Lost in Translation

By Caroline Ryder

Originally published on Advocate.com September 23 2008 11:00 PM ET

America’s
appetite for all things Japanese is voracious -- sushi,
karaoke, Hello Kitty. In the past seven years our Nipponese
fixation has turned toward manga, comic books that
have a distinctive Asian aesthetic and are published
in innumerable genres, including romance,
action-adventure, horror -- even sexuality.

In 2007 manga
sales represented 56% of the revenue of all graphic novels
sold in the United States. And things have been particularly
good for manga in film lately: Warner Bros. put out
Speed Racer earlier this year, and 20th
Century Fox is adapting Dragon Ball for a 2009
release. U.S. publishing houses HarperCollins and
Random House have teamed up with manga publishers.

Manga is so vast
that there is an entire subgenre portraying love between
girls. Yuri -- which literally translates as
“lily” -- can revolve around anything
from hard-core sex between impossibly pneumatic girl
characters to sweet tales of schoolgirl crushes, where
hand-holding is as racy as things get. And while
you’d be forgiven for thinking yuri is a gay
story written for a gay audience, the Japanese would
likely disagree. In a country where homosexuality is
still very much taboo, even the most conservative of
Japanese parents are OK with their daughters reading
yuri manga because the comics aren’t viewed as
“gay.” (For the record, there are also boy-boy
manga love stories, called yaoi. Raw in their
depiction of romantic and sexual relationships between
males, they’re primarily read by straight women
in Japan.)

This cultural
coyness may be attributed to the concept of tatemono
honmono
, a term for the space between what things
appear to be and what they really are, says Erica Friedman,
founder of ALC Publishing, the world’s only
all-yuri publisher. “In Japan there’s
intense societal pressure to live life as a straight
person, more than any Westerner could
conceive,” says Friedman, who is also president of
Yuricon, a convention that celebrates yuri in
anime and manga. “Yuri is accepted—so
long as it’s perceived as being this fantasy
world.”

To the
contemporary Western mind, this nuance can be perplexing. In
his book Japanamerica, Roland Kelts explains
that “the strict codes of etiquette that govern
daily life in Japan also allow for an extraordinary
degree of creative and social permissiveness: the
freedom to explore other identities.” So while a
married woman may be able to explore her sexuality
freely and without reproach by reading yuri on the
subway, that freedom ends as soon as she turns the last
page.

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.

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.”