Here's part one of my big yaoi profile that ran in the Patriot-News a few weeks ago. Chances are you've seen the official version online. Sorry, I'm too tired and ill to post images, so you'll have no visual oasis when slogging through the grey text. Tomorrow, though, I shall post a few supplimentary sidebars that never made it to press. Lucky you!
Poor Mitsugu Kurokawa. He's fallen in love with the young college student that rents out his extra room. Problem is, the student is a bit clueless. Then there's the overprotective brother who's mighty suspicious of Mitsugu's intentions. Of course, the fact that the student is male doesn't exactly help matters.
That's the basic plot of "Challengers," an example of yaoi, a popular subgenre of manga (or Japanese comics) that's garnered quite a foothold in the West.
Yaoi can be summed up as highly idealized, often quite sexually explicit, romance stories about impossibly beautiful men falling in love with each other.
So one would assume that these comics are made strictly for the enjoyment of gay men, but in fact the exact opposite is true. Yaoi is, for the most part, made by and for straight women.
"It's misinterpreted as gay literature, which it's not. Yaoi writers and artists are laughed at by the gay crowd, they say, 'Hey, c'mon, real men don't look like that,'" said a 40-year-old Harrisburg paralegal, artist and yaoi fan who goes by the online handle of Mr. Cat. "Our answer is we don't care. It's our artwork, it's our story, it's our thing."
"You can't say that it's gay fiction because these characters have emotional sensibilities of women," said Yamila Abraham of Yaoi Press, which publishes yaoi books by Western authors. "They're more emotional, they're romantic, they say what they feel. They're not traditional men in any sense."
That odd twist makes yaoi, also known as boys' love or BL, seem an unusual niche that only caters to a handful of folks, but the truth is yaoi is one of the most popular subgenres of manga, and it's only getting bigger.
"Yaoi has exploded in the past couple of years" said Rachel Livingston of Digital Manga Press, which publishes yaoi through their June line. "There's a lot of growth as young manga readers ... get older. Yaoi is something they can graduate into."
A number of established manga publishers in the United States have come out with their own yaoi imprints in the past few years, while other boutique publishers devoted exclusively to the genre have also popped up.
In fact, the retailer organization ICv2 recently predicted that yaoi releases will more than double in 2007. One BL title, "Loveless" was number seven on their list of top 10 manga properties.
Yaoi fans even have their own convention, Yaoi-Con, which meets in San Francisco. When it debuted in 2001 it had about 450 attendees according to spokesperson April Gutierrez. Last year they had approximately 1,500.
"It's huge, and it's only going to get bigger." Chris Butcher manager of The Beguiling in Toronto, one of the larger and more well-established comic book stores in North America that stocks yaoi. "There's this huge rabid populace of fans that want this material."
Yaoi got its start in Japan in the 1970s, when female manga creators like Takemiya Keiko and Hagio Moto began telling stories of idealized and largely platonic schoolboy romances in series like "Song of Wind and Trees" or "Heart of Thomas."
It wasn't until the '80s, however, that shounen-ai (as these tales were called at the time) really started to become a genre unto itself, with entire magazines devoted to the trend as the material started to become more and more racier.
That development also coincides with the female sci-fi fan base here in the United States, which would often write steamy love stories involving Kirk and Spock, for example.
Known as "slash," these stories really took off with the growth of the Internet. Fan fiction sites across the Web are filled with steamy tales about popular characters from Agent Mulder to Harry Potter indulging in same-sex romances.
The manga boom of the past few years, meanwhile, has allowed publishers to experiment with this sort of material. The success of yaoi series like "Fake" and "Gravitation" proved there was money to be made here. And as fans started sharing and translating books online, they started clamoring to see more of these kinds of stories in print.
While the plots and characters in most yaoi stories vary, wildly there are some set, familiar patterns to the genre.
The story, for instance, usually involves an older, more mature and experienced man falling for a younger, more feminine male.
Known as the Seme, or "top," the older male will tend to be portrayed as the more masculine and aggressive character. The Uke or "bottom" tends to be more sensitive and effeminate to the point of being almost girlish.
These parts aren't always so well defined, however, and many yaoi stories will have the characters switching their respective roles.
The plots are usually angst-filled, with characters overcoming some sort of trial, be it unrequited love, outside influences or just coming to terms with their own feelings.
The books tend to be plot- and character-heavy, and even the more X-rated titles tend to tease out the steamy stuff in order to focus on the characters' emotions.
The one important factor is that all the main figures have to be impossibly pretty to the point of androgyny, with the men rarely behaving in any traditional masculine ways.
The end result is something not completely unlike your average Harlequin romance novel, just without any women.
"The obvious answer is that its analogous to heterosexual men watching lesbian porn. Twice as pretty, twice the excitement," said Lillian Diaz- Przybyl, an editor for Tokyopop's yaoi line, Blu.
"On a more complicated level, it really lets you play with the sexual power dynamic in a very different way than mainstream romance does," she said. "There's a lot more freedom for sexual experimentation in a lot of ways but with this very safe distance."
In other words, yaoi offers women a way to explore their sexuality without being intimidated. There's a little distance there for readers to remove themselves.
"A lot of times with your stereotypical heterosexual relationship, the reader is forced to identify with the female character. But with yaoi since there is no female character, you can identify with either one of them." Livingston said.
That's especially significant considering in a good deal of girls' manga the female characters can act submissive or mousy to the point of cluelessness.
Most experts say you can't really pigeonhole the typical yaoi fan, but there are a few distinguishing characteristics.
The average fan tends to be somewhere between the ages of 19 and 40, though they can skew both older and younger. They're typically college-educated, Internet-friendly and knowledgeable about anime and manga.
"Our audience are mature women who are not ashamed of their sexuality," said Tran Nguyen, president of the boutique publisher Drama Queen. "They're mature woman who enjoy and embrace sexuality and explicitness of stories as well as sweetness and the romance."
"I have to say as a generation they seem happy and very healthy young teenagers," said Abraham of the younger yaoi fans. "They're not like the brooding heavy metal kids from my generation."
Of course, as with any material of this nature there is a concern among fans and publishers that it will catch the attention of concerned parents and other moral authorities, especially considering that some yaoi can be extremely explicit and even transgressive.
"That fear's always there with anything that's not mainstream. And when it involves alternative sexuality, even more so," said Gutierrez. "There's been no furor or uproar yet. But as more and more yaoi books are published, the worry's definitely there."
"It doesn't matter how many disclaimers they put into the book, something's going to come along that's going to tweak someone's nose or worse," Butcher said, adding that "Any controversy that comes up is only going to make it more popular."
Most publishers take concerted effort to make retailers and readers fully aware of what's on the pages, shrinkwrapping books and slapping various parental advisory stickers on the front and back covers.
"My take on things is this is for women who are 18 and older and they have the right to determine for themselves what turns them on and what is erotic for them," Tran said. "When it comes, we'll be ready to answer the critics."
There's also the fear that the big yaoi boom might be over or nearing the tipping point. With so many new publishers and books to choose from, will fans get more selective?
"I don't think it's going to explode. I don't think it's going to be even 50 percent of the market five years from now. I think it's going to continue to be a little corner of things," said Diaz- Przybyl.
Whether the genre continues to grow or not, whether it comes under fire from the mainstream or not, it will almost certainly retain a devoted following for those who choose to seek it out.
"Yaoi is my obsession," said Abraham. "It's my whole life."
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007
Labels: manga, yaoi