Queering the media mix: The female gaze in Japanese fan comics

Kathryn Hemmann

George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The Japanese expression "media mix" refers to multimedia marketing strategies for entertainment franchises. Although such franchises are commonly understood as being controlled by large corporations, the fans of these media properties make significant contributions to the mix, often expanding on the central themes of the source texts and queering them by rendering their subtexts explicit. In dōjinshi, or self-published fan comics, female readers create their own interpretations of stories, characters, and relationships in narratives targeted at a male demographic. In BL (boys' love) fan comics, which are notable for their focus on a romantic and often physical relationship between two male characters, the female gaze has created its own overtly homoerotic readings and interpretations that creatively subvert the phallocentrism implicit in many mainstream narratives. The interactions between texts and their readers found in dōjinshi illustrate how cycles of narrative production and consumption have changed in the face of active fan cultures. Because of the closely interrelated nature of the components of increasingly international media mixes, communities of fans have the potential to make positive and progressive contributions to the media mix ecosystem.

[0.2] Keywords—BL manga; CLAMP; Dōjinshi; Fan comics; Fujoshi; Gender performance; Manga; Shōjo manga; xxxHolic; Yaoi

Hemmann, Kathryn. 2015. "Queering the Media Mix: The Female Gaze in Japanese Fan Comics." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 20.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The concept of the male gaze as expressed in Laura Mulvey's classic 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" has been challenged by critics proposing ideas such as a hermaphroditic gaze and a homosexual gaze, but the visual and narrative conventions associated with the heterosexual male gaze are still readily apparent in contemporary media across the globe. The male gaze has been subverted in a galaxy of works spread out across myriad artistic formats, but it is deeply entrenched in media practices and exerts a hegemonic influence over what is published and released for mainstream audiences. Therefore, while it is important to demonstrate how female creators and consumers operate outside of the realm of the male gaze, it is equally important to examine how they subvert it from within male-dominated mediascapes.

[1.2] Scholars of comparative literature tend toward a postmodern and poststructuralist understanding of the relationship between writers and readers; but although the individual author may be dead, the corporate author is still enormously powerful, and there is no shortage of ready instances of authorial control in contemporary media. To give a topical example, the BBC television series Sherlock, which first aired in 2010, has won numerous awards and is one of the most watched and pirated drama series in the world (note 1). As can be imagined, the show has a large fan base that is active across multiple social networking platforms, from Twitter to Tumblr to Facebook. Although it is difficult to quantify any given group of fans, circumstantial evidence indicates that a sizable percentage of this fan base is female (note 2). Despite the fact that Sherlock's creators are certainly aware of its female fans, they do not seem to accord them much respect (note 3). In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, series cocreator Steven Moffat offered the following assessment:

[1.3] The original [Sir Arthur Conan Doyle] stories had a huge female following, which I'd never forgotten, and that's because the Victorian ladies liked the way Sherlock looked. So I thought, use this massively exciting, rather handsome man who could see right through your heart and have no interest…of course, he's going to be a sex god! I think we pitched that character right. I think our female fanbase all believe that they'll be the one to melt that glacier. They're all wrong, nothing will melt that glacier. (Ng 2014)

[1.4] Apparently female fans do not "love a thrilling detective show as much as men do" or "appreciate the visual and mental stimulation of good television programming" but instead are capable of enjoying little more than the physical appearance of the male leads (note 4). Furthermore, in response to fans' delight over the homoerotically charged friendship between Holmes and Watson, various people involved with the show, from Moffat to several of the actors, have vehemently stated that the characters are unquestionably straight (Penny 2014), thus echoing literary critic Loren Estleman's assertion that "those who suggest homosexuality…either are ignorant…or stubbornly refuse to accept Holmes's much-discussed misogyny at face value" (1986, xii). Despite the pressure of numerous fan interpretations to the contrary, many of the main players on the stage of the Sherlock television series continue to insist on the canonical intent of the original author. Why bother with the fans at all, then?

[1.5] This is where the media mix (media mikkusu) comes into play. As Marc Steinberg explains in Anime's Media Mix, "Since the 1980s, the term 'media mix' has been the most widely used word to describe the phenomenon of transmedia communication, specifically, the development of a particular media franchise across multiple media types, over a particular period of time" (2012, 135). Steinberg outlines the company strategy of the Japanese publishing giant Kadokawa Books (Kadokawa Shoten), which launched its own film studio and record label in the 1970s, thereby rendering itself able to create its own anime and anime soundtracks based on its most popular manga titles. The company simultaneously launched several new publishing imprints so its manga could be released as novels, and vice versa. Company president Kadokawa Haruki is credited with having coined the phrase "media mix" after having studied the American advertising theory of the previous decade, which advocated placing ads not only in newspapers but also in magazines and on the radio, not to mention on the emerging medium of television (note 5). Kadokawa's executive decision regarding the intellectual properties of the Kadokawa corporation was not unprecedented in Japan, however, as Tezuka Osamu had pursued a similar strategy by having his own company, Mushi Productions, launch a magazine and several toy lines to promote his new television anime Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu, 1963–66), which was itself based on a manga that Tezuka serialized in several stages across multiple periodicals. The media mix model proved economically viable; and, as Steinberg demonstrates, "a new, stable regime of media connection emerged" (2012, 169). Over the next 50 years, this regime gradually expanded to include the productions of fan communities as well.

[1.6] As this media mix has had several more decades to evolve in Japan than in the United States and Europe, the Japanese understanding of convergence culture is significantly more progressive concerning the user-generated portion of the mix (note 6). Specifically, Japanese publishers, producers, and entertainment corporations create media properties in such a way as to encourage audience participation through transformative works, the production of which is taken for granted and directly incorporated into their business strategies and marketing models (Steinberg 2012). Instead of discouraging fan works such as fan fiction, fan art, and fan comics, Japanese media producers depend on them to ensure a healthy and stable economic ecosystem for their franchise properties. After all, many highly successful content creators were once fans themselves (note 7). Therefore, in Japan, fans do not exist outside of transmediality and corporate convergence cultures but instead are integral to the success of the media mix. Since the Japanese media mix model may serve as an indicator of the future evolution of overseas media cultures, which are increasingly pursuing mutually beneficial relationships with fan cultures (note 8), a better understanding of Japanese fan works and their relationship to mainstream media is useful for understanding the transnational fandom response to titles such as Sherlock (note 9).

[1.7] Japanese fan works exist in a plethora of media, ranging from fiction to computer games, but this essay will focus on dōjinshi, or self-published fan comics. A dōjinshi is, in essence, a publication by and for fans. A possible translation might be "fanzine" (note 10), but the connotations of the word in North American fan cultures (note 11) fail to capture the professional production values of the vast majority of dōjinshi, which are printed in small batches by specialty printing companies and collectively financed by the group of fans (known as a sākuru, or "circle") who contributed to the work (note 12). Although dōjinshi primarily featuring fan fiction are not rare, the contents of dōjinshi can generally be classified as manga (note 13). Dōjinshi have a wide range of distribution through online channels and meticulously organized and well-publicized market "events" (ibento), and secondhand copies can be found at specialty chain stores such as Mandarake and K-Books as well (note 14). Thus, although dōjinshi are the products of a subculture, their creators and distributers make no attempt to hide their activities or render the fruits of their labor inaccessible to newcomers. By working outside of conventional publishing channels, dōjinshi creators have little need to conform to the demands of market forces or demographic genre conventions, and their creators are therefore freer to challenge or subvert the visual and narrative conventions implicit in the narrative and visual structures catering to a presumed male gaze.

[1.8] As the massive attendance at fan events such as the biannual Comic Market demonstrates (Lam 2010), dōjinshi are not representative of an isolated corner of an insular fandom. Hundreds of thousands of people buy and sell these fan works at conventions attended by manga publishers, animation studios, and video game producers. Despite the obvious violation of intellectual property laws, the content industry allows dōjinshi to exist without persecution because the fan cultures surrounding their production and distribution allow the media mix sponsored by the content industry to flourish (Kinsella 2000). Dōjinshi exist as part of an acknowledged feedback loop of production and consumption that fuels enthusiasm and ultimately results in the purchase of source texts and officially licensed products (Ōtsuka 2010). Dōjin events also provide tailor-made opportunities to scout talent in a manner that would prove difficult in online distribution channels (note 15). Furthermore, as dōjin artists are not fringe elements of fandom but primary shapers of market opinion, the content industry has kept an eye on fan conventions for decades to ascertain trends that may prove profitable. Far from existing in a black hole of high-density geekiness, Japanese fan activities relating to dōjinshi are capable of changing the manner in which stories are written, edited, and produced for a mainstream audience.

[1.9] Dōjinshi subvert not only normative ideologies of gender but also phallogocentric notions of text and subtext common in conventional literary studies and media practices in which the creator or distributor controls a singular and immutable set of textual meanings. This essay examines dōjinshi created by fans who have been inspired by the work of a four-woman team called CLAMP—specifically, their manga series xxxHolic (2003–11), and demonstrates how these fans employ the female gaze to create their own interpretations of stories, characters, and relationships in narratives targeted at a male demographic (note 16). Many dōjinshi based on xxxHolic fall into a genre category often referred to as BL, an abbreviation of "boys' love," which is notable for its focus on a subtly or blatantly homoerotic relationship between two male characters (note 17). No matter what the source text, the female gaze exercised in BL dōjinshi has created its own queer interpretations of the relationships between male characters in a way that creatively subverts the phallocentrism implicit in many manga narratives written for a male audience. As the manga industry in Japan is fueled by fan consumption and production, an understanding of the practices and poetics of dōjinshi is necessary to fully appreciate the driving forces of Japanese popular cultures, as well as the global media cultures that have increasingly begun to mirror the model of the Japanese media mix (note 18).

2. Shōjo manga and the female gaze

[2.1] Tomoko Aoyama sees one of the roots of contemporary BL fandom in Japan in the shōjo manga of the 1970s written by the 24-Nengumi ([Born in] Shōwa 24 [1949] Group), a cohort of female artists that includes Hagio Moto and Takemiya Keiko (note 19). From the overt homosexuality present in Hagio's The Heart of Thomas (Tōma no shinzō, 1974–75) and Pō no ichizoku (1972–76, The Poe Clan) to the more subtle homoerotic tension in Takemiya's To Terra (Chikyū e, 1977–80), beautiful boys locked in fatalistic embraces with each other are one of the more distinctive traits of the shōjo manga of the period. As in earlier shōjo manga, "beauty and fantasy were emphasized over reality," states Aoyama, but the artists of the 1970s "sought new modes of romanticism through science fiction, historical sagas, and homosexuality" (1988, 188). Artists and readers were "no longer satisfied with the persistent variations on the Cinderella theme," and homoerotic shōjo manga with male protagonists arose from a "desire to explore masculinity or androgyny as opposed to the worn-out image of femininity" (194). One of the primary motivating factors of the homoeroticism found in classic shōjo manga was a desire to move beyond the restraints placed on women and female characters by a heteronormative society.

[2.2] Sharalyn Orbaugh also draws a connection between classic shōjo manga and dōjinshi parodies, especially as the culture of dōjinshi recreates "long-standing tendencies in shōjo literary activity in Japan, including the blurring of boundaries between production vs. consumption, and professional vs. amateur" (2010, 176). Instead of readers who passively submit to the phallogocentric authority of the text, which privileges original production and authorial intent over reader interpretation and reproduction, dōjinshi imply "multiple readers actively seizing the text and expanding its possibilities in incredibly diverse ways, each basing his/her expanded text on his/her preferred reading of the source" (176). Dōjinshi are therefore transformative readings of the source material, which is to say that they are interpretations and expansions of textual elements with which the reader feels unsatisfied (note 20). Although writers and artists are free not only to return to the original material but also to create new stories using the same characters and settings, it is worth remarking that many dōjinshi serve to explore, mock, or intensify what is already present in the original text. Just as the erotic male gaze of dōjinshi written by and for men (note 21) make explicit that which is already there in popular anime and manga—namely, the elements of fan service that cater to heterosexual male viewers—so too does the erotic female gaze emphasize the established homosocial relationships between male characters, which often take the form of close friendships or bitter rivalries. In particular, BL artists who draw homoerotic love scenes are picking up on the subtext of the strong bonds between men that often form the core of popular narratives (note 22). By excavating this subtext, which tends to privilege the subjectivity, agency, and interiority of male characters over those of female characters, female fans are able to subvert the original text by challenging and queering its phallocentrism.

[2.3] To demonstrate how this process works, this essay will examine two dōjinshi based on CLAMP's popular manga series xxxHolic, which was serialized in Weekly Young Magazine (Shūkan yangu magajin) from 2003 to 2010 and in Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine from 2010 until its conclusion in 2011 (note 23). The protagonist of xxxHolic is a high school student named Watanuki, who is able to perceive yōkai, supernatural creatures that are invisible to normal humans. Yōkai sense that Watanuki can see them and thus go out of their way to harass him, so he is driven to make a bargain with a wish-granting witch named Yūko, who promises to cure Watanuki of his ability to glimpse beyond the phenomenal world. Until then, he must work in Yūko's shop as her servant. Watanuki is typically accompanied by his classmate Dōmeki when Yūko dispatches him on errands. Dōmeki cannot see yōkai; but as the heir to a Buddhist temple, he has a mystical ability to dispel them. Watanuki has a crush on a female classmate named Himawari; convinced that his friend is competing for her affections, Watanuki maintains an antagonistic attitude toward Dōmeki. Although Watanuki repeatedly attests that he does not desire Dōmeki's companionship, particularly when the two are in the company of Himawari, Dōmeki always seems to appear whenever Watanuki is in need of help (figure 1).

Cover image of an issue of xxxHolic featuring two boys sitting facing in opposite directions.

Figure 1. A chapter heading illustration from the second volume of xxxHolic featuring Watanuki (left) and Dōmeki (right). Although the two have their backs to one another, each looks at the other out of the corner of his eyes. [View larger image.]

[2.4] On the surface, xxxHolic conforms to many of the narrative conventions and character tropes common to manga aimed at a male audience. The protagonist of the story, Watanuki, and his foil, Dōmeki, are both male. The two main female characters of the story, Yūko and Himawari, have a more passive narrative role. Himawari's purpose is to provide an opportunity for the creation of a stronger bond between the two male characters, while Yūko serves as the otherworldly and somewhat villainous adult woman against which the idealistic heroism of the two male characters may be defined (note 24). Neither Yūko nor Himawari is granted the same degree of screen time or narrative interiority as that afforded to Watanuki and Dōmeki, and therefore a generalization may be offered that xxxHolic, as a manga aimed at a seinen (teenage to college-age male) audience, posits men as subjects and women as objects. The role of Himawari in particular calls to mind Eve Sedgwick's discussion of homosociality in Between Men (1985), in which the female character at the point of a love triangle acts as a bonding agent for the two men who compete for her affections (note 25). According to Sedgwick, homosociality is not synonymous with homosexuality; similarly, CLAMP never openly states that its male characters are in any way romantically interested in one another (note 26). For readers looking for homoerotic undertones, however, the subtext of xxxHolic is clear.

3. Tentacle porn for women and the uke/seme dynamic

[3.1] BL dōjinshi based on xxxHolic are able to bring its homoerotic subtext closer to the surface and adventurously delve into the explicit implications of this subtext. Kuchinashi kaoru sono ude ni (In the Arms of a Fragrant Gardenia, 2006) is loosely based on an episode in the tenth volume of xxxHolic in which Watanuki is trapped underground by the spirit of a hydrangea plant and must be rescued by Dōmeki. Such a scenario is not uncommon in xxxHolic because Watanuki's supernatural sight makes him vulnerable to all manner of malicious yōkai. Female readers have seen in this character dynamic not only the possibility for romance—why does Dōmeki care so much about Watanuki?—but also fodder for the hurt/comfort scenario that Sharalyn Orbaugh (2010) has identified as one of the most common narrative patterns in male/male fan fiction and dōjinshi (see also Pugh 2005). In the case of xxxHolic, after Watanuki is harassed or threatened by yōkai, he can then be comforted by Dōmeki in an emotional exchange that strengthens the bond between the two.

[3.2] In Kuchinashi kaoru, the fan artist Kuroimisa imagines that Watanuki is sexually violated by a gardenia plant. When Watanuki finds refuge in the arms of Dōmeki, Dōmeki urges him to ejaculate, since that seems to be what the plant wants. Dōmeki then holds Watanuki as Watanuki suffers the attention of the plant's tendrils. After the ordeal is over, Dōmeki explains that the gardenia plant had somehow merged with the recently deceased spirit of a woman who had been traumatized by a miscarriage. The woman's husband was cheating on her, and she had hoped that a baby would repair their relationship. This woman was run down by a car as she rushed out into the street in pursuit of her husband, and her dying wish for a baby was absorbed by one of the gardenia plants lining the road. Dōmeki's explanation of the event is delivered in a style that perfectly mirrors the exposition concerning similar phenomena in the original manga. Furthermore, the manner in which Watanuki and Dōmeki speak to each other in the dōjinshi is faithful to their characterization in the manga. The art style and panel layout are also fairly consistent with those of the original. The only added element is the explicit sexuality.

[3.3] The device of "tentacle rape" (or "tendril rape," as the case may be) has a long and colorful history in Japanese illustrated and animated pornography, but these tentacles are usually applied to solitary girls and women who are openly exposed to the gaze of the reader, not to men who are shielded from the reader's gaze by the arms of another man. On the cover of Kuchinashi kaoru, Dōmeki is shown as supporting the incapacitated Watanuki (figure 2). Watanuki is posed in such a way as to suggest vulnerability, but Dōmeki hovers protectively over him. Watanuki's line of sight is directed not toward the reader or coyly away from the reader, but rather at Dōmeki. The reader is certainly witness to Watanuki's violation, but many of the visual devices that allow the reader to project him- or herself onto the page in more conventional illustrated pornography, such as a faceless or invisible sexual partner, are relatively absent in Kuchinashi kaoru. Dōmeki appears in all but two of the eight pages depicting Watanuki's tangles with the lustful gardenia, and his purpose is to alleviate Watanuki's humiliation, not to exacerbate it. The erotic female gaze guiding the narrative flow and visual layout of Kuchinashi kaoru thus displays several deviations from conventions designed to appeal to an erotic male gaze. For example, comfort is emphasized over humiliation, and partnership is preferable to anonymous rape. Although the graphic depiction of sex is often a major component of the BL dōjinshi that feature it, the focus of the female gaze is not necessarily on the physical exchanges between two men but rather on the exploration of a facet of the relationship between two characters that is only hinted at in the source text.

Two young men in an embrace, one with a hand curled around the back of the other's head, appearing to be supporting him.

Figure 2. The front cover of the dōjinshi Kuchinashi kaoru sono ude ni. Dōmeki holds an incapacitated Watanuki, who is encircled by the tendrils of a gardenia bush possessed by the spirit of a vengeful woman. [View larger image.]

[3.4] In this dōjinshi, the sexual aggressor, the gardenia, is female, as the plant acts under the influence of a recently deceased woman. According to Dōmeki, this woman's final thoughts melded with "the vegetable instinct [shokubutsu honnō] of the gardenia," thus creating a strange hybrid of reproductive lust in a flowering plant that is not just female by poetic association but also female by spiritual possession. On one hand, this creature is pathetic, as its actions are mindless and catalyzed by the tragic death of a woman obsessed with a man. On the other hand, in contrast to the passivity of both of its component parts, the woman/gardenia is able to accost a passing stranger and take what it desires from him, despite his protests. The vines prying apart the male principal's limbs and exposing his body to the reader are female, which suggests a connection between the female sexual aggressor in the dōjinshi and the presumably female reader of the dōjinshi.

[3.5] A criticism of BL manga commonly found on English-language online forums (note 27) is that the tropes of the genre reproduce heteronormative gender roles while simultaneously shutting out actual women from the story. One of the best-known BL tropes is the dichotomy between seme and uke, or between the "active" sexual partner (who penetrates) and the "passive" sexual partner (who is penetrated). The seme is typically older and taller than the uke, with larger hands and a more angular face. The seme will also generally be in a position of power relative to the uke. For example, if the uke is a student, the seme will be an upperclassman or a teacher. Besides being physically larger than the uke, the seme will perform masculinity by actively demonstrating his social dominance over the uke or by concealing his feelings behind a facade of taciturn reticence. There are variations on this dynamic, such as the tsundere uke (note 28), who disguises his affection for the seme by scolding him and bossing him around, but such variations are appealing precisely because they deviate from the usual character dynamic in easily recognizable ways. Therefore, in BL manga, the active seme partner is coded as masculine, while the passive uke character is coded as feminine. If the relationship between two men is essentially that between a strong masculine partner and a weak feminine partner, this reasoning follows, then BL manga merely exploits a harmless fantasy of homosexuality to appeal to the heteronormative desire of heterosexual female readers.

[3.6] The fact remains, however, that such constructions of masculinity and femininity are being performed by male characters. In BL narratives, a character is not passive because the character is biologically female; rather, the character is passive because that is how his personality fits into a specific relationship. Although the masculine sex of the uke may merely be an attractive window dressing on a character coded as female, the inscription of a stereotypically feminine role onto a male character is still subversive in its denial of biological determinism. In fact, the more passive the uke, the more the association of femininity with romantic and sexual passivity is called into question. The presumption that BL is gendered heterosexually is founded on the supposition that there is by default a passive partner in a relationship, and that this passive partner should always be depicted and read as female. In order to discredit this bias, it is necessary to understand how femininity is coded in BL dōjinshi. In many BL dōjinshi based on shōnen or seinen manga, the character traits that distinguish a certain character as masculine in the original work are often retained in fan works that depict the character as an uke, thus queering common tropes used in manga to code characters as masculine.

4. Beautiful men and the performance of shōjo

[4.1] As femininity is often defined by its deviations from masculinity, it is difficult to discuss the coding of femininity in male/male partnerships without relying on stereotypes. In Yokubō no kōdo: Manga ni miru sekushuariti no danjosa (Codes of desire: Differences between male and female sexuality in manga), Hori Akiko (2009) argues that when discussing gender coding in BL manga, it is useful to compare the genre to shōjo manga. Whereas the covers of manga anthology magazines and stand-alone manga softcover editions (tankōbon) for both gay and straight men almost always feature a full body shot of a single person, the covers of BL magazines and paperback manga, like the covers of shōjo manga, tend to feature a couple posed in manner that illustrates their relationship (note 29). The connection between shōjo and BL manga extends beyond the bodies exposed to the reader's gaze, as there is also a similarity in the characters through whom the reader experiences the story. In shōjo manga, events are presented from the narrative perspective of the female protagonist. In BL manga, the point-of-view character is often the uke, who supposedly occupies a feminine position in relation to the seme (Akiko 2009). When analyzing the femininity of the uke in BL manga, the construction of femininity in shōjo manga may thus serve as a convenient comparison (note 30).

[4.2] There is an extraordinary range of shōjo manga in existence. Even stereotypical portraits of passive femininity may be subverted within a shōjo title, as the character development that is a defining quality of the genre ensures that a character's personality will not necessarily remain consistent from one installment of a series to the next. Nevertheless, the female protagonists of a number of popular titles, such as Sand Chronicles (Sunadoki, 2003–6) and We Were There (Bokura ga ita, 2002–12), all begin their respective stories with similar character traits (note 31). A representative example of these traits can be found in Kuronuma Sawako, the protagonist of Shiina Karuho's hit series Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You (Kimi ni todoke, 2005–) (note 32). Because of her resemblance to a certain evil little girl from a popular horror film, Sawako is nicknamed "Sadako" and ostracized by her classmates, despite her best efforts to be friendly. Sawako has therefore become a shy and self-deprecating young woman by the time she enters high school. She admires Kazehaya Shōta, an outgoing boy in her class who is always surrounded by his friends. Over the course of the manga, Kazehaya helps Sawako to come out of her shell and gradually form friendships with other students in their class. Sawako appreciates Kazehaya's kindness but is unable to understand how he could be attracted to her.

[4.3] According to the character type modeled so aptly by Sawako, the personality traits associated with the shōjo heroine of a romantic comedy are a lack of self-confidence, a cheerful willingness to help and forgive others, and a charming ignorance regarding romantic matters (note 33). The heroine channels the reader's wish to be emotionally nourished and protected by an attractive and fiercely monogamous partner who loves her unconditionally despite her flaws (which are minor and in the end only serve to make her more desirable), as well as the wish for this relationship to be acknowledged and respected by her female peers. The romantic shōjo heroine will gradually develop into a more assertive and emotionally independent character over the course of the story, but the catalyst for this development is more often than not her interaction with her primary male love interest.

[4.4] The narrative tendency of character development through romance applies to BL narratives as well. The dōjinshi Kemuri (Smoke, 2010), written and drawn by the artist Kō of the circle Kia, explores how the relationship between Watanuki and Dōmeki changes as xxxHolic nears its conclusion. By this point in the story, Watanuki has inherited the absent Yūko's role as a wish-granting witch inhabiting a mysterious shop. Since the fragile dimension that houses Yūko's shop would disappear if Watanuki were to physically leave it, he vows to remain there, never leaving and thus never aging. Dōmeki graduates from high school and enters college, yet he continues to visit Watanuki. Since the original manga does not offer many details concerning how these plot developments affect the relationship between Watanuki and Dōmeki, Kemuri picks up the pieces and fills in the gaps left open by the source text.

[4.5] Kemuri chronicles one of Dōmeki's visits to Watanuki after Watanuki has inherited Yūko's shop. In this dōjinshi, Watanuki has also inherited the wispy strands of smoke that are one of the primary visual motifs associated with Yūko in the xxxHolic manga. Similar to the manner in which the smoke motif suggests that Yūko is veiled in mystery in the original manga, the author of Kemuri uses this device as a metaphor for Watanuki's veiled intentions regarding Dōmeki. In Kemuri, Watanuki surreptitiously gives Dōmeki an aphrodisiac, then initiates a sexual encounter when his friend stays the night at the shop. Watanuki's conversation with his magical companion Mokona after this encounter suggests that he has seduced Dōmeki to create an emotional obligation engendered by physical desire that will give Dōmeki a stronger incentive to continue visiting him. "We tease each other, yet I really am fairly bad-natured," Watanuki muses. "I wonder how long he'll continue to be my friend." Watanuki later confesses and apologizes to Dōmeki, but Dōmeki brushes off Watanuki's apology and suggests that he knew Watanuki's intentions all along. The dōjinshi ends with the pair embracing (figure 3). Watanuki continues to antagonize Dōmeki verbally but is obviously happy, and the strand of smoke on the right panel divides what Watanuki says ("Let me go") from his true feelings ("Hold me just a little longer").

Black-and-white manga panel featuring two young men embracing.

Figure 3. The final page of the manga portion of the dōjinshi Kemuri. Watanuki says, "Let me go…You're holding me too tight," while he thinks, "But…Just a little longer." [View larger image.]

[4.6] At the end of xxxHolic, Watanuki takes over Yūko's position in the shop by helping the people and spirits who enter hoping to have their wishes granted, and his main concern seems to be accepting Yūko's departure while waiting for a sign that she will return. He is no longer as intensely involved with the people with whom he had previously enjoyed strong friendships, such as Himawari; he merely watches their lives from afar with benevolent disinterest. As Watanuki matures, the tension drains from his relationship with Dōmeki. Like Yūko, who wore kimono and surrounded herself with objects of traditional Japanese craftsmanship, Watanuki has removed himself from the present and the real world, not only physically but emotionally as well. Since the flow of time accelerates in the closing chapters of the manga, the shift in Watanuki's personality feels abrupt and leaves the reader with several unanswered questions. For instance, how does Watanuki feel about the sacrifices he has had to make in order to inherit Yūko's shop? Neither xxxHolic nor the various animated and live-action adaptations of the manga answers these questions, so the dōjin artist who created Kemuri attempts to address them through a sexual encounter between Watanuki and Dōmeki that forces Watanuki's hidden feelings to the surface for the benefit of both Dōmeki and the reader.

[4.7] In Kemuri, as in shōjo manga, character development takes precedence over physically oriented action, and the romance between two characters provides the stage on which this character development unfolds. As the interior monologue of Kemuri suggests, Watanuki is the point-of-view character, but it is not necessarily the case that Watanuki is feminized in exactly the same manner as the heroine of a shōjo romance. Some of the traits associated with Sawako, the heroine of Kimi ni Todoke, also apply to Watanuki as characterized in Kemuri. For example, although he is no longer insecure about his role as the master of the small world created by Yūko, Watanuki is nervous about his relationship with Dōmeki and does not seem to understand why his friend continues to visit him. The overtly sexual elements of the dōjinshi do not resonate with the tonal gestalt of shōjo romance, however, and Watanuki's calculated use of sex as a means to emotionally manipulate Dōmeki decisively separates him from the pure-heartedness of a shōjo heroine. Moreover, Watanuki maintains the ill temper and surliness that mark him as masculine (as opposed to a friendly shōjo character like Himawari) in the original manga. Thus, even though Watanuki is the point-of-view character and the uke of the dōjinshi, he is not coded as feminine in the same way that a shōjo heroine would be.

[4.8] The fact that Watanuki attempts to rape Dōmeki in Kemuri is another twist in the uke/seme dynamic. As in Kuchinashi kaoru, the uke often finds himself in a position of sexual vulnerability vis-à-vis the seme. Even though the uke is not necessarily feminine, the dynamic of a more aggressive partner taking advantage of a more passive partner has caused some members of BL fandoms to decry the uke/seme method of pairing as not only heteronormative but also misogynistic in its recapitulation of rape culture (note 34). In Kemuri, however, Watanuki is not an innocent virgin who is forcefully inducted into sexual maturity by an uncontrollably virile partner, and it is not immediately clear who is taking advantage of whom in Watanuki's coupling with Dōmeki. If anyone is taking advantage of these two young men, it is the female reader, who uses these fictional constructs for her own enjoyment, whether this enjoyment is erotic, emotional, or subversive. At its core, the debate over heteronormativity, misogyny, and rape tropes in BL narratives is not about fictional men but rather about the agency of the women who read and write them (note 35).

5. Fujoshi and the power of female fans

[5.1] In Otaku joshi kenkyū: Fujoshi shisō taikei (A study of female otaku: Essays on fujoshi), journalist Sugiura Yumiko repeatedly assures her readers that fujoshi, the "rotten girls" who create and consume BL manga (note 36), are not poorly groomed antisocial misfits. "The majority of fujoshi," Sugiura writes, "are adult women. They live in the real world, where things like 'true love' don't exist. These women fall in love and get married in the real world, where society necessitates compromise. When they get tired, they take a break in a fantasy world, and then they go back to reality" (2006, 42). According to Sugiura, although fujoshi occasionally immerse themselves in fantasy, or delusion (mōsō), they are far from delusional (mōsōteki); for them, the world of BL is a break from reality (genjitsu), not the sort of separate reality (riariti) that attractive shōjo characters provide for male fans of the anime and manga media mix (see also Saitō 2006). Sugiura's assessment of fujoshi is therefore largely positive (note 37). It is precisely because these women have a firm grasp on reality, she argues, that they are able to enjoy the fantasy of BL, which functions as a safe haven from the pressures of the real world.

[5.2] According to Sugiura's interpretation, however, fujoshi are women who, while not completely passive, make no effort to actively engage with or change the media they consume. Even when Sugiura (2006) discusses the women who read newspapers on their way to work in order to gather more fodder for scenarios revolving around forbidden relationships between male political figures, she does not attempt to argue that they have any real interest in politics outside of BL fantasies. Sugiura even suggests that fujoshi have been largely ignored by the Japanese media because they are remarkably adept at hiding their fannish interests and because they don't seem particularly unhappy or maladjusted. In other words, they do not challenge the status quo. As the subcultures associated with dōjinshi demonstrate, however, many fujoshi are not merely consumers; these women are quite active as producers as well. If fujoshi are unsatisfied with the phallocentrism and heteronormativity they see in the media mix, they create their own versions of official narratives in the form of dōjinshi fan comics, which may depict the homosexual escapades of male leads or go into more detail regarding the background and perspective of a female character who is shortchanged in favor of male characters in the original work. When female fans find themselves excluded from male-centered stories and discourse, they simply create their own.

[5.3] As the interpretations of the xxxHolic as expressed by Kuchinashi kaoru and Kemuri demonstrate, female readers are perfectly capable of translating homosociality into homoeroticism, and they are able to refigure the elements on the printed page into a narrative that suits their own interests and responds to issues not addressed by the original text. Fujoshi and other readers creating fan works in a global context are thereby able to apply different hermeneutic lenses to male-dominated narratives, as the female gaze actively exposes the contradictions and possibilities embedded in phallocentric homosociality. As they exercise a female erotic gaze, readers who participate in BL and slash fan cultures subvert the concept of a masculinity that must continually assert its heterosexuality to maintain its prominence in gender-based power dynamics. By conducting these activities as members of a fandom community, whether that community is an online forum hosting fan fiction or a circle that publishes dōjinshi and distributes them at conventions, female readers are playing subversive games with corporate-owned texts that allow them to establish their own authority. Even though intellectual property still legally belongs to its author or producers, and even though the highest-grossing creators in transnational entertainment industries are still largely male, there are large and active subcultures of people to whom phallogocentric power structures of exclusive ownership and authorized interpretations do not matter in the slightest. The integration of fan works into the Japanese media mix renders it particularly open to the influence of queer and female voices, although it remains to be seen whether a critical mass of such fannish contributions will carve out a broader space for more inclusive representation or whether dōjinshi will simply follow a parallel path alongside mainstream entertainment.

6. Notes

1. Paul Jones, "Sherlock Is Most Watched BBC Drama Series for Over a Decade," RadioTimes, January 22, 2014, There is also a continually updated page on Wikipedia titled "List of Awards and Nominations Received by Sherlock,"

2. As mentioned above, the Sherlock fan base is quite large and thus difficult to survey. The circumstantial evidence mentioned here includes not only essays and critiques from female-identified bloggers, such as those at Jezebel and the Mary Sue, but also fan works considered to be generally (but not exclusively) female-oriented, specifically slash art and fan fiction. For example, the "Sherlock Holmes/John Watson" tag on the fan fiction archive Archive of Our Own (*s*John%20Watson) has more than 40,000 works within the "Sherlock (TV)" fandom as of this writing, making it one of the more popular relationships on the site.

3. The first episode of season 3 of Sherlock, "Many Happy Returns," features a meeting of a Sherlock fan club in which one female member posits that Moriarty did not attempt to kill Sherlock but instead spirited him away for an intense one-on-one romantic encounter, an imagined scenario highly characteristic of slash fan fiction. As of this writing, the show has included spoken lines teasing various characters (most notably John Watson) about possible homoerotic interest but has not vindicated such potential with action or acknowledgment. This has led to many critics accusing the show of queer baiting, in which queer representation is hinted at but never achieves canonical status. For a summary of this discussion in the wider context of television history, see Rose Bridges, "How Do We Solve A Problem Like 'Queerbaiting'? On TV's Not-So-Subtle Gay Subtext," Autostraddle, June 26, 2013,

4. The quoted text is from a collection of responses to the Moffat interview posted by the Tumblr user X-Cetra,

5. As described by Steinberg, Kadokawa Haruki began developing specific media mix strategies in the early 1970s as a response to the popularity of translations of English novelizations of American movies. The entry of these disposable paperbacks transformed the fiction market in Japan, and their success was the primary motivational factor in Kadokawa Books' establishment of a film production company, which originally released live-action movies and movie soundtracks based on the company's novels. The publisher's foray into anime, manga, light novels, character goods, and related media came somewhat later and did not reach its current level of sophistication until the 1990s. Japanese media critics such as Ōtsuka Eiji and Okada Toshio generally identify the development of Kadokawa's otaku-centric media mix with Mizuno Ryō's novel series Record of the Lodoss War (Rōdosu-tō senki, 1988–93), which was quickly adapted into several manga series, as well as an animation and a video game.

6. Although the encouragement of reader and audience participation is for many reasons preferable to the dismissal or prosecution of such participation, scholars such as Kristina Busse, Abigail De Kosnik, and Julie Levin Russo have argued that media production companies have begun to exploit fannish labor from which they profit but which they have no legal obligation to compensate in any way. Moreover, since intellectual property law is more easily manipulated by those with greater financial means, production companies are potentially able to control fan production with legal sanctions at any point. For further discussions of these concerns in the context of English-language fan fiction, see Hellekson (2015).

7. Aside from CLAMP, which began its activities as a dōjin circle, famous examples include Takahashi Rumiko, the creator of Ranma 1/2 (1987–96) and Inuyasha (1996–2008), and Azuma Kiyohiko, the creator of Azumanga Daioh (Azumanga daiō, 1999–2002) and Yotsuba&! (Yotsuba to!, 2003–). Moreover, many manga artists continue to publish dōjinshi even after they become successful. Examples include Akamatsu Ken, the creator of Love Hina (Rabu hina, 1998–2001), and Kōga Yun, the creator of Loveless (Raburesu, 2001–). An expanded list can be found in the Wikipedia entry for Dōjinshi,

8. A useful indicator of this trend is the increased entertainment industry presence at fan conventions such as the San Diego Comic-Con, the New York Comic Con, the MCM London Comic Con, and the Angoulême International Comics Festival. Although industry representatives have always attended such conventions to give panels and offer portfolio reviews, spikes in attendee numbers (as provided on the Web sites of the managing organizations of these events) and positive news media coverage in the past decade have generated a feedback loop with cinema and television professionals and production companies. Industry conventions such as New York's BookCon have also begun to see more fan attendees in recent years. In addition, North American comics and animation companies such as Boom! Studios and Frederator Studios have begun to recruit writers, artists, and interns directly from fannish social networking sites such as DeviantArt and Tumblr.

9. Interestingly enough, Kadokawa has applied its media mix strategy to the Sherlock television series, serializing a manga adaptation of several of the show's more self-contained episodes in its monthly seinen magazine Young Ace, which also runs installments of a CLAMP manga titled Drug & Drop (2011–). Like Sherlock, Drug & Drop is a mystery series centered around the adventures of two attractive men with a close yet complicated relationship. By outwardly catering to a male demographic while subtly appealing to female BL fans, Young Ace is able to maintain a large readership as one of Kadokawa's flagship manga publications.

10. A common translation of dōjinshi is "coterie magazine," which is more apt when referenced with the broader history of the Japanese term, as the word dōjinshi is also used to describe the literary magazines published by small schools of writers and poets of the Meiji (1868–1912) and Taishō (1912–26) eras. Self-published and privately distributed poetry collections and surimono art prints were a major feature of Edo period (1600–1868) print and literary culture as well. However, the introductions of many dōjinshi how-to guides, such as Dōjinshi・Saito・Ibento kaisai dōjin katsudō nō hau no subete (2007, Everything you need to know about dōjinshi, Web sites, and fan conventions) and Mezase Komike! (2005, Aim for Comic Market!), trace the origins of Japanese dōjinshi culture to American fan conventions such as those held in the honor of the Star Trek television series (1966–69). It is therefore difficult to assume continuity between prewar literary dōjinshi and postwar dōjinshi fan comics, although contemporary poetry circles and university literary clubs in Japan still refer to their in-house publications as dōjinshi.

11. These connotations stem from the fanzines distributed at science fiction and fantasy conventions during the closing decades of the twentieth century. Such fanzines could vary greatly in quality, but a typical example might be composed of mimeographed or photocopied pages stapled together and filled with margin-to-margin handwritten or typewritten text and low-resolution images, although a select number of fanzines were expertly formatted and beautifully published. As Japanese dōjinshi have become more widely accessible in North America and Europe, however, the fanzines sold in the "artist alley" sections of the main exhibition areas of fan conventions have gradually come to reflect the high print quality and stylistic conventions of dōjinshi. Instead of referring to their self-published fan comics and fan art compilations as fanzines or dōjinshi, many North American and European artists now use the English expression "fan book," a translation of dōjinshi commonly used by Japanese artists.

12. With the advent of artist-friendly social networking sites such as Pixiv ( and specialty online dōjinshi retailers such as Alice Books (, many fans now operate as individuals and refer to themselves as kojin (one-person) circles. In recent years, a collaborative publication between kojin artists has come to be referred to as a gōdōshi (multi-artist fan book).

13. Physically printed and bound prose fan fiction is known as a dōjin novel (noberu). Such dōjin novels can be stand-alone stories of varying length, collections of works by the same author, or anthologies of works for a specific pairing contributed by multiple authors. Many, but not all, dōjin novels contain manga-style illustrations, and some even feature several pages of sequential manga portraying key scenes.

14. Certain branches of Book-Off, a large national chain specializing in used books, may carry dōjinshi as well, especially those located in or contingent to entertainment districts catering to fannish interests, such as Akihabara in Tokyo and Nanba in Osaka.

15. These channels include personal Web pages and accounts on sites such as Pixiv and Twitter. Fan artists operating online often do not provide contact information, although they may advertise their appearance at fan events. It is possible for the work of extraordinarily popular artists to be highlighted in publications such as Quarterly Pixiv (a magazine distributed by the manga publisher Enterbrain), but publication opportunities stemming from online activity are exceptions. Himaruya Hidekazu's historical gag manga Hetalia: Axis Powers (Akushisu Pawāzu Hetaria, 2006–13), which was hosted on its author's personal Web page, is one such exception.

16. At conventions and resale stores, dōjinshi are generally divided into two categories: dansei-muke (for men) and josei-muke (for women). Dansei-muke dōjinshi tend to feature graphic heterosexual pornography, while josei-muke dōjinshi have often been stereotyped as focusing on beautiful boys in love with each other (although a sizable percentage of josei-muke dōjinshi involve heterosexual romance or nonromantic dramatic or comedic stories). Josei-muke dōjinshi are not necessarily modeled on media for female audiences (such as shōjo and josei manga) and are more frequently based on media targeted toward male audiences (such as shōnen and seinen manga). For example, the shōnen titles serialized in Weekly Shōnen Jump (Shūkan shōnen janpu), such as Naruto (1997–2015) and Bleach (Burīchi, 2001–), are commonly appropriated as the source texts (gensaku) for josei-muke dōjinshi.

17. For a short overview of the BL genre, see McLelland and Welker (2015).

18. Jenkins (2008) makes a similar argument in the context of American media. However, as legal practices concerning fair use and copyright violations related to popular media are different in Japan, an examination of how fan production increasingly drives the creation of popular culture is necessary in a Japanese context.

19. Another prominent member of this group of female manga artists born in 1949 is Ikeda Ryōko, internationally famous for her epic saga Berusaiyu no bara (The Rose of Versailles, 1972–73). For a perspective on Ikeda and the political and literary climate that influenced her and the other members of the 24-Nengumi, see McKnight (2010).

20. Jenkins (2007) has also emphasized the appeal of filling in the textual gaps to fan cultures; he argues that media producers are increasingly structuring stories in such a way as to emphasize these gaps in order to create properties that are able to sustain a large and dedicated fan base.

21. It should be noted that men are not the sole producers and consumers of pornographic dansei-muke dōjinshi, as women are often members of the circles who sell such dōjinshi at fan events. Self-identified female otaku (a word for "geek" implying fannish interest in media properties targeted at a male audience), such as the lesbian manga essayist Takeuchi Sachiko, readily admit to enjoying dōjinshi catering to a male erotic gaze.

22. Angles (2011) discusses these homosocial bonds as they appear in the fiction of writers such as Edogawa Ranpo and Murayama Kaita. In his conclusion, Angles demonstrates how contemporary dōjinshi artists have translated the homosociality and covert homoeroticism of modern literature into open and explicit relationships.

23. Weekly Shōnen Magazine is a seinen publication targeted at an older male audience, as evinced by its portrayal of overtly sexual themes and explicitly violent scenarios. Although inserts and pullout posters depicting teenage gravure idols in bikinis fill the magazine, the manga stories serialized within its pages tend toward the dystopian end of speculative fiction. Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine is a monthly spin-off of Weekly Shōnen Magazine, allowing for each installment to be longer and more intricately plotted. Far from being derivative or less prestigious than its weekly cousin, Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine is home to many of the most popular seinen manga series in Japan, which are often licensed for distribution overseas. Recent notable examples include Isayama Hajime's Attack on Titan (Shingeki no kyojin, 2009–) and Oikawa Tōru's From the New World (Shinsekai yori, 2012–14), the latter of which is based on an award-winning 2008 novel by the avant-garde horror and mystery writer Kishi Yūsuke.

24. The character Sakura in xxxHolic's companion manga, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (2003–9), serves a similar purpose, in that she acts as an object through which the male characters can indirectly form bonds with one another and, later in the manga, as a morally ambiguous character against which the male protagonists can define their own character development.

25. One of Sedgwick's main arguments in Between Men is that the intense relationships of the men involved in the creation and administration of the British empire were characterized by homosocial desire, a "pattern of male friendship, mentorship, entitlement, [and] rivalry" (1985, 1).

26. Because CLAMP's shōnen and seinen titles are serialized in magazines targeted at the corresponding demographics—boys and young men—most male characters in these titles are coded as straight through their attraction to their designated female love interests. Several male and female characters in the CLAMP universe are canonically gay (in the sense of being in easily discernible romantic relationships with members of the same sex or being clearly romantically interested in members of the same sex), but these characters generally appear in CLAMP's shōjo and josei manga.

27. One such forum is the community Fandom Secrets (, formerly, on which members of multiple fandoms post anonymous observations and opinions. Each secret has its own chain of comments, wherein the issue at hand is discussed by both anonymous and named users. Sexuality, especially as it is expressed in fan art and fan fiction, is a common topic on the forum.

28. The word tsundere is a portmanteau of tsun-tsun, which expresses disgust, and dere-dere, which expresses adoration. The tsundere character type is borrowed from moe fandoms, whose constituents are generally assumed to be male. The relationship between male and female fandom cultures in Japan is complicated and requires further study, but BL and moe fan cultures are fully aware of each other and borrow character tropes and narrative patterns from each other even as they poke fun these tropes and patterns.

29. Hori (2009) provides tables of information on 80 contemporary mass market magazines. This information includes the number of characters on the covers, the sight lines of these characters (whether they are looking at the reader or at each other, for instance), and the clothing that the characters are modeling. Reproductions of 24 magazine covers are included as illustrations. This information demonstrates a correlation between the covers of pornographic magazines for men and manga magazines for men. There is also a clear correlation between the covers of magazines for women, shōjo manga magazines, and BL manga magazines. It should be noted, however, that not all shōjo and BL manga covers, and indeed not all shōjo and BL manga, feature a romantically intertwined couple.

30. Although this comparison is useful, it is important to remember that correlation does not equal causation. Shōjo manga and BL manga are in fact marketed to two separate demographics, with BL being a subcategory of the larger demographic genre of josei manga, which is targeted toward women of college age or older. Like its male demographic equivalent, seinen manga, josei manga encompasses a broad range of subgenres, from mother-in-law horror stories to workplace dramas to science fiction to abstract artistic pieces. This breadth of genre makes comparing BL manga to other josei manga difficult.

31. This trend is partially a result of the effort of publishers to brand manga magazines and tankōbon publishing labels through similar art styles and familiar narrative conventions. Although there will naturally be a diversity of styles and stories represented by the different artists managed by a publisher, the editors assigned to these artists contribute greatly to the finished product. Nevertheless, artists, especially high-profile artists like those of CLAMP, still have a great deal of creative freedom.

32. The manga series was adapted into a light novel series in 2007, a television anime in 2009, and a live-action film in 2010.

33. Examples of this type of heroine are easily found in recent shōjo manga such as Fushigi Yûgi (Fushigi yūgi, 1992–96), From Far Away (Kanata kara, 1993–2003), Red River (Sora wa akai kawa no hotori, 1995–2002), Peach Girl (Piichi gāru, 1997–2003), Fruits Basket (Furūtsu basuketto, 1998–2006), Hot Gimmick (Hotto gimikku, 2000–2005), We Were There (Bokura ga ita, 2002–12), Vampire Knight (Vanpaia naito, 2004–13), Black Bird (Burakku bādo, 2007–13), and Dawn of the Arcana (Reimei no arukana, 2009–13), and many others.

34. An insightful blog post critically discussing these tropes in relation to the anime series Sekai-ichi hatsukoi (2011, World's Greatest First Love) is "World's Worst First Love" on the fan blog GAR GAR Stegosaurus at

35. For an academic treatment of one such debate, see Vincent (2007).

36. The expression fujoshi, which might be translated as "rotten girl" or "fan trash," is a play on fujoshi, a somewhat antiquated word for "wife" that is pronounced the same but written with different Chinese characters in Japanese.

37. Sugiura's assessment is positive in the sense that she asserts that fujoshi are not social miscreants but fully functioning adults. Nevertheless, such a statement runs the risk of reinforcing heteronormativity in its positioning of queerness as an escape from the inequalities implicit in heterosexual romance. The relationship between the lived experience of queerness and symbolic representations of queerness is fraught with complications and contradictions, but I would argue that the fantasy of openly accepted and uncontested queerness implied by many (but far from all) BL manga and dōjinshi can also serve as an analgesic against the harshness of real-world queer identity, in which automatic happy endings are not necessarily forthcoming at the end of every story.

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