Yu-Gi-(Makes Me)-Oh

Yu-Gi-(Makes Me)-Oh

He had straight, shoulder-length blonde hair and iridescent blue eyes. He was tall and slender. His feminine facial features were offset, but also strangely complimented, by his voice (later I learned it was the voice of Christian Bale). His name was Howl and when I saw him for the first time I was wild for him. But how little did my pre-pubescent heart understand. Howl would never love me, or even realise I existed. He was trapped, confined to his own fantasy world – and a limited world at that – with a defined beginning and end. My first encounter with Howl ended almost abruptly. The lights turned on and I left the cinema, trailing behind my parents in secret dismay. There was an ache in my chest and, for a week, I was deeply confounded by the perplexities of loving a Hayao Miyazaki anime character: in essence, a really, really hot cartoon.

Almost a decade has past and I think I am over Howl. But, in the recent summer break, I have come to realise that I am not over my obsession for anime and manga – particularly of the shōjo variety. Part of me is, and forever will be, a fourteen-year-old Japanese girl.

My next love shared many similarities with Howl. Usui Takumi was blonde, slender and tall, and although he had none of the magical abilities that Howl had, he made up for it with a combination of academic genius, physical strength, and a nonchalant attitude that was fragmented with perfectly timed moments of sensitivity. All the girls “confessed” to him, but he rejected each one with an air of confident disinterest. I liked that about him – he knew what he wanted and he was unfailingly honest to that. He also, somehow, had experience in relationships beyond his years, although his personal background largely remained an alluring mystery. My time with Usui Takumi lasted for 85 comics and while it ended organically, I developed an addiction for his undoubtedly fantastical character type – a personality perfected in countless shōjo manga. And for several weeks I subconsciously trapped myself within the role of the girl who “wasn’t like the other girls” – I was the one who could touch the hearts of Takumi and Howl. I was given an intimate power to put a leash around the cool boys of the manga and anime worlds.

Every person should be familiar with the idea of a comic, but the Japanese version – known as manga – is something else completely and holds an overwhelmingly popular status in Japan. Its influence is everywhere. But, while manga passed across those geopolitical boundaries decades ago, it perhaps did so without the full awareness of global consumers. Think, for example, of Astro Boy (or Tetsuwan Atom). This animation featuring a sensitive, crime-fighting robot has been widely viewed (and adored) in the United States since the 1970s, but few completely appreciated that it was made in Japan or based on manga. Decades later, awareness is growing (any child that did not have a Naruto, Yu-Gi-Oh or Dragon Ball Z obsession would be lying ... or very sad), but manga – the base for a majority of anime – is still far from receiving popular status in most Western countries.

While the origin of manga is debated, it is generally accepted that it evolved from “Chojyu-giga” (humourous pictures of birds and animals) first depicted by the monk Kakuyu in 1053-1140. However, it was only in the 19th century when the term “manga” was first used by Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849) in printed illustration books, which showed humourous pictures of everyday life. Jump forward to the 1960s and a variety of manga types for a range of target demographics (usually revolving around age and gender) had developed. Now, manga is still drawn and printed in black and white and this ongoing tradition has resulted in an abundant use of semiotics and semantic connotations unique to these comics. For example, white hair outlined by black lines typically indicates foreigners.


The two central protagonists are standing on the school roof, when Usui Takumi (the coolest guy in school) drops a photo of him and Ayuzawa Misaki in her cosplay maid outfit off the edge. Ayuzawa, the Seika High School student council president, is terrified – no one at her school, except Usui, knows of her maid job. Usui, sensing her panic, climbs onto the ledge of the building.

“And what do you think you’re doing?” Ayuzawa demands.

“This is the shortest way,” Usui replies calmly, almost nonchalant.

“Are you kidding? You will die for sure!”

“Pres told me to take it back, so that’s what I’ll do.”

“What are you talking about? Why would you do it to such extremity?”

“Why?? That’s because ... I love you! Ayuzawa!”

Usui kisses Ayuzawa, and then dramatically launches himself from the roof’s edge.

This scene is from one of my favourite shojo mangas, Kaichōu wa Maid-sama (written and drawn by the renowned Fujiwara Hiro), and it literally made me blush. While I blushed, I questioned many things, in particular my emotional maturity – or lack thereof. I swear I’m normal (blatant lie) but, still, I had to accept that yet again a cartoon made my cheeks go red. Lacking the confidence to accept this and move on I delved into an obsessive quest to understand, first, if there were others who could be emotionally moved by comics and, second, just what it is about shōjo manga that hooks the reader.

Shōjo manga is not necessarily a genre or specific drawing style, but rather it is a category that shows the anime or manga target demographic (young women or girls from approximately 7-18-years-old). Popular examples include Cardcaptor Sakura, Fruit Basket, Ouran High School Host Club, Sailor Moon and Skip Beat. However, what is inherent to all shōjo manga is their personal intimacy, from the romantic, teen-angst content to the prolific use of characters with overly large eyes, which (apparently) are meant to act as windows to the soul, suggesting unspoken emotions, allowing readers to identify with the complex inner psychology of the character.

Shōjo manga, as well as another variety specifically addressed to boys, first began to appear in the late 19th century during a time in the Meiji era when literacy was encouraged. Importantly (particularly to the background history of shōjo manga), it was also around this time, in 1896, that the Meiji Civil Code in Japan condemned gender ambiguity through the regulation of appearance – the Code was particularly harsh towards women, exercising a fierce control over female bodies and their roles in Japanese society, confining a woman’s status to who she was in relation to a man whether that be as wife, mother, daughter or otherwise. In 1902, Shōjo Kai (Girls’ World) was first published and children’s magazines began to be separated along gender lines. But, over a half a century later in the late 1960s and early 1970s a dynamic youth counterculture influenced manga in Japan, resulting in new, more progressive themes and content in shōjo manga. In 1972, a place was finally made vacant for shōjo manga at the popular comics’ table – largely due to the success of Ikeda Riyoko’s Berusaiyu No Bara (or The Rose of Versailles). Berusaiyu No Bara depicts a woman called Oscar who both behaves and dresses as a man. As a captain in the French army, Oscar also has romantic relationships with a male subordinate and Marie Antoinette (whom Oscar is a bodyguard for). Thus, gender questioning and the huge desire by Japanese readers, especially women, to explore these themes began to be realised.

However, comics loosely described as shōjo only brush the surface of what can be found in the manga world. There are many more sadistic, masochistic, pornographic, and gender-bending roller coasters to ride. I have simply been far too sheltered. The first jump from shōjo manga is jôsei and dansei (women’s and men’s) manga, which often features adult themes like drinking, sex and the stress of corporate jobs. Then, somewhere within these more adult comics (but still arguably fitting within the shōjo demographic as a subgenre) fits yaoi, or boys’ love. In no way an understatement, the psychology behind yaoi and its popularity is totally bizarre.

Honami Kairi is shy and sweet when he accepts an offer to work as a housekeeper in order to support his sick Aunt. However, unknown to Honami, the job is actually to marry the foreign Royal Prince Shou. Later, on the night after their wedding, the prince is furious at Honami for (innocently) having dinner with another man in their room.

“To let a man ... in the room immediately,” Royal Prince Shou growls, eyes cold as ice.

“It’s a misunderstanding! Kousuke-san was just here with me for a meal,” Honami replies, scared and wide-eyed.

The prince grabs his wrist.

“Where are we going?”

“At first I thought of holding you gently. But it seems unnecessary now.”

Honami is thrown onto the grand bed.

“No!” he cries, “please stop this!”

“It’s no use shouting. There is no one else left here.”

“From today onwards, you’re my wife. I’ll give you money and status. In return, satisfy me.”

A terrifying (likely non-consensual) sexual encounter ensues.

This is a scene from the yaoi called The Royal Fiancé and provides a flavour for what can be found in yaoi manga. Yaoi is an acronym for the phrase “yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi”, which means “No Climax, No Resolution, No Meaning.” It features romantic and often sexual relationships between male characters; they are typically made by, and for, women. It began as a new genre of amateur manga (originally taking the “yummy,” implied homosexual parts of previously developed stories) and now there are handfuls of serial yaoi with fully developed plots. Furthermore, alternative meanings for yaoi have been suggested as it’s grown, like “Yamete, oshiri ga itai” or, in English, “stop, my ass hurts.”

Yaoi goes further than some popular shōjo manga where gender constructs are idly played with – in this way, it has a significant role in challenging the heteronormative gender ideals of sexuality. When I attempted conversation about yaoi in an online anime/manga chat room the responses were mixed:

Anon5115: “woah do you guys like yaoi. i don’t. i’m straight.”

Netruelism: “I’ve read so much yaoi my opinion of it is now meh.”

Anon5115 then asked the obvious: “are you gay?”

Netruelism quickly replied: “No, you don’t have to be gay to like yaoi.”

So if it’s not about being gay, what is it? The answers aren’t simple. Some argue that yaoi provides a fantasy world for its largely female following where identification, desire and sexuality can be experimented with. Others have interpreted this manga as liberating readers from both the patriarchy and heteronormativity, typically viewing the homosexual relationships depicted as devices (rather than objects) for the freeing of desire. Basically, heterosexual mating is just so mainstream, but in a yaoi the two male protagonists defy norms through the pursuit of their own overwhelming connection with each other.

That’s sweet, but why gay men? Ueno Chizuko, a feminist sociologist, believes that “male homosexuality [in shōjo manga] was a safety device that allowed [girls] to operate this dangerous thing called ‘sex’ at a distance from [their] own bodies; it was the wings that enabled girls to fly.” Readers of yaoi can escape the binary gender construction of male and female and submerge themselves within the fluid concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality – something that isn’t so easily done in day-to-day realities, trapped within the social confinements that restrict and subdue women. Furthermore, through the recurring scenes of non-consensual sex in yaoi, as shōjo manga essayist Fujimoto Yukari argues, women gain the perspective of the violator, while simultaneously acquiring a fantastical freedom from the position of being unilaterally violated. It’s somewhat sinister: reading yaoi is not simply about entertainment.

A step further takes you into the dark and completely obscure world of hentai, which is typically explored in horny isolation. I turned to the forums to further my understanding. The erratic, juvenile (and maybe enlightening) conversation quickly slipped from a peaceful discussion on manga to the grimy world of hentai, which is a general term most often used outside of Japan to describe anime or manga that features perverse sexual acts:

Anon758: “do you look at the incest ones?”

Netruelism: “I’ve only read incest a couple of times. Seriously bro, hentai is screwed up. It’s like the bowels of Japan.”

Mearick: “Dude, I saw one where they shove a mushroom up a fairy’s meow in order to collect her juice. And the dude covered the mushroom in an aphrodisiac first.”

Yobishimuri: “Punishment is the path to order.”

Bac0nbitz3: “Hentai is beautiful, it explores the avenues conventional porn cannot. It treads in those uncharted territories that few dare to enter. Also, most hentai is vanilla so don’t hate breh.”

A majority of manga (especially amateur manga) has something to do with creating fantasy spaces implicitly or directly presenting questions of gender and sexuality. The practically androgynous Howl was my first encounter, my first step, into this endlessly obscure world of supposed exploration. My binge consumption of shōjo manga was that next step. And, while yaoi doesn’t engage with me like it does with its avid readers, my deeper understanding of shōjo subgenres like yaoi had me fully appreciative of the power of the shōjo manga world – a world where gender and sexual revolution is liberal and eclectic. In this way, I have come to realise that those who openly make and follow this type of manga are admirable – deviating from the mainstream, encouraging a breakdown of social sanctions, in a process which some view as feminist or at least a step towards “true feminism.” While pockets of Japanese culture, like host clubs, cuddle cafes, and vending machines selling used underwear (which many say is now only an underground, illegal business) are hard to understand, an appreciation and following of manga can prove enlightening. The wide following of yaoi, for example, suggests both unhappiness with adherence to general standards of femininity and an environment that does nothing to question or fix this unhappiness. Bac0nbitz3 was right. For many of us, these are “uncharted territories,” but replace a tab of LSD with a good manga and I can guarantee that you’ll open your mind ... in one way or another.
This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2014.
Posted 6:57pm Sunday 23rd February 2014 by Loulou Callister-Baker.