Mangaka em est, AKA Maki Satoh, made her reputation with three collections of yaoi stories and work in Japanese Boy’s Love magazines, but it’s already clear that her career is going to be anything but typical.
Last month at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, I had the pleasure of taking in a conversation between the artist and manga blogger and former publisher, Erica Friedman. The discussion was sprawling, touching on em est’s artistic ambitions, her love for Spanish culture, and the thorny issues of cultural tourism and translation. As someone utterly new to the mangaka — I stopped in to introduce myself to Erica and decided to livetweet the panel — it provided all the motivation I needed to check out her work.
If you’re a citizen of the internet, the term yaoi is no doubt familiar to you. But for the uninitiated, yaoi, or Boy’s Love, manga are concerned with love stories between boys, but typically written by girls and women for a primarily female and often straight audience. Like Western romance novels, yaoi is an umbrella term for a vast body of genre-crossing work, encompassing everything from science fiction to mystery, but it does has its favoured tropes, including homosociality and the seme/uke dynamic, which casts romantic partners as masculine tops (semes) and feminine bottoms (ukes).
Unlike many yaoi creators, em est didn’t fall for the genre when she was young, or find it through manga fandom — she came to it after art school, and while she does now read Boy’s Love manga, she doesn’t get much out of the genre’s most beloved tropes. She does BL a little differently, if you’ll forgive the cliche, and the difference, I think, comes from her motivation. em est was scouted in art school and asked to draw BL, and she found in it a level of artistic freedom that’s difficult to find at mainstream manga magazines. As long as there were boys and they were in some combination of love or lust, she said, she could do whatever she liked as far as plot, characterization, and locale went.
That erotica and romance can provide room for artistic experimentation was a theme that many creators touched on over the course of the festival, and its evident in work of creators as varied as C. Spike Trotman and Gengora Tagame. These genres, rarely the subject of laser-focus literary criticism, are still taken less seriously than even other genre fiction, such as sci-fi or mystery, that are enjoying critical revivals. Just as science fiction has been a way for writers to explore contemporary social problems under the cover of teleportation and jetpacks, so too are romance and erotica — but they’re genres dominated by women, and now queer men. Just namechecking the favoured tropes of the genre might be enough to satisfy readers, but all of these creators, em est especially, go beyond that — romance and erotica provide cover for creative exploration, but they also provide fertile ground for experimentation. That is, they’re engaging with the genres, not just using them, to do new and exciting things. [See our April, 2014 interview with C. Spike Trotman about the importance of representation in erotica and romance.]
The passion in em est’s works comes not just from sexual and romantic tension, but cultural and ideological disjunctures — though this part of the drama is not always played out explicitly. In Seduce Me After the Show (licensed in English by Deux Press and Digital Manga), her debut collection of five short stories, em est presents a cast of characters of various ages, personalities, and passions, linked by the central theme of the importance and vitality of the arts. One protagonist literally plays duality and disjuncture — he is dancing the dual roles of Carmen and Jose in Carmen. Her Red Blinds the Foolish (Deux Press), another collection of shorts, takes place in Spain. Danielle Leigh of Comic Book Resources said “there is an intensity and realism to her work and the men she creates always feel like real men, experiencing love, lust, and friendship.” Like Seduce Me After the Show, Red deals in unlikely romances, old age and reminiscence, male vulnerability and unconventional male strength. Golondrina (Shogakukan), a seinan serial (aimed at boys) starring a lesbian bullfighter and her bisexual lover, is a further departure from convention. Chika aims to become a great bullfighter, though girls still aren’t allowed to become matadors, and to die in the ring in front of her lover Maria, as a demonstration of their star-crossed — thanks heteropatriarchy! — love. And although it’s a seinan story, em est uses the familiar structure of BL romance, to tell a seinan story of adventure — and romance.
If I haven’t convinced you to check out em est’s work, this long, in depth interview over on TCJ just might.