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Bara (薔薇, "rose") is a colloquialism used to refer to a genre of Japanese comic art and media known within Japan as gay manga (ゲイ漫画), gei komi (ゲイ コミ, "gay comics"), or men's love (ML メンズラブ, "menzu rabu"). The genre focuses on male same-sex love, as created primarily by gay men for a gay male audience.
Bara can vary in visual style and plot, but typically features masculine men with varying degrees of muscle, body fat, and body hair, akin to bear or bodybuilding culture. While bara is typically pornographic, the genre has also depicted romantic and autobiographical subject material, as it acknowledges the varied reactions to homosexuality in modern Japan.
The use of "bara" as an umbrella term to describe gay Japanese comic art is largely a non-Japanese phenomenon; the term is not used within Japan, and its use is not universally accepted by creators of gay manga. Bara is occasionally conflated with yaoi, but yaoi is largely created by and for women, and features bishōnen who frequently conform to typical seme and uke dynamics. In contrast, bara is considered a subgenre of seijin (men's erotica) for gay men, and more closely resembles manga for male readers (seinen manga) rather than manga for female readers (shōjo/josei manga).
The term "bara" has historically been used in Japan a pejorative for gay men, roughly equivalent to the English language term "pansy." Beginning in the 1960s, the term was reappropriated by Japanese gay media: notably with the 1961 anthology Ba-ra-kei: Ordeal by Roses, a collection of semi-nude photographs of gay writer Yukio Mishima by photographer Eikoh Hosoe, and later with Barazoku (薔薇族, lit. "rose tribe") in 1971, the first commercially-produced gay magazine in Asia. Bara-eiga ("rose film") was additionally used in the 1980s to describe gay cinema. By the late 1980s, as LGBT political movements in Japan began to form, the term fell out of use, with "gei" (ゲイ) becoming the preferred nomenclature for people who experience same-sex attraction.
The term was revived as a pejorative in the late 1990s concurrent with the rise of internet message boards and chat rooms, where heterosexual administrators designated the gay sections of their websites as "bara boards" or "bara chat". The term was subsequently adopted by non-Japanese users of these websites, who believed that "bara" was the proper designation for the images and artwork being posted on these forums. This misappropriation of "bara" by a non-Japanese audience has been controversial among creators of gay manga, many of whom have expressed discomfort or confusion over the term being used to describe their work. Artist and historian Gengoroh Tagame has described "bara" as "a very negative word that comes with bad connotations." Artist Kumada Poohsuke has stated that while he does not find the term offensive, he does not describe his work as "bara" because he associates the term with Barazoku, which featured bishōnen-style artwork rather than artwork of masculine men.
Today, "bara" is often used flexibly as an umbrella term to describe a wide variety of Japanese and non-Japanese gay media featuring masculine men, including western fan art, gay pornography, furry artwork, and numerous other categories.
Contemporary gay manga traces its origins to Bara-Komi, a 1986 supplemental issue of Barazoku. While erotic art accompanied by text had previously appeared in gay interest magazines – notably in the private circulation magazines Adonis (1952) and Bara (1964), the former of which was the first gay magazine in Japan – Bara-Komi was the first magazine to publish gay manga exclusively.
Despite its relatively recent emergence as an art form, gay manga belongs to a history of homosexuality in Japanese visual art dating back to shunga of the Edo period. Gengoroh Tagame cites the fetish magazine Fuzokukitan (1960-1974), which published gay content alongside straight and lesbian content, as a major influence on gay manga. Early gay erotic artists Okawa Tatsuji, Funayama Sanshi, Mishima Go and Hirano Go made their debuts in Fuzokukitan, alongside unauthorized reproductions of art by George Quaintance, Tom of Finland, and from beefcake magazines such as Physique Pictorial. Homoerotic photography has also been credited as influencing the genre, with Tamotsu Yatō and Haga Kuro mentioned by Tagame in particular.
Multiple magazines that published gay erotic art were founded as gay publishing proliferated in the 1970s and 1980s, including Adon, Sabu, MLMW, The Gay, Samson, and SM-Z. As gay magazines shifted towards lifestyle content, magazines would often center their erotic content around specific themes or fetishes, such as salarymen or chubby chasers. The art of this period, typified by Sadao Hasegawa, Junichi Yamakawa and Kimura Ben, is noted for its realism and optimism, and for depicting modern rather than historical scenarios.
By the 1990s, magazines such as Badi and G-men included editorial coverage of gay pride, club culture, and HIV/AIDS-related topics in addition to gay manga. In contrast to the erotica of Barazoku, gay manga published in G-men was more explicitly pornographic. G-men catered to gay men who preferred "macho fantasy", as opposed to the sleeker, yaoi-inspired styles popular in the 1980s, and encouraged steady readership by publishing serialized stories which encouraged purchase of every issue. Conversely, Adon removed pornographic material from the magazine entirely; the move was unsuccessful and the magazine folded in 1996.
The broader decline of the publishing industry in the 21st century has subsequently impacted gay manga, with many prominent magazines folding their print editions. Sabu ceased publication in 2001; Barazoku ceased publication in 2004, made several failed attempts to restart, and is now defunct. G-men folded its print edition in 2016, but continues to produce DVDs, books, and gay manga under the G-men brand. Today, many gay manga creators self-publish their works as dōjinshi, though some traditional magazines continue to commission gay manga, notably Badi.
Gay manga is typically categorized based on the body shape of the characters depicted; common designations include gacchiri (ガッチリ, "muscular"), gachimuchi (ガチムチ, "muscle-curvy" or "muscle chubby"), gachidebu (ガチデブ, "muscle-fat"), and debu (デブ, "fat"). While the rise of comic anthologies has promoted longer, serialized stories, most gay manga stories are one-shots. The majority of gay manga stories are pornographic, often focusing on sex to the exclusion of plot and character development. Though some gay manga stories include realistic depictions of gay male lives — addressing subject material such as coming out, gay pride, and same-sex marriage — sex and sexuality is frequently the primary focus.
BDSM and non-consensual sex are common themes in gay manga, as well as stories based on age-, status-, or power-structured relationships. Often, the older or more senior character uses the younger or subordinate character for sexual purposes, though some gay manga stories subvert this dynamic and show a younger, physically smaller, often white-collar man as the dominant sexual partner to an older, larger, often blue-collar man. As with yaoi, the bottom in gay manga is often depicted as shy, reluctant, or unsure of his sexuality. Consequently, much of the criticism of yaoi — misogyny, a focus on rape, the absence of a Western-style gay identity — is similarly levied against gay manga.
Conversely, some gay manga stories explore romantic, autobiographical, and dramatic subject material, and eschew depictions of sex entirely. A notable example of non-erotic gay manga is My Brother's Husband, the first all-ages manga by Gengoroh Tagame, which focuses on themes of homophobia, cultural difference, and family.
Gengoroh Tagame (田亀 源五郎) is widely regarded as the most influential creator and historian of gay manga. Tagame's illustrations of muscular, hairy men in G-men (which Tagame co-founded in 1995) have been cited as a catalyst that shifted fashion and aesthetics and among gay men in Japan, away from clean-shaven and slender styles influenced by yaoi, and towards a tendency for larger bodies and body hair. Tagame's success as a mangaka proved gay manga's financial viability as a category of manga, and through his work at G-men, he has helped launch the careers of numerous gay manga artists. The majority of Tagame's art features heavy themes of sadomasochism, including rape, torture, and sexual abuse; Tagame's works has been criticized by gay manga writer Susumu Hirosegawa for their focus on violence.
Jiraiya (児雷也), a graphic designer, became the cover artist for G-men in 2001 after Tagame's departure from the magazine. Jiraiya is noted for his hyperreal drawing style, and was one of the first gay manga artists to use digital illustration extensively in his art. Jiraiya's has appreared in apparel created by several American fashion brands, including Opening Ceremony and Pretty Snake.
Takeshi Matsu (松武) is notable as a gay manga artist who has achieved crossover success between gay male and female audiences. Formerly an author of shonen manga, Matsu made his erotic comics debut in Kinnuku-Otoko ("Muscleman"), a magazine marketed towards both men and women. Matsu's works have been praised for their comedic and light-hearted tone, in contrast to the darker BDSM themes of his peers.
Gai Mizuki (水樹凱) is a prolific creator of slash-inspired gay manga, having published dōjinshi featuring characters from Attack on Titan, Fate Zero, Final Fantasy, Voltron: Legendary Defender, and numerous other series.
Prior to the early 2000s, gay manga was published exclusively in gay general interest magazines. Magazines typically published 8-24 page one-shots, although some magazines, notably G-men, carried serialized stories. In the late 1990s, several attempts were made at manga anthologies targeted at gay men, though none were successful.
In the early 2000s, G-men's parent company Furukawa Shobu published a pair of manga anthologies aimed at gay men, Bakudan (published quarterly) and Gekidan (published bimonthly); material from these anthologies were collected into tankōbon under the Bakudan Comics imprint. Furukawa Shobu later published the anthologies Uragekidan and the BDSM-themed SM Comics Anthology.
Yaoi comics publisher Aqua Comics, an imprint of Oakla Publishing, published the manga anthologies Nikutai Ha (Muscle Aqua), Oaks, and G's Comics to capitalize on a crossover audience of gay male readers and female yaoi readers who prefer a more masculine body type (see Gachimuchi and crossover with yaoi below). When collected into tankōbon, these manga are issued under the same imprint as Aqua's mainstream yaoi books, and bear the same trade dress.
In 2008, Spanish publisher La Cúpula published an anthology of works by Jiraiya, and manga by Gengoroh Tagame in 2010. In 2011, the Mexican gay magazine Anal Magazine published drawings by Gengoroh Tagame in its second issue. Works by Gengoroh Tagame have additionally been translated into French by H&O éditions.
The first gay manga to receive an officially-licensed English-language translation was Standing Ovations, a one-shot by Gengoroh Tagame published in the American erotic comics anthology Thickness (2011-2012). In 2012, Digital Manga published an English-language translation of Reibun Ike's Hide and Seek, a gay manga/yaoi crossover originally published by Aqua Comics. In 2013, PictureBox published The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame: Master of Gay Erotic Manga, the first book-length work of gay manga to be published in English.
In 2013, Massive Goods was founded by Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins, two of the editors of The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame, which creates English-language translations of gay manga and products featuring the works of gay manga artists. In December 2014, Fantagraphics and Massive published Massive: Gay Erotic Manga And The Men Who Make It, the first English-language anthology of gay manga. Co-edited by Ishii, Kolbeins, and Chip Kidd, Massive was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Anthology. From 2014 to 2016, German book publishing house Bruno Gmünder Verlag published works by Tagame, Takeshi Matsu, and Mentaiko Itto in English under their "Bruno Gmünder Gay Manga" imprint.
Many Japanese publishers and online stores have extensive English-language pages and actively seek foreign readers, notably Rainbow Shoppers.
In lieu of official licensed translations, gay manga is often pirated and scanlated into English; a scanlation of Kuso Miso Technique, a 1987 one-shot published in Barazoku, has become infamous as an Internet meme.
A number of eroge (erotic games) aimed at a gay male audience and featuring gay manga-inspired artwork have been produced in Japan. Historically, these games have been dōjin soft (noncommercial), compared to commercial BL games produced by subsidiaries of bishōjo game developers, and have featured gameplay in genres such as visual novels, dating sims, or "strip" versions of games of skill such as pachinko or checkers. The rise mobile gaming has presented new opportunities for gay eroge; the 2016 mobile gacha game Tokyo Afterschool Summoners is the first large-scale gay game, featuring voice actors and commercially-produced character artwork.
Comparison to yaoi
Yaoi (やおい, also known as boys' love or BL) is an additional manga genre that focuses on gay male romance and sex. The genre is a distinct category from gay manga, having originated in the 1970s as an offshoot of shōjo manga that was inspired by Barazoku and European cinema. Yaoi is created primarily by women for a female audience, and typically features bishōnen who often do not self-identify as gay or bisexual. The genre is often framed as a form of escapist fiction, depicting sex that is free of the patriarchal trappings of heterosexual pornography; yaoi can therefore be understood as a primarily feminist phenomenon, whereas gay manga is an expression of gay male identity.
Gay manga does not aim to recreate heteronormative gender roles, as yaoi does with seme and uke dynamics. Yaoi has been criticized for depicting stereotypical portrayals of gay men, and for failing to address gay issues. Homophobia, when it is presented at all, is often used as a plot device to heighten drama or show the purity of the leads' love.
Gachimuchi and crossover with yaoi
In certain contexts, gachimuchi (ガチムチ, "muscle-curvy" or "muscle chubby") has represented a crossover between gay manga and yaoi, with considerable overlap of writers, artists, and art styles. Gachimuchi attracts both male and female creators, as well as an audience of women and gay men. Prior to the development of gachimuchi, the greatest overlap between yaoi and gay manga authors was in BDSM-themed publications, such as Zettai Reido, a yaoi anthology magazine which had a number of male contributors. Several female yaoi authors who have created BDSM-themed yaoi have been contributed stories to BDSM-themed gay anthologies or special issues, occasionally under male pen names.
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