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"Stop, My Butt Hurts!"
The Yaoi Invasion

by Kristy L. Valenti
from The Comics Journal #269
Panel from Kizuna: Bonds of Love Volume Three ©1996 Kazuma Kodaka; English translation ©2004 A18 Corporation/Be Beautiful

On Halloween weekend 2004, a mutation of the familiar comics convention took place, as over 1,000 fans -- mostly women -- gathered in San Francisco to meet their favorite comics creators, hold panels, participate in costume contests, play videogames and auction men off as dancing partners. Welcome to Yaoi-Con 2004, held to celebrate the fastest growing subgenre of shoujo manga; one devoted to young men, the young men who love them, and the women who can't get enough of, as one fan put it, "hot passionate man sex."

A SHORT HISTORY OF YAOI

In the mid-'70s, a group of women shoujo artists, known as "The Magnificent Forty-Niners," began to experiment with shounen-ai, which focused on platonic male/male relationships. The term shounen-ai evolved into June, inspired by a magazine of the same name, which frequently contained stories on the subject. The word June was replaced by the term Boys Love (in English), or BL, which spiraled out to encompass, according to www.Aestheticism.com, "both commercial and amateur works with no sex, works with sex, doujinshi about adolescents with little or no sex; works in all types of media -- manga, anime, novels, games, and drama CDs and characters of all ages (not limited to 'boys')." The terms BL and shounen-ai are not interchangeable, since shounen-ai now has NAMBLA-type associations in Japan. At the same time, yaoi (an acronym that stands for yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi, or "no climax, no resolution, no meaning," although it is joked that it stands for YAmete, Oshiri Itai, or "stop, my butt hurts") began as self-published doujinshi, written by women for women, about men in a sexual relationship, usually configured with one character being dominant, who is called the top, and one character being submissive, called the bottom. Like slash fiction, it was a genre about two popular male characters getting it on, although later, the main characters concerned became bishounen, beautiful and often feminized boys. (There is much debate among fans of this genre as to which popular male character is the top and which is the bottom; to put it in a superhero perspective, Wolverine would be the top and Spider-Man would be the bottom in these comics.) Currently in Japan, the term yaoi has negative connotations and now specifically refers to doujinshi and the most sexually explicit M/M material for women.

Confusingly, Americans adapted these terms, using them in a way that would be incorrect in Japan. In the U.S., there are two schools of thought. The first school uses yaoi as a blanket word for M/M relationships in a Japanese-or-Japanese-inspired work mainly intended for a female audience. The second school separates this into shounen-ai, which means the boys in question have a platonic, or at least non-sexual, relationship, and reserve yaoi to refer to explicit materials. For the purpose of this article, I am going to call the manga under review yaoi because with the exception of Gravitation, they have some degree of sexual explicitness and this is the way the word is commonly used on message boards, in reviews, etc., but it is important to keep in mind that, when a U.S. fan refers to a translated yaoi title, it may not contain any sexual content whatsoever.

HAVING IT BOTH WAYS

Yaoi is undeniably popular right now in the United States. ICv2.com reported that Gravitation Vol. 8 was the #21 title in Bookscan. The same article also pointed out that two of Central Park Media's Be Beautiful imprint titles, Golden Cain and Selfish Love, are some of the highest ranked manga titles as of Nov. 7, 2004 on Amazon.com. Although not quite as prevalent, Kizuna: Bonds of Love is often held up as an example of the genre. Recently, according to ICv2, its creator, Kazuma Kodaka, held a signing in New York with almost 500 women in attendance.

It has been posited that women enjoy yaoi because it is a way for them to be entertained by sex in a non-threatening way, without the anxieties and problems associated with being female, such as pregnancy and misogyny. Additionally, when the sex is between two men, women can identify with the submissive character if they wish without having to worry about misogyny. In a traditional heterosexual sexually explicit pairing, the woman has a choice to identify with the (usually) dominant male or the (usually) passive female. If she identifies with the male, she has the problem of being in the position to control a female, which may be uncomfortably close to home. If she identifies with the female, she is made to be subordinate to the male. With this in mind, it is easier to understand how sex between two beautiful men, one of which is more feminized, can overcome this dilemma. (Plus, just how often do women honestly get to ogle beautiful men in comics? As one 14-year-old fan put it, "What's better than one pretty boy than two pretty boys together?") Although this makes it easier to understand why women in the United States respond to this, the power play involved becomes more resonant when one considers how women are, in general, held to have subordinate status to men in Japan, yaoi's point of origin. It's no accident that the emotional climax in almost every one of these books is when the bottom turns aggressor and pursues his pursuer; in this cathartic moment, a woman can identify with both the desired and the desiring: this fluidity is usually not afforded to her in more traditional narratives. The same fan summed it up thusly: "So it's kind of dominant and submissive roles, because they change, and I think some women are into that. I don't always want to be the submissive one."

A good example of the bottom-turns-top would be Kazuma Kodaka's Kizuna: Bonds of Love: undeniably, when this occurs, it is the hottest sex scene in the three volumes, which is quite sexually graphic to begin with (although one must contend with Japan's censorship laws, which prevent genitalia or pubic hair from being shown, so genitals are replaced with a white space, or a "cone of light"). Kizuna is the story of Kei (top) and Ran (bottom); Kei is the illegitimate son of a Yakuza boss (if you find Yakuza sexy, Kizuna has some tattooed tidbits for you), and Ran is a former Kendo champion who was injured in an attempt on Kei's life and who can never compete again. Kei's half-brother, Kai, develops a crush on Ran, and so becomes a Kendo champion ... and this all goes down in the first book. Following volumes explore how Ran and Kei met and their day-to-day relationship more fully. Along the way there are some funny touches (when Kai bursts in on Kei and Ran making love, a caption reads "like catching your parents in the act").

HIGH ANXIETY

In the first volume of Kizuna an event occurs which shows another one of yaoi's purposes is to work through anxieties rather specific to women with male (read: less vulnerable) stand-ins: in Kizuna, an older male professor slips Ran ecstasy with the intention to rape him, but Ran is rescued by Kai and avenged -- and then story takes a twist when the rescuer turned seducer. Another anxiety addressed in yaoi is the importance of getting married and having a family. This may seem odd, but is not so when one considers that yaoi is made for women by women and is a subgenre of shoujo manga, which usually concerns a female protagonist overcoming obstacles to a relationship with the denouement consisting of a marriage. In yaoi, the obvious obstacle is that, as two men, the main characters often can't be open about their relationship or be legally married to each other.

UNMARRIED WITH CHILDREN

What about having children? Fake takes care of that by constructing a quasi-nuclear family in the very first volume. In this manga, creator Sanami Matoh cleverly capitalizes on homoerotic undertones in buddy-cop movies of the Lethal Weapon variety. Fake's plot is genius: The chief pairs straight-laced rookie Randy (Ryo) MacLean with roguish bisexual cop Dee Laytner. Their relationship develops as they cope with kidnappers, homicide and an adorable juvie, Bikky, whom Ryo promptly adopts (throwing in a little sitcom parenting action). In the course of seven volumes, a tasteful sex scene occurs with PG-13 nudity. The artwork provides clean layouts (although the computer-lettering is sterile) and wavers between shoujo conventions and gritty urban locations. (The cover says it all when it features Ryo and Dee brandishing guns while posing in front of giant flowers.) Of course, this is all just an excuse for that moment the audiences has been waiting for, unconsciously or not, for decades, when in the midst of generic speech Ryo is giving on their bond as partners, Dee just moves in and kisses him ... and we're off. Another nice treat that this title has to offer is that the underage kids are treated like kids (when teenage pickpocket Carol develops a crush on Dee, he winks and says, "In ten years") rather than sacrificed to fan service, and even get their own subplot.

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE LOVE, BABY

A question commonly asked about yaoi is: Why don't these women just look at gay porn? Firstly the characters' emotions are primary in yaoi while the sexual activities are secondary. Even though steamy love scenes occur, sometimes quite frequently, the more feminized characters that women are more likely to identify with are searching for "real" love, not just sex; in general, this tends not to be the case in gay porn. Secondly, the men in yaoi are rarely "gay": they are always bisexual or just "happen to be in love with someone who is a man." This makes perfect sense in that sexually explicit scenes are always more arousing when there is a possibility that the people involved may be interested in having sex with your gender (i. e. you). Also, while "coming out of the closet" is often very important in gay identity formation in the U.S., according to Mark McLelland in his paper "Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan," "the notion of 'coming out' is seen as undesirable by many Japanese gay men and lesbians as it necessarily involves adopting a confrontational stance against mainstream lifestyles and values, which many still wish to endorse."

Not only is yaoi non-threatening to women and a way to work through fears, it has the bonus of conversely being threatening to heterosexual men and of little interest to many gay men for the aforementioned reasons. Another commonly asked question asked is, if women want non-threatening sex, why don't they draw and read manga about lesbian sex? Well, they do -- it's called yuri. However, it is not quite as popular as yaoi, and I think it's because "lesbian sex" has long been incorporated into heterosexual pornography and is used as fan service in shounen manga and anime. Yaoi is an island of women's own, created by women and for women, with no fear of cooption looming on the horizon.

ROMANCE

This island shares a lot of topography with traditional feminine narrative tropes. In fact, the outrageous plots of yaoi and the prevalent rape fantasies (in Golden Cain, Kizuna and Selfish Love, it's ambivalent at first as to how willing a participant the bottom is) seem less strange when one takes into account the romance genre, another industry that is predominantly written by women for women. According to a yaoi retailer, "Women like the escape and the romance; it's the same reason why women read romance novels." If you compare Golden Cain's plot to that of a romance novel, the former seems much less insane. Shun, a high-school student who can never live up to the memory of his superlative brother Keiichi, is picked up by a man who tries to incorporate him into his satanic ritual as a virgin sacrifice. Suddenly, a baseball-capped figure bursts into the room and saves Shun. It is Cain, an internationally famous model(!). A rape fantasy scene follows in which Cain makes love to Shun, who protests (although the reader knows that through clues in the opening soliloquy, he was out cruising). Cain has been following Shun and enrolls in his high school. It turns out that Cain had a crush on Shun's brother, Keiichi, who's not really dead... Like the best romance novels (read: the sexiest), there are quite a few naughty scenes, but the strength of this book lies not in the story or the characterizations, but in You Asagiri's powerfully erotic art. Books like Golden Cain illustrate why yaoi began not as literature but as comics: Through body language and suggestive nudity, relationships and sexual acts are expressed by body postures and hands; such as in the panel where fingers are possessively dangled, just barely touching our young protagonist's bare butt. Manga often has educational aspects to it, and this one is no exception as we learn along with Shun, the main character, how to be seduced in Vietnamese. All in all, although it lacks the humor and character development of most of the other titles, it's what Bust Magazine would call a "one-handed read."

DON'T CALL CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES JUST YET

Another controversial aspect besides the rape fantasies in yaoi (which are as frequent as they are in romance novels and serve much the same purpose: to prove how irresistible the protagonist is and how a potential lover cannot control himself in the protagonist's presence, thereby absolving the protagonist of responsibility. This is probably why the climax of the yaoi story arc is when the protagonist takes responsibility for his own sexuality) is the depiction of graphic situations between characters that would be regarded as too young in the U.S. -- in the translations of the following titles, the settings have often been shifted from high school to college, and usually feature a note to the effect that all of the characters involved are 18 years of age and older. In response to the criticism, the majority of the romances in the manga reviewed occur between characters who are the same age or fairly close in age; there are one or two exceptions, but usually the pairings are two underage lovers, two lovers in their mid-20s, etc. Second, in the under-18 titles, nothing is depicted that is any more scandalous than what one would see on American TV or read in a young-adult novel (which are rife with subjects such as sex, rape, drug-use, etc.), other than the fact that two "men" are involved. If the more feminized male character is a stand-in for a woman, this becomes less questionable when one keeps in mind that women in Japan are considered spinsters by the time they are 25 if they haven't married; in fact, single women over the age of 25 are referred to as "Christmas cake" -- past their expiration date. Additionally, women do not have to be 18 years old to be married in Japan (just as in some parts of the U. S.).

It is obvious that Selfish Love by Naduki Koujima was originally set in a high school, not a college. (It gets the award for best fag hag, the character of Azusa Oh-ana-in.) The richest and most popular boy at this "college," Orito, is elected president of the honors society, and he chooses the poorest boy, Ryuya, to be his vice president. Ryuya objects as his friend had run and lost against Orito, but is coerced into accepting the post. Ryuya hates Orito, but is strangely attracted to him. Orito is openly attracted to Ryuya, and Azusa, Orito's friend, follows them around subtracting points for Orito's bad behavior: "Forcing yourself on someone isn't cool, regardless of gender. Your score just went down by 90%." The first volume concludes with several unrelated short stories, while the second volume continues the Orito/Ryuya storyline. It ends abruptly (right before the story gets explicit, in fact). It's rather a strange duck: It's really not strong enough to stand alone as a shoujo series, and as the series ends just as the characters are about to make love, it's not quite spicy enough for its 18-and-over rating.

ALL SUGAR, NO SPICE

If any of these yaoi titles are tame enough work as shoujo, it would be Gravitation. Gravitation also benefits from piggybacking onto a well-worn genre and uses the yaoi element to make it fresh, although with less success than Fake. Additionally, it benefits from cross-promotion with the anime series, which is probably one of the reasons it's the top yaoi title in Bookscan. Created by Maki Murakami, it concerns Shuichi Shindou, who is about to be expelled from high school because he spends all his time working on pop music with his friend Hiro. After accidentally dropping his lyrics in the park, Shuichi runs into a mysterious stranger who criticizes his song. Enraged (and attracted), Shuichi follows this sexy character around until he finds out that he's Eiri Yuki, a famous novelist. This 12-volume series follows the twists and turns of their relationship and Shuichi's career. Rounding out the cast is Maiko, Shuichi's hyperactive, supportive sister who tries to pull him back to earth when he is carried away. The humorous way in which she, Hiro and Shuichi relate provides much of the appeal of the series -- both she and Hiro recognize Shuichi's attraction to Eiri before he does -- while watching Shuichi's emotional outbursts in front of virtual stranger Eiri is painful, at least in the first volume. The characters are drawn in a way that is more cute than beautiful, with the exception of Eiri, and the layouts can get a bit confusing. Overall, it's a decent offering for those who want the climax of a story to be an "I love you" rather than, well, a climax.

THE MORAL OF AN IMMORAL STORY

Yaoi's popularity only continues to grow. Another yaoi retailer explained it thusly at a recent anime convention: "It makes good money. We started bringing some in because the girls were asking for it, so we brought in some, and they taught me what I should bring in and I realized how many other girls wanted it. So I started bringing one box and two boxes and now I'm up to 15 or 16 at the big show."

Other manga retailers commented that as soon as possible, they were planning to expand into the yaoi market due to customer demand. Most of the women interviewed explained the places they purchased their yaoi from: the Internet, bookstores, conventions, anime and manga shops. Their requests can be entirely met without women having to set foot in a traditional American comic-book store. After examining the Bookscan and Amazon.com numbers, and reading about the exploits of the thousand-strong women at Yaoi-Con 2004, the question is: If the female market that comics publishers have found so elusive are buying thousands of yaoi comics in the U.S., is the industry wise enough to take note?

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Gutierrez, April "What is Yaoi?" yaoicon.com. Retrieved Jan. 5 from the World Wide Web. (Editor's note: The as of this posting, the page seems to have been replaced by another essay, this one by Jeanne Johnson.)
  • "Definitions from Japan: BL, Yaoi, June." aestheticism.com. Retrieved Jan. 5 from the World Wide Web: Click here.
  • "Yaoi Titles Strong in Online Sales. " ICv2.com, Retrieved Jan. 22 from the World Wide Web: Click here.
  • "Yaoi." "Yuri." wikipedia.com. Retrieved Jan. 22 from World Wide Web: Click here and here, respectively.
  • McLelland, Mark. "Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Japan." www.arts.murdoch.edu.au. Retrieved Feb. 12 from World Wide Web: Click here.

Many thanks to April Gutierrez at www.yaoicon.com and also to Jill Schlicher and Matt Segale for fact-checking.


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