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 24 2008 12:00 AM ET

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

Fast-forward to
late 2006, when Ebine Yamaji’s manga Love My
Life
became a popular feature film starring one of
Japan’s hottest model-actresses, Asami Imajuku. Now
available in the U.S. from Wolfe Video, the film provides a
positive portrayal of lesbian life in Japan and has an
ultraprogressive L Word feel to it. The plot focuses
on Ichiko, an out lesbian college student who p finds
out that her father is gay and her mom is a lesbian;
Ichiko herself spends plenty of time rolling around in
bed with her beautiful female lover, Eri.

Yet in a July
2007 interview with Tokyo Wrestling (a Japanese website
promoting lesbian and queer culture), Yamaji denied having
had any gay friends or acquaintances when she was
writing Love My Life. She claims she had never
met an out lesbian until after she made the film. And
when asked what she thought about lesbian life in
Japan she replied, “I really don’t know enough
about anything to give my opinion.” Whether
tatemono honmono was at work or Yamaji is a
straight woman with an astoundingly deep understanding of
lesbian culture is debatable. But her statement makes clear
that lesbianism isn’t something discussed in
polite conversation in Japan.

Mari Morimoto, a
professional manga translator and self-identified queer
woman living in New York City, says that because of the
“don’t ask, don’t tell”
nature of lesbian culture in Japan, it’s almost
impossible to make generalizations about the
relationships readers have with yuri.
“Remember -- yuri is very specific, and yet it
is very vague,” Morimoto says.

But in America,
teens have the freedom to view manga as more than
receptacles of repressed sexual feelings. Morimoto says
manga and anime conventions in the United States like
Otakon and AnimeNext can turn into places where young
gay and trans people use the manga fantasy as a
stepping stone toward coming out. In that way manga actually
helps prepare them for gay life in the real world.

“At these
conventions the environment is always very accepting and
open,” she says. “You can cross-dress as
an alien character and no one will bat an eyelid. As
you can imagine, it’s a totally freeing
experience.”

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