Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Hinako Takanagaby Jason Thompson,
Episode XLIV: Hinako Takanaga
"I used to think that the fudanshi, like Bigfoot, was a myth," said my friend, Boy's Love creator Tina Anderson, but yes, Tina, straight men who read yaoi manga do exist. I've enjoyed Boy's Love ever since 2006 when I was writing Manga: The Complete Guide and basically locked myself in a room for a month and did nothing but read yaoi. I wrote down my thoughts from this emotionally mind-blowing (heart-blowing?) experience on my livejournal. Ten years ago, before the first Yaoi-Con, BL may have been this dirty, private little thing in America, but now, in the age of Fujoshi Rumi and My Girlfriend is a Geek, you can't know manga without knowing BL. But you don't just read BL for education, of course; you read it for the quirky fun, and the emotions, and if that's what you're into, for the graphic gay sex.
Besides the obvious one, there are many ways in which BL manga is different from conventional manga. One is that BL tends to be suited to the short-story and one-volume format. If I pick up a volume of a typical shojo, shonen or seinen manga, I'll probably have to read another 10 volumes to get to the ending or even figure out what's going on, which can be fun, but sometimes you just want to read a one-volume complete story. Another thing about Boy's Love is that it's generally published by small and medium publishers—some of the larger publishers consider it beneath them—and as such, it provides a lot of opportunities for artists to break into the industry. It's not easy to get into a superstar magazine like Shonen Jump, but if you draw BL, you may be able to sell a story in Gush or Boy's Pierce or another small anthology. For some authors, BL is a way to train their skills and a stepping-stone to greater success. After all, if you give the readers their sex scene, you can fill the rest of the pages with whatever you want.
Because of this, some of my favorite Boy's Love mangaka are the experimental ones, the odd ones, like Tomoko Yamashita (Black-Winged Love, Dining Bar Akira), the amazing artist est em (Seduce Me After the Show, Red Blinds the Foolish, Age Called Blue) and of course Fumi Yoshinaga (Antique Bakery, etc.), who deserves a column of her own. Perhaps coincidentally, all of these mangaka tend to write about characters who are older, leaving me to ask whether (1) BL mangaka who write more sophisticated stories tend to use adult characters or (2) I'm just more interested in reading stories about characters in their 30s because I'm in my 30s, so I'm not judging it objectively. But I don't think it's (2), because I've also read plenty of awful BL manga about adult guys, such as the creepy "older man & young boy" ageplay fetishism ones, and the many boring 'occupational' BL of the "It's just like every other BL, except the guys are salarymen/doctors/construction workers/gravediggers/professional manga editors etc." type. Just aging the characters doesn't necessarily make a BL manga good.
Dabbling in real-world gay issues, which is more common than it used to be, also doesn't always help. Occasionally an author writes an interesting psychological insight (or at least something entertainingly topical like Maki Kanimaru and Yukine Honami's Kiss Scandal, about a romance between a US congressman and his aide), but by now I must have read a dozen BL manga where the main character has to come out to his parents, and although I respect the sentiment, it gets old after awhile. I liked the scene in Fumi Yoshinaga's Not Love But Delicious Foods, her pseudo-autobiographical manga, where Yoshinaga (excuse me, I meant "Y-naga") goes out to dinner with her gay friend and ends up apologizing for writing BL manga. "I'm not gay, but I write comics about gay themes, and they're not even real gay themes!" But luckily, her friend is chill. BL belongs to everyone.
For other artists, though, the low barrier to entry in the BL world—frankly, the lower standards—means that their manga is just awful. Lousy artwork. Bad anatomy, as if the artist has never seen a man naked. No facial expressions, in a vain attempt to make the characters look cool and aloof. Fingers that look like sausages. Excessive use of rape and stalking as legitimate expressions of love by the main characters (I'm looking at you, Eiki Eiki!). Glorification of jealousy and possessive, dysfunctional behavior. Obsessive focus on guys, guys, guys to the point of absurdity; I like the author's note in Makoto Tateno's Hate to Love You where she explains that her editor told her to draw the female character smaller in one panel, because female characters shouldn't take up too much space in BL. And of course, the clichés: in 95% of BL there's a clear seme and a clear uke and you can tell who's who because the seme is tall and dark-haired and handsome and the uke is shorter and light-haired and cute.
But the most important element of good Boy's Love is that it's believable. When I say 'believable,' I don't care if it's about guy-on-guy yakuza and Chinese triad action (like Finder) or male pregnancy (like Love Pistols) or vampires or whatever. I mean emotionally believable; if I can't sympathize with what's going on in the characters' hearts, what's the point? Unless the manga is a tongue-in-cheek self-parody like All Nippon Air Lines, the characters have to behave enough like real people with real emotions (and, ideally, emotions I can sympathize with, not crazy rapist/stalker emotions) for me to pretend they're real and want to follow their story. Emotions are the meat course of Boy's Love. The sex scenes may be good or bad, or may not even be there based on the age rating, but the emotions are constant. Almost every Boys Love manga is a vicarious look inside the ideal situation of "what it's like to be in love," letting the reader choose to be seme or uke, active or passive (although really, the two individuals in the couple are more like two sides of the reader's and author's own personality; I doubt anyone who's been in a lengthy relationship is strictly active or passive all the time). Romance, like sex, is hard to understand if you've never experienced it; if you've never been in a relationship, BL must seem tantalizing, weird, a preview of an unknown world. But if you have experienced love (or lost love), then the emotions hit you even stronger; you feel a connection to the author; you think yes, this is how it was or this is how I feel now or this is the way it ought to be. Depending on the reader's perspective, BL can be either like a relationship advice column (sometimes too much so; it gets boring by volume 3 or 4 when the lovers are arguing about who's supposed to do the dishes); or it can just be porn; or it can be a bittersweet shot of emotion to the most sensitive, wounded, hopeful, loving, longing parts of your brain.
One of my favorite BL mangaka who isn't wildly weird like est em and Yoshinaga, but is just plain good at what she does, is Hinako Takanaga. The thing that first attracted me to Takanaga's manga was her gorgeous color work on the soft green cover of Little Butterfly. Although her character designs are pretty much the same in every story, everyone's bodies are realistic and sexy-looking, with big strong hands that you can feel by looking at them. You can tell she's had professional art training. You can also tell she's not a normal BL managaka because, when she wants to, she can even draw cute girls. "I guess you can say I'm trying to create manga that's not only for the Boy's Love reading audience, but also for regular people," she said in an interview in Otaku USA. Her characters are people I care about, and although she's written so many manga that some are not so great—she is a prolific mangaka as well as a BL novel illustrator—in little ways she flexes the boundaries of the genre.Take Challengers, Hinako Takanaga's debut work, and one of her best. (WARNING: the plot descriptions in this article contain spoilers.) The plot follows Mitsugu (tall, dark-haired), a twentysomething businessman, who meets Tomoe (short, cute, light-haired), a young engineering student who's just moved to Tokyo to go to university. Mitsugu takes pity on the clueless Tomoe, and offers to let him sub-lease his apartment. Before he realizes it, he's madly in love with the little guy, but he's not sure what to do about it, since he can't make a move on someone so cute and innocent. Tomoe is so oblivious he doesn't realize that Mitsugu likes him even after Mitsugu kisses him on the lips. What's a guy in love to do?
With its playful mood and cheerfully ditzy love interest, Challengers is a BL version of a shonen rom-com. (The landlord-tenant romance thing even reminds me a bit of a reverse Maison Ikkoku.) Like many BL manga, Challengers started out as a one-shot before the positive reader response caused it to be expanded into a four-volume series. The art is weak at first, since it's so early in Takanaga's career, but by the final volume it's very polished. (Also, her character designs change a lot; specifically, Tomoe goes from looking like a girlish adult to looking like a 12-year-old boy, the usual appearance of Takanaga's ukes…what do you expect from an artist who says one of her influences is Range Murata?) Gradually, Tomoe and Mitsugu end up in a relationship. Along the way, the budding couple must deal with obstacles such as Rick, a gay American university student who like Tomoe. They are also cockblocked by Souichi, Tomoe's bitter, homophobic scientist older brother.
The final villain, however, is Fujita, a careerwoman who has the hots for Mitsugu and wants to marry him. When she finds out about his relationship with Tomoe, she becomes determined to break them up so she can convert Mitsugu to heterosexuality. (Evil female characters are pretty typical in Boy's Love, but Challengers is kind of an exception for Takanaga; in most of her other manga, the female supporting cast are good guys.) She makes Mitsugu and Tomoe's lives miserable, and finally, in the climax of the manga, she confronts Mitsugu outside his apartment. Their shouting match explodes into an argument about the meaning of marriage. "You can't live a full life as a gay! You can't have children! When you get old, there'll be no one to care for you!" she shouts. "Well, that's why there's welfare!" he yells back, before kicking her out of the hallway. Nowadays, with right-wing politicians like Jim DeMint (not to mention some politicians in Japan) saying that society is crumbling because people aren't having enough kids, Challengers comes off as a subtle defense of the idea that committed relationships are about love, and that the purpose of marriage (whether straight or gay) isn't just procreation. And then, in the final twist ending, Mitsugu loses his job and ends up being supported by Tomoe, who finishes college and gets a great job at NASA. And then they run off and have a gay marriage in California. The end!
The uke bringing home the money while the seme does the housework: it's a nice twist on the typical partner roles in Boy's Love, which usually slavishly follow traditional ideas about male-female relationships (a bit depressingly IMHO, as if even in the fantasy world of manga, the authors just can't imagine things any other way). Little Butterfly continues the Takanaga character design formula of a cute little blonde guy and a tall dark guy, but everything else is different. Kojima, a perky, young-looking high school senior, is friends with almost everyone, but there's one guy in his class that no one really knows: the lonely, distant Nakahara. One day when the class is on a field trip, Nakahara sneaks off and tries to run away from home, but Kojima sees him and chases after him to find out what's wrong. Impressed by Kojima's persistence, Nakahara gradually opens up to him and tells Kojima about his troubled home life: his father is a cold, uncaring businessman, and his mother has a severe mental illness. What Nakahara really needs is a friend (or something). Nakahara starts spending time at Kojima's house with Kojima's family, and Kojima is there to help steer Nakahara through his crises. But this is adolescence, the time when boys are talking about girls and porn and strange feelings are fluttering through everyone's chest. One day, midway through the first volume, Nakahara surprises Kojima with a passionate kiss. "I think I'm in love with you," he says.p>At first Kojima isn't sure what to think, but soon he reciprocates Nakahara's love. They snuggle together in semi-platonic sleepovers, but before too long, shirts are being pulled off and things are getting heavy. "I don't care if it's just sympathy," says Nakahara. "I told you, it's not just sympathy! I'm doing this because I want to!" insists Kojima. As they fumble through the physical side of their relationship, they also make plans for the future, deciding to go to the same college and falling further and further in love. Little Butterfly is the classic romantic fantasy of a troubled loner who is healed by love, but even if the story is old, it's well done. Nakahara's family drama—the obstacle to the relationship— is not the strong point of the manga, but the budding relationship is touching and sweet. One of the nice things about Little Butterfly is that it's not as claustrophobic and dark a worldview as some BL manga; Nakahara may have problems, but he's not a psycho, and there is a large supporting cast of sympathetic friends and family. Life can be tough, but you aren't alone in this world, seems to be the message. It's a story about friendship, love, sleepovers, and mopping up afterwards.
So Takanaga can do comedy and emo. What about rapey? She can do rapey! The Tyrant Falls in Love, the sequel to Challengers, is a spinoff following the relationship between Souichi and his out gay lab partner Tetsuhiro. Tetsuhiro has nursed an unrequited crush on Souichi for five years, the kind of thing that anyone who has ever had a hopeless crush can sympathize with. Things go very wrong (or right, depending on your tastes) when Tetsuhiro goes drinking with him and accidentally drinks an aphrodisiac, leading to sweaty, chemically assisted, nonconsensual sex with Souichi weakly protesting the whole time. Sex, in turn, eventually leads into a relationship and Takanaga's longest-running (six volumes!) manga series. Unfortunately, this is my least favorite Takanaga series. Although the crabby, rude Souichi is a total tsundere who beats up on Tetsuhiro every chance he gets, and it's kind of entertaining to see him get his comeuppance for his prejudices (he goes on a tirade when Los Angeles legalizes gay marriage), I still can't get over the squick factor of the initial rape scene. It fails the "would I find this offensive if the characters were male and female?" test. (I wonder, do some BL readers take a certain revenge in the way men's bodies get abused in BL, as if it's payback for the way women's bodies are abused in straight porn manga?) Aside from that, though, the art and storytelling are Takanaga's best.
Takanaga has written BL about boxers (Love Round!!), demons (The Devil's Secret), and lots of other subjects and fetishes. One of my favorites is Croquis, one of the very few BL manga I can think of about a transsexual. Croquis is the story of Nagi, a femme college-age boy who works at a drag show and is saving up money to transition into a woman. He works part-time as an artist's model, where he meets Kaji, a handsome art student whose penetrating gaze makes him shiver. Nagi likes Kaji, but does Kaji only like him as a model? (Answer: no.) And how will he react when he finds out that Nagi is transitioning? Does he want Nagi to be a boy or a girl?
Croquis is basically a story of self-esteem, identity and dealing with negative body-image. We soon find out that Nagi isn't necessarily one of those transsexuals who's felt like a woman in a man's body all his life: instead, his desire to become a woman is more a result of his insecurities about being who he is, about being gay. ("I've wanted to be a girl for as long as I can remember. I figured it'd be the only way I could ever get with a guy. I envied girls.") When Kaji tells him he likes his body just the way it is, he starts to lose his desire to actually get transsexual surgery. After all, his lover likes his body the way it is, and that's what matters. Well, there's also the slight problem that Kaji is a poor art student who makes a lot less money than Nagii—another Takanaga gender-role reversal!—but since this is BL, love conquers all.
Takanaga has her hits and misses, but at her best, she writes great stories with a lot of emotional variety, from sad to comedic to flowery 110% romance. (I also like the expressiveness of her characters' faces, compared to some BL where everyone seems to be trying to look as serious as possible even when they're getting it on.) Not all good mangaka need to be genre-busting Alan Moore/Hideaki Anno-style revolutionaries who will make you question the meaning of life and your whole reason for reading manga, etcetera. Takanaga is talented, she delivers the sex and emotions, and she also shows some individual personality and goes places other authors in her field don't go. For anyone working in a formulaic genre, whether it's BL, shojo or shonen, this is a goal worth aspiring to.
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Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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