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  • Flower Tribes and Female Desire:Complicating Early Female Consumption of Male Homosexuality in Shōjo Manga
  • James Welker (bio)

Shōnen'ai (boys' love) manga is not about homosexuality. Or at least, many critics, scholars, and artists of shōjo (girls') manga, of which shōnen'ai is a subgenre, have long denied a connection between "real homosexuality" and these narratives, which depict beautiful adolescent males in romantic and/ or sexual relationships with each other.1 Multiple functions have been ascribed to the shōnen'ai genre, created by and for females, and the bishōnen (beautiful boy) characters who serve as protagonists in these works, yet this denial has remained consistent.2 Many readers, however, have drawn their own conclusions.

In this essay I help to challenge this purported disconnect between homosexuality and the shōnen'ai genre through a contextualized examination of female readership of the magazine Barazoku (Rose tribe), a magazine aimed at "homo" men in Japan.3 Moreover, I work to unsettle, rather than assume, the widespread notion that female consumers of shōnen'ai and other images of male homosexuality are necessarily (proto)heterosexual.4 By turning to female readers of homo magazines in the 1970s and 1980s, the heyday of the genre, I illustrate that some fans of the genre did indeed link it to the real lives of homo men, as part of a larger local sphere of consumption [End Page 211] of images of "homo" men from Japan as well as abroad. Correspondence printed in Barazoku demonstrates that a number of shōnen'ai manga readers and other women employed not just fantastic images of shōnen'ai but also their (mis)understandings of the "real" lives of homosexual men as a means to critique the oppressive power dynamic of male-female romantic relationships. And for some, images of male homosexuality—both "real" and fantastic—helped them to understand and validate their own same-sex desire or nonnormative gender identification. In short, I suggest that this sphere was a site of blurring between homo lives and shōnen'ai manga, between adolescence and adulthood, between females who love other females and those who love beautiful boys, and—as I will show in this essay—between "lilies" and "roses."

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Figure 1.

The cover of Takemiya Keiko's In the Sunroom (1976, Sanrumu nite), a reprint of the first shōnen'ai narrative.

Shōnen'ai and Girls' Love

The first commercially published shōnen'ai manga narrative was Takemiya Keiko's Sanrūmu nite (1976, In the sunroom), which initially appeared under the title "Yuki to hoshi to tenshi to . . ." (Snow and stars and angels . . . ) in the December 1970 issue of Bessatsu shōjo komikku (Girls' comic extra).5 Like most early shōnen'ai manga, the work's protagonists were beautiful boys in love with each other and the story was set in Europe. Anything but marginal, the shōnen'ai narratives that followed were penned by a large number of professional female artists during this period and were arguably central to the radical transformation of shōjo manga in the 1970s.6 Moreover, these works helped set the stage for the now global production and consumption of the newer genres "BL"/"boys love" and "yaoi" manga and anime, which developed [End Page 212] later but which also depict romantic and erotic relationships between beautiful males for female consumption.7

Ishida Minori's Hisoyaka na kyōiku: "Yaoi/bōizu rabu" zenshi (2008, A secret education: The prehistory of yaoi / boys' love) is perhaps the most authoritative history of the origins of shōnen'ai manga. The book is based in part on extensive interviews with several individuals who played key roles in the genre's creation and development. Among them is the long-overlooked Masuyama Norie, a novelist and music critic who originally conceived of the introduction to shōjo manga of beautiful boys in love with each other and who encouraged pioneering artists Takemiya Keiko and Hagio Moto to give life to her ideas. Masuyama believed shōjo manga needed to be revolutionized from a frivolous distraction into a serious literary form; she...


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pp. 211-228
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