Beyond My Comfort Zone – Scott Reads Yaoi

Note: This post contains very explicit images and discussions of sex and homosexuality depicted in comics. Read at your own risk.

About a month ago, I hung out with the team over at the Reverse Thieves blog in New York City. We went to a used Japanese bookstore, and I was thrilled to find a copy of Kodomo no Jikan, one of my favorite manga series, for sale. When I showed off the find to the others, Narutaki immediately indicated to me that he was disgusted by the title because of all the controversy surrounding its lolicon content.

“No, really, It’s a great series,” I tried to convince him. “Don’t let the lolicon fool you, there’s a great story behind it!” But he wouldn’t accept it. As Narutaki told me in an email later, he becomes upset and uncomfortable by any sexual portrayal of children in manga whether it is lolicon or shotacon. No matter how good a story it might be, he believes that he would have a hard time bypassing that fact.

So they issued a fun challenge for both of our blogs. The Reverse Thieves would go beyond their confront zone by reading the first two volumes of Kodomo no Jikan to see if they can find a good story despite its lolicon content. But in exchange for them giving that series a try, I would have to take the time to read and write about a certain genre of manga that I would be very uncomfortable reading myself…

Yaoi.

It’s not that I’m against homosexuality. In fact, I have a very liberal point-of-view and support the gay rights movement any chance that I get. But I grew up in a middle-class society in the late 90′s where homosexuality was greatly looked down upon. I was taught by my peers that it was a shameful act and that gay people needed to be shunned for it.

So as much as I am ashamed to admit it, I still carry a bit of that homophobia I developed growing up. I don’t hate gay people, but I become very uncomfortable watching two men hold hands, kiss, or show any form of intimacy between each other. But I think this fear is common among men of my generation. If you recall the Will Ferrell movie Talladega Nights, the film’s climatic scene ends with Ferrell passionately kissing his male costar, Sacha Baron Cohen. This kissing scene – as is the case with most recent depictions of homosexuality in Hollywood -  is done purely for shock humor and it is meant to make the audience feel uneasy watching it.

So I’m uncomfortable seeing depictions of homosexuality in general, which means that I have never really watched or read any yaoi before. I have explored the fandom behind it and researched its purpose in the world, but I have never sat down with an yaoi series and read completely through it.  How could I be entertained by something outside of my comfort zone?

So when the Reverse Thieves sent me a copy of the series Gerard & Jacques, I immediately regretted having agreed to this experiment. They had assured me that although this series was particularly explicit in sexual conent, it did actually contain a good story. But looking at the cover with one man engaging the other in a loving embrace, I could already feel my uneasiness settling in. So I bit my lip and cracked opened the first volume.

The opening couple of pages didn’t seem so bad. The setting of this story is during some time in the French Revolution. Gerard, an older man with a badass scar over his left eye, is paying a visit to a whorehouse. His man-whore for the evening is the young boy Jacques, a former aristocrat who’s family tragic downfall forced them to sell the boy to prostitution. When the two men meet, they talk about Jacques former status and title, and I actually found this back-and-forth about the French class system to be very fascinating. Quite frankly, I was really getting into this story at this point.

And then all of the sudden…

Not cool. (-_-)

At first, my plan was to get by the uncomfortable gay scenes by convincing myself that one of the characters was actually a flat-chested female. I found this strategy to work when watching the anime Gravitation because the androgynous lead character was actually very feminine.

But at this point in Gerard & Jacques, I realize that there is no way around it. Gerard, with his masculine badass scar in plain sight, is sucking off Jacques’ dick while sticking his finger up the boy’s asshole. This was clearly two dudes engaging in gay sex… and I didn’t like it.

But fortunately for me, after this shocking scene within the first few pages of the volume, the really explicit sexual moments come very few and far in between. In fact, probably only 5% of the series was about homosexuality while the other 95% was telling a complex story about the characters in this period setting. Gerard buys Jacques’ freedom from the whorehouse, he ends up becoming the man’s servant, and after many years have passed, the two end up on the wrong end of the revolution. Like the Reverse Thieves told me, this was turning out to be a very interesting story told in some creative ways.

I love stories that play around with a nonlinear narrative, and the latter half of the first volume did just that. In exploring Gerard’s back story, including how he obtained that badass scar, the author intertwines several different flashbacks taking place in key moments of Gerard’s life. As the reader, it becomes a little difficult to grasp which time line a particular page is taking place. Is Gerard married yet? Has he written his first novel yet? Is he poor at that this point or has he made his fortune? But slowly, the little bits and pieces come together to form a comprehensible story as to how Gerard came to his present situation with Jacques.

But when second volume dives into the back story of Jacques, it becomes obvious to me that there is also a brilliant bout of symbolism involved in this relationship between the two men. Jacques grew up with a deep love and respect for his father. Although the boy learns that he may have been the bastard child of one of his mother’s extramarital affairs, he still regards the man as his real father. After losing his dad to illness following the family’s downfall, he now turns to Gerard as a surrogate father.

Gerard, in return, plays the father role very well because he is in a situation that almost parallels Jacques’. His wife gave birth to a daughter out of an extramarital affair she had with another man. However, despite the fact it was not his real daughter, he still loves the girl dearly until she dies at a young age due to illness. So it becomes obvious that Gerard looks towards Jacques as a substitute for his late daughter… especailly considering that Jacques somewhat resembles her.

This father/child symbolism alone could be the bases of many analytical essays about this series, and because of that, I have to give this yaoi artist a lot of credit for thinking of something that creative.

But of course, realizing this symbolism now meant that whenever I come across another explicit sex scene between the two men, all I can think is, “That dude is screwing his father!” and “that dude is screwing his own child!” That didn’t make the situation any easier in dealing with my comfort zone.

I gradually accepted the gay sex scenes for what they were, but my comfort level was tested to the fullest with one scene that I found myself simply disgusted with. If there was ever a villain in this story, it would be Raul de Amalric. To Gerard, he is one of his wife’s extramarital lovers and father to his illegitimate daughter. When Gerard pays Raul a visit, Raul drugs Gerard’s drink.

“Are you going to kill me?” asks Gerard to his foe after the poison knocks him down. Raul responds,

And he does.

I can’t even begin to describe how disgusted and disappointed I was about this being in the story. Rape is  a horrible plot device, and I felt that it was completely unnecessary in this situation with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The only reason it was there was just to show one man raping another man for its female audience’s enjoyment, and I cannot even fathom why any girl without a history of sex abuse would fantasize about such a thing. This was by far the low point for me in this experiment, and I hope I never have to read something like that again.

As much as I did appreciated the creativity with the storyline and the narration, I ultimately found myself not enjoying the book. However, it was not just because of the rape scene or any of the gay sex moments.

Like most manga that is targeted towards women, I found the story to be too dramatic and complicated for my simplistic male brain. In a medium where I seek a harem of easy one-dimensional women ready to serve all my every needs, I found the backstabbing and betrayals of friends and enemies of this comic to be too much to handle. That is what lead to my ultimate dissatisfaction with the story.

I am not the targeted audience for this story, but I recognize that and I can’t fault the artist for it. I’m not a yaoi fangirl (or boy), and reading a creatively written yaoi story was not going to make me one. But I can most certainly see the appeal of this comic looking at it from a female’s point of view.

I could see how a woman reader would find some guilty empathy for the comic’s only female character, Gerard’s promiscuous and vulgar wife. I could see how a female reader could superimpose themselves into the role of Jacques to resolve their own personal father issues. And I can even see that the shocking “finger in the asshole” panel mentioned earlier could actually symbolize to a female reader that Gerard is preforming cunnilingus on Jacques while penetrating a vaginal hole.

When it comes down to it, yaoi is a dirty guilty pleasure only intended for its particular fanbase, but it is that way for a healthy and logical reason. That is why I can appreciate it as much as I can appreciate one of my comics about moé and catgirls. I think every manga fan has their own guilty pleasures in the medium that is based on their own personal tastes and desires, and who is one to judge one fetish from another?

So while Gerard & Jacques didn’t awaken me to the joys of yaoi manga, it has most certainly shown me that even a boy-on-boy story could actually contain some insteresting and creative bits of storytelling. Now if you don’t mind, I think I’ll go back to reading some Ken Akamatsu series.


UPDATE: Well, this post turned out to be more controversial than I had anticipate. So let me to just clarify some things pointed out to me in an email from the Reverse Thieves:

People really seemed to like to harp on the fact that you said rape is never a good plot device. While we are not fans of rape as a plot deceive it can be well done. For example at the beginning of Gerard and Jacques. Though, we would agree that personally we never find rape sexual stimulating. Perhaps that is what you meant?

Yes, I did mean that rape is a horrible device for sexual arousal. I could understand it being a catalysis for some dramatic story about a victim’s struggle to cope with rape, but that was clearly not the context it was used in this story.

I also didn’t enjoy the rape scene at the beginning of the story either, but I took it more as a reluctant but ultimately consensual sex scene.

And as you probably have realized by now there are a good number of people with rape fantasies. But it is actually the opposite of what you might think. People who have been raped or know people who have been raped tend to have these fantasies destroyed by reality, not the other way around.

Given my personal history with some messed up girlfriends, I have found the ones with some really horrible sexual fantasies were the ones with the history of sex abuse growing up. Maybe not rape exactly, but most certainly some form of abuse.

We were proud that you were honest about your feelings on homosexuality. I feel that took a good deal of courage. It would have been easier to pretend you were 100 % cool with gay love scenes and come off better. You caught some flack for that but at times people would be better if they admitted to their prejudices so they have an easier time not letting them taint their decisions.

I was a bit surprised that admitting I was still shocked to see two men kissing was taken that harshly. Like I mentioned in the article, whenever I see a scene like that in a Hollywood film, the entire audience in the theater lets out a gasp of “oh my gawd!” and “oh no he didn’t!” I still believe that America, in general, is a homophobic society. Why is gay marriage such a hot-button issue right now and why did Prop 8 pass in Cali?

I don’t have any religious beliefs or any objections to homosexuality, and gay rights is one of the only political causes I actively support. But growing up in a homophobic environment did rubbed off on me that homosexuality was not proper and intolerable, so yes, I am still shocked to see blunt displays of it because that was not acceptable in the society I grew up in. I don’t feel ashamed of admitting this, but I did take great offense to being called a bigot for not being politically correct about something that I think it not all that unusual in America.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I really felt you were reacting more to the graphic nature of the relationship depicted rather than the relationship itself. Had it been a more tame book, we would guess you would be more tolerant. Heck, it is almost too graphic for Narutaki’s tastes. Hisui on the other couldn’t care less.

I didn’t really outright object to anything about the comic except for the rape scene. The graphical gay sex moments did shock me and I didn’t like feeling uncomfortable, but the actual relationship between the men was fine. I actually found that part to be interesting once I caught on to the father/child symbolism.

Although I don’t enable comments on this blog, I strongly encourage my readers to email me with any feedback. I ask that you please keep your attitude in line and be constructive with your criticisms. I have zero tolerance for flaming or trolling, and I will disregard any email that I feel is too mean spirited.

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