It’s well known and repeatedly reinforced to fangirls that BL/yaoi does not represent actual homosexual Japanese “lifestyles.” Characters in BL are fantasy figures created for a female reader’s escape. But where once there was a narrow spectrum of BL to consume, there is now a broader assortment of representations, many closer to reality then others.
I’ve consumed as much manga labeled “yaoi” as the next guy, but let me tell you about four pieces of BL manga that have stood out to me, and that I would be happy to recommend to fans of the genre, and sometimes, even those outside of it.
In this series of two manga novels by Setona Mizushiro, we follow the self-appointed victim of the world, Kyouichi, as high-school friend Imagase coerces him into a sexual relationship. Neither Kyouichi nor Imagase are “good” people, but after ups and downs and lots of introspection, they realize they’re never going to be happy apart, so they might as well be unhappy together. Maybe they’ll even figure out how to stop hurting one another one day and find some sort of happiness.
What it subverts:
- Yaoi Bubble: It takes place in the real world, where both men face social consequences for being in a homosexual relationship and trying to maintain one.
- Everyone Is Gay Here: It’s about a gay guy and a bi guy. Not a whole cast of gay-for-each other boys/men. It’s almost as though heterosexual people exist.
- Sex is Beautiful and without Consequence: They use lube and condoms.
- Seme/Uke: They switch. They both have moments of agression and submission. They have, you know, actual personalities and complex sexual needs.
The Nezu/Koi story is really gorgeous because it is a sad story. It’s a story about men who hurt themselves and one another, but over time, like in real life, learn to make the best of what they’ve got and who they are.
These titles have not been published in English, though they have been published in just about every other language. To read it in English, you’ll have to turn to (readily available) scanlations.
Who should you push it on? BL lovers who don’t mind a little sadness/realism, manga fans who don’t mind gay protagonists, and lovers of gay comics looking for something a little different.
[Edit: It was pointed out that this story does include unhealthy ideas about relationships (a lot of them, including possessiveness and force as marks of affection) so please keep in mind that this is a portrait of real dysfunctions in people and in society, not how romance should be.
This four-volume manga by Fumi Yoshinaga follows middle-aged Tachibana and the men he employs at his bakery: a young ex-punk-ex-boxer, a pushy gay man from his high school years, and his dimwitted childhood best friend. Tachibana has has a complicated and trauma-filled past, though, so his reasons for starting a bakery may be more complicated, and less spontaneous, than they seem.
What it subverts:
- All of the above from Nezu/Koi, and:
- What Gay Community?: Head patissier Ono is a participant in the gay “lifestyle,” part of a community of men who will never be “normal.” He’s accepted that he will never have a “normal” Japanese man’s life, and it’s a rare to see a character who embraces it.
- I Hit You Because I Love You: When characters are physically/psychologically abused, it’s not played for kinks: it’s treated like the assault it is, and we see that there are actual physical and psychological consequences for everyone involved.
Antique Bakery is one of my top-five favorite manga, and one I repeatedly recommend to non-manga readers. I push it on everyone. It is a beautiful portrait of four very different adult men fighting their own very different demons. They form a sort of family, and the ending is bittersweet – there is nothing you can do to just “fix” your psychological demons overnight. The process is long, and the best you can do is have people who love you to help you through it.
This title IS available printed in English (DMP), and you should invest in it.
Who should you push it on? Any comic fan you know, whether versed in manga or not.
In this ongoing multi-volume series by Yamamoto Kotetsuko, a young yakuza named Aki falls in love with Tomoharu, a community-station cop. Tomoharu falls in love back, despite the “taboo” nature of the situation. Hijinks and sex occur. Nothing too heavy or complicated happens … they just love one another a lot.
What it subverts:
- Everyone Is Gay Here: Just these two guys. When Distressed Little Brother showed up, I was worried his big problem was going to be that he was gay too, but no. He had a girlfriend and was just feeling pressured by schoolwork and overbearing parents.
- Rape is Sexy: This title is rape-free. No one finds the need to rape anyone else in order to prove their love or have their way.
- Wibbling Uke: The “bottom” is spunky, demanding, and confident. He doesn’t allow himself to be abused or subdued.
Like the Beast is actually just a standard, lighthearted BL title. There no consequences for our protagonists, there is no gay lifestyle, just two guys who fall in love with no external problems to stop them. What I love, though, is that it doesn’t stoop to the fetishization of rape, nor is there ever the “saw you remotely near another guy you must be cheating on me and I won’t let you explain” trope. There are plenty of tropes, and silly reasons for tension abound, but it manages to avoid the really tired and offensive ones! Fun and guilt free boys love.
Who should you push it on? Yaoi fans only, probably. The appeal will likely be lost on anyone else. (Not published in English.)
This eleven volume series by Kodaka Kazuma is a staple of the BL genre. Kei and Ran are a happy gay couple, but with a complicated past: Ran was a rising kendo champion before a car accident paralyzed half his body. Kei was there to help him through it, but the reality remained that, as an estranged son of a Yakuza boss, his proximity to Ran would always put him in danger – that car was meant to kill Kei. Still, Kei and Ran manage to make a happy life for themselves and the people they love.
What it subverts:
- Wibbling Uke: Ran, though always the “bottom,” kicks as much ass, if not more, than his “top.” He is feisty, confident, and communicative.
- Invisible Happy Ending: Ran and Kei eventually face coming out to their parents and grandparents, with mixed but generally positive results. They make a home and future together in a realistic way.
- Transsexuals Aren’t Real People: Though it is in probably the weakest chapter of the entire story, Ran befriends a “New Half” who talks about her life as a mistress in a legitimate way. It would be a lie to say she’s not played for any laughs, but to see a futanari character that is not simply a sex object is pretty amazing.
What is doesn’t subvert:
- Rape is Sexy: Unfortunately, the first volumes feature forced sex and “I Show My Love By Raping You.” A terrible dark mark on an otherwise lovely series. The main duo never rape one another, though, if that counts for anything (and it doesn’t, as far as I’m concerned.)
- Everyone is Gay Here: Standard Alpha-couple, Beta-Couple (and oh god, what do you call the third couple?) yaoi story. For some reason, EVERYONE is gay.
- Imaginary Conflict: Ugh, the internal conflicts are so stupid. “This woman called you, you must be cheating on me!” Give it a rest and use your words, boys.
I’m on the fence with Kizuna, to be honest. There’s a lot about it that I find embarrassing and irresponsible and just bad, but for all that’s bad about it, there’s as much good. Characterization, artwork, and a complex story make it stand out among the yaoi of its era (see Haru wo Daiteta, Okane ga Nai, etc) with absolutely no redeeming qualities or attempts at meaningful characterization. It’s just that Kizuna at least felt like someone was trying.
Who should you push it on? Yaoi fans who you think might light this kind of thing. Be careful. This series was recently re-released in omnibus format under the June Manga imprint.
How sad is it that I can count the BL labeled manga I’d recommend to others on one hand? BL, as a genre, has to have artists to fulfill certain expectations to expect to be printed – perpetuating dangerous standards and allowing little room for new ideas. I’m happy to be part of a webcomics community that includes a whole wave of people who have grown up consuming this material, and are using their awareness of its faults to make better and more subversive work.