“What is BL?” A question I ask fujoshi who I meet here and there.
“Schmex,” is always the immediate answer that often comes with an almost mischievous laugh.
“Boy’s Love and everything that comes in between” is the most straightforward answer.
“Is that the same as yaoi,” another would ask.
“That’s the girly stuff, isn’t it?” One girl would comment which often sparks a discussion on what really makes Boys’ Love.
Boys’ Love is a term many fujoshi are familiar with yet one that easily confounds them. At times, I wonder, if it’s something we fujoshi have taken for granted. Simply because nothing is as clear as Boys’ Love manga. But at the same time, it’s a term that non-Japanese fans haven’t warmed up to.
Most of us still use yaoi and we often use the two interchangeably. Yaoi is to BL. BL is to yaoi. That fact that the English wikipedia redirects Boy’s Love to their yaoi page is telling how, outside of Japan, yaoi has better recall. And honestly, I thought for the longest time that this was the case at least until I’ve started reading some essays on BL only to find its parallels and differences.
It seems that there’s more to BL than just yaoi. And yaoi is a different animal compared to BL.
Did we miss a point? Not really.
We English-speaking fans know yaoi because at the time when the internet was brand new (and this was in the mid to late 90s), yaoi was the catch term English-speaking fans used to describe the m/m fan fiction they were writing based on characters from anime series. Early on they disassociated themselves from slash fiction and god knows who they got the idea from, but I can only imagine that it was possibly learned from exchange students in Japan who might have lifted it from the Japanese and made the distinction early on. And it wasn’t a wrong distinction.
Fans in Japan associate yaoi not only for its humorous meaning but also for its contributions in relation to fan work. The concept of ‘yamanashi, ochinashi, iminashi,’ strengthened their ploy to do whatever they want when they pair two of their favorite male characters from a series together. Yaoi, to the early doujinshika, would be what we refer to in fandom as PWP, ‘Plot? What plot?’ where the writers are not obligated to justify or establish a reason because at the end of it all, these two have too much UST (unresolved sexual tension) that they just need to get laid. Sometimes, it’s really just crack. As such, this reckless homosexual fantasy became yaoi. And as I’ve seen it then, anything that pertains to this unabashed sexuality in anime fanfiction was also referred to as yaoi.
Back then, it was all right. Fansites would emblazon loose definitions of yaoi to entice curious girls (like me) to the magic of m/m fan fiction (with all the sparkles and ky). And they even ‘understood’ the nuances between yaoi and shounen ai. Yaoi would mean that there was hard, full-on, sex scenes while shounen ai tackled the feels with some hints of intimacy.
And that made sense. To a degree, it’s even correct.
Of course, what’s missing is the historical and contextual nuance of shounen ai. They were correct in saying that shounen ai were stories of boys falling in love through a rich plot that engages their emotions. These were characteristics found in early m/m stories in shoujo manga written by the Magnificent 24. Because of the emotions entailed, and maybe even the sexual naivete that were found in those comics, added with the rosy illustrations as drawn by the women, early English-speaking fans associated shounen ai to a more naive expression of yaoi. Some were probably familiar with its shoujo manga associations and would even go as far in saying that shounen ai is a ‘safer’ version of yaoi.
Yaoi and shounen-ai became terms that English-speaking fans used to distinguish the degrees of m/m fan fiction in relation to anime. And by extension, anime and manga with the same characteristics were also categorized in the same breadth. The earliest of yaoi OAVs were Bronze, Kizuna, and Fish in the Trap. Kaze to Ki no Uta was the shounen ai anime, which was perfectly correct. At the same time, Banana Fish also grew a reputation as shounen ai.
And you couldn’t blame English-speaking fans back then because at that time, there was no word to describe the growing genre that was happening in Japan. As with many things, the English-speaking fandom is late in translation. But even Japan couldn’t find a word for it. Even Google brings up a different thing when you type BL.
How Japan sees BL
In Eureka’s Fujoshi Compendium, Tomoko Yamada notes how any m/m manga before before the 1990s was called the pre-yaoi/boy’s love time1. For BL and yaoi to happen, there were a couple of components that some critics said were necessary. These were the presence of shounen ai in shoujo manga and the presence of anime parody doujinshi. The anime parody (aniparo) doujinshi eventually gave birth to yaoi doujinshi. The popularity of homosexual depictions in yaoi doujinshi of popular anime made yaoi a common term among fans. It eventually became the term to describe any boy’s love story, both doujin and commercially published story.
Publishers took advantage of these elements and decided to publish comics that catches these interests. As such, it wasn’t surprising that the earliest BL titles were actually written by then famous doujinshikas like Yoshinaga Fumi and Kazuma Kodaka. With the industry’s support, they were free to explore titles, themes, and circumstances. Back then they had no established rules on what kind of couples worked. As such you would have titles like Love Mode who would encompass three or four couples with different relationships. At the same time, by realizing itself as a genre, Boy’s Love manga made itself distinct from Gay manga, prioritizing its main audience as women.
Eventually, based on their readers tastes, they began to publish special anthologies catering to special themes like salarymen, youth, megane and so on. Shotacon, for example, was born in the 90s as a response to then popular genre lolicon.
By the mid90s, they also began to release BL novels, some anime, and drama CDs. By the 2000s, even games had BL components in it. Eventually this grew into a full blown industry where by the mid-2000s, it eventually claimed a road for itself, Otome Road. Its followers were also labeled fujoshi.
As such, in Japan at least, Boy’s Love is the appropriate term for the genre and an industry that involves boys falling in love with each other. As such, it encapsulates not just BL manga but other forms of media that contains stories of boys or men falling in love. While its history goes past 40 years, it seems that Boy’s Love as a genre has only been around for 20.
It’s a term that encompasses both the hardcore, softcore, and even the fluffiest of boy’s love stories. Nothing of it is lesser or greater than yaoi or shounen ai. It is both mature and sophisticated as some are more inclined to think of Boy’s Love manga, but at the same time, it also contains the madness mostly associated with yaoi. If anything, it’s but the natural evolution of its predecessors. Much like them, Boy’s Love is a genre that continues to challenge and shift female fantasies and interests. It continues to be a genre that transforms how we enjoy our comics.
Sources on Boy’s Love Manga
In case any of you are interested in reading more about BL itself, here are some readings and books you can look into:
You can also check the Yaoi wikipedia page where it has a plethora of sources you can read on yaoi and BL manga. Yaoireasearch.com also has a good collection of articles in relation to yaoi and particularly yaoi western fandom.
Header art is by Kumota Haruko used in Raito BL E Yokoso.
- Tomoko Yamada, “Pre [yaoi・BL] to iu shiten kara”, Eureka 39-7 (2007):124 [↩]