The Return of Room 801: BL for Dummies

New year, new look. That’s right. After a pretty piecemeal bunch of reviews (heck, I’m gonna be honest, I don’t think I’ve done enough) over the last couple of years, it’s time to knuckle down, and bring you the best, worst, and everything in between from the world of one of the most divisive genres in all of anime and manga; Boy’s Love. If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, consider this a primer, if you’re a seasoned fujoshi (literally rotten girl), or fudanshi (rotten boy), this might be a useful little refresher. I do hope you’re all paying attention at the back…there might be a test!

Before we get back into reviews proper, I’m going to go through both the terms and the history of Boy’s love, starting with the term itself; I’m going to use this in preference to shonen-ai, a) because this term is rarely used in Japan nowadays, due to some of the unfortunate connotations of that term and b) because, honestly, it’s easier to understand. Boy’s Love is exactly that-love between boys, usually focusing upon romance, rather than the sexual aspect, (although, as in the case of Gravitation, sex may be hinted at or tastefully shown). Obviously, this comes in comparison to yaoi, (essentially an acronym which sums up the subgenre quite well: "YAma nashi, Ochi nashi, Imi nashi", meaning "no climax, no point, no meaning"). In comparison to the generally pure and rarely pornographic BL, yaoi is overtly sexual, often focuses more on the sexual aspect than any sort of plot (although, again there are exceptions to the rule), and obviously will not be reviewed in this column. in short, Boy’s Love is akin to romance, whilst yaoi is, for lack of a term, porn.

Both of these subgenres, however, stem from two sources-firstly, and most importantly, as can be seen in the shoujo-influenced artwork, 1970s shoujo-these stories, originally regarded as concerning platonic relationships between boys, eventually, evolved into what we know as BL-the first key work of this growing genre was Kaze to Ki No Uta (The Poem of the Wind and the Trees) by one of the grand-dammes of the genre, Keiko Takeyama. One of the first series of the genre (Takayama’s earlier work, In the Sunroom can be considered the very first), Kaze to Ki concerns the growing, and eventually tragic relationship between the illegimate child of a French Viscount and a rebellious young man. Kaze to ki not only typifies the often tragic element of Boy’s Love in the 1970s and 80s, (arguably due to its influence from the shoujo genre) but also indicates one of the key things about the entire genre-it is written by females, for females

From Kaze no Ki comes the other key influence upon the genre-the doujinshi. In its simplest form, doujinshis are essentially fan-created, self-pubished comics, usually based upon existing works, although they can literally be about anything. But how do these tie into the BL genre? Well, in its simplest explanation in terms of Boy’s Love, a large number of doujinshis act as wish-fulfilment for fans-for example , say you’re a fan of Haikyuu!!-obviously, the series does not have any canonical pairings, but doujinshi cater for those who want to see a relationship (sexual or otherwise) between characters. Alternatively, they act to “repair”, or provide alternatives to a canonical pairings (such as in the case of doujinshi pairing Cecil and Kain from Final Fantasy IV). One can find doujinshi across Japan, mostly famously at Comiket (a truly colossal annual sale of doujinshi and fan-made games, such as Touhou Project) with any of a myriad of fandoms, pairings or alternative universes. Kaze to Ki No Uta, via its sexual content, thus brought the doujinshi to the fore, and the stage was set for the next part of the genre’s evolution.  Step forward…the Year 24 group, and the first split, between the “juicy parts” of yaoi, and the more difficult, more cerebral work of the 24 Group

The Year 24 group (their name comes from the fact that the majority of the group were born in Showa Year 24, or 1949), deliberately subverted and twisted the genre, increasing the melodrama. Whilst little exists to talk about this group in English, largely because of the female focus, and the fact that, to be entirely honest, pre-1980s shoujo never appears to have the same mass-appeal as shonen from the same period, the work of the Year 24 Group reverberate, not only through BL, but also through shoujo as a whole. The key work here is Moto Hagio’s “The Heart of Thomas”-as with Kaze to Ki No Uta, they both focus upon the idea of forbidden, melodramatic approaches to a school romance-however, whilst they share similar elements, Thomas is altogether a more introspective, purer work, with many of the trappings of the shoujo work (for example, angelic wings), and altogether more mature take upon similar material; whilst Kaze is a towering, often over-wrought work that increasingly resembles a double-decker 19th Century romance novel,  ending with a melodramatic death, Thomas is a mere three volumes, and begins with its titular protagonist committing suicide.

Whilst produced alongside each other, there is the sense that Thomas, both in presentation and themes, is a far more modern take on the material. This in itself connected strongly to the general themes explored by the Y24 Group, and the key point of this group-before this point, shoujo had largely been a male preserve of artists like Tezuka-in short, not only did shoujo as a whole become a genre of work of female writers writing for female readers, but the work increasingly became an exploration of gender and sexuality.

 Into this, Boy’s Love was regarded, if nothing less, as a deliberate break from the traditional format of romance-no more, decided the Year 24 Group, shall we tell stories where the lot of the character we identify with is relegated to the mere carer. We need something where both characters are on level pegging-here, only homosexual love makes sense-from this decision sprung forth many series, not only in terms of Boy’s Love, but also many yuri and alternative shoujo series, such as Rose of Versailles. Furthermore, with the androgyny of both uke and seme, increasingly vogue in popular culture at this point in 1970s and beyond (a little more on this terminology later), the female reader can either identify with either man. Moreover, boy’s love acted as an outlet-at this point in Modern Japan, female sexuality was still largely a taboo subject, and active female sexuality still a largely new concept-thus, the active seme acts, in short, as a “safety device”-an ability to imagine themselves as an active sexual person a role which some argue the genre continues to fulfil.

Moving forward, we must now talk about June, arguably the most influential magazine at this point in the BL genre-taking influence from the French author and playwright Jean Genet (by the by, also name-checked by the similarly risqué and somewhat homo-erotic David Bowie song Jean Genie), and the provocative homosexual themes within his work, together with a veritable cavalcade of dashing antiheroes. If the Y24 group dove beneath the skin, subverted the idea of romantic love, and empowered female sexualities, then June is, for lack of a better word, pure aesthetic. This is not to undermine June as a creator and platform for content; in fact, the aesthetic qualities of June can be regarded as highly influential, creating a visual blueprint for the way the BL genre looks-however, there is a downside to this overly aesthetic and plot-light approach to the genre, which I will go into in a moment. Whilst June acted as a launching point for everything from Kaze to Ki No Uta to 2000s hardcore yaoi stalwart Sensitive Pornograph , perhaps the empitome of the June Aesthetic (although, surprisingly not actually published in June) is From Eroica With Love. Concerning the exploits of openly gay master thief Dorian Red Gloria (who bears a (deliberate) resemblance to Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin) and his often homo-erotic run-ins and rivalry with eventual Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach, it’s a slick, tongue in cheek homage to spy and heist films. In short, though, it typifies the June approach-provocatively homo-erotic,  pretty to look at, and despite its violence, relatively light-hearted and somewhat lightweight (despite its thirty-plus year run)-in short, pretty to look at but never overly deep or profound-essentially, pulp. It’s also notable that many of the major characters are modelled on musicians-June, after all, focused as much on the beauty of real men (such as David Bowie) as fictional.

By the 1980s, the BL genre was beginning to spread into the mainstream, at least sub-textually. Here, I will make an aside about the idea of subtext, particularly in the context of the boy’s love genre-BL subtext, in short, is implying, suggesting but never confirming that a male-male friendship is a relationship-case in point, the arguable masters of subtext, CLAMP. Whilst Fai D. Flourite and Kurogane from the circle’s sprawling multi-verse romp, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles, are highly implied to be in love with each other, it’s never actually confirmed; much the same can be said for any number of characters, from Reinhard and Kircheis of Legend of the Galactic Heroes  to Rin and Haru in Free!

But why imply rather than overtly say? Arguably this can be seen to stem from Japanese culture itself-whilst homosexuality is more than tolerated in Japan, it’s both largely a cosmopolitan scene, and many people who identify as homosexual still marry the opposite sex-additionally, there have been movements, including that by Tokyo Mayor Ishihara, to ban “excessive sexual depictions”, with particular focus on homosexual relationships. In short, an overtly homosexual couple, (indeed either m/m or f/f) remains a rarity outside of the yuri and BL genres. Why this aside? Well…

By the 1980s, BL subtext was moving steadily into series as disparate as Gundam, complete with alpha-male headbutting and rivalry slowly blossoming into (heavily subtexted) love, and (taking more than a little of its visual style from the beautiful androgeny of the BL genre), JoJo’s Bizzare Adventure. The fact remains, however, that BL itself remained a largely underground phenomenon, until, at least, the boom years of the 1990s.

Perhaps the series that most typifies what was to come in the 1990s is  Ozaki Minami’s 1989 manga Zetsuai 1989 (the title roughly translated as “Everlasting Love”) (And to a lesser extent its sequel series, Bronze)-in essence, it’s a well-balanced compromise between the aesthetic of June, and  the melodrama and shoujo stylings of the Year 24 group-this is a work that is almost operatic in its magnitude and execution, and one that tells its story of star-crossed lovers, the pain of fame, and, of course, traumatic pasts with suitable pathos and depth. Arguably, its influence can be felt, a few years down the line, in Maki Murakami’s Gravitation, which takes its themes and turns them up to eleven: famous people? Check (heck, we get two for the price of one). Lovers who quarrel with the regularity of a Tokyo Metro train? Check! Screwed up family? Oh boy, Yuki’s family are positively Jacobean. Indeed, what with the issues of Gravitation’s slicker and prettier sequel, and Minami’s protracted illness, the series arguably parallel each other in composition as well as theme.

But what is apparent, as the 1990s dawned, particularly in the works that gained notable prominence, is that the role of seme and uke were fixed to a far greater extent, in itself affecting the character design-semes began to be drawn bigger and beefier, ukes smaller and more feminine-whilst this process began in the early 1990s (series such as Gravitation and Zatsuai 1989 have little physical difference, other than facial design), by the end of the 1990s, it had escalated to a frankly ridiculous level, typified in the designs of Hitoyo Shinozaki’s Okane ga Nai. Seriously. Take a look at that design. If you want to know who Patient Zero was in the Great (and ongoing) Yaoi-Hand epidemic of 1999-Present, look no further than Okane ga Nai.

 By the late 1990s, thus, not only was BL an increasingly popular genre in Japan, but, slowly and surely, it was beginning to grow in popularity across the world-here, we need to backtrack a little, and talk about slash. (No, not that Slash.) Essentially brought into existence by American (and some British) female Star Trek fans eager to see Kirk/Spock interaction, slash existed, much like doujinshi, to produce fan-works, largely of events, and relationships that could or would never happen in series. Whilst it took the form of physical ‘zines, by the early  1990s, much like everything else, it headed online. Before that, however, something…unusual had happened. English language translations of From Eroica with Love had begun to circulate among the slash community, and with it, an indelible link between the two previously separate genres had begun to form, and slowly and surely Boy’s Love went west. At the helm, the now-fallen Tokyopop, together with a glut of other publishers-all now, particularly after the 2008 depression, lost somewhere along the way. At the front of that vanguard came, unsurprisingly, Gravitation, and such was the impact of the genre upon the West that, by November of 2004, 3 of the 5 highest selling graphic novels were yaoi or yaoi-themed. And, riding the crest of the momentary wave came, alongside Gravitation, perhaps the two most (in)famous series; released mere months apart, Loveless (Written by Yun Kouga) and Junjou Romantica: Pure Romance represent the genre at both its aesthetic, Year 24 Group-aping high-point, and its depraved, no-climax-no-point lowest. Loveless is a beautiful heartbreaking work of a broken childhood. Junjou is soap-opera smut. What is overtly clear, is that by the mid-point of the first decade of the 21st Century, is that BL had ceased to be a single genre, but myriad fractured ones of varying quality and eroticism

And yet, the genre thrives; the popularity of shonen-ai/shonen-ai coded shows such as (the impeccable) Love Stage, Axis Powers Hetalia, Tiger and Bunny, Owari No Seraph, and onwards, indicates that, though the genre itself may have moved past its late 1990s to mid-2000s glory days, it’s done something even more spectacular and entered the mainstream itself. The fact that works as popular and mainstream as Free! Iwatobi Swim Club  (a surprising story in itself, propelled by mere fujoshi power from mere minute test animation to 2 13-episode series and a film) and created by arch-moe-fluff creators Kyo Ani ends with a pretty overt suggestion that its protagonist and his main rival are in a relationship is proof enough that BL is now not only mainstream, but bankable. But, at the heart of the matter lies one question; where now for BL as a genre? Seemingly, back to its origins.) .The series that seems, in the BL context, to wind back the clock, and  return it to what it was at its inception by the year 24 group is, strangely enough, Atsuko Asano’s No.6. It may seem a surprising choice, given that the relationship between protagonists Shion and Nezumi is relatively uke/seme code; but it is what Asano sets this relationship against that is truly interesting; an exploration of science against morality in a dystopian world, where the love story takes a back-seat, in which, rather than being forced into a quick, speedy relationship, Shion and Nezumi’s love develops slowly and realistically, and finally seems to transcend the limitations of the seme/uke relationship.

And thus, we come to what I refer to as, simply put, the post-modern BL period (or, as an alternative, the post uke/seme movement in modern BL. To explain, we need to look at the work of Takarai Rihito, the artist behind TenCount and co-creator of Seven Days. Gone is the concept of the uke and seme-what replaces it, oddly, harks back to the very beginning of the genre, with the androgyny of both uke and seme, both aesthetically pleasing, but neither overly masculine nor feminine-never does Rihito’s work float into stereotype, with her characters realistic people realistically falling in love; her characters, like her designs are neither truly uke nor seme. TenCount,tells the story of a young man and his struggle with Mysophobia (fear of germs), whilst Seven Days explores the relationship between a boy who will seemingly date anyone and his unlikely lover over a single week. Both works are not only on a par with anything from this decade, but across the genre as a whole.

Thus, some conclusions to take away: firstly BL is, and almost entirely remains a female preserve and sanctuary (ah, the irony of being a male BL reviewer is not lost on me). Secondly, BL is an extension of the shoujo genre, using many of its tropes and visual dialects. Thirdly, BL is a work that explores male-male relationships between beautiful, often androygenous men, and fourthly, BL works tend, to a greater or lesser extent to rest upon the work of the Year 24 group, rife with drama and symbolism. And what better way to explore those tropes than by taking an chainsaw powered by nothing but bile and critical fury to a series that represents everything I (and many others) despise in the genre?

Next time: Junjou Romantica


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