Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 27, November 2011

Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry, and Dru Pagliassotti (eds)

Boys' Love Manga:
Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre

Jefferson, N.C., and London: McFarland, 2010
ISBN 978-0-7864-4195-2 (pbk); 272 pp.; US$39.95

reviewed by James Welker

  1. We have had to wait far too long for a collection of critical essays in English focused on a genre of manga (Japanese comics) that, depending on whose history one follows, was first inked in 1970 in Japan and which began to develop a significant overseas following in the 1990s.[1] In that regard, Boys' Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre, edited by Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry and Dru Pagliassotti is particularly welcome. While critical and analytical essays about this increasingly vast genre have been appearing in English since the late 1980s, 'boys' love' is a broad, complex field of discourse which deserves the kind of expansive, in-depth attention that only an edited collection such as this can provide.[2] And I am certain that I am not alone in hoping that this book is followed by more on the topic.
  2. The terms 'boys' love' in English, and 'bōizu rabu,' in Japanese, are often applied to a wide variety of commercial and amateur fictive narratives that are expressed through manga, anime (Japanese animation), novellas, video games and so forth, and that depict males in romantic, often sexual relationships with each other. While, as I note below, there are important generic and chronologic distinctions sometimes indicated in Japanese, English, and other languages through the use of a handful of other terms, for the sake of simplicity, I will follow the editors' lead and refer to this vast field simply as 'boys' love.' As female fantasy, boys' love works are not 'gay' (or 'gei') texts but, rather, primarily created by and for adolescent girls and women—and, while overt and covert homophobia is sometimes used as a plot device, only a minority of the texts have directly confronted issues of relevance to the lives of actual gay/gei men.
  3. As its title implies, the central focus of the volume at hand is boys' love manga, though a number of authors write about manga-related 'fan fiction,' that is narratives produced by a work's fans that cast the characters from existing works in new storylines. In the case of boys' love fan fiction, most often, the original text was not a boys' love narrative, but simply provided fodder from which fans could create their own. Many of the chapter authors in this edited collection reveal, directly or by implication, that they too are a part of the boys' love fandom, and in some cases production. The benefits of this to the readers of this volume are multiple: the pleasure of these authors' own reading (and production) experiences cannot help but tinge their writing. Moreover, many of these authors are able to offer analysis from an insider's perspective or at the very least the sort of participant observer position called for in anthropology. On the other hand, while the book appears to be setting itself up as an academic text, some of the articles blur into the kind of writing found in fan blogs and popular culture magazines, which, while often quite good, differs in approach from traditional scholarly works. Moreover, fan writing, like a number of articles in this collection, assumes a greater degree of familiarity with the genre on the part of readers than is normally expected of readers of an academic volume such as this. The editors have, however, mitigated this issue somewhat by helpfully providing a glossary of terms in the back of the volume. A list of key artists/authors and seminal works that come up repeatedly in chapters and perhaps a timeline would also have been useful. Please note that I am reviewing this as a scholarly text from an academic perspective and issues such as this may be of little or no concern to readers approaching the book from a boys' love fan perspective.
  4. Boys' Love Manga is divided into three sections, 'Boys' Love and Global Publishing,' 'Genre and Readership' and 'Boys' Love and Perceptions of the Queer,' an approach which helps locate boys love as a global genre before taking an in-depth look at both readers and the texts themselves. Following an introduction by Antonia Levi, the fourteen chapters employ approaches from a number of fields, most prominently the close reading of literary criticism and the surveys and interviews of reception studies, but also theory and methodology from anthropology, and the fields of queer studies, feminist studies, film studies and media studies, making this a very interdisciplinary collection. As is common in the loosely defined field of anime and manga studies, the volume as a whole as well as most of the articles devote very little space to discussing the images themselves. While perhaps surprising for studies of a very visual medium and fiction derived therefrom, this is symptomatic of a field comprised largely of individuals trained in literature, and to a lesser extent anthropology and history, rather than art or art history.
  5. Section one contains Hope Donovan's 'Gift Versus Capitalist Economies: Exchanging Anime and Manga in the U.S.,' which examines consumption of often illegally reproduced manga and anime in the United States; Paul M. Malone's 'From BRAVO to to Export: Capitalizing on German Boys' Love Fandom, Culturally, Socially and Economically,' which illuminates the social positioning of boys' love fandom in Germany; and Yamila Abraham's 'Boys' Love Thrives in Conservative Indonesia,' which addresses boys' love consumption in Indonesia based in part on her personal interactions with artists there who are producing boys' love manga for consumption outside of the country. In addition to these three countries, chapters in other sections focus on consumption and production in Australia, the United Kingdom and Anglophone cyberspace. As the vast majority of writing on manga and anime in English is centred on the Anglophone world and Japan, I find myself wishing the editors had been able find experts able to write about boys' love consumption in other linguistic and cultural spheres. Having been in contact myself with fans, students and scholars of boys' love in China, Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, I am certain this is an area which merits examination. Many readers of this volume might also have benefitted from an overview of boys' love in Japan itself, perhaps including a more thorough history (see below), one that goes beyond the cursory survey that Levi provides in her introduction.
  6. Section two proposes to explore the boys' love genre and its readership and contains two of the volume's most useful chapters. One is Dru Pagliassotti's 'Better Than Romance? Japanese BL Manga and the Subgenre of Male/Male Romantic Fiction,' which quite persuasively employs Janice Radway's work on readers of romance fiction, alongside an examination of Japanese romance novels and Anglophone 'slash fiction' (explained below), as well as her own extensive survey of Anglophone boys' love readers, to position male-male romance manga and fiction as 'a discrete genre of popular romance' (p. 59), one worthy of serious academic attention.[3] The other is M.M. Blair's '''She Should Just Die in a Ditch": Fan Reactions to Female Characters in Boys' Love Manga,' which combines textual analysis with a reader survey to show that the sometimes extreme antipathy female readers express in online discussion boards toward the rare female characters in boys' love works is not a product of internalised misogyny but, rather, largely a reaction to characters 'designed to be hated' (p. 121). While artists and scholars have described the genre as feminist, Blair's study shows that we should not uncritically read such negativity on the part of female readers as running counter to this position.[4] Two other chapters in this volume juxtapose boys' love and the longstanding Anglophone genre of slash fiction, fan fiction that entails pairing up male characters, such as Captain Kirk and Spock in the Star Trek series: Mark John Isola's 'Yaoi and Slash Fiction: Women Writing, Reading and Getting Off?'; and Marni Stanley's '101 Uses for Boys: Communing with the Reader in Yaoi and Slash.' The final chapter, Tan Bee Kee's 'Rewriting Gender and Sexuality in English-Language Yaoi Fan Fiction,' offers a very thorough reading of gender and sexuality in online Anglophone fan fiction based on the non-boys' love manga Weiß Kreuz (German for 'white cross'), a narrative first published in Japan in manga form in 1997, and whose characters and basic scenario were subsequently repurposed into literally thousands of English-language fan fictions on various websites.
  7. The final section is presented as exploring the 'queer' potential of boys' love, though several of the chapters might easily have been placed in the previous section on account of their emphasis on reader response. These chapters examine, either as their focus, or a central component of their argument, the extent to which boys' love works are either potentially homophobic or represent a queer liberatory space for readers, one which allows readers to use the texts to explore sexual and gendered alternatives to existing norms, possibly through these readers' own queer identities. The six chapters are Neil K. Akatsuka's 'Uttering the Absurd, Revaluing the Abject: Femininity and the Disavowal of Homosexuality in Transnational Boys' Love Manga'; Mark McHarry's 'Boys in Love in Boys' Love: Discourses West/East and the Abject in Subject Formation'; Mark Vicars and Kim Senior's 'Queering the Quotidian: Yaoi, Narrative Pleasures and Reader Response'; Alexis Hall's 'Gay or Gei? Reading "Realness" in Japanese Yaoi Manga'; Alan Williams's 'Raping Apollo: Sexual Difference and the Yaoi Phenomenon'; and Uli Meyer's 'Hidden in Straight Sight: Trans*gressing Gender and Sexuality via BL.' Among these, Meyer's chapter stands out for its provocative proposal that boys' love readers might identify as neither heterosexual (the assumption of most scholarship), or as lesbian or bisexual (a possibility less frequently addressed), but as 'girlfags and transfags, i.e., female-born persons who eroticize and identify with gay men' (p. 232). This argument resonates somewhat with fan-cum-critic Mizuma Midory, who has long claimed the existence of a 'preference for shōnen ai (boys' love)' or 'shōnen ai shikō' somewhat on a par with other 'sexual preferences' (seiteki shikō).[5]
  8. While I commend editors Levi, McHarry, and Pagliassotti both for bringing the volume to fruition in the first place and for collecting such a diverse range of approaches, the book would have benefitted greatly from more heavy-handed editing. Unfortunately, the quality of the chapters varies dramatically and the inconsistency in terms of stylistic conventions is sometimes distracting. For instance, while in most academic writing on Japanese culture Japanese personal names are given in the Japanese order with surname preceding given name, in fan writing and translation this is generally reversed. In this volume, authors do not consistently use either, which merits, at least, acknowledgement for the sake of those unfamiliar with Japanese name conventions. While this may seem like nit-picking, this can lead to confusion.[6]
  9. More critically, the authors each seem to be working with their own definitions of 'boys' love' and variants, though few directly spell out what they mean, leaving the reader at times to guess whether the chapter is focusing on commercial or amateur works; manga or prose works; primarily sexual or primarily romantic works; or a combination thereof. Without authors being more explicit and without the polyvalent nature of the various terms being adequately addressed in the introduction, it would be very easy to come away from reading this book still unable to put a finger on the differences between the primary generic categories, shōnen ai, yaoi, and boys love/BL.[7] To be sure, many fans too use these terms rather loosely and interchangeably (in Japanese, English, and perhaps other languages), and the commercial and non-commercial works, present and past, belong to the same broader discursive sphere of male-male eroticism and romance primarily for female consumption. But the distinctions between these works, wildly different in quality and in kind, are often highly significant and quite relevant to the arguments being made by many of the chapters' authors.
  10. These differences between subgenres and media are a function of their specific histories. While Levi's introduction provides a cursory history of boys' love, broadly defined, it would have been very useful to have offered readers a more in-depth history, perhaps in its own chapter. The most complete history in English is probably still a now somewhat outdated article by Akiko Mizoguchi (cited by several chapters' authors), but there are a number of quite useful popular and academic histories in Japanese to which Levi and other authors (at least a few of whom read Japanese) might have referred.[8] I believe a greater sense of history and generic distinction would have helped prevent the unfortunate conflation evident in some chapters. A better sense of history is called for, for instance, in Stanley's very welcome effort in her '101 Uses for Boys,' to insert a stronger awareness of the jouissance of the consumption and production of boys' love and slash fiction and to criticise what she sees as a pathologisation of yaoi and slash fiction readers by critics. Yet, as evidence of this pathologisation, Stanley offers up and criticises Midori Matsui's early article focused on often dark commercial shōnen ai of the 1970s and 1980s, which originally developed as a reaction to a set of norms for women and girls in that period and which lacked much of the playfulness of the amateur yaoi works of the 1980s and beyond.[9]
  11. Regardless of such shortcomings, I would like to state again that Boys' Love Manga is a very welcome contribution to the field of manga and anime studies. It has something to offer in particular to scholars of gender and sexuality, of globalisation, and of new media. While it is probably priced out of reach for many boys' love fans themselves (a large proportion of whom, as Donovan explains in her chapter, have long been accustomed to illegally downloading their reading and viewing material and paying for little or none of it), it is a book that has a good deal to offer them as well. And, as I noted above, I hope it is but the first such volume on what the authors collectively demonstrate is a topic well worth serious study.


    [1] One of the most complete historical overviews of 'boys' love' in English is Akiko Mizoguchi, 'Male-male romance by and for women in Japan: a history and the subgenres of yaoi fictions,' in U.S.-Japan Women's Journal, vol. 25 (2003):49–75. Mizoguchi is rather vague, however, about when boys' love manga works were first published. Subsequent research by fans and scholars has been able to fill in some of the gaps in Mizoguchi's essay, and generally pinpoint Takemiya Keiko's 'Yuki to hoshi to tenshi to…' (Snow and stars and angels and…) in the December 1970 issue of the shōjo manga magazine Bessatsu shōjo komikku (Girls comic special edition), as the very first male-male romance manga narrative for girls. This work was republished as 'Sanrū'mu nite' (In the sunroom), in Takemiya's Sanrūmu nite, Tokyo: San Komikkusu, 1976, pp. 5–54.

    Mizoguchi and others have categorised several early 1960s novels depicting male-male love by woman writer Mori Mari as either a precursor to or a part of the genre's early phase. However, others, including Ishida Minori in her Hisoyaka na kyōiku: 'yaoi/bōizu rabu' zenshi (A secret education: the pre-history of yaoi/boys' love), Tokyo: Rakuhoku Shuppan, 2008, have demonstrated that the early boys' love manga narratives draw more directly from European fiction and film depicting beautiful school boys, sometimes in love with each other, and in the writing of male writer and critic Inagaki Taruho.

    [2] The first academic essay in English on the topic is probably Tomoko Aoyama, 'Male homosexuality as treated by Japanese women writers,' in The Japanese Trajectory: Modernization and Beyond, ed. Gavin McCormack and Yoshio Sugimoto, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 186–204.

    [3] Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

    [4] For example, prominent artist Takemiya Keiko describes the genre as feminist in her article 'Josei wa gei ga suki?' (Do women like gays?), in Bungei shunshū, vol. 71, no. 6 (June 1993): 82–83; and Mizoguchi Akiko describes 'yaoi' (which she uses synonymously with boys' love) as a lesbian-feminist genre. See her 'Mōsōryoku no potensharu: rezubian feminisuto janru toshite no yaoi' (Delusional potential: yaoi as a lesbian-feminist genre), in Yuriika, vol. 39, no. 7 (June 2007):56–62.

    [5] Mizuma Midory, In'yu toshite no shōnen ai: josei no shōnen ai shikō to iu genshō (Shōnen ai as metaphor: the phenomenon of females' preference for shōnen ai), Tokyo: Sōgensha, 2005. Mizuma first proposed this in a series of articles in the early to mid-1990s in the annual report of the Women's Studies Society of Japan, Joseigaku nenpō, under the pseudonym Tanigawa Tamae.

    [6] Indeed, in at least one chapter in this very volume, an author apparently unfamiliar with Japanese names refers to a number of individual Japanese scholars and critics by their given names rather than their surnames, even mistakenly altering direct quotations from other English-language scholarship to replace surnames with given names. In several other chapters, the names of scholars with Japanese names who write in English and normally use English name order are unnecessarily inverted.

    [7] 'Shōnen ai' (boys love) was one of the early labels in Japanese for commercial works which were generally more romantic than sexual, and which were created by mainstream artists who created many other kinds of narratives. The term has fallen into disuse in Japan, perhaps in part because these kinds of works, which were often quite literary in quality, are no longer popular. 'Yaoi,' an acronym meaning roughly 'no climax, no punchline, no meaning' was at first a self-deprecating term applied to many kinds of amateur manga narratives circulating at places such as the Tokyo Comic Market (1975–) but which in the 1980s came to be associated specifically with male-male erotic texts. See Hatsu Akiko, 'Yaoi no moto wa "share" deshita: hatsu kōkai: yaoi no tanjō' (The origin of yaoi was a 'joke': the birth of yaoi made public for the first time), June, no. 73 (November 1993): 136. 'BOY'S LOVE' (sic) was apparently first used in 1991 as a tag-line on the inaugural issue of the commercial manga magazine Image (Imaaju) before being transliterated into 'bōizu rabu.' See Yamamoto Fumiko and BL Sapōtaazu, Yappari, bōizu rabu ga suki: kanzen BL komikku gaido (Indeed, we do like boys love: a complete guide to BL comics), Tokyo: Ōta Shuppan, 2005, p. 14. It is often abbreviated to 'BL' (in Japanese, pronounced 'bii eeru').

    Both 'yaoi' and, in particular, 'boys' love' are also sometimes used to name anime, games, fiction and other related products. When a distinction is made in Japanese between these two contemporary terms, 'yaoi' tends to be used to refer to amateur works, and 'boys love' (i.e., bōizu rabu or BL) to commercial works. Several of the authors as well as the editors (in the glossary) do helpfully point out that the use of these terms in English and other languages does not map neatly onto the way they are used in Japanese.

    [8] See Mizoguchi, 'Male-male romance by and for women in Japan.' An excellent history of the creation of shōnen ai—offered as a 'pre-history of yaoi/BL' can be found in Ishida, Hisoyaka na kyōiku. Useful popular histories of yaoi and boys' love can be found in Itō Gō, Manga wa kawaru: 'manga gatari' kara 'manga ron' e (Manga changes: from 'manga talk' to 'manga discourse'), Tokyo: Seidōsha, 2007, pp. 213–27; Yamamoto and BL Sapōtaazu, Yappari, bōizu rabu ga suki; and Nishimura, Aniparo to yaoi.

    [9] Midori Matsui, 'Little girls were little boys: displaced femininity in the representation of homosexuality in Japanese girls' comics,' in Feminism and the Politics of Difference, ed. Sneja Gunew and Anna Yeatman, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993, pp. 177–96.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 17 November 2011 1347