Today, we turn towards perhaps one of the most vocal niches in otakudom: the lovers of shounen-ai, Boy Love. Just to lay this straight early on, shounen-ai isn’t yaoi. Instead of focusing on the physical aspects of love between two men, Boy Love centers on romantic relationships, which may or may not be sexual.
The term has gone out of style in Japan in reference to anime and manga, as it became associated with pederasty/pedophilia. Instead, Boys Love (not a typo) or the abbreviation “BL” is used, which in the US, immediately brings to mind NAMBLA. (On the side, man-boy love is shotacon or shota; we usually hear more about the female equivalent, lolicon or loli) Since Boys Love does look and feel bizarre to type up, I’ll just keep with shounen-ai for the rest of this article.
The genre is quite popular in Japan, especially among housewives and schoolgirls. In the US and Europe, shounen-ai fans are mainly heterosexual women and homosexual men in the early twenties. Some factors for the genre’s popularity is the idealized depiction of love between beautiful men; the “safety” of the plot, as no woman is involved in the relationship, therefore it’s not sexually-threatening, but engaging through its feminine characters that they can identify with; and the fact that as most shounen-ai mangaka are female, it’s women writing for other women.
I’m on the side that says that women enjoying reading and watching love and sex between men is perfectly normal. After all, men definitely enjoy yuri/shoujo-ai/lesbian erotica! It’s time for us to take our hidden pleasures out of the closet!
On a tangent, shounen-ai isn’t marketed as gay manga in Japan. Manga marketed towards gays is still an underground independent movement in Japan, with small circulation numbers, although gay-oriented dojinshi is a growing segment at Comiket. Actually, they have an entire basement floor dedicated to shounen-ai and yaoi at the convention. Instead, most popular shounen-ai stories are originally published in mainstream girls’ magazines. That fact alone reveals that shounen-ai exists closer to the romantic fantasy shelf in the bookstore than in among slice-of-life stories.
Despite the somewhat prudish publishing environment in the US, shounen-ai is incredibly popular. TOKYOPOP’s Gravitation series has sold more than 230,000 copies, and both the anime and manga series has a cult following. (For the record, I used to be a near fanatic myself back when the anime just came out in Japan.) Other popular series include CMX’s From Eroica With Love, VIZ Media’s Descendants of Darkness and Count Cain/Godchild, TOKYOPOP’s FAKE, and several series from CLAMP, from RG Veda (TOKYOPOP) to X/1999 (VIZ Media) to the more recent Legal Drug (TOKYOPOP).
Shounen-ai has come into the spotlight in recent weeks due a potential lawsuit between Libre Publishing and Central Park Media. If you aren’t a denizen of Anime News Network or Manga News, then it’s time for a little history. Central Park Media (CPM) publishes shounen-ai and yaoi through its Be Beautiful imprint. Be Beautiful has been rather successful, as they managed to capture early on some gems in the form of Kizuna, Golden Kain, Embracing Love, and the Finder series. Most of their titles were licensed from BIBLOS, which ran some of the major Japanese magazines that publish shounen-ai titles. In April 2006, BIBLOS filed for bankruptcy. Libre Publishing bought BIBLOS. (The technical details of whether Libre owns all of the titles or only some is still being debated online.) CPM kept publishing their Be Beautiful titles without renegotiating with Libre, as several other US publishers (TOKYOPOP’s BLU imprint coming to mind as one of them) had done, believing that their original agreement with BIBLOS was still valid. After a year, Libre took their complaint to the Internet, releasing a statement calling CPM’s releases illegal and for fans to boycott these books, which don’t allow the artists and writers to get any royalties.
CPM hasn’t been saying anything public in regards to this, but I’m willing to bet that the email and phone lines have been busy between the two companies. Well, CPM did say that they were in Japan to hash out a resolution to this disagreement, but it seems they were there mostly to catch the Tokyo Anime Fair.
Japanese companies just don’t take business matters public, however, until things have reached the level of bridges being burnt. This will probably be another strike against CPM, who had some slash-and-cut employee downsizing in the past few years. (I wouldn’t call them out yet though; they still have many old school favorite anime properties.) We wouldn’t be hearing from Libre unless they felt they have an iron-clad case against CPM for licensing and royalties, which will cost a company that is already stretched financially thin.
Although CPM was one of the first big manga publishing companies to get into shounen-ai, the genre should barely be affected by this potential lawsuit in the air. If CPM loses their licenses with Libre, other companies will pick up the popular ones. That’s pretty much a guarantee. Shounen-ai covers enough titles mixed among a number of US publishers that we shouldn’t be running out of the romance any time soon, especially with the growth of light novels in the US market. Mmmm...that reminds me; I need to pick up that Harlequineque novel I saw last month at Borders.