For a limited time from May 20th ~ July 16th, the Kadokawa Culture Museum ran a "First Boy's Love Exhibit" covering the roots and history of the Boy's Love (BL) genre in Japan and abroad. I had the good fortune to visit with my friend Ceren (@cerengunes).
Because this was such a unique experience and was only around for two months, I wanted to document my experience at the exhibition for fans in Japan and abroad. I'll weave in some extra notes for the super-nerdy (like me).
What is BL?*
* To fujoshi/fudanshi/fujin: you can skip this part.
"BL," or boy's love, a genre of fiction that depicts romantic relationships between male characters. Fans of the boy's love genre are known as fujoshi (腐女子), or "rotten woman," a play on the homophone 婦女子 for "married woman." Historically, it was a genre authored by straight women with the intended audience of straight women, but in modern times has captured the hearts of people of all identities and sexualities. Because of this, the terms fudanshi and fujin (rotten man/person) have grown in popularity within international BL communities.
Male/male romances have become more popularized in mainstream media, though BL as a genre (also known as yaoi) is wide—it stretches the range from chaste romance to titillating erotica and hardcore pornography. This wide range means that more hardcore BL has been stigmatized as "dangerous" or "impure" by people both outside and inside the fan community.
Arriving at the First Boy's Love Exhibit
When I arrived, the sun was starting to set, which made the Kadokawa Culture Museum and the surrounding modern architecture shine brilliantly. The buildings mix both modern and traditional aesthetic, and visitors can pray at a nearby shrine whose torii gate are lit up with LEDs.
Kadokawa is a large Japanese publisher and the culture museum is full of books published by them. Within Kadokawa is Kadokawa Ruby Bunko, a collection dedicated to BL works and authors, founded in 1992. Outside of the BL exhibit, the entrance fee gives visitors the opportunity to hang out in a quiet space and read books published by Kadokawa.
We're greeted by the exhibition sign and after a few photographs, we go up to the exhibit hall!
The Original Fujoshi: Mari Mori
The first works we encounter are not illustrations; they are novels. Before the term BL had been coined, the author Mari Mori pioneered "aesthetic" male/male romances in her 1961 novel, The Lovers' Forest. According to an in-depth article by Tokyo Weekender:
"Mori's novels became popular among young women, many of whom were becoming disillusioned at the time with society's promises of marriage and heteronormative adulthood...she projected women's fantasies onto men's bodies. The Lovers' Forest offered a refuge from misogyny, a place for female readers to experiment with being agents of desire rather than its objects."
The Lovers' Forest's protagonist is Paulo, a Western boy with Oscar Wilde sensibilities; he exists to be beautiful and to feel pleasure, given to him by an older Guido.
Prior to this exhibit, I had read many Japanese contemporary authors but never heard of Mari Mori. Can you believe that The Lovers' Forest was praised by modern Japanese authors like Yukio Mishima?
Mori's work, and its Western influences and escapist themes—set the tone for the BL boom to come.
The Age of JUNE
Next stop were the magazines. The magazine JUNE was first published in 1987 and was the first serialized publication to cater entirely to BL. JUNE was monumental in cultivating the first BL manga artists who would later go on to lead the BL movement. The exhibition's leading image 『風と木の詩』 午睡のKISS」, or The Forest of the Wind and Trees: Kiss in Repose is by Keiko Takemiya who was a manga artist who was deeply involved in JUNE's production.
The original issues of JUNE were displayed in a glass case and their cover art has thematic ties to The Lovers' Forest's characters—the boys in these illustrations are young, fair haired and ethereal.
Glam Rock and Japanese Visual Kei
Around the 1970's, David Bowie and his androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust were skyrocketing to fame. JUNE's depiction of young men as "ethereal" tended to be more pastoral and fantasy-inspired; but as the trend of glam rock grew, so did alternate forms of androgyny in men. There was a display of various album covers that inspired or drew inspiration from the male androgyny of BL.
In particular, I was glad to see Malice Mizer included here—fans of the visual kei style in Japanese rock will know that they were a rock band that incorporated aspects of French romanticism, similar to that of early BL—as well as a gothic style. Gackt, who was a vocalist for Malice Mizer was a pop culture icon for androgyny and romantic gothic fashion. I started by own BL journey through visual kei, and in particular, was drawn to darker-themed BL and shojo manga.
The Birth of "Yaoi"- terminology - cool wall of all of the works that had Come
Silly Tropes- Dorito-face senpai - Gakuen Handsome
Modern BL: Momo to Manji- Momo to Manji - Kino, nani wo tabeta? https://www.nippon.com/en/in-depth/d00607/
BL Conventions Across the World
Final Impressions- the wall
- Flights of Fancy: Mari Mori and the Origins of the Boys' Love Genre. Healy, Shane for Tokyo Weekender.
- Malice Mizer: Wikipedia.
- The Evolution of “Boys' Love” Culture: Can BL Spark Social Change? Fujimoto, Yukari for Nippon.com.
About the Author
I consider myself a non-binary fujin. I used to be into BL as a young adult, and took a 10 year long break from BL where I didn't post content publicly. During this time I got into queer and feminist advocacy.
Now I enjoy BL and like to talk about it not only from a fan lens, but from a historical and queer lens, too. I hope you enjoyed my write up.