From 10+ Issue Two: Manga and Me – Ten Minutes To Read About Grown-Up Comic Books
‘Bride’ by Gengoroh Tagame
A few years ago, I got a birthday present from my best friend that was out of the ordinary. Usually, our gifts to each other were part grannyish memorabilia, part boring 21st century: William Morris mugs or Björk photo books, that kind of thing. This was something else.
The thick A3 book my friend gave me had no words on its cover – just an image of two mustachioed men kissing on one side, and another of a different man, bound and gagged, on the other side. A look inside revealed a title – The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame – accompanied by even more images of hairy, muscly daddies in various states of undress (and pain), plus a helpful subtitle: Master of Gay Erotic Manga.
I wasn’t shocked by the book, but I was certainly surprised. I hadn’t realised this was my friend’s taste; I didn’t know yet if it was my own. Maybe he knew something about me I didn’t. What was sure was that it was a type of manga I’d never known before. Manga is admittedly a very broad term: the English-dictionary app on my phone tells me that it’s “a type of adult comic book popular in Japan”. But that broadness is maybe required when you consider that my first encounter with the genre was very different – the obsession of a five-year-old child with a fantasy world of multicoloured cosmic warriors. No daddy bears here, maybe twinks at a push. And that’s arguably one of the great joys of manga – it caters to every, um, taste, whether it’s specifically erotic or not.
Manga is one of Japan’s greatest modern cultural exports. Most will know it for more vanilla products such as Dragon Ball or Astro Boy, or indeed a much chaster work in Tagame’s oeuvre, his recent My Brother’s Husband (we’ll come to that). Manga’s history is as sprawling as its branches – it covers sci-fi, horror, politics, sex, true crime and pretty much anything else. Many date its development to late in the 19th century, when American newspapers – and thus their comic strips – started being imported into closed-off Japan for the first time. The mix of Japan’s strong visual storytelling tradition, centuries and centuries old, with a brand-new foreign influence was like lighting gunpowder. The import of yet more comics following the Second World War, when Japan was under American occupation, sealed the deal. In short, manga has always been quintessentially Japanese, and yet also innately global.
‘Lynching’ by Gengoroh Tagame
This is all nicely academic, though, when faced with the power of manga itself. Describing it in words only goes so far. As Nicole Rousmaniere, the IFAC Handa curator of Japanese arts at the British Museum and the curator of a huge new manga show there, puts it, “It’s striking how it can take you to a place and make you feel. It’s almost like medicine!” It’s also, she continues, “storytelling for people who often don’t have a history, or aren’t recorded in the normal channels of history. Things that aren’t said elsewhere are said through manga – that’s why they have such resonance.”
Rousmaniere points to something like Attack on Titan, whose apparently political content got it banned in China in 2015, and The Poem of Wind and Trees by Keiko Takemiya, whose radical representation of boys in love caused ripples in the 1970s. Manga can, of course, just be cute and fun and easy, but at its best, you could call it the acceptable face of transgression.
It took me a while to actually read the Tagame, and not just because, in true manga tradition, it required you to read it from right to left. I could literally not make head nor tail of it. The titles of the short stories are a clue – Hairy Oracle, Country Doctor, Standing Ovations – but when I tell you that the drawings inside are a riot of S&M scenarios, an eye-popping selection of penetrations and piercings, bindings and gaggings, strippings and submissions, you get the full idea. The Hairy Oracle is a detective who gets clues to his cases through rough sex, while the Country Doctor services every patient in the village.
You could categorise it as pornography, but two things make you qualify the term. First, the quality of the images. Tagame, like the very best manga artists, or indeed Japanese artists, is a master draughtsman. Second, the accuracy and the pathos of the situations. The characters may often debase themselves, or be debased, but their engagement with life is all too painfully human. Full admission: I am not entirely into what Tagame describes (if I were, rest assured, I’d obviously have insisted on an accompanying photoshoot). But it spoke to me in a way that nothing else did, or has done since.
‘Endless Game’ by Gengoroh Tagame
It also brought me all the way back to my childhood. I used to spend every holiday in France, where an essential staple of my diet was the telly adaptations of manga series that aired there every morning, dubbed in incongruous French. I know this may surprise those of you who think France is all Sartre and Proust, but there you go. In fact, it could be viewed as particularly Gallic to expose your kids to manga’s extreme emotions and graphic flair from a young age. Somewhere in Paris a culture minister shrugs: life is full of sex and violence anyway, so why not understand it from an early age?
The manga I loved most was something called Saint Seiya, which in France was called Knights of the Zodiac. I started with the animated adaptations first, moving on to the comics afterwards. The premise was five young boys being gifted with superpowers inspired by the constellations; they had snazzy armour to match. I can’t recall much of the plot, except that they seemed to spend a lot of time fighting their evil equivalents in black armour. Whether that’s because fighting global evil is an endless task, or French telly just tends to run the same repeats every summer, it’s now too long ago to say.
I loved Saint Seiya for its style. Whenever each boy assumed his armour he would rise into the sky, his constellation would flash behind him and he’d assume a ninja-ish pose. I didn’t give two hoots about the fight that followed – I just loved these tableaux as they fixed themselves as sublime heroes for a second’s screen time or two. It helps that they all had the most wonderful hair. One, Hyoga, who fought under the sign of the Swan, had a big old shaggy blond crop that seemed the right side of Van Halen; another, Andromeda Shun, had a long green dye job, all the better to set off his lovely pink armour. This is, I realise, why I didn’t so much care for the adaptation of Dragon Ball, which was the biggest hit on French screens. The fighters were all stacked, sure, but where were the lewks?
It was a similar story a few years later, when Sailor Moon appeared. Like Saint Seiya, it involves young warriors powered by cosmic forces taking on forces of evil, but this time it’s a young schoolgirl, Usagi, who meets a talking black cat who gifts her a magic brooch. Said bauble turns her into Sailor Moon, blessed with lunar powers, long blonde bunches and a worryingly short skirt. Her companions – Sailors Venus, Mars, Mercury, and so on – continue the theme. It’s all a wonderful celebration of friendship and positivity and style, as well as the restorative power of statement brooches. Indeed, the very best manga has an aesthetic that is undeniable, something the fashion industry twigged long ago. From the hyper-coloured collaborations of Takashi Murakami to Gucci’s modern young dandies (very Hagio Moto), it has always emphasised how much dressing up is about living out your dreams.
‘Cigarettes’ by Gengoroh Tagame
Anyway. Once upon a time, I used to cringe at those passions. I shelved them along with my childhood. I dismissed them in the way that many people dismiss manga: too cutesy, too kitsch, too immature. But when I finally read the Tagame, I began to understand it was in fact just talking to your most essential fantasies, and there should be no shame in that. It’s true, there seems very little outward link between the innocent, glittering astrological superheroes I loved as a child and the bears in bondage I met in my early thirties. Except that each spoke to a very private self – they exposed something of my desires, of what I like to see and how I’d like to be seen.
There is a postscript to all this. Tagame is now much better known for My Brother’s Husband, which appeared in 2014. It is, despite the title, a much tamer affair. Yaichi, a single dad raising his young daughter Kana alone, welcomes a surprise guest into their home: Mike, a big, affable, Canadian bear, and the widower of Yaichi’s recently deceased twin brother. Each is grieving the loss in their own way. What follows is Yaichi beginning to understand his brother, and love, and family, in a new way; and for Japanese readers, it’s also a way of discussing new ideas of gay marriage and recomposed families. “Everyone in Japan knows it,” says Rousmaniere. “It’s really important.”
It is still distinctly Tagame, though, in that Mike is a total hunk and that Yaichi isn’t bad either. As they cautiously edge around each other, there’s a certain frisson. But it’s also Tagame in that it’s sensitive and soulful – as accessible as all manga must be, but also as surprisingly complex. And for me, in my mid-thirties, it asks yet another surprising question. After the twinkling delirium of Saint Seiya and the dark transgressions of the Country Doctor, what if marriage and children were my next fantasy?
‘Rose of Sharon’ by Gengoroh Tagame
‘Manga’ is at the British Museum until August 26th, with tickets available here.
10+ ISSUE TWO – EVERYONE, VOCAL, TOGETHER is available to order HERE.