Book review

Writing the love of boys: Origins of bishōnen culture in modernist Japanese literature, by Jeffrey Angles

Emerald King

University of Tasmania, Tasmania, Australia

[0.1] Keywords—BL; Boys' love

King, Emerald. 2013. Writing the Love of Boys: Origins of Bishōnen Culture in Modernist Japanese Literature, by Jeffrey Angles [book review]. In "Transnational Boys' Love Fan Studies," edited by Kazumi Nagaike and Katsuhiko Suganuma, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 12.

Jeffrey Angles. Writing the love of boys: Origins of bishōnen culture in modernist Japanese literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Hardcover, $75 (312p) ISBN 978-0816669691; paperback, $25 (312p) ISBN 978-0816669707; e-book, $24 (3486KB), ASIN B004Z1ORUY.

[1] Fan studies scholars who examine manga (graphic novels or comics) fandoms, especially shōjo manga (girls' comics) fandoms, will likely be familiar with boys' love narratives of male-male desire. However, this is by no means a recent phenomenon. In Writing the Love of Boys, Jeffrey Angles turns to the literary precedent of bishōnen (beautiful boy) culture, which emerged during the tumultuous interwar years of the Taishō period (1912–26) and the first decade of the Shōwa period (1926–89). Angles focuses on the work of three writers of the period: poet and artist Kaita Murayama (1896–1919), mystery writer Ranpo Edogawa, and avant-garde innovator Taruho Inagaki (1900–1977), as well as two contemporaries, detective novelist Shirō Hamao (1896–1935) and anthropologist Jun'ichi Iwata (1900–1945). I was familiar with the work of Edogawa Edogawa, having read Angles's 2008 translation of "The Two-Sen Copper Coin" published in Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913–1938, edited by William J. Tyler. However, it was not until reading Angles's text that I became aware of the strong vein of boys' love that runs through Edogawa's body of work.

[2] Writing the Love of Boys is separated into five chapters, the first two of which are concerned with Murayama's prose and poetry. The next two chapters follow Edogawa's mystery fiction and his project to formulate a queer history. The final chapter concentrates on Inagaki's writing. Having five chapters thus split between three authors might seem an unbalanced, even poorly thought out, structure, but the format holds. The first four chapters seem to work particularly well together. In each of these chapters, Angles references several short stories, essays, and poems written by each author, three of which will be examined later in this review. However, in his own words, Angles's "primary mode of analysis" is not wholly biographical, as "biographical factors do not fully explain the ways any particular writer engages with erotic desire in his or her work" (29–30). Rather, throughout Writing the Love of Boys, as in the works of the three main authors whom Angles examines, the love of (and between) boys is treated and represented as a different phenomenon to the adult love of (and between) men.

[3] Angles takes pains to distinguish the male-male desire showcased in the work he concentrates on from prior representations of homosexuality/sociality, such as the hard/soft factional narratives of homosexuality present in, for example, noted novelist and imperial army surgeon general Ōgai Mori's (1862–1922) 1909 novel Wita sekusuarisu (translated as Vita Sexualis by Kazuji Ninomiya and Sanford Goldstein, 1982). In this narrative, homosexuality/sociality is presented as occurring between two factions, hard and soft. Mori's narrative "describes adolescents of the 'hard faction' using their status as upper classmen to take advantage of attractive younger bishōnen [belonging to the 'soft faction'] and force them into a sexual relationship" (17). The almost militaristic institutional system in Mori's work is rejected by Murayama, Edogawa, and Inagaki, who favor a more egalitarian approach between bishōnen. During the Taishō period, narratives of male-male desire between schoolboys seem to have been widespread, as were narratives of same-sex desire between schoolgirls. Indeed, as Angles notes, there was a social expectation that male-male desire during youth was something that would give way to "love between a man and a woman" upon entrance into adulthood (34). However Murayama, Edogawa, and Inagaki resist, undermine, and warp this social expectation throughout their collective body of work.

[4] Key examples of this resistance can be seen in the discussion of Murayama's "Akuma no shita" (The diabolical tongue), Edogawa's Kotō no oni (The demon of the lonely isle), and Inagaki's "Hana-megane" (Pince-nez). The titles of these three works convey a sense of the sinister and the foreign that were part of the ero, guro, nansensu (erotic, grotesque, nonsense) movement found throughout the literature and popular culture of the Taishō era. Angles notes, "'Akuma no shita' may be read as an exploration of the complicated feelings of one person suffering from some form of prohibited desire—desires relegated to the periphery of society" (105). Indeed, this reading is applicable to the majority of the works examined in Writing the Love of Boys. Each writer seems painfully aware of the subversive nature of his subject matter, as can be seen from the use of words such as akuma and oni (both of which can be translated as "demon") in the titles.

[5] Throughout Writing the Love of Boys, Angles takes pains to establish his authors in a continuum of bishōnen, the seeds of which can be seen in Edo-period nanshoku and shudō homosexuality. However, whereas Angles extends this continuum to modern-day shōjo manga and other boys' love narratives, he differentiates between earlier forms of male-male desire, such as those in Mori's Wita sekusuarisu and earlier texts. Similarly, Angles avoids the use of terms such as homosexuality, given the cultural baggage that accompanies them in both English- and Japanese-language usage.

[6] Writing the Love of Boys is an engaging and challenging text that encourages readers to interrogate their understanding of boys' love narratives in Japan as more than just a current popular cultural trend. The book is of interest not only to scholars of boys' love narratives and associated bishōnen culture, but also to students of Taishō modernism and gender studies. Costume scholars who are interested in the current resurgence of Taishō roman (Taishō romance) aesthetic in, for example, kimono and design, will also find Angles's text a worthwhile read for the insights it provides into the artistic and literary movements of the period.

[7] Of particular interest to readers of Transformative Works and Cultures and scholars of fan studies in general is the background information to the continuing popularity of boys' love narratives that Angles presents. The text can be read as part of a trajectory of boys' love fandoms as they continue to grow and spread globally. This trajectory may well be a useful measure of the spread of other fandoms from Japan and other parts of East Asia to the rest of the world. For instance, it may well be possible to trace the popularity of Korean boy bands back to the boys' love narratives and culture examined by Angles.