From Issue 50 of Ten Men: Life Drawing with Erotic Manga Artist Gengorah Tagame
Slave Training Summer Camp
Bloomsbury, central London, is mostly linked with literary and cultural names such as Virginia Woolf and Duncan Grant – elegant, awkward, very English; bohemian but still buttoned up. How fun, then, and how bracing to meet Gengoroh Tagame in the same postcode, in a small, old school hotel just moments from the British Museum.
Tagame, 55, is also a cultural and literary figure, but of a very different ilk. The heroes of his hugely influential manga are beefy, hairy and Japanese; they’re into all sorts of eye-popping sadomasochism and hefty doses of man-on-man action. Now, the Bloomsbury types did tackle some ideas of queerness, but not with the same pain threshold, let’s say. Woolf’s Orlando may have been transgressive, but there’s no chapter where he dabbles in nipple clamps.
And yet, jokes aside, Tagame has garnered some of the same success – even the respect. His manga – sexy S&M stories such as Fisherman’s Lodge, The Confession and The Contracts of the Fall – are by now a global phenomenon. It helps that much of his oeuvre, if sexually explicit, is also psychologically acute and ravishing to look at. His bulges are beautiful. Sitting in the foyer of his hotel, he is categorical when asked if his work can be both art and pornography at the same time. “Yes,” he says. “Absolutely, yes.”
A Monk and a Little Crow Tengu
He probably didn’t even need to say that – the reason for him being in Bloomsbury today is enough. Tagame is staying next door to the British Museum because his work is featuring in its blockbuster Manga exhibition. This acknowledgment by one of the world’s leading cultural institutions confirms that Tagame is, now, somewhat surprisingly, quite respectable, despite his classic stories of bondage, of role play, of gang bangs, of rape. But then that is also because his career has enjoyed a surprising second phase.
Five years ago, Tagame published a new manga called My Brother’s Husband. This wasn’t, despite what the title suggests, another racy porno, but a look at what happens when traditional Japanese culture gets used to the fact of modern gay marriage. A delicately told tale of an unconventional family, it has been a monster hit, winning various awards and being adapted into a big Japanese TV series. In the hunky Canadian Mike, the husband who comes to stay, Tagame’s bears aren’t just sex objects anymore, they are heartwarmingly cuddly, too.
And this is the impression that Tagame himself gives when we meet – kind, shy and softly spoken, still jet-lagged after flying in from Japan the day before. His English is OK, but he understands much more than he speaks, so a translator and some members of his publishing team help with coaxing the conversation along. The last time he was in London was 35 years ago, when he was a student of graphic design at university back home. It was the tail end of a month’s art tour of Europe, and, “I was so tired,” he sighs. “I couldn’t do anything. I just went to the flea markets!”
The trip, though, was still pivotal. One London shop, he recalls, “had a huge stock of gay magazines, and photographs, and toys. I’d never seen anything like that in Japan before.” One magazine was Drummer, the cult American leather mag that had clearly travelled as far as London, but not Kamakura, Tagame’s hometown on the outskirts of Tokyo. Drummer contained erotic drawings by the likes of Tom of Finland, Rex and Bill Ward, and these hyper-masculine images – all rippling bods and swarthy ’taches and bad behaviour – set him on his way.
Before the trip, Tagame had been drawing manga, and he had seen some gay magazines before. But he hadn’t fixed on his eventual style or his subject matter. And coming from a respectable, ancient family – one of his ancestors was a samurai – drawing gay pornography was not really a career option. Yet the roots were clearly there. As a young teenager, he read a lot of work by the Marquis de Sade. “I was very impressed by the words that he wrote, so I thought, ‘Maybe I like S&M,’” recalls Tagame. And when he came across secret gay magazines, this raised more questions than answers. “At first I didn’t really get excited by reading them, and seeing men having sex,” he says. “But I got excited when I saw a straight sex magazine that showed a man being kicked by a woman. So I was very confused. What kind of man am I?” He gives a jolly laugh. A proper answer came soon enough when he was at high school and fell in love with a schoolmate who was a guy, too. “It was like, OK, of course I’m gay,” he says now. “I was 16 or 17.”
7 Samurai – Samurai 3, Water
Non-Japanese readers may never realise it, but Gengoroh Tagame is a larky pen name, conceived to spare his family’s blushes. And the source is unexpected. “All the other gay artists in magazines at the time, their artist names were either macho or romantic,” explains Tagame. “I didn’t want to go with either style, both seemed embarrassing. I wanted a jokey one instead. So both the first name and the surname are bugs. Bugs who live in water!” At this, he and some of his team get their phones out to show me what a gengoroh and a tagame look like. He shows me a tagame. Is that a cockroach, I ask. “No!” he booms, with a horrified laugh. A tagame is a little cuter. Maybe. “He swims in the water, he jumps on the fish or the frog, and he sucks their blood,” he says sweetly.
It’s probably good there’s a sinister edge to the pen name. After all, the work can be unsettling. It’s the beauty and subtlety of the treatment that mitigates, or at least makes sympathetic, some pretty fierce acts between the assorted fishermen and detectives and warrior kings and thugs. This intensity was always part of the appeal, says Tagame. “Without being big-headed, my artwork was really quite shocking, and it had a big influence. Everyone liked it straight away.” However, Tagame is also adamant that the content is not there to be copied. “Manga and real life are not the same thing,” he says. “I don’t want people to think that a story is there for people to use as an instruction. It’s different, it’s fantasy.” Does he worry about that? “Of course. Some fans do say they’ve tried some stuff.
The Contracts of the Fall
But not the most extreme ones,” he adds. On a lighter note, his fans are also grateful that he made body hair more acceptable in Japan. The ideal Japanese man was, traditionally, hairless, but not Tagame’s guys. “Some fans said to me, ‘I used to have a complex.’ They didn’t like themselves being hairy. But since they read my artwork, they thought, ‘Oh actually, this is sexy, it’s good.’”
It’s tempting to also ask if Tagame’s work has helped him come to understand his own sexuality more. “Yes,” he smiles. How? Everyone laughs, and then he calmly explains that he was never into anal sex much before, but since he got with his partner about 20 years ago, he now likes anal sex and fisting. Everyone nods appreciatively. Ever since he got with his partner, Tagame explains, there’s more anal in the work and just more detailed sex in general. More appreciative nodding, and then the translator asks how they met. “It’s quite a funny story,” says Tagame. “My boyfriend used to be a gay porn actor.”
Tagame used to have a porn video that his future boyfriend was in, “and I thought he was really handsome”, he goes on. “So when I started to write a new manga, I used him as the main character.” They ended up meeting, though, because the porn actor was, in turn, a fan of Tagame’s manga. “He was my stalker a little bit,” chuckles Tagame. “He got my address and suddenly he came to my house without an appointment.” And, he continues, “I had just got rid of my ex-boyfriend, and so he came to my house and it was like, ‘Oh, he is my cup of tea… ’” The rest is left to the imagination.
However, when I ask if we can see the relationship more in Tagame’s work, he squirms. “No. Because to write about myself, I find it embarrassing.” The translator laughs again: “Very Japanese!” Indeed, there are some limits. He didn’t tell his parents he was Tagame for a long time, and when they did find out, he told them not to read the stuff. When the more respectable My Brother’s Husband came out, though, he told them about it. Did they like it? He ums and ahs. “Reading manga, for their generation, is not very educational. They used to tell me that it will make you stupid. So I’m not sure that they actually enjoyed it.”
Elsewhere, though, the success of My Brother’s Husband has been deeply gratifying. “Of course I am happy. I think I had a good influence in Japan,” he says. The story of Yaichi, a straight Japanese man who gets to know Mike, his late brother’s widower, it has encouraged discussion in a country that hasn’t really been at the forefront of progress in LGBTQ+ acceptance. And he’s continuing the “good” work by having created yet another new manga series, Our Colours, which tells the story of a gay teen who is learning about his sexual identity, again in a more kid-friendly, PG-rated way.
“There are gay stories in comics in Japan,” explains Tagame, “but most of them are for girl readers, and every story is focused on the romantic relationship between two men, or maybe a sexual fantasy between them.” Instead, he just wanted to give young gay readers something “where they can read about their daily life as a sexual minority”. It seems so funny that the man who first trussed up big bears in chains and leathers is now helping young teens understand the day-to-day issues of coming out. But such is the variety and subtlety of human sexuality, after all – and, in Tagame’s hands, each scenario gets the same reverence, the same beautiful shading and line.
Taken from Issue 50 of 10 Men – BOYHOOD, MAN, EVOLVE – on newsstands now.
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