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Crafting Psychological BL Manga with Kyoko Aiba

by Toni Sun,

Image courtesy of Kyoko Aiba

Kyōko Aiba has been making moves lately. Her first work in English, I Love You Enough To Tie You Up (from Juné Manga), is a series of steamy and erotic BL short stories about dysfunctional couples pushing each other past their limits. Eight years later, however, she is coming out with psychological dramas like Derail (available on Manga Planet), a masterful one-volume manga that tells the story of two roommates becoming increasingly entangled in each other's lives, from both characters' perspectives. Her portrait of two men attempting to hide their vulnerabilities while simultaneously pulling the other one into closer and closer intimacy makes for compelling reading. She is also making moves in the josei sphere, coming out with romantic short stories like Harlem Knights (available on Renta!). Her most recent manga, not yet out in English, is Invisible Me, about a girl caring for her mother who is dying of a terminal illness. ANN got the opportunity to speak with Aiba on Saturday at Otakon.

So two of your biggest works out in English are I Love You Enough To Tie You Up and Derail. How would you describe how your approach and style have shifted from eight years since I Love You Enough To Tie You Up to your more recent work like Derail?

Kyōko Aiba: So, at first, I thought about making something that people can come home from work and then open to have a bit of fun, but I was feeling constricted within those confines. Starting roughly around Derail, I started to step outside the boundaries I set for myself.

How did you step outside of those boundaries?

AIBA: I actually had plans to change and go out of those confines even before Derail. But Derail was a unique case. Usually, BL manga has the uke and the seme, the person that does the approaching and the person that gets approached. Typically, the uke will be the main character. However, Derail was a unique case where the publishing company said they would like to see something written with the main character being the person that does the approaching. So Derail was a unique manga. I decided to say, "Okay, how about I step outside those boundaries?"

Derail has two characters with intensely complex psychologies. I don't think it's as simple as one has power over the other; they seem to be trying to get the one up on each other. What inspired these characters' thought processes, especially about a relationship?

AIBA: I actually got the inspiration from Sherlock Holmes because, in Sherlock Holmes, Holmes is the main character. However, I noticed that Watson was actually the one that was doing the heavy lifting. So I considered doing something that follows the same time and story but from two different perspectives. I believe that was where I began with regard to the different unique thought processes that went on in the series.

Image courtesy of Kyoko Aiba

Who do you think has the power between the two characters, Hikaru and Haru?

AIBA: I believe that Haru is slightly more selfish than Hikaru, who can see things from a broader perspective. Hikaru can see both himself as well as Haru inside that broad perspective. So Hikaru probably has one leg up on Haru, or at least a slight advantage.

How have different communities responded to your work because there are multiple audiences for BL, right? There's fujoshi, and then there are gay men. I'm curious about the differences in their responses to your work, and also especially what gay men have thought of your work.

AIBA: With regards to gay men, I believe that [gay] people have a very unique circumstance because I actually get fan letters from the gay community. They tell me through their fan letters how they might not have the best of situations and everything, and they tell me very sincerely about that. So if my manga can improve things for them in any little way, then I'm very happy with myself.

You've said Junjo Romantica is one of your favorite manga. Is this still true, and how has it inspired or influenced your work?

AIBA: So, I'm not exactly sure if I said I love Junjo Romantica the best [laughs]. However, I would say that is definitely something that I do love.

Okay. [everybody laughs].

AIBA: However, Junjo Romantica was in the same magazine as my work. I don't really think I was actively inspired by it. But I think that parts of it probably rubbed off, and I did passively get inspired by it. But it's not like I made an active effort to take things from Junjo Romantica.

Recently, you've done more work in the josei sphere, such as Harlem Knights. What influenced your move into josei manga?

AIBA: Aside from BL, there is a genre called "Teens Love," and [working on josei] is actually something that I've been doing in parallel with boy's love for a long time. So I've recently started to go in a direction outside of romance manga, and it was something I have wanted to do for a long time now. I originally wanted to go into the shōjo manga space. I didn't begin with the intent to start in the boy's love sphere. However, I did kind of get pulled by its gravity. [laughs] But yeah, I did have plans to diversify from way back in the day, so I guess it's a natural progression.

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