On Beautiful Boys: Love in Japanese BL and Queer Youth Cinema
2 April 2023
“Do you know the legend of Enoshima?” Though Nagisa is only seventeen, his usually stoic disposition belies something of the turbulence beneath his calm exterior. Right now, eyes fixed firmly on a sea set ablaze by the receding sun, he is doing something decidedly uncharacteristic: letting someone in. Without waiting for a response, he begins, “A long time ago, a monk from a certain temple in Kamakura came to Enoshima on a pilgrimage.”
Shun, who listens, is the same age. He, too, is a pilgrim of sorts. He has come to the seaside town of Fujisawa for spring break, but, after his father is called away on work, the high schooler finds himself staying temporarily with the family of Nagisa’s employer-cum-mentor, who runs a modest surfing supply shop. Matters are quickly complicated as it becomes clear that the owner’s daughter Chika is in love with Nagisa and as her friend takes to the sensitive Shun, who sees something of himself in this other young girl who hides behind her camera. Still, this four-way confusion between teens pales in comparison to the confusion happening within two of them.
“And there,” Nagisa continues, “he met a beautiful young boy. The instant the monk saw that boy, he fell in love with him.”
For a moment, Shun seems to hesitate. “You mean… two guys?” he asks.
“Yes,” comes Nagisa’s reply.
“What happened next?”
“The monk couldn’t forget about that boy, even after he returned to Kamakura. He sent the boy letter after letter, but he never got a reply. Even so, he didn’t give up. The monk came to Enoshima once again, but he couldn’t find the boy.”
“Why not?” Shun asks, his gaze lifting to rest lightly on the back of Nagisa’s neck.
“The boy had killed himself by jumping into the ocean,” says Nagisa, matter-of-factly.
Without missing a beat, Nagisa concludes enigmatically, “The monk, after learning this, dove into the ocean just as the boy had. The end.”
Neither Shun nor Nagisa can quite bring himself to say what he feels for the other. For most of their friendship, this cryptic myth is as close as they come. It may seem strange, to modern audiences, (as, indeed, it does to Shun,) to hear a story of same-sex love plucked from the native folklore of his socially conservative country, and from religious folklore at that. It needn’t, of course. As this scene from the 2019 series His: I Didn’t Intend to Fall in Love (his: Koisuru tsumori nante nakatta) alludes, Japanese culture and history are full of such tales.
This essay is less an argument—though, if the reader squints, there is perhaps one to be found—than a meditation on a history, a medium, a genre, and the insights that its best iterations have to offer. In writing it, I couldn’t help but recall the words of my old parish priest: “There is always some worship in love.” Even now, I find this statement deeply resonant and moving. Still, the question I hope to explore here, by way of the unique genre of boys’ love, is the vanishingly thin line between edifying and injurious adoration.
In his groundbreaking book on Buddhist sexuality The Red Thread, Bernard Faure shows that across continents and cultures, Buddhism, particularly the Zen variety dominant in Japan, often saw desire as a stage through one must pass for spiritual advancement, much as historian John Boswell demonstrated how Christianity’s art and history are littered with tales of monks and same-sex saints who exemplified Christlike sacrificial love for one another, often with romantic and sexual undertones.
In the popular Japanese medieval genre chigo monogatari, or tales of young novices, authors tell of monks who are smitten by striking youthful apprentices. These chigo, usually between the ages of seven and seventeen, lived in temples in boarding school-esque arrangements as they prepared to become monks. Generally, these tales end tragically, as the youths in question are cut down in battle suddenly, drown dramatically, or simply succumb to the ravages of time and age themselves.
The message is that beauty is, in a sense, false. Looks fade, as does passion. But it thus also imparts a deeper spiritual truth. One can admire the cherry blossom—or the boy pretty as a flower in bloom, as the case may be—and cherish it all the more for knowing that, as one accidentally Zen American poet put it, “nothing gold can stay.”
There is no straight line, no red thread of fate, leading inexorably from these medieval testaments to same-sex desire to our obsession with the thankfully aged-up beautiful youths of modern so-called boys’ love manga and media, the main focus of this essay (more on that below). But all yarns are spun from something, and despite the profound transformations wrought by Japan’s urbanization, secularization, and liberalization in the intervening years, tying things together in this way at least underscores one crucial point: the desire for something or someone beautiful, as belied by the very term “idol” used to describe the male celebrities populating this and other genres, is a profoundly spiritual impulse.
In modern parlance, beauty is a regimen. As Nagisa intuits, however, for the ancients it was a religion.
If this seems too grandiloquent an introduction to what has, undeniably, become a global industry, then that is partly because of the way in which everything smacking of girls and women—and queers—is automatically diminished. Boys’ love, or simply BL, refers to comics, films, and series centered on same-sex crushes and relationships between impossibly good-looking young men. Originating in Japan, but now found across Asia and the globe, this genre of fiction is distinguished from conventional gay literature and media in that it is created largely by and for mostly young straight women. For this seemingly prurient pastime, its female fans were derisively dubbed fujoshi, “rotten girls,” a moniker that many have since reclaimed.
One of the effects wrought by the genre was the evolution and elevation of a gentler form of masculinity characterized by soft, dewy skin (often aided by makeup), slender frames, and a distinctively youthful grace that, while full of historical precedents, remains at odds with the contemporary, muscular masculinity promoted by U.S. blockbusters (and its Chinese Wolf Warrior copycats) on the world stage. Related moral panics over the ripple effects of women and girl’s rising economic and cultural power, reflected in national and transnational backlashes to increased demand for the softer masculinity of Japanese bishonen (beautiful male youths), Korean flower boys, and Chinese “fresh little meat,” demonstrate just how unsettled the patriarchal powers that be are over the prospect of desires not dictated by old straight men.
To be sure, the mere fact of women’s central role in the story of boys’ love doesn’t exonerate its production within capitalist networks of power and profiteering. Part of the genre’s original appeal was its reliance on the taboo of same-sex love, which would seem to insist on the social marginalization of its characters and their, at least initially, largely erased real-world counterparts. In the recent string of live-action adaptions spanning not only Japan but also Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Korea, actors are often prepackaged products of the factorylike pipeline of idols pioneered in the U.S. and perfected in Asia. Obligatory skin whitening, onerous restrictions on stars’ personal relationships and public personas, and even cosmetic surgery are par for the course in many cases.
What’s more, early and enduring BL tropes of male-male attraction as purely situational, as something sparked, unexpectedly, by “the one” (and, sometimes, by violent assault), hardly endeared the genre to more militant, westward-looking gay rights activists in its country of origin, as these Japanese pioneers insisted that its erasure of issues of identity and social discrimination, promotion of dated stereotypes of male-on-male predation, and depictions of magically fungible preferences set back the cause.
As scholars like Thomas Baudinette have noted, the lingering impact of imported European sexology’s early classification of homosexuality as a kind of gender inversion (that is, feminine souls in male bodies) has, in addition to conflating the experiences of same-sex-attracted and trans individuals, resulted in a predictable backlash within Japanese gay male culture, in which gentler, “cuter” ways of being male were, and still are, looked down upon as embodiments of straight stereotypes of gay men—despite the fact that such norms ironically limit the acceptable, desirable range of manliness to the narrow template provided by heteronormative society.
But beauty, as the adage goes, is in the eye of the beholder, and fantasy is a fickle thing. Beyond cultural peculiarities and tastes, there is also the matter of personal predilections, which are less easily predicted and controlled. Corporations and agencies can harness idol power for profit, gentrifying a once-taboo genre, but BL creators and consumers are also meaning-makers whose ideas of beauty may have little semblance to that of either U.S. hyper-individualistic, muscular masculinity or Japanese societal expectations around what well-behaved wives and workers ought to want. Nor are the sharing communities and fan fiction networks in which these rotten women and men exist wholly monetized. Many depend upon voluntary labor translating, uploading, and sharing these works; piracy is commonplace. Too many idle daydreamers can be a dangerous thing, after all.
Today, at any rate, there have been some belated apologies, as conversations around gender and sexuality’s unshakeable queerness have shed the protective shell of dubious insistence on absolute fixity in desire and expression. More and more, advocates acknowledge the often fluid—and, yes, at times delightfully surprising and protean—nature of attraction, and the multiple possible points of entry for BL readers and watchers of all persuasions.
What, for instance, to make of the BL classic Summer Vacation 1999 (1989), in which the lead characters in a boys’ boarding school are all played by girls with short-cropped hair? How are we to understand largely straight female audiences’ presumed identification with and enjoyment of relationships between boys in love as enacted by androgynous girls, to say nothing of other fans? Should we call this enjoyment straight or gay or trans? Vicarious or voyeuristic? All of these—or none?
There is something downright prescient, even zeitgeisty, about such films’ blurring of gender and sexual lines. The groundbreaking manga from which the above-mentioned film was adapted, The Heart of Thomas, itself borrowed heavily from European novels and settings, meaning that, long before its regional and global explosion, the seemingly quintessential Japanese phenomenon has always been a creature of cultural cross-pollination, as cultural scholars like James Welker have pointed out.
As of late, though, genres too have blurred. Both his: I Didn’t Think I Would Fall in Love and its confusingly named, no less moving film sequel His are written and directed by men. While the original series centers around beautiful boys who long for one another, it is also more knowing than its early predecessors. The female characters, upon realizing what’s going on (one might even assume that boys’ love comics have contributed to the characters’ awareness of this possibility), mourn and move on in a refreshingly humanizing way; they then try to help the two overcome their doubts and confess the feelings that fear has forced them to suppress. But, we learn, this isn’t Nagisa’s first love, a small-but-notable deviance from generic convention. The first crush, Nagisa emotionally relays, left him rejected and ostracized, so much that he switched schools and tried to date girls. In the sequel, the two, now out of high school, break up at the film’s opening due to Nagisa’s fears that it will be impossible for them to continue given social prejudices, which they eventually confront—first, in themselves, then, in their new small conservative town, and, finally, in the Japanese familial and legal systems themselves.
In many ways, then, newer iterations of boys’ love tropes can, at a glance, fit into generic containers like LGBTQ cinema and youth films, the latter of which are similar, but not identical, to coming-of-age stories, save that they often celebrate and stay within the delicate periods of childhood or adolescence instead of easing or shocking characters out of them. Like LGBTQ media, these newer installments do not necessarily shy away from the social complications of queerness or the shelter and community provided by labels like bisexual or gay, despite the strategic or ideological importance they often attach to sexual indeterminacy and fluidity—a quasi-utopian, arguably radical gesture that thankfully hasn’t been fully jettisoned. Some, like the 2021 film What She Likes…, tackle head on the disconnect between fujoshi’s fantasies and the lived realities of young gay men, entering into a kind of dialogue with them. But, blurry as these lines may get, what unites these works is a recognition of their shared love of those beautiful boys who love other boys.
“Beauty,” wrote famed Japanese novelist Mishima Yukio, “is like a rotten tooth. It rubs against your tongue, hurting, insisting on its importance. Finally, you go to a dentist and have it pulled. Then you look at the small bloody tooth in your hand and say, ‘Is that all it was?’” Mishima, a literary trailblazer, right-wing reactionary, and tortured homosexual, was nothing if not a man of contradictions: too modern to accept beauty as a transcendental absolute, too transfixed by it not to sacrifice his life in the vain hope of making it so.
As Nagisa’s tale warns, beauty can indeed be a perilous thing. After all, in the face of the Absolute, there is only one appropriate response: total self-abnegation, annihilation. But I hope here I have suggested that aesthetic categories are not free-floating qualia “out there” simply awaiting recognition but always produced, reworked, and experienced within concrete historical and psychosocial contexts. Viewed in this way, it’s possible to escape the sadomasochistic logic of the fanatic, to recognize the involvement of the self in a relation with an-other.
Perhaps no recent BL adaptation addresses this problem more directly than the 2021 Japanese series My Beautiful Man (Utsukushii Kare, more literally and poetically rendered He, Who Is Beautiful). In it, our high-school-aged protagonist is a lonely, socially awkward outcast named Hira. Cursed with a lifelong stutter, the only thing that saves him from humiliating himself in front of his new high school classmates during their first formal introduction is the serendipitous appearance of a handsome newcomer, Kiyoi. What follows in this seemingly one-sided, even obsessive infatuation with this newcomer, who takes on a quasi-godlike status in Hira’s own mind.
Before long, however, Hira sees through the veil of Kiyoi’s carefully cultivated image of cool indifference. Kiyoi dreams of making something of himself, working night and day to achieve his dreams of fame. When Kiyoi initially fails to make the cut in a crucial dance competition, only Hira is privy to his secret ambition. The two gradually become closer, spending time together outside class but still rarely saying much.
At first, the nature of the pair’s budding closeness remains uncertain. Kiyoi’s occasional indulgences, like letting Hira place a worshipful kiss on his hand, coupled with his tendency to openly denigrate this hanger-on, only seem to reinforce Hira’s sense of unworthiness. When, on the last day of high school, Kiyoi surprises Hira by placing a kiss on his friend’s lips (before promptly shoving him to the ground, accidentally shattering Hira’s phone in the process, and leaving), the ever-oblivious stammerer can only read this as pity.
The two then fall out of contact.
Fast forward to college. For the first time in his life, Hira finds he’s not so alone. A sensitive young member of the photography club named Koyama takes a liking to him, helping Hira work through his social anxiety, and the two begin dating. While at Koyama’s brother’s coffee shop, Hira by chance stumbles across Kiyoi, and, in an instant, old feelings–and Hira’s stutter–resurface.
In the dramatic climax of the series, Kiyoi and Hira finally find the courage to express their feelings for one another; even so, Hira remains convinced he could never be worthy of Kiyoi. Kiyoi, at his wit’s end, breaks down. I’m not a god or king, he pleads, but a human being, someone who wants to be touched and loved just as you do. Hira, taken aback, promises to love him on his own terms. This doesn’t, it turns out, preclude Kiyoi’s usual disdainful response to Hira’s fawning (“Gross”), but even that now elicits a knowing smile. As recent live-action BL series go, My Beautiful Man is unique for its acknowledgement of the baggage its protagonists carry and the misunderstandings this can invite. It promises not some easy resolution to the insecurities and uncertainties of its leads but, rather, the possibility of playful negotiation of their fantasies and needs.
Earlier, I suggested that, in the best of contemporary Japanese BL and queer youth cinema, endings are rarely as neat as we might hope. The economy of idols, it’s true, has led to all sorts of cynicism about the subversive power of such works, and not without good reason. If anything, the clearly fantastical and more problematic elements of much of BL have too often made it easy for fans to dissociate its stars and stories from real-world problems and the struggles of same-sex-attracted individuals. While these evolving tales, media forms, and fan communities undeniably provide important outlets for social, artistic, and sexual support and exploration for many, particularly in countries less hospitable to queer desire, when fans become stans who refuse to engage with the less savory aspects of the industry, or even defend known abusers simply because of their star power, it’s hard not to also see echoes of Hira’s initial self-defeating, delusional obsession. To confuse fantasy with reality, after all, is to rob the former of its distinctive beauty and power, its invitation to see and imagine the world—and ourselves—anew.
Love is always fraught, but what works like his: I Didn’t Think I Would Fall in Love and My Beautiful Man make clear, however, is that real love is something that shatters individual preconceptions and forces those involved to reckon with their own understandable foibles, insecurities, and hang-ups. This needn’t entail jettisoning our fantasies altogether (an impossible task, in any case), but rather, through trial and error, coming to a place where we are better equipped to distinguish between the two so as to live more fully in the space between. Not to do so is to be condemned forever to confuse a projection with a person.
In the works explored above, we see, in very different narratological and stylistic modes, the persistence of a spiritual as well as erotic discourses of love. While My Beautiful Man may be more open, in some respects, to the kinky power play that this sometimes entails, all of the aforementioned works hold out a tantalizing promise, namely, that we need not always put those whom we love up on unreachable pedestals. Rather, audiences are invited to contemplate the ever-present possibility of personal, erotic, and romantic growth, in which once-elusive objects of desire now become flesh-and-blood individuals navigating the all-too-human complexities of self-discovery and reciprocal understanding. Yes, there is always some worship in love, but here below, we must measure it carefully, lest we forfeit our own self-worth and well-being in the process.