By now you’ve probably heard something about shonen-ai, the manga genre that translates as “boys’ love”. Shonen-ai is usually written by women, for women; it involves beautiful boys experiencing some kind of love for a member of their own gender, from the platonic to the sexual. Shonen-ai is just now starting to appear in the U.S., and American readers may not know what to make of it. Is this a positive portrayal of homosexuality? Are these characters actually gay? If not, what does it all mean?
As readers looking at the literature of a different culture, we’re bound to find some aspects of manga puzzling or even disturbing. This has rarely affected my enjoyment of manga in the past, but it did with Gravitation. On one level, it’s a rock and roll soap opera about a young wannabe star named Shuichi and his struggle to make it in the music business. On another level, it’s a teen comedy with a lot of appealing characters. You could also look at it as a traditional romance: 18 year old Shuichi falls hard for the older, more experienced Eiri. Eiri is mysterious, forbidding, even cold. Can Shuichi crack his shell?
Gravitation has a host of loyal fans who love its attractive guys, recording industry machinations, and silly humor. I enjoyed the affectionate relationship between Shuichi and his best friend Hiro, and the comic relief of Shuichi’s little sister. What brought me up short was the inequality of the relationship between Shuichi and Eiri. The object of our hero’s affections never shows his human side, making Shuichi’s continued devotion puzzling. Fans of the series report that later volumes reveal what happened in Eiri’s past to make him the way he is, but the first two volumes give us no reason to like him. Then there’s Shuichi and Eiri’s first sexual encounter, which is disturbingly close to rape. While Japanese culture may not view consent the way I do (and to be fair, American culture isn’t always so sensitive either), I found the sexual dynamics of Gravitation problematic. Shuichi’s resistance may just be a token protest, but he doesn’t seem to get any pleasure out of the relationship.
Readers should be aware that shonen-ai comics don’t claim to represent real gay relationships in Japan or the U.S. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t scrutenize their portrayals. Tokyopop’s FAKE, the only other manga available right now that depicts an overtly romantic relationship between men, is aimed at adults. While FAKE‘s Dee sometimes comes on strong, it’s clear that he cares enough about Ryo to respect his limits. Perhaps future shonen-ai translations will offer something better for teen collections. While I wouldn’t necessarily discourage librarians from considering Gravitation, they should think about who its audience will be and what that audience may take away from it.