Gengoroh Tagame (Story and Art), Anne Ishii (Translation)
May 2, 2017
Ask any manga fan and you’ll learn that boys love, or BL, manga is a staple of the medium. Common are the romanticized stories of relationships–explicit or otherwise–between men. Entire niche manga magazines focus on these works, which do find a receptive audience. Despite the variety of BL titles found in these manga magazines, however, we rarely see frank takes about the issues facing gay people. When Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband was originally published in Japan, it drew attention for being a realistic depiction of homosexuality. Not only that, it was serialized in a mainstream manga magazine, running alongside titles like the comedy Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid and the genrebending science-fiction romance Orange.
The premise of My Brother’s Husband is deceptively simple: a single father named Yaichi raises his daughter, Kana, and manages an apartment building. One day, a foreigner named Mike Flanagan shows up on his doorstep and reveals that he’s the husband of Yaichi’s estranged twin brother, Ryoji. The meeting immediately raises some questions. Why are Yaichi and his brother estranged? Did it have something to do with Ryoji’s homosexuality? Why has Mike come to Japan?
The answers are likely a departure for readers used to the adrenaline-filled or melodramatic plotlines of other mainstream manga titles. My Brother’s Husband falls solidly into the slice of life category, but it’s through these self-contained vignettes that Tagame explores the fissures that divide people, whether it be culturally or socially. For example, Yaichi’s first meeting with Mike reveals many of the hidden attitudes that pervade Japanese society when it comes to LGBTQ people. While Yaichi isn’t directly rude to Mike–and truly, no proper Japanese citizen would be–his inner thoughts reflect the mores of a society that doesn’t value anything, or anyone, perceived as “different.”
My Brother’s Husband excels at portraying these insidious biases. Widespread oppression in Japanese society typically doesn’t manifest as obvious homophobic displays like targeted violence or vocal public slurs. Instead, it manifests as silence, which is just as harmful due to how suffocating it can be. When Ryoji came out to Yaichi in high school, Yaichi didn’t react especially negatively. He didn’t call his twin names, but neither did he offer his brother support. A seemingly minor thing perhaps, but since Ryoji ultimately left Japan and died in a foreign country, that lack of support may have contributed to his isolation. Mike’s appearance forces Yaichi to confront these past interactions and meditate on how they may have contributed the estrangement.
Yaichi’s deepening understanding of the issues facing gay people allows for a poignant evolution of his character. He moves from being a person who doesn’t see how his actions may harm a less privileged person to one who thinks about what this attitude means for his daughter and other members of the next generation. Indeed, Yaichi’s interactions with his daughter, Kana, demonstrate how such prejudices are learned. She accepts Mike’s relationship with her uncle with no problems, which in turn forces Yaichi to think about the ways he may be influencing her. Contrast this to the classmates that avoid Kana’s house once their parents learn about Mike’s sexuality.
Readers familiar with Tagame’s other works–the majority of which are erotic BDSM manga created for men–may find it disorienting to see his brawny, hairy character designs populate a mainstream manga. On the other hand, the muscular aesthetic provides a welcome change of pace from the long and lean look that dominates other popular titles. Perhaps surprisingly, Tagame’s clean lines emphasize the expressiveness of the characters’ faces: Yaichi’s righteous indignation, Kana’s innocent confusion, and Mike’s pleasant facade that masks his grief. All together, the robustness of Tagame’s artwork and his deft hand at weaving human nature with slice of life vignettes combine to make an unexpectedly heartwarming story.
Despite the roots of My Brother’s Husband being deeply steeped in Japanese culture and its treatment of LGBTQ people, there is much here that will be familiar to readers no matter what country they come from. And in that recognition comes hope, because in addition to showing us the ways we can harm disprivileged populations, Tagame shows us how we can bridge those gaps to reach an understanding and better the future.