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) or gei komi (ゲイコミ, 'gay comics'). 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.
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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. In this non-Japanese context, bara is used to describe a wide breadth of Japanese and Japanese-inspired gay erotic media, including illustrations published in early Japanese gay men's magazines, western fan art, and gay pornography featuring human actors. Bara is occasionally conflated with yaoi (also known as boys' love or BL), but yaoi is historically created by and for women, and typically features androgynous bishōnen (lit. "beautiful men") over the masculine men.
The term bara (薔薇), which translates literally to "rose" in Japanese, has historically been used in Japan as 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", though he later clarified that the term is "convenient for talking about art that is linked by characters that are muscle-y, huge, and hairy", and that his objection was the term's use to describe gay manga creators. 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. Fan works—usually fan art—that is labelled as bara tends to focus on male characters by emphasizing their physique and sexualizing them.
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 Tatsuji Okawa, Sanshi Funayama, Mishima Go and Go Hirano 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 Ben Kimura, 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 the majority of print magazines that publish gay manga having folded: Sabu in 2001, Barazoku in 2004, G-men in 2016, and Badi in 2019. Today, with a lack of viable major print alternatives, most gay manga artists self-publish their works as dōjinshi.
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 relationships structured around age, status, or power dynamics. 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. His works have been cited as a catalyst in shifting fashion and aesthetics 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 art has appeared in apparel created by several American fashion brands, including Opening Ceremony and Pretty Snake.
Sansuke Yamada (山田参助) made his professional debut as a gay manga artist in 1994, contributing to Samson and Sabu. He is noted as a gay manga artist who has achieved significant crossover success with mainstream audiences, after his 2013 historical drama manga Areyo Hoshikuzu won the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize and the Grand Prize at the Japan Cartoonists Association Awards in 2019.
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 shōnen 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 2003, boys' love (BL) publisher Kousai Shobou began publishing Kinniku-Otoko, a quarterly anthology featuring what the publisher termed "muscle BL" aimed at a crossover audience of yaoi and gay manga readers (see Crossover with yaoi below). Kinniku-Otoko featured both male and female manga creators, and collected titles as tankōbon under the imprint BOYS-L. Kinniku-Otoko and BOYS-L were commercially unsuccessful and folded in 2004.
In 2004, G-men parent company Furukawa Shobu published a pair of manga anthologies aimed at gay men, Bakudan (published quarterly) and Gekidan (published bimonthly). Individual titles 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.
In 2006, boys' love publisher Aqua Comics (an imprint of Oakla Publishing) began publishing the "men's love" (ML メンズラブ, menzu rabu) manga anthologies Nikutai Ha (Muscle Aqua), Oaks, and G's Comics. When collected into tankōbon, these manga are issued under the same imprint as Aqua's mainstream yaoi books, and bear the same trade dress. Since the release of The Dangerous Games of Dr. Makumakuran by Takeshi Matsu in 2015, no additional gay manga titles have been published by Aqua.
As of 2020, most gay manga is published by individual artists as dōjinshi (self-published comics). These books are typically sold digitally through crowdfunding websites such as Pixiv Fanbox and Patreon, or at dedicated gay manga dōjinshi conventions such as Yarou Fest. Gay manga anthologies are typically produced by dōjin circles rather than professional publishers, as in the case of Otoko Matsuri (漢祭, Men's Festival), an ongoing anthology produced by the Mitsuwa Building Circle.
Many Japanese publishers and creators of gay manga actively seek foreign readers, though 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.
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 men's love series 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. That same year, 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.
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 of 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.
In contrast to hentai and yaoi, which are regularly adapted from manga to original video animations (OVAs) and ongoing animated series, there have been no anime adaptations of gay manga. This can be owed to the significant financial costs associated with producing animation relative to the niche audience of gay manga, as well as the absence of gay manga magazines producing serialized content that would lend itself to episodic adaptation. Despite this, the increased presence of objectified masculine bodies as fan service in anime beginning in the 2010s has been cited as an example of gay manga's influence on mainstream anime, as in series such as All Out!!, Free!, and Golden Kamuy.
Comparison to yaoi
Distinction from 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 has historically been created primarily by women for a primarily 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.
Crossover with yaoi
The early 2000s saw a degree of overlap between yaoi and gay manga in BDSM-themed publications. The yaoi BDSM anthology magazine Zettai Reido (絶対零度) had several male contributors, while several female yaoi authors have contributed stories to BDSM-themed gay manga anthologies or special issues, occasionally under male pen names. Concurrently, several yaoi publishers commissioned works featuring masculine men, aimed at appealing to an audience of both gay manga and yaoi readers (see Japanese publishing above). Occasionally termed "muscle BL" or "men's love" (ML メンズラブ, menzu rabu), the subgenre represents a crossover between gay manga and yaoi, with considerable overlap of writers, artists, and art styles.
The late 2010s and onwards have seen the increasing popularity of masculine men in yaoi, with growing emphasis on stories featuring larger and more muscular bodies, older characters, and seme and uke characters of physically comparable sizes. A 2017 survey by yaoi publisher Juné Manga found that while over 80% of their readership previously preferred bishōnen body types exclusively, 65% now enjoy both bishōnen and muscular body types. Critics and commentators have noted that this shift in preferences among yaoi readers, and subsequent creation of works that feature characteristics of both yaoi and gay manga, represents a blurring of the distinctions between the genres; anthropologist Thomas Baudinette notes in his fieldwork that gay men in Japan "saw no need to sharply disassociate BL from gei komi when discussing their consumption of 'gay media'."
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