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Lost in Translation

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.

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.

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. " 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.

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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Caroline Ryder