August 4, 2006

Whenever I go away for a few days, I’m amazed at how much interesting conversation I’ve missed. Brigid has an interview with Tokyopop’s web community content producer at MangaBlog. David Taylor takes a look at the state of manga in the United Kingdom at Love Manga. Samurai Tusok wades into the topic of authenticity and what makes manga manga at Bento Physics.

But what really catches my eye, partly because it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, is all the recent talk about yaoi. It’s interesting to see a consideration of the formulaic nature of the category, because it seems to suggest that a formula is essentially a negative in a creative endeavor. There was a recent flurry of complaints that a lot of shôjo titles fall into a formulaic trap, but I would suggest that the formula itself isn’t the problem. Any creator can take a fairly rigid narrative framework (say, young-man-with-a-dream shônen or ordinary-girl-discovers-magical-destiny shôjo) and invest it with enough specificity and personality to make the familiarity of its infrastructure entirely irrelevant.

So I think the question is more about how publishers are doing in selecting yaoi and shônen-ai titles to license. Are readers getting a full sense of the category, or are publishers launching their efforts in this area with what might be lowest-common-denominator books that stick to whatever tropes are most defining? Immediately recognizable aualities that make the reader say, “Yes, this is yaoi”?

I’m not really sure what the answer is. I still haven’t waded too far into the world of scanlations, so I don’t have a very clear sense of what’s lurking out there on the horizon and if what we’re getting now is yaoi 1.0 rather than a full sampling of the category. I’ve heard of a handful of titles that sound intriguing (I’ve wanted to get my hands on NYNY since I read about it in Paul Gravett’s Manga), but I’m basically ignorant of how the genre stands in contrast to the body of work that’s available in translation.

Tina Anderson has grown weary of the focus on yaoi’s appeal as opposed to its content:

“I’m tired of being approached by members from the media under the auspices of, ‘let’s talk about yaoi’ only to have it turn into a couch session on why I as a woman, am turned on by homoerotic manga, why I think women like it and Gay men don’t, and what’s this appeal of lovely men in love overall. 0_o. I don’t see articles about the appeal of noir Seinen manga on the fans who read it? I don’t see every new license from Tokyo Pop being discussed by the media asking, Why do they read it? What makes them tick? What is it about Western Fans that makes them want to read Japanese Manga?”

I have to say that virtually every mainstream media article about manga that I’ve read has featured just that focus: why do fans like it? Teen-ages from Orlando to Des Moines to Anchorage have been cornered in bookstores and libraries and junior high schools and quizzed on this subject by reporters, whether they’ve got Fruits Basket or Naruto or any number of other books in their backpacks. It’s an entry point for reporters who don’t necessarily know a lot about the subject, and (more importantly) it’s an essential aspect of the story for readers who are possibly even less familiar with manga.

And when you’re delving into a niche within manga, I think it’s just as logical to take that approach. Sure, there’s a prurient aspect to the questions, but reporters need hooks, for better or worse. I don’t think it’s necessarily disrespectful or dismissive to try and understand a category’s appeal to its audience when you’re writing about it. Tiresome and repetitive for the people who get asked the question over and over again? Sure. Irrelevant? Not in the least.

Honestly, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around yaoi and shônen-ai, at least partly because of the licensing choices I discussed above. It’s hard for me not to be troubled by the number of books that seem to feature coercion as an essential relationship milestone. Looking at the bulk of what’s available, I can see why people who aren’t fans would wonder what the big deal is and eschew questions about character, because a lot of the books aren’t particularly rich in that respect.

But there are several titles that I really like, and a quality that they share is a willingness to expand on the formula or subvert it. Shout Out Loud (Blu) explores a whole range of human relationships – familial, generational, professional, and so on – and does it with a heftier dose of humor than I’ve seen elsewhere. Only the Ring Finger Knows (DMP) was a lovely bit of romance that impressed me because it was driven by character. The events of the story seemed specific to those characters rather than being a case of attractive archetypes being wedged into a familiar series of events.

My current favorite would have to be La Esperanca (DMP), even though it can get a little drippy at times. Chigusa Kawai’s characters don’t exist in some romantic vacuum where they’re influenced only by their feelings for each other. They have family issues, are surrounded by friends and classmates with their own perceptions and agendas, and live in the larger world of the school and the town that surrounds it. Romance is an aspect of their lives, a part of their evolving identities, rather than the only thing that matters.

Kawai also shows a very subversive sense of humor in the back-up stories. In volume two – I think – she frames a story very much along the lines of the “why do you like it” question, introducing a romantic spoiler character who seems based on a stereotypical yaoi fangirl. But since she’s invested in the characters as people instead of observing them in a fictional context, she’s forced to face them as people instead of fantasy objects. It’s a great, risky piece with a lot of layers, and it ends up being both a clear-eyed celebration of the genre and an expansion of its possibilites.