Openly Gay Manga Creator Gengoroh Tagame Talks Breaking Barriers with My Brother’s Husband

Manga creator Gengoroh Tagame says that he created the young adult family drama My Brother’s Husband for the same reason he made gay erotica for decades: he drew what he wanted to see, but couldn’t find elsewhere.

One of the few manga creators who is openly gay, Tagame built his reputation on beautifully drawn manga of hairy, heavyset men having sex—often violent sex. Some of his work was published here as The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame, and the first volume of his trilogy House of Brutes will be out in October.

By contrast, My Brother’s Husband is a warm family story about Yaichi, a single father faced with a new set of realities when Mike, the husband of his late twin brother Ryoji, comes for a visit. It’s not sexually explicit, but it is emotionally explicit, as Mike deals with his loss and Yaichi tries to come to terms with his brother’s sexuality. Yaichi’s young daughter Kana is the intermediary, jumping into awkward situations and defusing them with a child’s disarming frankness. The manga is being published in two omnibus volumes in the U.S.; the first came out last month.

Tagame is a frequent guest at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), and at this year’s event, I sat down with him over a cup of coffee to talk about his past and present manga. My thanks to Anne Ishii for translating the interview.

You’re known for a particular type of manga. Why did you choose to create a story that is so different from what your fans are used to?
I get this question a lot. The motivation behind writing My Brother’s Husband has been the same as the motivation behind all my writing, which is I write what I want to read. What I want to see in the world isn’t out there, so I create it. So in that sense I don’t think of it as very different in terms of what motivates me to write it, the content notwithstanding.

Around ten years ago I really wanted to write a gay themed story for straight readers. Fast forward to when I was talking to editors at Futabasha, my Japanese publisher. I presented to them the book proposal, they liked it, they approved of it, and voila!

What was your original proposal to them? How did you describe it?
It’s about a man whose little brother marries another man, has a same sex marriage with a foreigner who then comes to visit the family and what happens. It’s kind of a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” kind of thing.

How did it change when you actually started writing it? Was it different from the original idea?
The idea has remained pretty consistent, and that’s actually because the publisher was so accepting of the story from the get-go and very amenable to all the ideas I had for it. The idea that the publisher understood and wanted to play up was a gay story but seen through the lens of the main character who is straight, and through the main character other straight people and straight readers would learn along with them, so the theme stopped being so much about gay issues and more about family issues, what it means to have a family and to be in a family

There are couple of moments the story when you see Yaichi say something startlingly blunt, but then in the next panel you see that it’s just what he’s thinking, and what he says is much more polite. Is that something you came up with for this book, or is it something you have used in your other books? Is it a common manga trope?
It’s not necessarily a common visual device in Japanese manga; nor is it something I had really been doing in my past work, actually. The thing that I think most Japanese can agree happens frequently—and I am going to add is absolutely the case in English too—but in Japanese society it’s very common to have really aggressive thoughts and then to say something extremely polite. And so I was kind of thinking about how can I convey that effectively and that’s how I came to this.

Kana seems like she’s very much there to be in the middle—she is the heart of the family. Is that how you intended her, and how did you come up with this character?
You’re absolutely right. Her father is the one who can’t say what he thinks; she’s the one who can’t help but say what she’s thinking. That’s absolutely the intention is to have her there to sort of balance him. But also, Yaichi is somebody who has a lifetime of experiences and memories that inevitably inform the way he thinks about the world today, where she doesn’t have these experiences and just sees things as happening as they are—just kind of takes things at face value. She’s also what I’d like to call a trickster, in that she sort of instigates turns in the plot. She sort of advances the plot.

What does this book have in common with your earlier words, in terms of storytelling and art?
Visually, I continue to use my own very personalized artistic and visual sensibility and style, so it’s unmistakable. I also believe the best thing that art does is depict people and humanity, so in a sense, if you think about erotica and depictions of sex, that’s the most raw form of a human, and the most fundamental form of human depiction is through erotica, for me. What I have tried to do in my erotica is raise that to the level of art and think about it in terms of art being principally to the service of depicting humanity. Where My Brother’s Husband differs a little, obviously, it is not to say that I am not attempting to make something artistic, but I’m trying to raise the level of art by really honing the story and the themes, so it’s a deeper focus on the narrative.

You’ve been coming to TCAF for the past couple of years. How has the experience of being here in Canada, where attitudes are different, influenced the story?
The influence of having come to this event and to Canada is definitely huge. For one, that main character Mike would probably not be Canadian if I hadn’t visited the country. But that’s not just because of TCAF. There were three criteria that needed to be met in this character. I knew it was going to be about same-sex marriage and marriage equality, so [he had to be from] a place where that had passed, which Canada had. It had to be a place I had visited, so I had actually done some fieldwork. I wanted there to be people there that I could get in touch with easily, friends who could help me if I needed research done locally. And it definitely helps that they speak English, which I read, so if I needed to research it on my own I could read the materials. But it’s not just that it raised an opportunity to create a Canadian character through TCAF. At the event I do signings and events where—compared to Europe, which is another place I do a lot of signings—Canada is infinitely more diverse. In Europe most of the people who come are white, and there’s a smattering of black people and Asians, but primarily white folks, while here it’s black, Latino, First Nations, and white, and a lot of Asian people. Meeting all these different kinds of people through TCAF made diversity possible in a way that would be a good back story for Ryoji to come to Canada and get married. It’s not as big a deal.

When you write the character of Mike Flanagan you are writing from the point of view of the Canadian, and you do it very well—he explains things well. How did you put yourself into that character?
That’s a great question. That character is a sort of composite of the typical gay Canadians that I’ve met here, and that’s a person who is generally positive about their lifestyle, and about being gay, and they aren’t necessarily participating in activism but they always know when they have to say something that needs to be said, so they are very proud and have some self-awareness.

How is the book being received in Japan? Do you feel like your message is getting across?
The response in Japan has been overwhelmingly positive and the reviews have been great. As far as I know the publisher hasn’t received any sort of religious or morally-based sort of backlash. I certainly haven’t. But historically, gay media has been sort of a lesser form. People don’t take it very seriously. It’s viewed as sort of weird. I am predominantly known by general audiences as a gay artist, so straight readers who had no idea went in assuming this would be another [example of that]. But on the other hand, because I am known as a gay artist, parts of the internet just went completely bonkers, like “Why is a pornographer doing a general audience manga in a youth magazine?” So that hubbub, not outcry, but just that talk, became very loud. From what I’m hearing and the responses I have gotten from the general audience readers, they did want to go in thinking they were going to see something like a general audience version of campy gay media, only to discover it’s a very serious work. So people came in expecting one thing and stuck around to see how it played out, realizing I was taking this very seriously. It’s been very nice to hear.

Is the series finishing in Japan soon?
Yes. I have already finished the final chapter and is to be published this month. It’s worth noting that [the publisher] let me include color pages at the beginning of the last chapter, which is unusual. They don’t usually let you do that. So that’s how important it’s been for them.

What will you do next?
I have ideas, but it really depends on the publisher’s feedback, so I’m not really sure I can predict what will come out next. But there is something I’ve been thinking about that would be really interesting, something for low teens or young adults: gay manga specifically for young adults and younger young adult readers. Because most gay manga, whether it’s boys love or whatever, is ultimately about sex or romance. So if this were a story that were not about that, maybe about adolescence or teen angst or self-doubt, issues about that sort of self-conscious period we all know about, self-acceptance, feeling left out—those issues I think would be really interesting to play out in a manga.

My Brother’s Husband, Vol. 1 is available now.

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