Boy’s Love: A Dynamic Expression of Sexuality

By Taylor Drew

Introduction           

The decades following the end of the Second World War marked a significant period of development for Japanese manga. The genres of manga became divided between two primary genres, shounen, and shoujo, for boys and girls respectively, and the art of telling longer running stories became mainstream practice. As well, women began to enter the manga industry rapidly during the 1950’s and 1960’s, which would cause a significant shift in the stories that were told and how they were presented within shoujo manga that was released (Prough 2011:46-48). The stories that were produced in this new style followed patterns of using exotic locations outside of Japan as the main setting and expressing the emotions involved in human relationships, often love triangles between the main character, the heroine, and two boys that she was close to. They also employed a drawing style that remains recognized as a style for shoujo manga. Despite the many changes that took place, it was not until the 1970’s that female manga artists would begin to experiment with the portrayal of kissing and sex in shoujo manga for older teenagers (Prough 2011: 53). However, these initial intimate scenes were not between two people of the opposite sex but rather between two boys.

This new genre of shoujo manga, known as yaoi, shounen ai, and/or boys love depending on time period and context, offered a new type of story to be consumed by the girls that were reading manga at that time. Even though this new genre of shoujo manga was about the love between two boys, it was not about portraying a realistic and loving relationship between two men. Instead, the relationships within boys love manga were symbolic of things desired and things experienced by Japanese girls and women; they were a way for restricted individuals to express their sexuality in text. While the genre has gone through many stylistic changes, especially in recent years, this symbolism can still be seen even in more recent works of boys love manga. By understanding the thematic and stylistic origins of boys love manga and by analyzing some more recent works, it will be possible to see how this symbolism continued on through various dynamic changes in the genre while also developing into something new to accommodate for continuing critic from the gay community and its allies in Japan.

The Origin of Boys Love

            The boys love genre saw its origins in the early 1970’s as a type of mainstream shoujo manga. At the time known as shounen-ai, these stories followed the romance between two beautiful boys. The appearance of these beautiful boys is striking because of the androgynous nature of their appearances; with their long flowing hair and slender bodies their gender appears as ambiguous to the untrained eye. In addition to their genderless appearances, when engaging in intimate activity, the panels of the manga were placed in a way that made their sexual actions even more ambiguous by never directly showing insertion of a penis or other obviously male occurrences (Prough 2011:53). While the appearance of these beautiful boys may bring to question the true nature of their sex, interviews with artists of the genre suggest that in their eyes at least, there is no doubt that these beautifully drawn androgynous boys are male (Welker 2011: 213). None the less, it is likely that the ambiguous appearances of the boys likely helped facilitate an understanding of the characters for the readers.

Additionally, the early settings of these shounen-ai manga were placed in exotic locations just like other shoujo manga of the time. Not unlike other shoujo manga, these exotic locations were typically historical Europe in aristocratic families, all-boys boarding schools, or both. Again like other shoujo manga of the time, the focus was on the emotions and connections made by the main character to others around him.The combination of foreign location and androgynous boys allowed for the mainstream shoujo manga readers to enjoy these early shounen ai stories by distancing them from the sexual  content but also by being relatable which was an overall important accomplishment for manga because intimacy had never been expressed in such a way in manga before (Prough 2011: 54).

            By the 1980’s, shounen ai had left mainstream shoujo manga magazines and began publishing in specialty magazines for the genre. With this new vein of publishing the genre took on a new name courtesy of the publishing industry, becoming the English “boys love” that is primarily used in this essay. Stories about the love between two boys also began to thrive in another market, that of doujinshi, or self-published fanfiction (Prough 2011: 54). In this instance, these self-published works were manga though doujinshi as a term refers to all fan-published material. Within these fan-made works, the genre was known as yaoi, an acronym that stands for “no climax, no ending, no meaning.” This terminology represents the way that these stories were written without much thought or plot. In this case of boys love doujinshi they were typically a quick and steamy after between the two main characters.  These fan-made works were often much more sexually explicit than their counterparts in shounen-ai were originally and as already stated, their sexual encounter was overall the main point of the story.  Many of these fan-made works are now often based off stories in shounen manga, with those released in the Weekly Shounen Jump magazine being especially popular (Saito 2011: 180). Some of these titles include Gintama, Naruto, One Piece, and The Prince of Tennis.  The authors of these particular doujinshi displayed and still do display a special ability to shift the friendly bonding of shounen manga and turn it into a romantic encounter between two teenage boys. The development of these doujinshi as separate to published boys love is important because of the way they influenced setting and also sexual content in commercially published works. Boys love manga was already evolving continuously right from the start based on competition between the producers and the consumers.

 Experiencing Sex in Boys Love

            The boys love manga that was produced from the 1990’s until today has been able to become much more sexually explicit in part due to the influence of the market of self-published manga (McLelland 2000: 19). While not all boys love manga has sexually explicit content it is very common and much more common than it was in the past. The role of the beautiful boy has also changed. While most of the boys shown in boys love manga, there is less emphasis on androgynous features than there was before; there is little doubt by anyone that the characters are male, even without clear display of a penis. A result of this is a division between roles that have become more clearly visible to the readers, a division of roles that is essential to understand current boys love narratives about sex more clearly.

 In the vast majority of boys love manga, the relationship between the two boys is understood in terms of their individual roles as either the uke or the seme. The seme is recognized as the dominant, aggressive, male role in the relationship and the uke is seen as the passive feminine role (Saito 2011: 184). In this dichotomy, while both boys are more clearly masculine in their features, the uke typically has more feminine features such as longer hair and larger eyes as well as being more emotional while the seme shows more masculine traits. The manga The World’s Greatest First Love, by Shingiku Nakamura, is a good example of this type of character description. The story follows two men that reconnect ten years after a high school love gone wrong in the editing department of a publishing company where they are now both employed. The seme, Masamune, has a squared chin and always remains relatively expressionless even in some of their more steamy encounters.

On the other hand, the uke, Ritsu,has a more triangular chin and easily blushes in romantic situations because of embarrassment (Nakamura 2015). While not all boys love manga change the appearance between the two roles to such an extent, it is usual for the features of the uke to be more cute and feminine than those of the seme both in appearance, mannerisms, and even personal skills and interests. These personality traits as assigned by role are prominent in most boys love manga that has been published in recent years by commercial publishers.

These appearances and personality traits also translate to what sexual role each character performs. The more masculine and dominant seme plays the role of the penetrator, and the more passive and feminine uke plays the role of the penetrated (Saito 2011: 184). By framing the relationship between the two boys is this way, the authors of the manga are placing them within a very stereotypical heterosexual relationship structure. The more masculine and dominant seme is almost exclusively the character that initiates a relationship and then sexual contact, sometimes initiated by platonic teasing or despite his insecurities about his sexuality. When the two boys inevitably have sex, the uke will be on the bottom, usually facing the seme and laying underneath him. The story No Touching At All by Kou Yoneda is an example of a story that follows this format. The main character Shima is a closeted gay man that has moved from his old company to a new company after a relationship with a straight man gone sour. He is therefore timid and shy because of his past experiences and catches the attention of the laid back and apparently straight section chief Togawa. Togawa is initially interested in Shima platonically because of his cute behavior but eventually falls in love with him (Yoneda 2011). The first time they have sex is somewhat of an accident and uses sexual actions that are stereotypical to heterosexual sex. The seme, in this case, Togawa, is the dominant role in the relationship that is leading on the relationship despite Shima’s hesitations. None the less it is clear that even though their first sexual experience happens largely by mistake, the experience was still pleasurable for both people involved.

By placing boys love relationships into the frame of a heteronormative relationship, the readers are able to understand what is happening between the two characters on an emotional level, but in a sense, the couple is not understood within traditional heterosexual relationship values. Instead, the boys love couple is seen as functioning within a loving and equal relationship that cannot be experienced outside of their world (Saito 2011: 180). While the roles between the uke and the seme may seem to be quite strict for determining character personality and sex roles, the fact that they are both able to feel immense pleasure from sex is an important aspect of sex that is presented in boys love manga. As a genre that is directed to straight women, the perceived equality portrayed within the boys love genre is said to be a response to traditional sexual restrictions for Japanese women (Welker 2014: 267). Therefore the narratives in boys love manga became a place for both the authors and readers to express their sexuality freely. In a society that there is still great pressure for women get married and have children within a certain time frame which puts a heavy restriction the sexual liberty of women who are expected to be primarily mothers and wives within a limited frame of time.

In comparison, men have more freedom sexually in Japan even though they are also expected to get married (McLelland 2000: 14). In this sense, the boy becomes the perfect canvas for describing the ideal sexual situation, that of mutual pleasure, for women because men traditionally have more sexual freedom than women. While it is true that the appearances of the boys have become less ambiguous, the placement of the panels in the manga still leaves a lot to the imagination. That with the combination of the more feminine features of the uke makes it easy to imagine how a woman could relate to and desire what this character may experience. A sexual experience between the two partners as portrayed in many boys love manga is, therefore, able to illustrate the possibility of giving and receiving pleasure without fear of shame. This sex acts as an extension of love as well as a confirmation of feelings and is a very important aspect of sexuality in boys love manga.

While many interactions in boys love manga are focused on the mutual development of feelings between the seme and the uke through normal means, there are also works that are much more violent in nature that seem to work in contrast to this image of pure and mutual love. These aggressive sexual situations occur within a variety of different scenarios that usually involve the negative emotions of the seme or an outside individual that has enacted some type of violent act, psychological and/or physical towards the uke. For example, in No Touching At All, Shima’s initial fear of being in a relationship with Togawa and people discovering that he is gay stems from the sour relationship that he experienced at his previous workplace because of his love for a straight man. There is also a point in the manga where this fear does not allow him to trust Togawa’s love and the two have rather aggressive sex for the “last time” in which they do not face each other in mutual pleasure but instead Shima is used as a release for frustration and violently taken from behind (Yoneda 2011). Another much more graphic and violent example of aggression in boys love manga can be seen in the series that in English known as Caste Heaven by Chise Ogawa. As the title of the manga alludes to, the main characters of the series attend a Japanese high school that the students run using a caste system. The main character Azusa has always been the King of the caste but when the next caste game begins he is tricked by the Jack, Karino, and plummets to the lowest level of the caste after being pulled from the game by a situation where he is gang-raped by a group of boys at the school. His subjugation continues as he is targeted by students who could not go against him when he was King. Karino, who has become the King, promises to protect him on the condition that Azusa will become his personal sex slave (Ogawa 2015). Put into this role Azusa is subjugated over and over again to the whims of Karino who simultaneously protects him and sexually abuses him as his own personal public toilet. In this type of situation, the dominance of the seme towards the uke is exaggerated and intensified, but they still fit into the general guidelines of the roles, even though Azusa is originally portrayed as being dominant.

Albeit disturbing to certain readers, this type of story is also essential in understanding sexual narratives in boys love manga. Unlike the example of Shima and Togawa who symbolized sex that was desired, the type of violence experienced by Azusa acts as a way for readers to become spectators of violence rather than be victimized by such an incident (McLelland 2000: 20). The acts committed against Azusa by Karino can be seen as a method of revenge as well as a way to subjugate an inferior to elevate status. While Azusa begins by appearing more dominant, he gradually gains more and more characteristics that are associated with women, and his new status as subjugated may reflect the way that certain Japanese women feel about the possibility of their position. By being the viewer instead of the victim, reading about these actions becoming committed against a boy in the story may provide the readers with comfort or some type of twisted empowerment by acting as a fictionalized revenge against a system that works against them in cases of sexual violence. As Caste Heaven is an ongoing series, it is hard to say how the story will end, but if using other manga of this style and by this author as a guide, the story will end in either a mutual love or it may really just be a case of sexual abuse with no alternative motive by Karino. These options bring to question the feelings of the authors as they write these types of stories; are they merely a kink or is there some deeper and darker frustration that fuels their creation? Regardless of what the answer may be, the portrayals of aggressive sex in boys love manga as violent, and abuse can be seen as symbolic of the suppression felt by many Japanese women in Japan.

Boys Love Moving Forward

            With increasing popularity and stories that reach out to many types of female readers, the boys love genre has been able to expand far beyond being a subgenre of shoujo manga. While unstable, the market has expanded to include many different forms of boys love narratives including anime adaptations, novels, PC and video games, voice-only drama CD’s, live action movies, and other boys love related character merchandise as sold in stores such as Animate in Ikebukuro.  As already explained, sexually explicit content as also moved out of doujinshi and into publisher released boys love manga.  While boys love films are not new, there has been a great about of recent success, especially with the release of the movie adaptation of No Touching At All last year that this year was rereleased for additional screening (Taiyou Garden 2015). This level of success has likely contributed to an increased released of live-action adaptations of manga such as Seven Days and Wait for Me at Udagawachō. With the release of live action films that are more popular, the fans and genre of boys love will only become more visible from now on. None the less, these fans remain to stigmatize in Japanese society until today because they are essentially seen as consuming gay pornography. This stigmatization makes a full evaluation of the boys love market impossible because many fans consume boys love in secret as not to be shamed by their acquaintances that are also not fans (Saito 2011: 176). This expansion also represents an increased importance of the symbolism and representations of perceived equality in boys love manga as well as approaching issues of gender fluidity.

            This increased attention has also affected the types of narratives that are seen within boys love manga today. It was already shown how the development of doujinshi influenced the amount of explicit sexual activities shown in boys love manga, but the exposure to critics also affected the narratives that were being told. These types of criticisms can be cited as far back as the early 1990’s to both gay men in Japan and their supporters criticizing what they claimed as completely fictional and unrealistic representations of homosexual relationships (Nagaike 2015: 65). More and more often, the main characters of boys love manga are openly gay from the start, such as Shima who was previously described. Shima’s situation also shows an increased representation of some of the problems and fears that gay men in Japan may have to face such as alienation at the workplace (Yoneda 2011). Previously published stories often diminished or ignored the seriousness of these issues real life and important issues. While No Touching At All displays some of these improvements, other works have taken it a step further, perhaps as the pioneers of something completely new. One such work is called Koi Monogatari, meaning “love story” in English. This story is told through the perspective of Hasegawa, a high school student who discovers that one of his classmates, Yamato, is gay when he catches him stroking the hair of one of his friends. Given his carefree personality, Hasegawa is initially shocked because his friend is the subject of interest but gradually gets to know Yamato and starts to wish for his happiness (Tagura 2015). In becoming friends with Yamato, Hasegawa is able to learn more about some very real struggles and insecurities that gay young men have and comes to realize that there is nothing wrong with being gay because that is just the way they are; they cannot do anything to change it even if they want to. This narrative suggests that there are authors in the boys love community that are starting to take the lived experiences of gay men very seriously and are being to incorporate that narrative into the genre through an understandable shoujo manga style lens.

Conclusion

            From the beginnings of shoujo manga following the Second World War and the introduction to shounen ai narratives in the early 1970’s, boys love as a genre has gone through many dynamic changes since its creation. The genre that began sexual expression in shoujo manga developed over the years from ambiguously gendered boys that participated in equally ambiguous sex, to some less ambiguous and much more sexually explicit. Even with that level of change, boys love as a genre was still able to maintain the symbolism that it originated with, the narratives of expressing restricted female sexually and subjugation. These narratives have remained relatively unchanged as since through Shima and Togawa, Ritsu and Masamune, and Karino and Azusa. Boys love has always been a way for women to voice their dissatisfaction and also a way for them to experience their desire through fiction. More recently, the genre has expanded the way that it has reached its audience, making boys love have even more influence over the way in which participants express their sexuality through fiction. However, the dynamic changes of the boys love genre are not stopping with just increased styles of expression but also increasing the type of narratives that are being told. While the genre may not be and may never be able to be completely embraced by gay men in Japan given its shoujo feeling, this does not discount the fact that more and more narratives that express the sexuality of gay men in Japan are being released such as the story of Yamato by Tohru Tagura. All of these narratives, regardless of homophobic tones or not, are an important representation and expression of realities and desires of sexual equality in Japan. While it cannot be understood now how far the influence of boys love will expand, the genre is without a doubt an important place for those that are restricted to express sexuality without worry or fear.

References Cited

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