Tuesday, October 1, 2013



Genres of Japanese Games and Gender


What are Boys’ Love Games?

Definitions and Mechanics of BL Games

Boys’ Love Games are “a genre of Japanese romance games that are aimed at a female audience and revolve around relationships between male characters. [. . .] The style of play is usually adventure games, which is a visual-novel style of game where you pick choices that lead to different outcomes, but some will also have different play styles, such as RPG, life simulation, or board games” (Boys' Love Games Headquarters 2003). To clarify, a visual novel is “an interactive fiction game, featuring mostly static graphics, most often using anime-style art or occasionally live-action stills (and sometimes video footage)” (Wiki “Visual Novels” 2013). I would add to this list, sound, music, and especially the role of the seiyuu (voice actors) are important to the success and popularity of BL games. According to other popular definitions of the genre, “Boys' Love (BL) games (also known as yaoi games) usually refers to otome games[1] or H games[2] oriented around male homosexual couples for the female market” (Wiki 2013). The genre of BL games, as both definitions point out, are produced and consumed mainly by women, which is further explored (See Section on “Controversial Representations of Gender”). When examining the mechanics of BL games, it is far less complicated than, say, Ninokuni[3] since very little strategic planning and play is required of the player. The level of engagement is also minimal when compared to actions games since the player watches a narrative unfold rather than being an active participant of the game. (BL) is by no means exclusive to games, and it is a quite popular genre in manga and anime. In fact, some games such as Gakuen Heaven (2002) begin as a game, then, are adapted into novels, manga, and anime.

Boys’ Love Game Examples

BL games contain homosexual or homoerotic themes that are expressed to varying degrees from subtle hints of gay attraction, to innocent crushes and touching, to explicit representations of man-on-man sex, which borderlines (or is) pornography ).  Sex scenes are part of the BL genre in both BL manga and games, but as Pagliasotti mentions “not all BL manga include sex, and when they do, the character’s emotional reactions are important” (75). The extent to which BL games, though, focus on characters’ feelings is questionable since the narrative quality of the games that I have examined seems less complicated than the manga that I have read (Of course, this depends on the type of manga one reads). In other words, some BL games are a means to an end. The ultimate goal is the climax scene between the player and his/her partner, but in manga we see how relationships blossom over the course of the narrative.

While the objective of BL games is similar, which is to ultimately achieve a happy ending (over a bad ending) with the character you choose, there are differences in style, genre, and themes.  Some games are set in the historical period such as Enzai (post-revolutionary France). The Sengoku period (feudal Japan) is also a popular setting. Futuristic and post-apocalyptic worlds such as in Dramatical Murder, and high school settings are common in games such as Gakuen Heaven. Click to see the titles of BL games sold bydifferent distributors/companies. Although some BL games are not translated into English and therefore unavailable for the Western market, fansubbed walkthroughs of Japanese Boys Love games are accessible on YouTube and the internet.

Emergence of Boys Love

            BL, as critic Paul M. Malone suggests, is a subgenre that emerged out of shojo manga conventions (paraphrase 25). Drawing on the works of Midori Matsui, Malone  describes how “this subgenre had risen in Japan  in the 1970s  when a newly emerging generation of female manga artists (including Hagio Moto, Ikeda Riyoko, Takemiya Keiko) turned to such depictions in order to permit female authors and readers alike to project themselves into the roles of the stories’ male protagonists, thus sharing a fantasy of “perfect romance,” supposedly unclouded by the power differential between men and women in real Japanese society” (25). The emergence of BL is also accredited to dojinshi of the 70s and according to Antonia Levi, the term “yaoi” was coined with “the development of fan-created and published works” (2) and it is “a sardonic acronym for yamanashi, ochi-nashi, iminashi (no climax, no point, no meaning)” (2). However, over the four decades since the emergence of yaoi and BL manga, many mangakas now offer compelling and moving stories about the trials, tribulations, and struggles of coming to terms with a gay identity such as Takanaga Hinako’s  Koisuru Bokun manga series (The Tyrant Falls in Love 2004).

From Takanaga Hinako's Koisuru Bokun (2004)The Tyrant Falls in Love OVA 2010 WATCH!!

In the West, BL has caught the attention of scholars and fans. The BL phenomenon in the West, according to Levi, has “began to boom [. . .] in 2005, after the success of popular manga series like Kizuna, FAKE, and Eerie Queerie” (4). Yaoi cons or Yaoi Ronso are held annually and a subculture has emerged in response to the BL phenomenon.
Controversial Representation of Gender?
There is little scholarly literature that interrogates specifically the genre of BL (video) games in the West. Manga, anime, and videogames are all visual mediums, but I think, BL games should be examined specifically in relation to its own unique aesthetic style, conventions, and practices. For the time being, I draw on the critical debates and discussions of BL from Manga Studies to explore the potentialities and limitations of how BL games represent ideas of gender. Much of the scholarly work on BL manga underscores anxieties about the genre as reinforcing gender stereotypes or as being marketed as  “women’s pornography” (Dru Pagliasotti 75).  As aforementioned, the reception of BL games is largely made up of women, which raises the question: why do women in particular have an interest in BL games? What do idealised representations of men and their bodies reveal about cultural and social constructs of gender, particularly for women in Japan? In what ways have BL games been interpreted, appropriated, or even rejected in other cultural contexts? Are BL games unique to Japan and if so how does the genre relate to a cultural audience that is non-Japanese? In what ways do BL games challenge or renegotiate the West’s view about sexuality in Japan? 
 To answer some of these questions, I examine a game called Hadaka Shitsuji (Naked Butler 2011) to investigate how the uke/seme dichotomy in particular harkens to feminist discourses of empowerment and authority. The main character of this game is Maeba Tomoaki and the story concerns his new job as the master of an estate where he is pampered by beautiful butlers that cater to his every command. In the game, Maeba (player) is the seme (agressor) and the butlers are the uke (receivers), which is untypical of BL games, enabling the player to fulfill his or her sadistic desires. I focus on the route that Maeba takes with Sakuma Kyouichi and in this scene he is coerced to give oral sex.   

Sakuma is represented as passive and obedient—characteristics that are traditionally associated to women— in comparison to Maeba who is the assertive, aggressive, and controlling. In Naked Butler, the player who is most likely a girl is the seme and therefore has “control” over her male partner. This reversal of stereotypical gender roles, for some feminist critics, is an empowering gesture because it positions women in roles traditionally associated to men or as “masculine”. According to Isola Japanese critics such as Takamatsu Hisako argue “yaoi was liberating for women because unlike heterosexual stories, where women are routinely the object of the male gaze, yaoi constructs an egalitarian model for gazing” (qtd in Isola 89). Other critics share Takamatsu’s view: Fujimoto Yukari [. . .] contends yaoi allows the female viewer to move from the perspective of the violated to the perspective of the voyeur and violater, and Takemiya Keiko claims yaoi is a “a first step towards true feminism” (qtd in Isola 89). Within Western scholarship, Isola posits that  “yaoi functions as an act of agency over sex/gender hegemony by constructing liberatory spaces within which females can negotiate the male gaze” (89). While I do not disagree with this critical discourse on BL, the kind of feminism that is conveyed by these critics is premised on the idea of female dominance over men and expresses an anxiety about a female lack (See Stanley 100).
From Naked Butler (Takuma strangling Arisato Kazuma)

 Moreover, notions of female agency are complicated when examining the uke/seme dichotomy in relation to themes of rape also known as “non-con (nonconsensual sex scenes)” (Pagliasotti 67). With reference to Dahlquist &Vigilant, Pagliasotti writes “it [rape scenes] may offer readers an excuse to enjoy rape fantasies without guilt, since text and drawings permit more emotional distance than photos or video of real people” (68). Pagliasotti further contends that “women write rape scenes into BL manga as a form of resisting the social stigmatization of a rape victim [. . .]” (68).  The implicit claim that women are empowered through the marginalisation of homosexuals and homosexuality ultimately undermines feminism’s agenda to destabilise hierarchal formations of power and privilege. In other words, feminism should not be about who becomes the “voyeur and violater”, the battle of who is rendered objects of gaze, or who is the seme and uke or both? BL games, while it allows some women to renegotiate their subjectivity and, to some extent, write against a dominant fiction, it is achieved at the expense of perpetuating myths about gay culture.

Rather than resisting normative standards of sexuality or renegotiating gender binaries, some BL manga, as Mark John Isola contends “contains a taint of homophobia” (87) and perhaps so do some of the games. Isola cites Sato Masaki, a gay activist and drag queen, to explore the potential consequences and limitations of BL games for the gay community. According to Sato “yaoi lacks the authority and authenticity of lived experience; therefore, it risks a socio-political nihilism for the sake of aesthetic expression” (qtd in Isola 87). For Masaki, then, BL manga blurs reality and fiction, (mis)informing the public of the social realities of gay individuals in Japan.

Does gender even matter?

Marni Stanley proposes the idea that BL offer other venues of exploration other than gender. She contends:

certainly for many women writers, to talk about the erotics of power in heterosexual relationships raises complex questions about the politics of gender difference and so, by making both members of the couple male, those problems can be erased. Having thus dispensed with gender difference, yaoi authors can, as McLelland suggests, play with the erotics of power by other means, or they may choose to explore other ideas of erotic altogether.  (104)

This idea of play that Stanley refers to is reminiscent of a famous quote “art for art’s sake”. In other words, yaoi or BL games should be purely enjoyed as BL. Must BL have some kind of didactic function? Or moral and ethical purposes? Can there ever be a true representation of homosexual romance? What are the implications of interpreting BL games merely as a form of entertainment and aesthetic pleasure? 

         Some of the ideas expressed require further inquiry, which I hope to explore in my final paper. Some of the questions that were raised in class have been addressed here, but further criticism and comments are always appreciated. In conclusion, there are three aspects of BL that I would like my readers to remember:

1. BL is a popular genre mainly written by women for women. (A kind of resistance to dominant

modes of fiction? )
2. Visual novel style.
3. BL games reflect and respond to cultural and social constructs of gender, destabilizing normative values of what constitutes ideas of “masculinity” and “femininity”                  
From Dramatical Murder

[1] Otome games are dating games for women. The objective of the game is for the female player to select a partner from a cast of eligible bachelors and to achieve a happy ending.

[2] H in Japanese sounds like ecchi (the Japanese word for sex). H games, then, translates to sex games

[3] I refer to this game in homage to the first presentation on games this semester.