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Welcome To Yaoi—Women’s Mangafied World of Male Homoerotic Passion

Welcome To Yaoi—Women’s Mangafied World of Male Homoerotic Passion
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Welcome to the wonderful world of yaoi, or, as the Japanese call it, Boys’ Love. This is manga to the max. Come on in!

  What Manner of Beast Is This Yaoi?

Though yaoi has a small gay following, it was—and is—is created by women for women. Roughly 85 to 89 percent of its audience is female, both in Japan and abroad. The genre caters women in their late teens to middle age who get off on male homoeroticism. Graphic novels are the medium, since manga have such a huge readership in Japan. Almost every member of the population reads comic books, as opposed to here in the West, where fandom represents a relatively small segment of society.


Think of yaoi as the Japanese variant of slash fiction. If you’ve surfed the Information Superhighway, you’ve surely stumbled across (or actively sought out) those sweaty, passionate, and often unintentionally hilarious stories in which Captain Kirk finally acknowledges his unspoken love for Mr. Spock—and the two act upon it with acrobatic fervor. Yaoi stems from the same idea: take a pair of pop-culture icons, unmask their longstanding man-on-man attraction, then depict—in juicy detail—the consummation of their lust.

Yaoi protagonists generally have rigidly defined roles as seme (top/aggressor) and uke (bottom/receiver). The artwork makes them easy to distinguish: the seme tends to be taller than the uke, older, and slightly more masculine looking. Yaoi’s heroes have a hint of androgyny to them, in part, because the women reading the stories find it easier to create an empathic connection with these willowy pretty-boys than the ripped, chiseled studs populating traditional gay comics. Yaoi is heavily populated with these character types, referred to as bishonen, accepted yaoispeak for beautiful boys.

These bishonen cuddlemuffins rarely identify themselves as gay. Sometimes they’ll allude to bisexuality, but more commonly, they’re just ordinary, red-blooded guys who happen to have made a romantic and sexual connection with other men. Sexual identity issues don’t get much serious exploration. It’s part of that whole “no peak, no point, no meaning” thing again, and part of the larger culture. In Japanese art and literature, there is a longstanding tradition of malleable gender. Since the coronation of Jimmu in 660 A.D., the Emperor has been recognized as a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, and is considered to embody her during his enthronement ceremony. The 12th Century literary classic, Torikaebaya (The Changelings) depicts a boy and a girl raised in the gender roles of the opposite sex.

For all their devotion to yaoi’s romantic content, fans respond more enthusiastically to the genre’s rough sexual content than you might expect. Rape scenes and sequences of sexual humiliation are common yaoi fare. Chalcedony Cross’ Faden aus Mondlicht and BrightAngel’s Measure For Measure are good examples of yaoi containing this convention. For many readers, the uke’s response to such degradation—with more love and devotion than ever for their assailant—represents the perfect ideal of unconditional love, and they find this representation romantic beyond words.

Yaoi’s creators are crafting characters that serve as proxies for themselves and their readers. The occasional inclusion of brutal sexual content fails to outrage for various reasons. Foremost, it’s accepted that yaoi is fantasy—the characters are just so much ink on paper; nobody is really getting hurt. In traditional Japanese society, it’s axiomatic that women will be subservient to men, so there’s a hint of payback in sequences depicting male rape. Yaoi lets women project their vulnerabilities onto men, affords them the opportunity to explore the role of the aggressor—and to take that role to the extreme. The emotional content of these scenes is as important to audience as the physical. Creators use these themes to delve into the emotional landscape of the uke as he re-examines his feelings both for his seme aggressor and himself.

Yaoi stories occasionally depict relationships between young adults and teens, straying too close to pedophilia for many readers’ comfort. Incest is another taboo that frequently appears. American publishers who choose to release yaoi with this content skirt the issue through bowdlerized translations and with disclaimers. When BeBeautiful published Midaresomenishi: A Legend of Samurai Love, which featured an adult forcing himself on a young teen in the original version, they placed a disclaimer on the shrink-wrap stating that all characters depicted engaging in sexual activity were nineteen or older, while omitting or altering any text that referred to the age of the teen being molested.

  The Road to Yaoi

The road to yaoi was constructed by female fans, who broke ground in the early 1970s. The Year 24 Group (most of its members were born in or around 1949, Year 24 in the Showa Period) collaborated on doujinshi , which contained vastly superior stories and artwork than that of their rivals. The content got these women noticed by major publishers of shojo, manga created for young girls, and they were the first wave of women to break into the male-dominated manga bastion.

Shojo manga genres ranged from science fiction to heroic fantasy to light classroom comedy, and its content wasn’t anything more sophisticated or provocative than what one would expect to find in an average children’s book. Girls eventually outgrew it, and sought more sophisticated fare, so publishers had to rely on a continual influx of new readers. The Year 24 Group revolutionized shojo by addressing topics such as gender issues and sexuality, writing stories that they thought would resonate with older girls with more truth and honesty than male creators could deliver. Notable contributions to yaoi’s development came from Moto Hagio, who created The Heart of Thomas (Touma no Shinzou, 1974) and Keiko Takemiya with her Wind and Tree Song (Kaze to Ki no Uta, 1976).

While not strictly shojo, these works targeted a young female readership, and featured prominent homoerotic themes, previously unheard of in manga. Hagio’s work was particularly frank in its depiction of sexuality. Both works were huge commercial hits, devoured by female readers from teen- to middle-age—the audience that would become yaoi’s core consumers.

By the late 1970s, doujinshi began appearing that took characters from popular manga and anime series and reimagined them in homoerotic relationships. Gundam Wing was a popular work for creators in the nascent yaoi genre to plunder, with its gaggle of adolescent male fighter pilots, as was the mega-popular Captain Tsubara, a manga about a boys’ soccer team. A flood of crudely written and illustrated one-shot fan ’zines filled with explicit gay sex scenes were circulating by the close of the decade.

In 1978, June magazine provided yaoi creators with their first professional venue. June published yaoi exclusively, and gained a reputation as a magazine that nurtured new talent. The hottest creators of doujinshi now had a vehicle to display their artistic talents to a far wider audience than the amateur press provided. As yaoi gained ground in the manga market, more periodicals, such as South and Be x Boy debuted, and volumes consisting of both magazine reprints and original works enjoyed wide release and enthusiastic fan response. (Yaoi anime was, and remains, a rare creature, indeed, though a steady trickle of titles finds its way onto retailers’ shelves.)

As yaoi flourished, it experienced a vehement backlash of vociferous protest from many men in Japan’s gay community, who viewed it as promoting unflattering new stereotypes, as well as reinforcing the idea that gay sensuality was supposed to be kept in the closet. The rejoinders of: “It’s just fantasy” and “It’s not for you; it’s for us girls” didn’t cut it, and a war of words was waged among manga fandom that reached its zenith with the Yaoi Ronso (controversy), a debate that raged from 1992 to 1997, starting with Masaki Sato’s scathing criticisms in the letters pages of Choisir Magazine, spilling into other publications from there. Yaoi didn’t go away, and neither did its detractors, but the sheer volume of rhetoric eventually subsided. At least, it wasn’t extensive enough to justify giving it another catchy name like Yaoi Ronso II: The Revenge.

  GloBLYaoi Heads West

With America’s interest in manga, anime, giant robots and damned near everything relating to Japanese pop culture, yaoi was certain to rear its melodramatic, sexed-up head on these shores. San Francisco’s Yaoi-Con in 2002 was the venue for the release of Burning, the first original English language yaoi anthology featuring home-grown talent. 2002 also saw the release of Daria McGrain’s Sexual Espionage, giving yaoi fans the boy love they craved from a uniquely American perspective.


The timing was perfect. American fandom was experiencing a similar burnout to one Japanese fans were familiar with: after endless plot recycling, a threshold is reached, and fans tend to gravitate to other types of erotic manga. Bara (a.k.a. Gachi Muchi a.k.a. Muscle BL) is one alternative that’s enjoying a growing audience. Bara are gay manga that originally focused on BDSM material, but over the past decade, its stories have become more romance-oriented while retaining the explicit sexual content that the fans enjoy. While gay men are bara’s target audience, there’s a crossover readership of women as well.

While many Western artists copied Japanese conventions, other creators such as Tina Anderson and Wendy Pini, broke from the genre’s clichés, presenting yaoi with different flavors of storylines and artwork. Purists passed, but new fans that may have been disinclined to read yaoi got on board. Yaoi’s growth has extended to Europe, where a sizeable fandom has grown. With many U.S. publishers wary of yaoi, some American creators have found European publishers to be more welcoming. Germany in particular has been receptive, though publishers tend to insist that stories be set in Japan and follow typical genre conventions. So it’s still difficult for an aspiring American yaoi creator to make their mark in print.

Which brings us to webcomics. With so many yaoi fans accustomed to reading their favorite titles on the Web via scanlations (works scanned, translated and uploaded by fans), the Web is a viable medium for a creator to build a fan base. There’s also the attraction of being able to experiment free from editorial interference, which leads to a richer, more diverse artistic representation of yaoi in contemporary webcomics than can be found in traditionally published manga.

Yaoi’s fandom is numerous and vigorous to support North American conventions, most notably Yaoi-Con, still going strong in San Francisco, and Yaoi North, an extension of Toronto’s Anime North convention. Fans are treated to art shows, dealers’ rooms with every yaoi title a fan could hope for, and cosplay, in which fans dress up as their favorite yaoi characters and… uh… mingle.


  Yamete! It’s Time For the Wrap-Up

With yaoi, Japanese women were able to enter manga on their own terms, creating the kinds of stories they’d always wanted to read. The work resonated with the fans because it came from fans that had the good fortune to go pro. The steady audience growth worldwide over the past three decades suggests that yaoi has staying power, even if it’s unlikely to ever appeal to more than a niche audience. When your niche is this faithful, that’s not a major problem for your genre’s long-term viability. We’ve listed some nifty sites where you can sample all sorts of yaoi and GloBL titles, so if manga’s giant robot scene has left you cold and you want to see how manga fares with heady melodrama (along with scintillating m/m action), try one out. You may even awaken your inner cosplayer.

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Comments

Interesting article!

08/14/2012

Subs are much better than dubs when you're watching anime.

10/19/2012

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