Book Review

Boys love manga and beyond: History, culture, and community in Japan, edited by Mark McLelland, Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma, and James Welker

Sandra Annett

Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada

[0.1] Keywords—Gender; Japanese fan culture; Sexuality

Annett, Sandra. 2017. Boys Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan, edited by Mark McLelland, Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma, and James Welker [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 25.

Mark McLelland, Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma, and James Welker, editors. Boys love manga and beyond: History, culture, and community in Japan. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015, paperback, $30 (304p) ISBN 978-1496807762.

[1] Boys Love Manga and Beyond is quite literally a defining volume in the study of Japanese fan subcultures. Like many academic works on emerging topics, its main task is to define and categorize its subject, in this case boys' love (BL), a popular Japanese multimedia genre focusing on male-male romantic/sexual relationships, generally thought to be written by and for women. This essay collection takes an international, interdisciplinary approach, with authors from Australia, Tasmania, Japan, and the United States working in a range of disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, comparative literature, and gender studies departments. They are all united, however, by a common set of questions that concern scholars working in a relatively new area.

[2] In the volume's introduction, McLelland and Welker pose questions such as, "What genres of BL have emerged in the course of its 40-year history?" and "What kind of girls and women actually create and consume BL works?" (4). Basically they are asking, "What is this thing, who likes it, and why should we study it?" In answering these questions, the authors run into a few of the problems that tend to crop up in early fan studies: a dry dissection of fannish pleasures, for instance, and an insistence on basic definitions that become confused in practical use. (Should all homoerotic manga for girls be lumped together under the umbrella term "BL," or is the general term yaoi? Different terms are offered up as common parlance in different chapters, depending on whom each author was speaking to at the time of writing.) That said, the editors of this volume have deliberately selected their approach to meet a real need for more academic work on BL media in its Japanese social, cultural, and historical context. Researchers and students looking for a solid introduction to BL and its fans in Japan will find this volume invaluable.

[3] One of the most useful aspects of this book is its inclusion of both English-language essays and essays translated from Japanese. Those who have researched BL in English will likely recognize the names of contributors like Mark McLelland, James Welker, and Patrick Galbraith, who have published a fair bit on the topic in essay collections and journals such as Mechademia. In addition, readers of Transformative Works and Cultures will recognize Kazumi Nagaike and Katsuhiko Suganuma, who guest edited an issue on "Transnational Boys' Love Fan Studies" in 2013. This collection also includes work by pioneering Japanese scholars of BL such as Fujimoto Yukari and Ishida Hitoshi, whose chapters were originally published in a seminal 2007 issue of the literary journal Eureka (Yuriika) that introduced Japanese readers to the newly minted field of BL studies (Aoyama 2009). The preponderance of essays by scholars who were born in Japan or who have extensively lived and worked there provides valuable insight and information that was previously unavailable or not easily accessible to Anglophone readers.

[4] While presenting a variety of perspectives, the editors have arranged the chapters into a coherent volume that flows well from start to finish. They avoid the common tactic of grouping chapters into chunky thematic sections. Instead, they order the 12 essays sequentially to create a smooth chronological transition from earlier to later BL works. Along the way, they also segue from production-oriented essays on historical genres and authors to consumer-oriented essays on BL readers and fans in the 21st century. The effect is like that of a book with two halves, the first asking, "What is BL?" and the second asking, "Who are the fans of BL?" However, because the editors do not make a strict division between the halves, readers are free to pick up the threads of reception in the earlier essays, weaving them into an ongoing concern with genres and authors in some of the later essays.

[5] The first half of the volume comprises an introduction and five chapters that look at BL's historical roots in the early to mid-20th century. In the first chapter, Barbara Hartley introduces one of the earliest examples of "beautiful boy" (bishōnen) imagery with queer undertones in modern Japanese popular culture: the 1920s serial literature illustrations of Takabatake Kashō. Hartley provides valuable background on the ways in which love between men was historically viewed in Japan and the impact of shifting gender relations on Japanese literature and art through the ages. This chapter dovetails neatly with James Welker's essay on the development of manga featuring bishōnen characters in love from the 1970s to the 1990s. Welker traces a fairly well-known course from the highly aestheticized shōnen-ai (boy love) tales of 1970s girls' manga magazines, to the "mildly pornographic" JUNE magazine for women (59), and finally to the fan-created parodies of popular anime and manga known as yaoi. In his account, yaoi began to spread between fans at the Comic Market conventions of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it continues today alongside the mainstream commercial genre that bookstores label "BL" or "boys' love." Welker's contribution paves the way for a new translation of Fujimoto's 2007 Eureka essay on shōnen-ai and yaoi. Fujimoto argues that reading shōnen-ai manga allows female readers to escape oppressive gender roles, while fan-created yaoi works reveal how they play with gender by freely adopting various sexual roles and power dynamics. This argument is now well worn and contested in feminist studies of slash, but it was influential in the Japanese context at the time. Complementing Fujimoto's analysis of BL readers, Kazuko Suzuki's contribution asks, "What can we learn from Japanese professional BL writers?" Using firsthand accounts from interviews, Suzuki analyzes how professional BL authors today perceive such categories as shōnen-ai, JUNE, and yaoi as subgenres. Kazumi Nagaike and Tomoko Aoyama round out the historical half of the volume with their overview of the Japanese academic field of BL studies. This essay provides a useful summary of how BL and its fans have been seen in academic and mass media discourse at the end of the 20th century and into the start of the 21st century.

[6] Along with historical context, some of the essays from the first part of the volume also provide information on the early reception of BL, notably those by Fujimoto and by Nagaike and Aoyama. But it is in the second half of the volume that readers of BL manga truly become the main focus. Though the volume does not deal much in Western fan studies concepts that might be familiar to readers of Transformative Works and Cultures, it does spend the remaining six essays and the conclusion addressing BL's specific audience and its more general social reception. Rio Otomo enters the fray with a polemical essay on BL as a form of pornography that "counteracts the misogyny historically attached to the genre" of porn (142). Drawing on the queer theory of Judith Butler and the literature of Angela Carter and Yukio Mishima, she makes a strong case for BL as a source of autoerotic fantasy that also interrogates the social relations of power. Next, Patrick Galbraith provides some real-world examples of such fantasies in his chapter based on a year's worth of fieldwork with female fans of yaoi in Japan. As Galbraith notes, these fans have ironically named themselves fujoshi, "rotten girls," a term that has also been picked up in the Japanese media. Jeffrey T. Hester's "Fujoshi Emergent" traces how fujoshi have entered into popular representation through meta manga and anime that depict avid female BL fans and their beleaguered boyfriends. Hester is rightly critical of such narratives, often written by men and featuring male point-of-view characters, which create a "double move…by which women's power is acknowledged, but then recaptured within more-or-less conventional trajectories of heterosexual romance" (181). However, not all men involved with BL automatically reaffirm a conventional heterosexual viewpoint. Kazumi Nagaike examines the phenomenon of heterosexual male fans of BL, nicknamed fudanshi, who view BL's romantic narratives as a form of "salvation" (193) that allows them to explore androgynous or feminine sides of their psyches. Surprisingly, Nagaike does not focus much on the responses of actual gay, bisexual, and asexual men, who, according to the survey data she quotes, make up the majority of male BL fans. Also, she does little to address the critiques of gay men who dislike BL. Rather, it falls to Ishida Hitoshi to take up the fascinating case of the 1992 yaoi debate (yaoi ronsō), in which feminist authors and BL fans responded to criticisms from gay men that BL is at best overidealized and at worst outright homophobic, particularly when it stars male lovers who deny being gay, with self-identified gay characters relegated to the role of sidekick. Ishida comes to a balanced conclusion, neither defending nor condemning fujoshi, but rather recognizing that BL is foundationally structured by both an appropriation of gay male imagery and the self-projections of independent women's fantasies.

[7] The final essay by Tomoko Aoyama and the conclusion by Mark McLelland likewise touch on cases where celebrations of freedom and community must be balanced with recognitions of responsibility and reactions to social constraints. Aoyama provides a nuanced reading of manga by feminist author and artist Yoshinaga Fumi, who grapples with the distinctions between idealized fantasies of bishōnen in love and more realistic portrayals of ordinary gay men in caring, committed relationships, often represented by their skill at domestic cooking or baking. McLelland concludes the volume by addressing issues that future scholars and fans must face, such as the increasing amount of regulation and censorship being leveled by conservative elements in Japanese society and government as the BL genre gains mainstream visibility. McLelland's conclusion returns us once again to the central question: What is BL? Is it pornography? Is it pure fantasy? Is it feminist? Queer? Homophobic? Revolutionary? Commercially co-opted? As always, each author defends his or her own stance, most often on the side of defending BL. The best essays, however, don't just pick a side but rather show how the definition of BL is being discursively constructed (and contested) by everyone from passionate fans and defensive authors to critical activists and censorious citizens.

[8] Given its strong focus on definitions, Boys Love Manga and Beyond may read like a first-ever introduction to the field. In fact, it is not the first essay collection published on BL in English. That distinction goes to the 2010 volume Boys' Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre, edited by Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry, and Dru Pagliassotti (reviewed in Transformative Works and Cultures by Nele Noppe in 2011). A comparison between these two volumes is instructive. Whereas the volume under review here stakes out its titular territory in Japan, Levi, McHarry, and Pagliassotti's earlier book is clearly labeled a cross-cultural study. This means that the 2010 Boys' Love Manga authors employ more concepts from Western fan studies theory, such as the gift economy, and provide more links to Western fan bases, including two essays that directly compare yaoi and slash fandom. The complete lack of such comparisons in Boys Love Manga and Beyond may create a sense of disconnect or a feeling of something missing for international readers and scholars. Simon Turner, in his review of Boys Love Manga and Beyond, points out, "Although we can locate the Japanese origins of Boys' Love, it is becoming ever more difficult to isolate its production and fandom to the Japanese archipelago." He goes on to ask, "Can we truly say that Boys' Love is still the privilege of only Japanese fans?" (2016, 257). The volume's authors, of course, say nothing to suggest that BL is the privilege of only Japanese fans. But neither do they say much to indicate an awareness of the transnational nature of BL. This gap can be chalked up to the limitations of their Japancentric approach. That said, because Levi, McHarry, and Pagliassotti had already published a more cross-culturally oriented volume on BL, it may have been a better decision for the editors of this second volume not to retread the same territory, and instead present essays that give international readers insight into materials and cultural perspectives they may not be familiar with already. In the future, it would be wonderful to see a dedicated volume on BL that explores even further international perspectives—for instance, by looking not only at BL readers in Japan and/or North America, but also in East Asia, Europe, Latin America, and other emerging global fan bases.

[9] Ultimately, Boys Love Manga and Beyond does exactly what its subtitle promises in introducing readers to BL's "history, culture, and community in Japan." Any limitations it has are largely the result of its deliberate focus on a very particular target area. While it is becoming fashionable in fan studies to write more accessible crossover volumes that appeal to both scholars and general readers or fans, this book bucks the trend. Though interdisciplinary, it is still solidly academic in approach and Japan-centered in focus. However, it contains a great deal of useful information for scholars who want to get the inside scoop on BL, including detailed accounts regarding the beginnings of the genre, nuanced discussions of key terms in Japanese, essays based on interviews with BL creators and fans, and overviews of key debates in the Japanese media. It gives insight into the growth of BL as an academic subject of study, and while it is certainly not the final word, it is a definitive work that paves the way for future studies of manga on boys who love boys, and the women (and men, and nonbinary folks!) who love them.

Works cited

Aoyama, Tomoko. 2009. "Eureka Discovers Culture Girls, Fujoshi, and BL: Essay Review of Three Issues of the Japanese Literary magazine, Yuriika (Eureka)." Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, no. 20.

Levi, Antonia, Mark McHarry, and Dru Pagliassotti, eds. 2010. Boys' Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Nagaike, Kazumi, and Katsuhiko Suganuma, eds. 2013. "Transnational Boys' Love Fan Studies," special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 12.

Noppe, Nele. 2011. Boys' Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre, edited by Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry, and Dru Pagliassotti [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6.

Turner, Simon. 2016. Boys Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan, edited by Mark McLelland, Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma, and James Welker [book review]. Japan Forum 28 (2): 255–58.