Anime Boston panel 3/31/17: “Boys’ Love, Otome culture, and gender”

Here is a PDF of the slides from my Anime Boston panel today; I will try to upload an annotated version after the con. Thanks to everyone who attended!

AB_Panel_Otome_Culture_3.31.17


Anime Review: The Empire of Corpses

"The Empire of Corpses" Funimation poster

The Empire of Corpses (Film, 2015, Studio: Wit Studio, Director: Ryoutarou Makihara, based on a novel by Project Itoh & Toh Enjoe, US release: Funimation).

I took a break from Urgent Grant Deadlines to catch a screening of the Project Itoh “Victorian pulp with added zombies” novel adaptation The Empire of Corpses. (This was the first time I’d seen a movie in an actual theater for years, and the “Coming Soon” previews reassured me I had been missing nothing by ignoring Hollywood’s output during that time. Are all movies grey-brown-and-red nowadays?)

I had missed the fact that the screening was of the dubbed version; the dub was so-so (no-one was fully up to the required fake English accents), and the script seemed to be overly concerned with matching the lip-flaps rather than having dialog appropriate to the characters or the era. On the upside, I guess not having to read subtitles made it easier to look at the pretty pictures?

And looking at the pretty pictures is important, because The Empire of Corpses looks terrific; a lushly-illustrated exercise in steampunk Victoriana with a passel of pretty boys (most of whom unfortunately end up as shambling corpses) along with the requisite raw-boned adventurer and improbably-bosomed lady (the neckline on that dress would never pass as 1870’s daywear). The animation is very nice, especially the lavishly detailed settings, and the mass scenes of zombies make good use of CGI; it is stylistically well integrated with the hand-drawn animation, and the remaining bits of incongruousness work well with the fact that the zombies are supposed to look strange and move oddly. (They are mostly of the shuffling-automaton variety, with one important exception.) And there’s lots of splashy action scenes, if that’s the sort of thing you like.

Aside from the pretty, pretty pictures, the main reason to watch this thing (aside from the zombie-killing and stuff-blowing-up, which I personally don’t care about) is the overwrought emotions, in particular those of the main character, a handsome young medical student by the name of James Watson, and his all-consuming obsession with returning life and consciousness to the reanimated corpse of his dead friend, posthumously codenamed Friday (AKA “Noble Savage 007”. No, I’m not kidding). In the tail end of the movie, there is a slight suggestion of romance between Watson and the film’s one significant female character, but that is completely steamrollered by the intense BL overtones of Watson’s devotion to his friend (one-sided, as Friday spends most of the movie as little more than an ambulatory stenographic device); I kept expecting that the words that Friday is so desperately implored to speak would involve “I love you” (they don’t). You can also have fun name-checking historical characters and references to Victorian pulp fiction, from Thomas Edison to The Future Eve, although don’t expect them to correspond much to their originals.

The plot, on the other hand, is a trainwreck; the first half of the movie is mainly a series of excuses to whisk the characters to various exotic locales for lavish action setpieces, while the second half conjures out of the thin air innumerable startling revelations, magic powers, and evil schemes in service of a massively overwrought climax that seems to be channeling every B-movie mad-scientist flick ever (to the point that the dialog, or at least the English script, flirts with being intentionally campy at points). The story leans heavily on snippets of exposition to explain the characters’ current goals and never takes great pains to establish why their actions are necessary, while scattering plot holes you could drive a convoy of troop carriers through. (Suspension of disbelief overload point: after all that, Watson still had that one pen? And during all those weeks of travel, Friday had never been able to get his hands on the pen until then? I mean, yes, the pen is thematically important because Friday=writing and writing=speech, but the timing seems very awkward.)

And as a card-carrying dork, I was excessively annoyed that the parameters of the steampunk magitech change freely according to the requirements of the current action scene; the zombies in particular are animated by your choice of implanted neural controllers, Frankensteinian electricity, some kind of bite-transmitted infection, or glowing particles of the collective consciousness. I am somewhat motivated to check out the novel, if it ever gets translated, to see if it makes any better sense, although I doubt it; the fact that the author died in medias res and the ending was penned by someone else is probably a factor in the lack of cohesion.

The ending involves a lot of portentous monologuing about Language as the seat of consciousness, which I think is supposed to tie into the Victorian-literature-in-a-blender theme, and does fit with Watson’s obsession with getting his deceased-and-reanimated friend to speak; unfortunately reifying “language” as floating green sparks and glowing liquid is not a particularly compelling conceit. The film’s main themes, however, are: life, and why you shouldn’t mess with it; consciousness, and why you shouldn’t mess with it; and that being really, really, obsessionally over-attached to someone who is dead is not the greatest thing for your sanity or (if you happen to be a mad scientist type) other people’s well-being.

The film is a poster child for why you should never leave the theater before the credits have stopped rolling; a post-credits monologue addresses Watson’s most desperately-sought question (although it appears he doesn’t get to know the answer), followed by an update on the characters’ later lives. If I am interpreting this scene correctly, it explains why Moriarty had such a down on Holmes: dude stole his boyfriend. Not cool.

My final verdict: do see this thing, on a large screen if possible, so you can wallow in the pretty pictures and the feeeeelings, but don’t expect it to actually make any sense. If you see it, please come back to explain to me why, if Frankenstein was British, Frankenstein’s Monster is Russian?


Random review: President Momoi-Kun

President Momoi-Kun cover

President Momoi-Kun by Higashi Nishida (Shachou Momoi-kun, serialized in Opera; EDGE Comix edition 2011, Juné edition 2013)

This is an example of a type of BL that is rare in translation: gag manga. There’s plenty of rom-com, sitcom, nuttery and slapstick in translated BL, but the only other title devoted specifically to gag humor that I can think of offhand is All Nippon Air Line (note acronym). Opera has a reputation in the West as a publisher of more sophisticated / alt-indie / literary BL, but they also run stuff like this, which is none of the above.

The titular Momoi-kun, who is a bit of a layabout, has just accepted a figurehead position as president of his father’s company, purely because he wants to find a cute young executive with glasses to be his boyfriend. The secretarial position for his office hasn’t been filled, so he gets shown around and assisted by one of the managers, who happens to be a not-so-cute older guy, but with glasses. This of course eventually leads to romance, but that’s not nearly as important as the fact that it leads to gags.

Gags about glasses. Gags about company politics. Gags about bizarre coworkers. Self-referential gags about being a gag manga. Most of the jokes are out-of-left-field non-sequiturs, and although some of them are quite funny, they don’t add up to anything or forward the (minimal) plot. Around the halfway point, the author remembers that there is supposed to be a romance in here somewhere, and throws in a little stock-scenario emotional bonding and some unlikely elevator sex. And for a dose of emotional whiplash, dropped right into the middle of the volume is an unrelated one-chapter tragic romance (which gets recycled as a gag at the end of the volume).

I’m not sure what the appeal of this title is supposed to be. The romance, such as it is, is not convincing, the story having blown all its goodwill and suspension of disbelief on the gags (and it does not help that the characters’ personalities and motivations change at whim to suit the current setup), and almost all of the gags are generic ones that have nothing to do with the characters or situation, so it’s not satisfying as a BL manga. On the other hand, it’s also not satisfying as a gag manga: the bits of relationship-building interrupt the flow of the humor, especially in the second half of the book, and although the gags are occasionally outstanding, too many are old warhorses and/or uninventive. I suspect that this series was more fun to read in serialization, as a few pages of crazy in-between the actual story-driven stories (most of the chapters are quite short, contributing to the lack of plot momentum). It doesn’t even have visual appeal to fall back on; the cut-out cover is appealing, but the interior art is stylistically generic and not very technically accomplished.

Unless you are a huge fan of this author, or a huge fan of gag manga, or have a compulsive-obsessive need to own ALL THE BL (like me), you can skip this one.


Boys In Skirts: Shounen★Princess ~ Putri Harimau Nao

This is part of a series on otokonoko media, works for a male audience that focus on crossdressing boys; you may want to take a look at the intro post.

Shonen Princess coverShounen★Princess ~ Putri Harimau Nao by Seishiro Matsuri (少年☆プリンセス, serialized in Champion Red, Champion RED Comics edition 2014, untranslated)

(This book is not to be confused with Boy Princess, a BL manhwa series by Seyoung Kim that involves crossdressing, Shounen Oujo ~ Mimic Royal Princess, a shoujo manga series by Zenko Musashino and Utako Yukihiro that involves crossdressing, or Josou no Ojisama ~ Drag Prince, a BL anthology series that involves crossdressing.)

The topic of today’s review / commentary / thing is an otokonoko manga featuring a straight romance. Bent totally circular, but straight. As far as I can tell, this manga isn’t published in any language that I can actually read, but I wanted to talk about it anyway because it confuses me, in an interesting way. (My Japanese is minimal, so this summary is based on picture-reading, Google Translate, and sweating through short passages with a radical dictionary, so don’t expect complete comprehension.) I’m going to spoiler a lot of the plot, because it’s not translated and I expect that few people will have the opportunity (or desire) to read it anyway.

Our hero Naotora is a cute Japanese schoolboy who has been shanghaied into becoming the bride of the crown prince of the fictional Southeast Asian country Urunei. (I’ll admit that I’m not sure of the context here; there’s all of three pages to explain the setup before Nao gets handcuffed and shoved onto an international flight.) The role of course involves crossdressing, but also, for some reason, golden tiger ears; the book’s subtitle means “tiger princess Nao” in Indonesian (the last part of Naotora’s name means “tiger”, so there’s a pun involved), and the “tiger princess” seems to be of some kind of special significance in the fictional culture.

Shounen Princess page

Gender reveal in 3… 2… 1…

Unfortunately Urunei is in the grip of political turmoil, and no sooner has he arrived in the palace than he’s the target of an assassination attempt. But lo! Aforesaid prince (his name is given phonetically as Afumado Bin Shaya Rafuman, god knows what they were aiming for), who is of course handsome and dashing, swoops in to rescue Nao and take him to a local festival where prince-dude can do the seductive “wipe food off the other party’s face and eat it” thing. This leads to an argument which ends with prince-dude sweeping Nao off his feet (literally) and kissing his thighs, which gives Nao an erection, thus outing him as a guy, leading to some “OMG I made out with a guy” angst abruptly terminated by another assassination attempt, requiring prince-dude to buckle some more swash in a suitably dramatic and dashing way. But lo! When they finally get back to the palace, Nao discovers, via a totally gratuitous bathing scene, that prince-dude a) is in fact not a dude, and b) has an amazing ability to pack her impressive frontage into that sleek princely uniform. (This all happens in the first chapter, by the way.) It’s vaguely implied that prince-girl prefers girls and isn’t happy about the dudeparts, but she gets over it, of course. I suppose it helps that Nao is a girlish little cutie and she never sees him in male clothing (and aside from the first three pages and a one-panel flashback, neither do we).

The story takes a couple of extended trips into fanservice-land (such as buxom handmaidens being punished for misbehavior by being forced to wear vibrators glued to their inner thighs – sure, conservative SE Asian countries totally do that), but mainly there’s Plot: evil scheming rivals, thwarted political coups, lots more assassination attempts, kidnappings, dramatic revelations of parentage, double-crossing subordinates, and the escaping of certain death by the skin of their teeth, during which prince-girl and bride-boy discover (surprise) that they like each other. In fact, there is too much plot for a single volume to comfortably hold, and even without being able to understand all of it I get the feeling that a lot of plot threads get unceremoniously dropped for lack of space.

Losing your heterosexuality: worth dying over.

Losing your heterosexuality: worth dying over.

Nao pretty much gets the role of the plucky girl protagonist who holds off the bad guys by wit, guile and occasional shows of bravery until her prince shows up with the cavalry, only of course genderflipped. At one point Nao, in the course of some sleuthing that goes south, tangles with the hot but evil rival-prince guy and gets out of it by being seductive, leading to a passionate kiss from evil rival guy. At the climax of the story, after a lot more action and prince-girl’s dramatic murder (spoiler: *psych*), evil-dude gets shot and falls off a boat; he drags Nao in with him but in the process gets a view of Nao’s crotch, realizes he kissed a guy, and drowns in a state of gay-panic self-loathing. And so our couple lives happily ever after in genderbent bliss.

(Off topic, but the combination of gratuitous crossdressing, political intrigue, and swashbuckling reminds me a lot of Shounen Oujo ~ Mimic Royal Princess, except that one is shoujo and this one is shounen, so instead of androgynous lolicons, gender politics, and hot heteroflexible pirates, we have fetish underwear, boobies, and close-up shots of erect dog penis. Also, Shounen Oujo is spectacular and really badly needs to be licensed, whereas this one not so much.)

Our Hero. The text translates as "Welcome to Urunei".

Our Hero. The text translates as “Welcome to Urunei”.

What confuses me deeply about this thing is that I can’t tell what fantasy it’s selling. On the one hand, the story itself is firmly heterosexual; the one case of guy-on-guy making out ends up with said guy getting his just desserts through not only death but the soul-destroying realization that he has inadvertently committed teh ghey. On the other hand, the book is eager to display Nao’s curvy feminine succulence, starting with the cover and interior color page and continuing through pretty much the whole book; he gets almost as many fanservice shots as the various well-endowed secondary female characters. (Prince-girl, oddly enough, gets almost no fanservice other than the one bathing scene which reveals her sex and the portrait on the back cover; instead, she gets to be cool and heroic). I suppose that if you want to fantasize about being a cute crossdresser you might as well fantasize about being a hot sexy cute crossdresser, but the way Nao is handled feels like you are supposed to want to drool on him, not be him. And he spends an awful lot of the story being seductive at, or being seduced by, male or thought-to-be-male characters. But at the same time it doesn’t feel like the “instant bisexual threeway, just add your wang” kind of girl-on-crossdresser story that pairs up two characters that are both fantasy objects, in part because prince-girl is not nearly as sexualized as Nao is.

So I don’t know, maybe they’re just trying to cover all the bases? This is one of the things that interests me about otokonoko media; it’s so catholic about what you the reader might want out of it or who you might want to be or might want to bang. But it’s still unusual to have an individual story that is so ambiguous, especially running in a mainstream shounen magazine.

Yes. Because this is totally what Indonesian princesses wear around the palace.

Yes. Because this is totally what Indonesian princesses wear around the palace.

It’s also unusual for a heterosexual otokonoko romance to only have the crossdresser on the cover, although in this case I guess they couldn’t have put prince-girl on the cover without either making it look like m/m or blowing the big reveal. Incidentally, this is not the first shounen manga from Akita Shoten to prominently feature a crossdressing boy’s naked ass; I believe that honor goes to No Bra volume 4, published ten years ago. Crossdresser ass: it is perennial. (Also, the whole Shounen Champion / Champion Red magazine complex is way into crossdressers.)

If you have an ardent desire to own this book for yourself, I got it off of J-List (potentially NSFW), but it’s available from the usual Japanese-import suspects and of course amazon.co.jp. It’s not a must-have; the art is competent and consistent (and not very moe-fied, for a change) but still fairly basic shounen stuff, and while it is nice to have a story with a significant plot besides the romance, this one has too much plot for its length and doesn’t really get it to gel. If you spot it in your local Kinokuniya it might be worth picking up, but it’s not worth going out of your way for.


Boys in Skirts: You See, Teacher…, Vol. 1

Boys in Skirts: You See, Teacher…, Vol. 1 by Ei Tachibana (Sensei Anone., originally serialized in Oto★Nyan. Million Shuppan edition 2012; Project-H edition 2014)

Book page at Project-H: NSFW!!. Available in print or digitally through eManga (including convenient PDF download).

You_See_Teacher_V1_cover

This is the first of a planned series of (intermittent) posts on “otokonoko” (a pun that translates roughly as “male maiden”) AKA “josou shonen” (crossdressing boys): male-oriented media that focuses on MtF crossdressing, with or without (but usually with) romantic / erotic elements in your choice of m/f or m/m flavors. (If you haven’t heard of this stuff before, you might want to check out the intro post for the series.) In You See, Teacher… we have an example of a genre that is still an oddity in English; a male-male romance primarily aimed at straight-identified men (if you have trouble with that idea, see the discussion in the intro post).

The first thing I want to get onto the table is that, sadly, this book is not porn. All three (soon to be four) of the m/m otokonoko manga currently available in English are released through DMP’s Project-H imprint, which is a hentai imprint, meaning that they’re all labelled as porn, but all of them ran in Oto★Nyan; that magazine was fairly raunchy, but it was a respectable non-restricted seinen magazine and never ran porn. I suspect that DMP put these books under the Project-H imprint because they’re smutty stuff for guys, but the degree of fanservice and innuendo in any of these books would not be excessive for a standard M-rated manga. In this case, although the cover incorporates the federally-mandated crotch shot that crops up on the majority of otokonoko-genre covers (since the conceit of the genre is that the cute crossdresser looks exactly like a girl, you have to show bulge to get across that it’s actually a boy in that skimpy miniskirt), it goes no further than a lot of salacious fanservice and some making out. I knew what I was getting, having read it in serialization, but I imagine some people will be disappointed.

Secondly, the cover is adorable. Most ecchi seinen romances only put the girl on the cover; the equivalent, for m/m otokonoko, is to only put the crossdresser on the cover (unless it’s a crossdresser-on-crossdresser title, in which case they’ll both be on the cover and probably all over each other, as in Kuromame’s Club For Crossdressers NSFW!!). Presumably this is so you don’t have to look at some dude (eww) while ogling the hottie. Tachibana gets around this by using a wraparound cover; the flirtatious crossdressing cutie is on the front, but he’s holding hands with the befuddled protagonist on the back (which also features the protag’s little brother; in a dress, of course).

You_See_Teacher_V1_full

Said protagonist, Kakenishi, is a 23-year-old virgin and ineffectual high-school teacher who gets walked on all over by his students, except model student Nakamura. In the opening pages, Kakenishi discovers that seemingly perfectly-behaved Nakamura is, in fact, making sexy crossdressing webcam shows using the school computers, tastefully illustrated by four full-color pages of a lightly-clad Nakamura in suggestive positions. (In fact, the very first page features an ass’n’crotch shot with panty-clad boybits prominently displayed. Just in case you weren’t clear on the premise.) Kakenishi makes an ineffectual attempt at persuading Nakamura to stop doing this, which succeeds only because Nakamura, who turns out to be quite the manipulative troublemaker when not in stealth mode, decides it will be more fun to seduce his flustered and ineffectually-protesting teacher instead. That sets up the primary plot for the series: Nakamura aggressively vamps Kakenishi in lewd, fanservice-providing ways; Kakenishi blusters and dithers but always gets dragged along. Your usual list of ecchi rom-com hijinks ensue.

As you will immediately gather, this book has a lot of raunch; there is a fair amount of humor involved, but the emphasis is definitely on titillation. Nakamura is totally shameless (early in the story he gives Kakenishi his email address written on the panties he was just wearing), and in addition to flashing everything he’s got at Kakenishi, he’s quite willing to use his sexiness to make friends and influence people make money and wrap people around his little finger, and for some reason both his schoolmates and any random other males around are more than willing to slobber on him even (or especially) when they know he’s a guy. Although there is no sex whatsoever, the series is bountiful in its provision of skimpy cosplay costumes, fetish lingerie, perky nipples, panty shots, wardrobe malfunctions, and, especially, barely-clad boybits (plus a few peekaboo shots of unclad boybits). And there is an extended sequence of suggestive things with mayonnaise bottles, if you happen to be into mayonnaise bottles.

In case you don’t care for hot-to-trot crossdressing sexpots, there’s a subplot about Kakenishi’s shy and innocent younger brother Nagare (also a highschooler), who gets tricked into crossdressing as a prank but decides he likes it because it makes him popular. Of course, he’s too sweet and innocent to understand why his new “friends” are so eager to make his acquaintance, or why it’s a bad idea to run around in a miniskirt with no panties. Nagare gets the only really squicktastic scene in the book, near the beginning, in which a group of faceless older men take advantage of his naiveté to basically molest him; going for the “creepy” double-play, Nagare doesn’t understand what’s going on, but he’s happy for the attention. Yes. Right. Fortunately this sort of thing does not reoccur, and near the end of the volume we meet an age-appropriate guy who seems like he’s being set up as Nagare’s love interest.

For a touch of drama, there is a fairly significant subplot about why Nakamura, a stellar student when he’s behaving himself, left one of the top-ranked high schools in the country to come to Kakenishi’s distinctly third-rate institution; neither Kakenishi nor the reader knows what’s going on, and Nakamura is quite definitely not telling. Later in the book, the basketball team from Kakenishi’s school has a match against Nakamura’s old school, and they manage to persuade him to come along as cheerleader. Nakamura, as you may have gathered, wants to always be in control of the situation and hates revealing any weaknesses, but even his consummate acting ability can’t completely hide his anxiety over returning to campus or being recognized by his former classmates, leading up to a cliffhanger at the end of the volume.

Despite this, the series’ primary focus is the rom-com. The US publisher’s page plays up the “forbidden” and “secret” nature of the main’s relationship, by which I’m hoping they’re not referring to the gay; Kakenishi is obviously interested in Nakamura from page one and spends very little time in “but I’m straiiiight” mode. To his credit, he is concerned about the morality of getting involved with a student and a minor, and remains so even as he admits he’s falling for Nakamura. (And from a practical point of view, he’s also afraid he’d be fired if the other teachers discover him in compromising positions with one of his students.) But from the very beginning, his main issue is that he thinks Nakamura is just toying with him; Nakamura does tell him repeatedly that he loves him, but since Nakamura is manipulative to the point of evilness and constantly jerks him around in other ways, it’s reasonable that he would have doubts. The volume ends before we get resolution on this point (or any other point), but I would be very surprised if the author has plans to not have the guys sort everything out and become a couple.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this book. Nakamura’s autocratic self-confidence and relentless aggressiveness is entertaining, and I personally like the gormless “hetare” type; Kakenishi is adorable in his clueless befuddlement. And despite all the comedy shenanigans and Nakamura’s difficult personality (cough), it looks like they will make a good couple once they sort out their various issues. Teacher-student relationships bug me in general, as do age-mismatched relationships, but it helps that Nakamura so obviously has the upper hand, that the book plays everything with a strong comedy touch, and also that the series is such blatant wish-fulfillment: yes, otaku-dudes, it doesn’t matter what a gormless loser you are, someday you too can meet some hot crossdressing jailbait who will pour himself into your lap and demand sexytimes! (Incidentally, Nakamura seems to be about 17, which would make him legal in my area.) In addition, I find the sort of shameless pandering this book indulges in amusing even when it’s too over-the-top to be sexy.

Tachibana’s art is mediocre; faces are expressive but draftsmanship is wobbly and the characters go off model constantly (in particular, Nakamura’s hair-flip is sometimes incompatible with the size and shape of the normal human skull). In the author’s notes the author mentions that it is their first series, and looking at some of their more recent stuff they’ve improved considerably. Project-H’s presentation is nice, with four color pages and a pretty good translation, although there is a completely clueless ad in the back that implies that Club For Crossdressers is part of the My Cute Crossdresser series (it’s not even the same author, guys).

The one thing that makes me anxious about this book is that it’s supposed to be a series, and in fact ends on a cliffhanger, but the magazine in which it ran folded a while ago, and I can’t find any suggestions of a volume 2 in Japanese even though V1 is over two years old. The author did post a tweet about a year ago which, as far as my ability to hack bits of meaning out of Google Translate goes, indicates that they were hoping to release new material soon (if you are interested in checking out the rest of their Twitter stream, be warned that it frequently contains NSFW images). Hopefully this material will in fact eventuate, and will be translated; considering how little of this kind of work there is in English, it would be a pain for it to be unfinished.

So if you like cute crossdressing boys in fanservicey situations, or if you just want to see what it looks like when male-oriented fanservice tropes get applied to a male body, and you don’t absolutely require porn, this isn’t a bad place to start. It may not be the most polished example of the genre, but it will definitely fulfill your minimum daily requirement of scantily-clad boybits.


Boys in Skirts: Introduction, or what’s the difference between an otokonoko and an otokonoko?

This is an introductory preface to a planned series of (probably highly intermittent) posts on “otokonoko” (a pun that translates roughly as “male maiden”) note, AKA “josou shounen” (crossdressing boys), terms that refer to, variously, a character type, a genre of media, and (in the case of otokonoko) a RL subculture, that focus on cute crossdressing guys, and which is specifically targeted to (mostly straight and cis) men.

This material interests me greatly, because although female-targeted Japanese pop culture has a highly positive attitude towards male femininity, male-targeted Japanese pop culture still primarily treats male femininity as a source of humor. Although it’s largely a hardcore-otaku trend at the moment, and although it validates only a limited definition of male femininity (i.e., to the degree to which the crossdressing character successfully resembles a cute girl), it nonetheless displays a degree of flexibility in gender and sexuality which, at least over the 20th century, has been more associated with female-targeted media.

Not a girl. (Himegoto V1, Norio Tsukudani 2011)

Not a girl. (Himegoto, V1, Norio Tsukudani 2011)

As a character type, the distinction between an otokonoko and a garden-variety crossdresser is that an otokonoko has to look good in that dress; cute, appealing, and femininely desirable. As long as he can meet those requirements, in fact, it’s not required that he overtly crossdress (for example, the awkwardly-titled Kazuki Makes Love Happen?! at ALL-BOYS High School, on MangaBox).

As a character type, otokonoko are widespread at this point; although intermittent examples date back to at least the early 80’s (such as Stop!! Hibari-kun!), cute crossdressing boys have become a staple in dude-otaku series over the last 5 years or so, especially in harem setups. In addition, the otokonoko concept itself, and the word, frequently crops up in modern otaku-focused media, from Genshiken: Second Season (in relation to Hato) to I Can’t Understand What my Husband Is Saying (in relation to the titular husband’s younger brother). English doesn’t really have a comparable word for the concept; “crossdresser” and “transvestite” are too generic, they’re not remotely drag queens, and, to stave off the inevitable complaint, the vast majority are not trans women. This has apparently given the various translators some headaches; “otokonoko” has been translated as everything from “girly-boy” to “trap” (the preferred term among Anglophone internet-otaku, the politics of which I’ll leave for some other day). I Can’t Understand What my Husband Is Saying, which leaves a lot of otaku terms untranslated (probably through exhaustion, because it’s chock-full of them), rather sensibly leaves the term in Japanese.

Also not a girl. (Boku no Geboku ni Naare!, Assa 2013)

Also not a girl. (Boku no Geboku ni Naare!, Assa 2013)

Aside from otokonoko characters in mainstream otaku media, otokonoko is also a genre, consisting of works focusing specifically on this character type as protagonists or love interests. There are a number of book-format otokonoko manga anthologies still running, both PG-13/R (such as Josou Shounen Anthology Comic and Super Otokonoko Time) and triple-X (find them yourself), and otokonoko stories also run in various shonen and seinen magazines. For a while, there were also two now-defunct magazines dedicated to otokonoko manga: Waii! Boys In Skirts (shounen, a spinoff of Rex Comic’s Comic REX magazine) and Oto★Nyan (seinen, from Million Shuppan). Otokonoko media simultaneously caters to two (possibly overlapping) audiences; men interested in crossdressing, and men interested in crossdressers. Consequently, in both Waii! Boys In Skirts and Oto★Nyan you’d see ads for salons offering discreet classes in clothing and makeup running next to ads for porn games featuring m/f, m/m, or crossdresser/crossdresser action (sometimes in the same game).

Although a few otokonoko stories are just about the awesomeness of wearing cute dresses, most of these works feature some degree of romance or eroticism, and many are straightforwards romances. Interestingly, many of the anthologies and both of the magazines have an about-even mix of girl-on-crossdresser and dude-on-crossdresser stories, making it one of the few places where you can routinely find m/f and m/m relationships side-by-side. The entire genre seems to feel that men interested in fantasizing about being cute crossdressing boys making out with girls in pseudo-lesbian relationships might also be interested in fantasizing about being a guy making out with cute crossdressing boys (or, possibly, being a cute crossdressing boy making out with guys) in pseudo-heterosexual relationships.

Nope, none of them (Amahara-kun+ , Hinahime 2011)

Nope, none of them. (Amahara-kun+, Hinahime 2011)

Otokonoko stories are generally aimed at a generic shounen or seinen audience, and as far as I can tell from this side of the Pacific, in Japan both the men who are fans of otokonoko media and the men who identify as otokonoko largely identify as both cis and straight. Consequently, otokonoko media contains a type of story that many Anglophone commentators refuse to believe exists: male-male romances primarily aimed at straight-identified men. In my experience of Anglophone otokonoko fans who have a preference for m/m, the majority also identify as straight. Personally, I’m inclined to give them a pass on this; if women who like pretty femmy guys are lesbian, as a depressing number of commentators on BL insist, then it stands to reason that men who like pretty femmy guys are straight. In addition, majority gay culture both in America and in Japan is heavily invested in insisting that gayness is manifest as masculine men loving other masculine men, and that being attracted to pretty femmy guys is Not Sufficiently Gay; in various discussions by gay Japanese men, I’ve seen crossdressing-boys material dismissed as not relevant to gay sexuality (for example, in Gengoroh Tagame’s intro to the Gay Erotic Art in Japan artbooks). And there’s the fact that what appeals to you in fiction might not be something you would want to do in real life; there’s apparently a lot of straight women who like f/f stories even if they have no attraction to 3D women. Interestingly, among male fans who do identify as non-straight, most seem to be bi rather than gay.

Although m/m otokonoko stories come in pretty much every flavor a standard shounen / seinen romance does, a substantial fraction feature plots in which a hot’n’sexy crossdresser aggressively pursues a gender-normative guy who is constantly wailing “but I’m straiiiight” even as he becomes (unwillingly) totally turned on. Some people interpret this as homophobic disgust towards the guy-on-guy, but considering that the only reason to buy this stuff is to get the guy-on-guy, that seems unlikely. On the one hand, the “hottie repeatedly throws themselves at loser guy who inexplicably doesn’t want any” plot is a classic of male-oriented romantic comedies, going back to Urusei Yatsura and Tenchi Muyo!. Presumably the fun of this is that you get to second-guess the protagonist; I get this vibe from a lot of the raunchier crossdresser-fetish stuff (as in “You FOOL! Why are you dithering about your heterosexuality when you could be tapping that?!”). On the other hand, when the story is aiming for salaciousness, the crossdresser’s efforts to seduce the gender-normative guy make a convenient excuse for lots of fanservice, and the latter’s reluctance may be the only thing keeping the series from becoming porn; if the crossdresser totally wants it and the gender-normative guy decides that heterosexuality is for losers and he’s going to hit that like a freight train, the author has to come up with some other excuse to keep them from getting it on. And on the third hand, it provides a kind of plausible deniability for the reader; if the lead character, who is totally straight, goes into meltdown when the hot crossdresser rubs himself all over the dude’s crotch, then you, who are also totally straight, are justified in buying a manga that exists to deliver scenes where a hot crossdresser rubs himself all over some dude’s crotch.

Guess. (Shounen Princess, Seishirou Matsuri 2014)

Guess. (Shounen Princess, Seishirou Matsuri 2014)

Heterosexual otokonoko stories also come in a variety of types: some offer pseudo-lesbian fantasies, some offer “sneaking into the girl’s locker room”-style fantasies, many offer vile sissy-fetish/fem-dom fantasies (especially the pornier ones), and some have interestingly genderflipped pairings (like Shounen Princess, left). And some have that weird vibe you get from a certain class of yuri, where the point of the exercise seems to be that you could bang everybody on the cast. Possibly the single most popular plot is “hot bossy girl with huge breasts who will force you to crossdress and then sex you up but good”, closely followed by “lifting the gauze curtain into the dreamy world of girls and becoming a part of the communal bathing, friendly boob-groping and girl-on-girl sexual experimentation that all girls totally get up to when men aren’t looking”.

And some stories, as I mentioned, are just about how awesome it is to wear a dress, and how looking good in frilly skirts will bring you personal fulfillment, feminine camaraderie, popularity and professional success.

So that wraps up the crash course in otokonoko: on to the project itself. I’m planning to look at selected examples of various types of otokonoko-genre stories, and some otokonoko characters in non-otokonoko works where I think there are interesting things to be said. I plan on an emphasis on works available in English, and also an emphasis on works I enjoy (or enjoy hating on). Furthermore, because I am a straight chick, there will be an emphasis on stories where you get to ogle the crossdresser, and because I am a rabid fujoshi, there will also be an emphasis on m/m stories. Be warned.

There are a couple of m/m otokonoko manga available in English through DMP’s Project-H imprint, and I’m going to kick this off by reviewing one of them: Ei Tachibana’s You See, Teacher…, Volume 1. Read on.

1. For the curious: The normal word otokonoko (男の子), “boy”, is made up of parts that literally mean “male child”. The punning version (男の娘) swaps out the ko meaning child for a different ko meaning girl or maiden (the same ko as in meganekko), giving a compound that literally means “male girl”. Often, the ko is written in katakana (男のコ), potentially adding a certain ambiguity (although this form always means 男の娘, not 男の子).


Things I Love: A Liar In Love

A_Liar_In_Love_cover A Liar in Love, by Kiyo Ueda (Usotsuki wa Koi o Suru, originally serialized in HertZ. Taiyo Tosho edition 2010; Juné edition 2011)

I had a long commute to the middle of nowhere, so I finally got around to writing up this book. It’s one of my favorites, probably in the top twenty BL manga I’ve read (which is saying a fair bit, in that I own greater than 90% of all print-format BL ever published in English; I’m planning to get through all the digital stuff just as soon as I win the lottery, because geez, there’s a lot of it…). (And yes, I have more than twenty favorite BL manga. Don’t make me choose….)

BL tends heavily towards stories of first love of some kind, AKA “what is this strange feeling I have never felt before”. This typically involves high-school boys and their first crush, straight guys blindsided by the fact that they’ve fallen in love with a man, or man-izing jerks blindsided by the fact that they’ve fallen in love with anyone. This one, as you might guess from the title, is one of the latter.

The main character, Tatsuki, is a Hot Jerk whose philandering ways have left a trail of disgruntled (male) exes stretching back to the Stone Age. He’s on the permanent outs with his brother, who is understandably frustrated with his jerkishness. The story opens with said brother making the incredibly stupid move of calling up hot jerk to ask him to introduce his coworker Miura to some nice gay guys; coworker has just gone through a bad breakup and brother wants to help him out by setting him up on some dates. Hot jerk, being a total jerk, decides to seduce coworker and then dump him painfully, for the sole and specific purpose of ticking off his brother. So he motors over to the traditional Japanese restaurant where brother works, and gets a load of coworker, who is a Shy Dork. Who blushes. And has hot little glasses.

I approve. I approve immensely. OK, yes, he has terrible taste in sweaters, but you can’t have everything.

So hot jerk (who works from home and seems to have a lot of spare time) starts hanging around the restaurant radiating niceness and charm at succulent, succulent dork. Brother immediately susses out what hot jerk is up to and tries to warn shy dork off, but shy dork is a sweet innocent with no experience with hot jerks, and he falls for the protagonist like a ton of express-delivery rock. Hot jerk strings him along for a while, gloating over his evil plans, until he eventually realizes that he actually enjoys being shmoopy with shy dork, which totally freaks him out because it conflicts with his self-image as a Hot Jerk. So he is nasty to shy dork and makes him cry, and then he’s all like “ha ha, I showed them“, until of course he realizes that he really liked shy dork and he’s totally fucked this up and now he’s going to be brokenhearted forever and DIE ALONE. So then it’s his turn to get all weepy.

But of course in the end they patch things up and hot jerk reforms and becomes a devoted house-husband, making dinner for his sweetie when he comes home from a long hard day at the restaurant (do Japanese restaurants not let the employees eat the leftovers or something?). And then they live happily ever after in a state of domestic bliss. (If you think this constitutes a spoiler you have not read enough BL. Or romances in general, for that matter.)

This story has a bunch of elements that I like. I always appreciate stories from the seme’s point of view, succulent dork is succulent, and the emotional bits are suitably emotional. It also features two out gay guys, if you care about that sort of thing, and in fact takes a swipe at the “gay for you” trope; brother is very upset about hot jerk’s behavior and wants to save shy dork from his evil clutches, and around the two-thirds point he announces that he’s in love with shy dork and is going to take him away from hot jerk. Shy dork immediately points out to brother (correctly) that his affection is based on friendship rather than romance; he may love shy dork but not in the kind of way that leads to sexytimes. And it’s one of those stories where the philandering jerk realizes that he’s in love because he can’t get it up with anybody else, which is always good for a snicker.

The art is pretty, with lots of attention to Tatsuki’s suave good looks and Miura’s blushing adorableness, and the book has a smooth translation. Unless you just can’t stand romances with “a rake reforms” plots, you should totally read this one.