Lost in Translation

What’s not gay about girl-on-girl comic book love? In Japan, everything. Caroline Ryder explores the elusive world of lesbian manga.

BY Caroline Ryder

September 23 2008 11:00 PM ET

Shoujoai ni Bouken smaller (ALC Publishing) | Advocate.com

Take First
Love Sisters
, a classically sweet and innocent
manga that, like so many yuri stories, is set
in a school. The story revolves around Kizaki Haruna, a
mysterious brunet teenager, and Chika Matsuzato, a younger
student who develops an intense, somewhat obsessive,
crush on her. “The instant I met
Haruna-san,” Matsuzato gushes, “it seemed
somehow warm, as though the very atmosphere had
changed.” It’s romantic stuff, culminating in
Kizaki licking ice cream from Chika’s face. But
that doesn’t mean it’s a lesbian story,
says illustrator Mizuo Shinonome.
“Womanhood…is delicate, and changes so
much with things like marriage and giving birth,” she
writes at the end of First Love Sisters.
“Love between two women might be seen as
ephemeral, shining and gentle.” Shining and
gentle it may be, but ephemeral? The assumption that lesbian
relationships are the stuff of schoolgirls, merely fleeting
fancies, is clear.

First Love
Sisters
is published in the United States by Seven
Seas Entertainment, one of a handful of mainstream manga
publishing houses translating yuri Japanese
titles for the American market. The steady growth in demand
for yuri reflects the larger manga boom in the
States. While there are no statistics specifically for
yuri titles, total U.S. manga sales in 2007
amounted to more than $220 million, according to
Publishers Weekly. Cultural theorists like
Roland Kelts say interest in manga was fostered after 9/11,
when American readers were able to relate to the
postapocalyptic narratives the comics often contain.
Whatever the impetus, the fascination is likely to
continue, particularly as Hollywood studios, insatiably
hungry for a new supply of action heroes, turn to
Japan for inspiration.

“I’d love to see more yuri content out
there,” says Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, a senior editor at
Tokyopop, the second largest publisher of translated
manga in the United States. Tokyopop published 12
Days
, a dark, deeply emotional graphic novel by
South Korean expat artist June Kim about a woman who
mourns the death of her female lover by consuming her ashes
in the form of smoothies for 12 days. Boy-boy
yaoi has established a stronger readership in
the States, Diaz says, possibly due to larger demand for
male-related themes but also because of continuing
misunderstanding of what yuri actually means.
“Some people think it’s lesbian porn
geared toward men -- and that kind of manga does exist --
but there’s much more to it,” she says.

Riyoko Ikeda, who
is largely regarded as a yuri godmother in manga
circles, in 1972 created The Rose of Versailles, one
of the first manga comics to contain girl-girl themes
and the first translated manga to be available
commercially in North America. It tells the story of
Oscar, a handsome girl who dresses as a boy and serves the
leader of Marie Antoinette’s palace guards.
Most of the female courtiers have a crush on the
dashing Oscar and become jealous whenever she’s seen
with female escorts. The Rose of Versailles was
adapted for the stage by the Takarazuka Revue, a
regional Japanese theater where women play both male
and female characters. Takarazuka fans are known for fawning
over the actresses, and as with yuri, parents see it
as a safe fantasy, having nothing to do with actually
being gay.

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