Miyano forces the older teen to question his sexuality, with the two initially bonding over BL manga before becoming far, far closer. While the series itself is a sweet, wholesome story about self-discovery, it also offers an incredibly potent metatextual analysis of how queer media can help LGBTQ+ teens come to understand themselves.

“Representation matters.” It’s a statement we hear quite frequently on the internet. From the perspective of individuals who have consistently been centered in the media landscape, such a statement might come across as hollow or meaningless. After all, cis-gendered, hetereosexual viewers might not understand how meaningful it is to a trans or queer member of the audience to see themselves on the screen – or, by that same token, how being deprived of such representation can affect that same audience.

a happy Miyano looking over at sasaki

A study in LGBT Health conducted during the height of the COVID-19 quarantine analyzed how the mental health of sexual and gender minority youth (designated in the article as SGM youth) differed from their heterosexual and cisgendered counterparts. The study concluded:

“SGM youth reported a significantly greater impact from the pandemic than non-SGM youth. Both SGM youth and cisgender heterosexual females reported greater impact on their mental health compared with cisgender heterosexual males, with cisgender sexual minority females and gender minority youth reporting the highest mental health impact. Gender minority youth also reported feeling less connected to their families and less safe at home as a result of the pandemic.”

For many people, representation in they fiction they enjoy serves as relief from what might be an otherwise overly judgemental or bigoted social atmosphere. They are not given a venue through which they can explore their identity in a healthy way, so media becomes, in many ways, a communal experience that offers emotional relief.

Media that offers a metatextual perspective on representation can often illustrate the positivity representation can offer audiences, as well as the multifaceted challenges that come with it. While queer fiction can offer queer audiences a reflection of their own experiences, it can sometimes establish a clumsy, inefficient framework through which we interpret our reality. Queer media can help queer audiences understand themselves, but the fiction can sometimes contradict reality. Sasaki and Miyano is not just a story containing queer representation, but a story about queer representation, and it provides a platform where these ideas can be explored.

smiling Miyano, happy that Sasaki liked the BL manga that was recommended to him

“Boys Life” vs “Boys Love”

This sweet anime is based on a manga initially published on the site Pixiv. Manga-ka Shō Harusono created a four panel strip that equally parodied and paid tribute to BL manga. The manga has run for a total of eight volumes thus far, with the ninth volume set to release in July 2022 (in tandem with an OVA anime episode).

Interestingly, the manga is marketed as a “Boys Life” title rather than a “Boys Love” title in Japanese media – which in many ways is a vital distinction that illustrates the metatextual divide between the romanticized manga Miyano adores and the grounded life these two queer teens lead. This is, of course, a cheeky play on words surrounding the BL genre, but it also reflects, if perhaps unintentionally, a more profound concept.

The ties between queer media and how it impacts its audience is made clear early on in Sasaki and Miyano. Miyano discovers a BL anthology by accident and becomes a voracious reader of BL media. Though he remains in denial about his passion for the genre, it is clear Miyano’s entire world-view of relationships is influenced by his passion for BL.

Miyano often sees his friends and classmates through the lens of BL tropes. He views his upperclassman, Hirano, as being in a relationship with his roommate, using off-handed comments as evidence to establish this – such as, for example, the fact that Hirano learned his dyed hair was damaged after his roommate touched his hair.

Miyano looking at his bookcase, reflecting that BL makes him feel moe

He also categorizes many of the people in his life as seme and uke, based on the popular BL relationship dynamic roles. This, however, does not prepare him for the real dynamics of relationships. Miyano has trouble fitting Sasaki into the box of seme or uke, in no small part due to the fact that real relationships don’t really fall into such clear-cut categories.

Despite the big role BL media plays in Miyano’s life, however, he remains fiercely defensive about what that indicates about his sense of identity. In part, he is fearful of being judged for his interests. This fear manifests in Sasaki and Hirano’s classmate, Ogasawa Jiro, who openly resents BL because his girlfriend loves it, particularly manga that feature boys who look remarkably like Ogasawa being topped by athletic, strong men.

As for Miyano’s sexuality, he shuts down the possibility of interest in men because he’d had a crush on a girl (and hadn’t considered the possibility of bisexuality). However, as he starts to untangle his confusing feelings for Sasaki, he turns to the one resource he has on hand: BL manga. Almost immediately after questioning his sexuality, he goes straight to his manga shelf, cringing as he draws comparison between his manga and real life situation before questioning if he’s a short seme or a stereotypical uke. He then has what can only be described as a bi anxiety attack as he feels guilty for viewing his life through the lens of BL tropes.

a blushing miyano chastising himself not to think of everything as BL

Why Does Queer Representation Matter?

All of this ties right into the core relationship many young teens have with BL manga. They like it. They know they adore it, but either due to denial or uncertainty, don’t know why they are drawn to the genre. While this media does offer frameworks within which they can determine their sense of identity, it also offers frameworks that don’t always apply – such as seme and uke relationship dynamics.

Japanese media has a complicated history with depicting same-gender relationships. In Erica Friedman’s article “Yuri, 1919-2019, From Then To Now,” she credits the 1919 novel Yaneura no Nishojo as the origin of many yuri tropes. Friedman writes:

Yaneura no Nishojo established many of the tropes we see in manga and literature for girls in Japan…and a lot of the characterizations and settings we now understand as “Yuri.” So many of the works we have come to think of as Yuri “classics” have scenes that borrow freely from this novel. When we look back at the themes of intense emotional relationships and same-sex desire we see in her work, we recognize them as the foundation for what we now call the Yuri genre.”

In the modern day, BL manga stands as transgressive in the face of heteronormative philosophies. In Mark Vicars and Kim Senior’s essay “Yaoi, Narrative Pleasures, and Reader Response,” published in the 2010 essay anthology Boys’ Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre, the writers theorize that BL manga (which they refer to by the term most popular in 2010, yaoi), exists to help reshape a readers’ perspective on identity.

“It takes, as focus for critical inquiry, how yaoi is used by “Western” readers (a gay man and a straight woman) to resist and (re)perform heterogendered pedagogies in everyday life…United in the project of (re)imagining and reconstructing ing identity, yaoi is positioned as a fugitive text where the (hetero) normative is disrupted and where the quotidian codes that govern gender and sexuality are poached for “perverse” purposes and pleasures…Our responses to texts were, to some extent, acts of self creation through which we as readers sought to recoversome thematic continuity of self. They offered a way of being in the world where we were able to embrace and acknowledge our queer lives as our own creations. It is, therefore, in our social, cultural and sexual position in relation to texts that we have attempted to re-experience unimagined significances and to re-imagine the effects between “proper” and “improper” ways of being and doing gender and sexuality.”

The authors go on to state their personal experiences with how queer media helped reshape their perspectives. Vicars even states in a personal aside that “My nascent understandings of self were formed in the days, months, and years spent genuflecting at the everyday altars of the heteronormative whilst secretly longing for something thing queer to happen.” BL therefore exists as a potential escape from stifling heteronormative belief.

BL manga by its very philosophy counters the confining heteronormativity. While the writers frame this from the perspective of western audiences, Sasaki and Miyano proposes that, yes, Eastern audiences can have the same reaction to BL – it helps reshape perspectives. What heteronormative structures and ideals can dismiss as “perverse,” BL can reframe as beautiful. 

Sasaki and Miyano standing in front of a display of Valentine's Day candy

BL As Contextualization

However, while Miyano’s reality is shaped by BL manga, Sasaki’s reality is contextualized by that same genre. Unlike Miyano, Sasaki comes to understand that he’s not straight far earlier in the story. He’s smitten by Miyano and constantly struggles with his feelings as a result. Part of him becoming close to Miyano is through reading manga that the fudanshi lends him.

Also unlike Miyano, Sasaki doesn’t particularly feel embarrassed by reading BL manga in public. When Ogasawa, for example, confronts Sasaki about his reading habits, Sasaki reverses the question, asking Ogasawa why it makes him uncomfortable. While the topic is BL, he’s simultaneously asserting the right to own his identity in public.

From the fourth episode onward, Sasaki even uses conversations centered on BL as a means of probing Miyano’s interests, seeing what kind of men Miyano might be drawn to based on his opinion of manga. While Miyano sees this as casual conversation, it’s clear from the context that Sasaki is determining whether or not it’s safe to come forward with his feelings for Miyano.

A close-up of Sasaki, head resting in his arms, smiles gently. Bubbles burst around him. Subtitles read "I really liked that story."

Miyano fears judgment for his love of manga. His anxieties toward being identified as a fudanshi and BL lover actively prevents him from reacting appropriately when Sasaki starts to openly tease physical contact. At one point, Miyano makes a comment about “cat tongued” individuals – those sensitive to heat – having clumsy mouths and thus clumsy kisses. Sasaki, who Miyano implied was cat tongued, offers to “find out.” This flirting goes over Miyano’s head until much later, at which he immediately compares the exchange to a scenario in a BL manga. He uses the manga as a filter for the experience, while Sasaki uses BL manga as a means to execute his inner feelings. 

This dynamic offers the core of Sasaki and Miyano’s metatextual analysis of queer media. In many ways, this is why the genre “Boys Life” suits the story better than “Boys Love.” The series makes an attempt to illustrate the divide between realistic queer relationships – especially with teens still grappling with their identities – and the fictionalized versions we see in BL stories that conform to the genre’s tropes.

Sasaki and Miyano exists as part of a new wave of queer manga, one that prioritizes realistic, messy relationships. This is opposed to the popular titles of yesteryear, such as Gravitation and Junjou Romantica, that were not written with realistic queer relationships in mind, but instead a sort of wish-fulfillment aimed primarily towards cis women, most of whom were not homosexual.

While there are still BL manga out there that prioritize playing into those exaggerated tropes and fantasies, Sasaki and Miyano strives to present a more grounded, nuanced relationship that exists in conversation with the BL manga that helped inspire the story.

Miyano sleeping against Sasaki's shoulder on the train

When Queer Media is Withheld

While Sasaki and Miyano illustrates the benefit queer media can have on youths grappling wtih their identity, it opens a question: would Sasaki or Miyano be able to process their feelings in a healthy manner if they didn’t have BL manga in their lives? That answer remains uncertain, but in reality, we understand that deprivation of queer media can have a seriously adverse impact on the audience that needs it most.

While queer audiences have always found themselves in coded media and subtext, whether intentional or reclaimed, there are countless stories of people who felt empowered to accept themselves or put a name to nebulous feelings after seeing overt, named representation. What happens when that media is withheld? Much like the dangers of isolating LGBTQIA youths during the pandemic, the deprivation of queer media might have an equally devastating impact on mental health.

Many LGBTQIA youths, across the world, are facing a potential future where their queerness might be criminalized. Early in 2022, Florida pushed their “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. As described by The Hill, “Officially known as the Parental Rights in Education bill, the legislation would restrict mention of LGBTQ+ topics in classrooms that are not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” Parents would also be given greater authority to take legal action against school districts believed to be in violation.

Miyano hiding his face in a book from Sasaki

This is just one of many pieces of anti-LGBTQIA legislation. The start of 2022 saw a record-number of new legislation designed to restrict LGBTQIA people – especially trans individuals – from health and educational resources. In the worst case scenario, many trans individuals will be forcibly de-transitioned because they will be prevented from accessing puberty blockers, hormones, and even therapy.

The UK also passed several new pieces of anti-trans legislation that, among other things, allows conversion therapy to be used to “cure” transgender identity, even while acknowledging how dangerous and harmful the practice can be. As time passes, it seems as though more legislation is being pushed to penalize LGBTQIA individuals. While in the future these n might be repealed, it will do a great deal of damage to children who grow up in this social climate. In this restrictive, even dangerous environment, queer media can be a rare escape, a reassurance that one isn’t alone in their identity.

April 2022 saw the first Tokyo Rainbow Pride festival was conducted since 2019, protesting the stagnation of LGBTQIA legislation in Japan. When asked about the festival’s determined and focused push on new legislation, Fumino Sugiyama, the festival’s co-chair, stated the following: “After the Sapporo ruling came the Tokyo Olympics, which had diversity as a central theme, putting Japan’s LGBT issues on the world stage. But the system still hasn’t changed.” While individual prefictures in Japan have passed legislation, there are no sweeping, all-encompassing laws that have even legalized marriage equality in Japan.

There have been conventions initiated to discuss the matter. The fourth Marriage For All Convention was held shortly before the Tokyo Rainbow Pride event in the building housing Japan’s parliament. At the same time, the Freedom of Marriage for All Trial has been stagnant since 2019. The trial has seen thirteen same-sex couples sued the Japanese Government, with the argument that restricting same-sex marriage goes against Article 14 of Japan’s constitution, which reads “there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.”

sasaki and miyano cupping one another's faces against the sunset

The Sasaki and Miyano manga and its anime adaptation depict queer relationships not as transgressive, but as simply relationships, complete with all the awkward difficulties and will-they, won’t-theys of any average heteronormative romance arc. But it is not a world without normalized and internalized homophobia. Miyano seems afraid to talk about his interest in queer media and refuses to admit he’s not straight for some time, even after being unable to deny his feelings for Sasaki. It’s easy to imagine that his experience would be even more stifling if not for his access to, and fondness for, BL manga.

Ultimately, Sasaki and Miyano serves as an expression of the necessity of queer media, and how it can shape the perspectives of its audience. Is it a perfect way for an individual to understand themselves? No. It’s messy and complicated. But that doesn’t change the fact that it helps these characters come to terms with who they are and what they want out of a relationship with each other . As the series progresses, Miyano’s manga offers a framework through which he eventually does confess his feelings to Sasaki. The scene itself, rather than being overly romanticized, is played, so to speak, “straight.” It’s grounded in realism.

Sasaki and Miyano exists in conversation with queer media, particularly with BL and its complex web of tropes, expectations, and assumptions about its audience. Sasaki and Miyano argues that, issues taken into account,  these works have a tangible impact on their audience – the audience that needs these works to exist.
In a world where society can starve queer teens of the media they need to feel validated, Sasaki and Miyano serves to demonstrate how representation, even messy representation, can be instrumental to individuals finding themselves.

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