By Andrew Osmond.
The manga My Brother’s Husband is a family drama, like some of the best-known Japanese films. Like Tokyo Story, it centres on an absence, a family member who’s died, and on characters bonding round the missing person. Like many Kore-eda films (and Hosoda’s The Wolf Children), it’s about an alternative family, not yet accepted by mainstream Japanese society, yet with its strength and authenticity. The manga depicts two men; a divorced Japanese man, and a bereaved Canadian who’d married the Japanese man’s twin brother.
“The (Japanese) protagonist is Yaichi, who’s a single father and has a daughter called Kana,” explains the manga’s creator Gengoroh Tagame during a talk at Japan House London. “One day a big Canadian man called Mike arrives. Mike was married to Yaichi’s brother Ryoji, who died in Canada. So Mike decides to visit his deceased husband’s family in Japan, and that’s how he arrives at Yaichi’s house. Yaichi, who didn’t know about this visit, is very confused, while Kana is excited, and that’s where it all starts.”
It’s impossible not to be charmed by the two-volume manga, available in English from Blackfriars in hardback and Kindle editions. It’s a story of connection and learning, of a central male relationship that’s not romantic but still deeply emotional, due to the deceased person linking the men’s lives. Although Yaichi is our viewpoint, one supporting characters is a teenage boy scared by his own sexuality, and his story will resonate with many readers his age.
My Brother’s Husband is as good a “gateway” manga for newcomers as Dragon Ball or Death Note. Its fans include Alison Bechdel (yes, that Bechdel). Unusually, it’s a manga dealing with homosexuality by an openly gay male Japanese author, unlike Boys Love manga created by, and aimed at, women.
“My editor asked me if I would like to create something for all ages,” Tagame says. “Before that, I had been focusing on producing manga for the adult market.” That’s adult in all senses; there’s a feature on Tagame’s previous work here, some translated in the book The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame. Tagame may be manga’s answer to John Waters, moving between outrageous counterculture and empowering mainstream fare.
“I started to think about what I could do to entice the all-ages audiences, non-gay people,” Tagame says. “Around the same time I noticed news stories about same-sex marriage becoming legal in many different countries.” Tagame was struck by the social media reactions, which came mostly not from gay people, but from heterosexuals.
“I thought they were equally interested in this topic, maybe even more than gay people, says Tagame. “So I thought it could be interesting to focus on same-sex marriage, to heterosexuals as well. The concept I had was ‘gay manga for heterosexuals,’ which I thought was interesting because most gay manga [which Tagame distinguishes from Boys Love] are for gay audiences. So I was fascinated by this concept.”
Tagame outlined the plot of My Brother’s Husband and presented it to his publisher. “I expected them to say no. But my editor was interested in the theme, saying ‘That’s great, that’s new.’ I thought the editor-in-chief would never approve of it, but he loved it as well. Then I thought the CEO would say no, but the CEO loved it as well. So it got published!”
Early on, the emphasis is on Yaichi’s uncomfortable reactions to his new guest, though Mike is utterly loveable. (He’s often compared to a teddy; Tagame makes no secret of his liking for burly, hairy men, joking he could draw Mike blind). The story, says Tagame, “depicts the confusion that heterosexual people may feel when they find out there’s someone who’s homosexual within their family.” He contrasts the reactions of adults and children. Kana, Yaichi’s grade-school daughter, adores her cuddly uncle, and reacts to the idea of men marrying with innocent curiosity.
“Children do not go by their society’s expectations,” Tagame comments. “They break them all the time by staying true to their instincts. So I thought by comparing (Kana’s perspective) with Yaichi’s, an adult who tries to conform to society, it would create different dynamics. But actually I’ve never drawn such a little girl in my comics, because I’ve always drawn gay adult comics where there are no little girls. To draw a cute girl is a hard challenge for me!”
Tagame says did not write the manga to educate heterosexuals. “But one thing I did think about is that in Japan, there aren’t many people who are openly gay. Most Japanese people might say they don’t know any gay people around them at all. In fact there are, but most are closeted; that’s the normality.
“Many countries are legalizing same-sex marriages,” Tagame continues. “It is possible that it could be legalized in Japan as well one day. But I thought it would be quite dangerous to start debating from that angle, right now, when most people don’t feel they know any gay people, when they don’t know the realities. That’s why I wanted to create something that could be fun, which could be casually enjoyed by readers, who could imagine, ‘What if I had a family member who was gay?’ and ‘What if I had the experience of living with them?’ I really focused on the experiences that an ordinary heterosexual person might have if they come in contact with gay people.
“So what I really valued most in creating this manga, the most important message from me is that, if you want to debate something, let’s learn about that topic. If you don’t make that effort, let’s not start debating, because it could be quite dangerous. That’s what I wanted to say through this.”
Tagame’s manga leaves spaces for his reader. Many scenes are wordless; the reader is also shut out of some important exchanges between characters. “In all my manga, I value what’s not being said, the white empty space,” says Tagame. “If all the information was provided to us, we would stop thinking because we understand everything.
“But,” Tagame continues, “if there’s something that’s not being said, if there’s something that’s held back, then if the readers are interested in the story, they will participate in creating the story themselves… They would think about what has been said, and the end result will be similar, because of what’s been depicted, but the process will be slightly different for each individual.”
One important character (slight spoiler) is Yaichi’s former wife, Natsuki. Contrary to what one might expect, they have a fond relationship, much better than when they were married. Of course, they’re linked through their relationship to Kana, as Mike and Yaichi are through their connections with Ryoji.
“The reason why I brought back the character of Yaichi’s divorced wife Natsuki is because I wanted to send out the message that marriage is not the be-all and end-all,” says Tagame. “Even though Mike and Ryoji obviously had a close relationship, I didn’t want to glorify marriage. So that’s why I brought in a divorced couple, Yaichi and Natsuki, whose marriage didn’t work out, but once they had that distance, they had a much better relationship. I wanted to show diversity in the form of marriage too.
“I think that logic applies to family,” Tagame continues. “I don’t think there’s any need to define family, really. Once you feel like somebody is your family, that should be enough; that’s my idea of family. My Brother’s Husband is the story of a bereaved family. Yaichi lost his twin brother – they grew apart as they grew older, and he wasn’t in his brother’s life when he died. Whereas Mike lost his husband. Both are grieving, in different ways; there is lots of grief to overcome.”
For all the somber themes, Gengoroh included a sly joke with the first volume of the Japanese book. It had a dust-jacket; for readers who removed it, Tagame included a second cover picture inside. The image can be seen in this Tweet from the Japan House London event, with the “hidden” cover is on the left.
“The reason why we hid these images is that we wanted to add an element of a gay magazine,” says Tagame. “My editor loved the idea. But I went to a rental comic shop – there are many in Japan – and unfortunately a lot of rental shops take the original cover off… Ten copies of My Brother’s Husband were on display (in the shop)… It was completely unexpected that people would see the images this way. That’s why I opted for something more family-friendly with the second comic.”
Tagame is now drawing another “all-ages” manga, Our Colours. It takes the perspective of a teen, like the boy in My Brother’s Husband. “The protagonist is a gay high-school student. He’s not ashamed of his sexuality, but he doesn’t have the courage to come out, so he’s at a very delicate point. He has a crush on a heterosexual boy. There’s a scene where a lot of his classmates are telling homophobic jokes, and because he hasn’t come out, he can’t get angry, he’s trying to suppress his emotions.”
It’s a subject that isn’t addressed in Boys Love manga, Tagame says. “There are many Boys Love comics. However, when it comes to teenagers who are struggling with their sexuality, coming to realise where they are, there aren’t so many manga focusing on them as protagonists. Personally I think gay romance is great, and how it started to be depicted in mainstream Japanese media. That’s positive, because that didn’t exist when I was small. I think two men performing a love scene is definitely a good thing.
“But,” Tagame says, “I do have an issue when it’s just about a romance between two gay characters, or sexual entertainment. I feel like I can’t really find anything outside those boundaries. It’s like films where the female characters are only the romantic interests; they’re not conveying the characters fully. I feel that gay characters shouldn’t only be confined to the romance genre.
“That’s why I wanted to create something different, that wasn’t just in the boundaries of romance or sexual entertainment. My Brother’s Husband is the first try and Our Colours is the second attempt. And I’d like to create something new in the third round as well.”
Tagame is an optimist, suggesting even changing attitudes to manga are significant. “When I was read manga when I was young, my parents’ reaction was, You’re going to be stupid, you are not going to turn out well. But today’s parents, who grew up with manga, would never say those kind of things to their children. I think that’s a sign of social progress and change. In the same way, if the girls who read Boys Love manga get married and have children, and some of those children are gay and come out, I don’t think the mothers would react in a very homophobic manner.”
My Brother’s Husband became a three-part live-action NHK drama in Japan last year (trailer). Mike was played by the Estonian-born Baruto Kaito, a former sumo wrestler turned actor. Tagame, however, cites a different live-action manga adaptation, What Did You Eat Yesterday? It’s from the long-running strip by Fumi Yoshinaga, about a gay couple and the meals one makes for the other.
“The manga is targeted towards female readers,” Tagame says. “It looks like a female manga, and because it’s by a female artist, it’s very simply categorized as one of the Boys Love manga. But once it goes out of manga, and turns into a TV series, with two (live) actors, it’s not really bound within a Boys Love field any more. So gay couples and gay romance can be seen on mainstream TV in normal hours, which definitely shows progress. That’s what I mean by expecting a lot from the future.”
My Brother’s Husband is published by in the UK by Blackfriars. It is one of numerous manga represented at the British Museum’s Manga Exhibition. Japan House London is running an exhibition on Naoki Urasawa to 28th July.