While the topics covered in Japanese anime and manga are seemingly endless, if recent hits like "Yuri on Ice" (2016), or "My Brother’s Husband" (2014-2017) are any indication, gay and homoerotic relationships fill an extremely popular niche in manga plotlines.
But, "My Brother’s Husband" (which was was remade last year into an NHK drama) and "Yuri on Ice" are only the tip of the iceberg. Get ready to blush, gasp and kyaaa! as we delve into why gay manga is so popular, and how to navigate an already huge international fandom.
Gay manga subgenres: BL and Bara
Gay manga has two major subgenres, not to mention the huge variety of plotlines ranging from futuristic dystopian societies to gay cops fighting crime and finding love. "Yuri on Ice" and "My Brother’s Husband" are good examples of these two subgenres.
"Yuri on Ice," a light-hearted love story between a retired master Russian figure skater and his Japanese apprentice, falls under “BL,” or “Boys’ Love” which is a direct translation of shonen’ai (少年愛—literally, “boy love”) an older term for BL manga that fell out of usage in Japan.
Another disappearing term for BL is yaoi. This is said to come from the Japanese expression yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi, or “no climax, no fall, no meaning,” to jokingly describe how BL is often critiqued for a lack of actual plot.
Among Western readers, yaoi tends to connote BL works that have more explicit scenes, while shonen’ai is still sometimes used to refer to tamer gay manga series in which you watch an entire series only for the main couple to kiss. Six hours… for a kiss.
If popular BL series like "Gakuen Heaven," Shungiku Nakamura’s "Junjo Romantica," and Maki Murakami’s "Gravitation" are any indicator, BL characters are usually more willowy and traditionally “pretty.” There’s even a word for this style of male beauty: 美少年 (bishonen or “beautiful boy”). Flowers, tearful love confessions and slow-motion hugging scenes abound within the BL subgenre.
"My Brother’s Husband," however, falls under bara manga, also known as “men’s love” or “gei komi (gay comics).” These comics are decidedly more “macho” when compared to BL.
Bara draws its name from the popular 1970s gay magazine Barazoku (薔薇族), or “Rose Tribe.” In a 2006 article by scholar Jonathan D Mackintosh, he explains that Barazoku “pioneered a homo magazine genre and industry” that helped Japanese gay men feel less isolated.
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