Yaoi Comics: Two Guys in Love and the Female Voyeur

By Kat Kaneko Avila

Yaoi-Con motto - "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations"

WARNING: If any discussion of same-sex relationships offends you, please do not read beyond this point.

NOTES:

1. This article is written with a U.S. audience in mind that has limited access to merchandise classified as boy's love (BL) and yaoi (a more explicit form of boy's love). This is due to cultural and sexual taboos, a language barrier (Japanese/English), and few retail outlets.

2. Native Japanese names are rewritten according to Western convention (family name last). Also, contributors to this article are often referred to by their e-aliases out of respect for their privacy.


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I stared at the flyer on the freebies table at the San Diego-based Comic-Con 2001 (the largest comic book and popular culture convention in the U.S.). It was a flyer for Yaoi-Con 2001, which would be the first of its kind in the United States. The convention would be held over the Labor Day weekend in San Francisco's Japantown, and it was restricted to fans over 18 years of age. The flyer featured an ink drawing by manga (comics/graphic novel) artist You Higuri of a luscious, reflective-looking blond in a black long-sleeved turtleneck. I hesitantly put the flyer back down on the table, but circled back later to pick it up and stuff it into an envelope with a number of other flyers.

Should I go to Yaoi-Con? The angel in me said, "No, too fannish and too weird," while the devil already had my bags packed. I had an inkling of what yaoi was through accidental exposure while pursuing a recently revived interest in Japanese anime (cel-based animation) and manga. After gulping down the initial shock of viewing what were for me some rather novel erotic images, I was tentatively curious to learn more about the comics subgenre, which lead me to an academic presentation by Fusami Ogi of SUNY (State University of New York) during the concurrently held 9th annual Comic Arts Conference (CAC) at Comic-Con 2001.

Jackson by Pluto (Liz Cheng)
Ogi, who has also studied female subjectivity and gender insubordination in shoujo (girls') manga, elaborated on how yaoi, a subgenre of shoujo manga foregrounding romantic and sexual relationships between biological males, had "crossed national borders and evolved into a form of cybersexuality." The only thing I remember from her brief presentation was her mentioning a provocative explanation for the popularity of yaoi, especially among teenaged girls, that it was a sheltered vicarious experience of physical intimacy through a third-party surrogate body - the male "other," a body dissociated by sex and gender culture. Seemed like a reasonable textbook explanation but one I found in my gut to be unsatisfactory, namely because it did not account for my interest.

A second explanation I uncovered during subsequent research was, "They also think it is pretty" (Frederik L. Schodt's MANGA! MANGA!, 1984). "Pretty" can be interpreted two ways - the notion of two guys being passionately in love with each other being beautiful or the manga/anime artist's stylized and romanticized depiction of such a relationship. I share Sharon Kinsella's aesthetic perception of yaoi fantasy couples as "genderless ideal types, combining favoured masculine qualities with favoured feminine qualities" (Kinsella's ADULT MANGA, 2000). However, this observation only brackets a popular bias, and should be understood from within the context of girls' culture in Asia. Recalls a woman not of the fandom, "I remember seeing regular Japanese animation in Taiwan when I was in junior high and thinking how attractive some of the 'guys' were (of course, I also remember thinking it strange that I thought this about a cartoon). There definitely is pretty, almost genderlessness to them, and to the Asian male pop stars that are churned out. Cute seems to be the operative word to describe guys."

There is actually a great diversity of character types reflected within the textual (fanfiction) and artistic (manga/anime) milieus of original yaoi and yaoi parody. Visual compositions range from the highly stylistic ("Is that a guy or a gal?) to the comic (requiring decoding of manga-specific effects, e.g., superdeformed characters, giant sweat drop, white-space eyes) to the realistic ("Definitely a guy.").

Still yet another explanation is provided by Alice who recognizes "the fun of putting a guy into a woman's usual place - which seems like the roots of the first '80s boylove doujinshi [fan-published works] based on shounen [boys'] series.... There's something cute/enjoyable/subversive about seeing these macho basketball jocks/warriors/demons be courted or get pregnant or wear sailor fuku [girls' school uniforms] or watch babies or whatever."

Yaoi is mostly generated by female doujinshi (DJ) artists and writers (some finding freedom to experiment with storylines that could not be realized within the traditional patterns of heterosexual romance). It is a preoccupation summed up by a well-known Japanese manga critic on a Yaoi-Con panel as "girls playing with dolls," in reference to the use of co-opted male characters from popular shounen (boys') and other manga/anime in non-original yaoi or yaoi parody. (A larger category of parody known as "anime parody" or "aniparo" exists.) Original, intelligent DJ-based yaoi can be distinguished from elementary eye-popping yaoi and from yaoi parody by the phrase "sousaku june" or the two-syllable "june," JUNE being the name of a particular beautiful boy-oriented literary magazine. The term "yaoi" was originally associated with low-quality DJs, and it still has that connotation, perhaps part of the reason one of the featured Japanese artists at Yaoi-Con objected to her work being classified as yaoi by Westerners, but also her definition of yaoi was yaoi parody. "Yaoi" is an acronym derived from the descriptive copy "yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi" (non-literal trans. "no climax, no point/end, no meaning"), seemingly self-mocking when the presence of the aforementioned elements is normally desired in storytelling.

U.S. fans have different understandings of what yaoi is, sometimes it is used narrowly to describe the most sexually explicit work, sometimes broadly for all MALExMALE products ("hard-core, soft-core, no-core," as one correspondent put it) geared toward girls/women, whereas in Japan and other parts of Asia the English phrase "boy's love" is the umbrella term.

Experimental, border-pushing yaoi arose out of the broader category of boy's love (BL), a subgenre of shoujo (girls') manga and anime. Yaoi probably would not exist to the extent it does today but for increased access to affordable printing presses and publishers, and the establishment of the biannual Comic Market (Comiket) in 1975 in Tokyo, both of which supported the explosive growth of a female-dominated amateur comics medium, in contrast to the male-dominated professional comics medium (Kinsella's ADULT MANGA).

If one needed to construct a deep evolutionary timeline for yaoi, it would include Osamu Tezuka's landmark gender-bending work RIBON NO KISHI (Knight of Ribbon, or Princess Knight), created in the 1950s and considered a forerunner of modern shoujo manga. RIBON NO KISHI featured a princess who had to disguise her sex and conduct herself as a crown prince in order to succeed to the throne. (I remember watching the anime as a child and finding it liberating at an age I was starting to become aware of the profound differences between what was expected of a girl and a boy.) Moto Hagio, part of a highly talented group of women manga artists emerging during the 1970s, created the first popular work in what was to become the BL subgenre; TOUMA NO SHINZOU (The Heart of Thomas) concerned itself with the complications of same-sex romance among boys attending a German boarding school (Matt Thorn's "Shoujo Manga," 1995; "What Japanese Girls Do," 1997). An upswing in yaoi-style DJ in the early 1980s was lead by DJ artists toying with male characters from Yoichi Takahashi's CAPTAIN TSUBASA, a well-known shounen manga/anime about a boy's quest to become the number one soccer player in the world. A cursory review of contemporary DJs and fanfics uncovers MALExMALE pairings with characters from popular manga/anime such as ANGELIQUE, ESCAFLOWNE, GUNDAM WING, RUROUNI KENSHIN (Wandering Samurai), and TRIGUN.

Cream & Chrysanthemums cover by Pluto (Liz Cheng)
Though it was my impression that Japanese artists are still somewhat constrained in how much they can portray (perhaps more applicable to professional comic artists), I have been told otherwise. The depiction of very explicit love scenes apparently peaked several years ago for DJ artists. The demand for doujinshi with less graphic detail prevailed in a girls'/women's market. ("Fig leaves," i.e., a strategically placed hand, can of beer, rose bloom, dialogue bubble, spray of white ink, etc., are not always indicative of censorship but are also employed to build fantasy.)

In response to a common belief that yaoi is gay pornography for women, MJJohnson writes in "What's Yaoi?" (Fall 2000), "It's a FEMALE fantasy of what's sexually attractive, not a gay male one. Yaoi embodies the (surprisingly common) female notion that m/m relationships are the stuff of high romance and beauty and true love and angst and impossibly wonderful sex five times an hour. Not surprisingly, yaoi gives real gay men the giggles."

Janette, who wrote "Yaoi: The Four-Letter Word of Anime" (2000), added, "I've watched movies with gay themes and some simulated gay sex, but I haven't and don't think I want to see gay porn. I think the difference is in yaoi it's animated or manga. It's not real, it's prettied up, and it's sort of this idealized idea of what gay sex would be like."

Another question I had was whether yaoi and hentai (which supplies hard-core "fan service" for men) were not similar in function. Alice responded, "I've always seen the majority (there are always exceptions) of yaoi as closer to romance novels for women in form and function than to anything like guy porn. This doesn't mean there isn't hot and heavy sex - as you can see by picking up almost any romance novel today, average women like reading sex too (amazing, I know). This comparison also seems natural to me because yaoi has lots of roots in shoujo manga, while porn is usually an aid to, uhm, getting the job done."

"Yaoi/BL is emotional porn for women," opined MJJohnson. "The highs and lows and thrills and eroticism aren't in the sex so much as the emotions. That too is only as true as it needs to be. The anime-based yaoi is often stock, any two guys having any two-guy sex - and the sex is getting a little more explicit as time goes by. But even then the emotions are given play as well - even if the emotional attitudes are as stock and stereotyped as the sexual activities."

A final rebuttal came from MimiE, "One of the common arguments I get from guys is that yaoi is just 'porn for women' and that I shouldn't be putting on 'airs' about it, I should come out of the closet and just admit I'm a pervert. There's a LOT of boy's love material out there that has no sex at all, fade-to-black, or very little sex. That's what I read, and I will NOT equate it with porn, because it isn't."

Many U.S. BL/yaoi fans read translations of Japanese manga and/or read English-language fanfiction (fanfics), rather than watch anime (very limited selection of English-subtitled videos). Zoey Hayes comments, "I prefer fanfiction. (That might be because I haven't really watched yaoi video.) I got into yaoi because I was trying to find good fics about the character (Zoisite) I cosplay most as. I did not even know I was reading yaoi until months later." (NOTE: SAILOR MOON'S Zoisite became female in the English-dubbed anime and his lover's name, Kunzite, was changed to Malachite.)

Fran C., who also got hooked on yaoi through fanfiction, observes, "One thing I noticed is that yaoi manga and doujinshi have become available in several languages: Japanese, English, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, and many more. It has reached many countries...you can see how widespread it is. It's like everything is under the blanket."

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Kat Avila has an M.A. in Communication, and is of Japanese and Mexican-Indian ancestry. She maintains a web site on Chicano/Latino and Asian American theatre at http://www.geocities.com/buscandocalifornia/ and can be contacted at buscandocalifornia@yahoo.com.

Pluto is the artist of the original drawings that appear with this article and is a member of Umbrella Studios. She was responsible for the art show, doujinshi exhibition table, and artist alley at Yaoi-Con 2001. You can see more of her artwork at