By April Gutierrez
October 10, 2003 - 1:07 PM PDT
Odds are, if you're a long time anime fan, that tiny two word combination elicits one of the following ingrained responses. If you're already a fan, you probably grinned widely. If you're not a yaoi fan, you quite probably rolled your eyes heavenward, at the very least. And if you're new to anime, or have somehow missed this burgeoning anime phenomenon... you might well think I just made up a word that rhymes with yowee to get your attention.
I am innocent of such tomfoolery, but as it turns out, yaoi really is a made up word, a composite derived from the first syllables of each word in the Japanese expression, "yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi," which means "no peak, no point, no meaning." Don't worry if that still seems rather obtuse; it'll be somewhat clearer in a moment. First, though, let's get a working definition in place for those of you not familiar with either Japanese or yaoi: it's simply a subgenre of Japanese animation and manga (comics) featuring male/male relationships... intended for the enjoyment of a female audience.
Yes, you read that correctly - girls' shows (shoujo anime) created by women where boy gets boy - or at least pines after boy, as the case may be. Which isn't to say that guys, regardless of sexual persuasion, don't watch yaoi. Some definitely do, and enjoy it immensely, but the intended audience is exclusively female. Yaoi is a genre that defies understanding by non-fans, particularly in the west. There have been a number of articles written as to why male/male relationships appeal to girls and women, anything from providing a non-threatening way to deal with budding sexuality to avoiding having to watch annoying female leads. Such detailed psychological musings are beyond the scope of this overview, so I encourage interested fans to hunt down the literature online.
From Japanese Tradition to Fantasy for Girls
To have any hope of understanding how an entire entertainment genre could have grown up around the female appreciation of homosexual relationships, we have to turn away momentarily from the animated medium and look to manga, from which most anime originate. Building on centuries of cultural and aesthetic tradition, female manga artists from the 70s and 80s developed a very specific genre about beautiful young men/boys and the intense platonic love they often felt for their fellow boys. These stories were filled to the brim with unresolved emotions and desires and very often ended quite tragically. Shounen-ai, literally boy-love, was the term used to describe these stories. Two of the better-known titles are Hagio Moto's Tooma no shinzou (The Heart of Thomas), and Takemiya Keiko's Kaze to ki no uta (Song of Wind and Trees). The latter is the only shounen-ai story to be animated to date.
Shounen-ai manga faded as a genre over time, but it inspired a legion of female fans to write and publish their own comics - doujinshi - putting established characters from professionally published shounen (boys) manga or anime into romantic or sexual situations. And here's where we get back to the "yama nashi..." expression from above: these stories were all done in fun (no point) and often emphasize the peak (sex) over the meaning (story). These fan-made yaoi comics are a veritable cottage industry in Japan, as new series inspire new generations of fans.
Eventually some artists and authors began to use their own original characters, publishing both manga and novels. Originally called June - after the yaoi-oriented publication, June - to distinguish the works from the fan-made yaoi, the popular term for this genre these days in Japan is "boys love" (BL), which is not to be confused with shounen-ai (boy-love). BL and yaoi are used interchangeably to refer to the genre, though the latter is far more common in the US. Most yaoi anime is drawn from these professionally published manga and novels and it's difficult to discuss one without referring to the other.
For a humorous, highly informative introduction to Yaoi 101, see "What is Yaoi?." Additional information, including a handy yaoi glossary, is available at Aestheticism.
Hamano has created a list called "Anime Gay Guys" and calls out for blurbs and more titles, if you've got them.
Yaoi Versus Shounen-ai
Hang around yaoi fans long enough, and you'll hear both these terms bandied about with seeming abandon when they discuss various titles. But as alluded to above, shounen-ai is a defunct genre. Kaze to ki no uta aside, there aren't any other shounen-ai titles out there; it's all yaoi all the time.
So what do fans mean when they call one show shounen-ai and another yaoi? It's definitely a case of "lost in translation." American fans have adopted Japanese marketing terminology and applied it... a little differently here. Latching on to the unrequited romantic aspects of shounen-ai manga, fans here tend to apply that term to titles that have little to no sex, saving yaoi to describe shows with a higher erotic or sexual content. This is a handy distinction for fans to use among themselves, even if they're technically misapplying the terms, and the terminology has quickly become standard and nearly impossible to correct. Even Tokyopop refers to fan-favorite Fake as shounen-ai manga, though it's definitely yaoi.
Hold the Sex, Please
There's a common perception - misconception, really - that yaoi anime is all about the sex, nothing more than hentai for women. While this assumption is assuredly true of some titles, there's actually a wide variety of shows touched on in yaoi anime: comedy (Gravitation), historical drama (Mirage of Blaze), science fiction (Ai no Kusabi), high school romance (Kusatta Kyoushi no Houteshiki), even giant robots (Legend of the Four Horsemen). Essentially, if a subject appeals to a female audience, there's a show for it. The key identifier is the central male/male relationship.
And the sex? Sometimes it's in your face and hard to overlook (Level C, Boku no Sexual Harassment); other times, it's never expressed as anything more than a affectionate or tentative hug or kiss (Sekimatsu Darling). It's worth noting that even in the more sexually explicit shows, there's never full-frontal nudity. There are always strategic camera angles or discreetly bent limbs to blunt the effect. Or there are the infamous "glowing cones" of light (or ghostly outlines) which replace genitalia, as in Level C. Or the just plain absent genitalia, as in Fujimi Orchestra's prolonged sex scene.
Pretty Boys and Angst: Yaoi's Shoujo Roots >>>
Yaoi? Yowee!Pretty Boys and Angst: Yaoi's Shoujo Roots
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Public Relations Chair for Yaoi-Con, April Gutierrez is also a senior reviewer for The Green Man Review.
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