Happy yaoi day, fujoshi readers! And the rest of you, happy unexpected-middle-of-the-week post! Of course, you’re welcome to join in the BL fun too, if you want. Because today is that magical day August 1, also known as 8/01, which coincidentally can be pronounced “ya-o-i” in Japanese. And the Japanese love of turning every day into a weird holiday means that today is the day we celebrate all things boys’ love. And what better way to celebrate than to add to the fanclub archives of my favourite BL artist, est em, with an interview with the artist herself?
est em was kind enough to speak with me in the fall of 2010, when I was writing an article on boys’ love and feminism, so it’s a bit out of date now. But we had a pretty interesting conversation, and I’ve been asked a few times to share it, so in honour of hot boys getting sweaty, ta-da! I present to you the condensed version because our entire conversation is getting into tl; dr territory. (It may still be there anyway. Sorry! She just had so many interesting things to say!)
Brain: I find your work to be very different from the standard fare, more nuanced and less focused on the sexual aspects of relationships.
est em: Yes, that’s not really the important part.
B: Right, the relationship itself is what’s important. For instance, the story “En el Parque” in the collection Sakuhin No. 20 is a tale of an older man suffering from dementia and the man he loves. I found it really moving. You write those kinds of story. How do you decide what to write about? Could you tell me a little about your process?
e: Hmm… Well, what inspires me are things in everyday life or when I’m travelling… I’ll get inspired by a certain scene, a certain phrase when I’m watching a movie or reading a novel, and then I flesh it out. That’s something I do a fair bit. A lot of manga artists say you need to create the characters first, but—I’ve been writing short stories all this time, and for a short story, I don’t create the characters first. It goes better if I start from a scene or a line. With “En el parque”, it was when I saw this old man sitting by himself in the park. When I was travelling in Spain last year for, um, three months, there were quite a few people sitting on benches, not really doing anything. And the people sitting by themselves, they probably didn’t have any real reason for sitting there, but maybe their houses were dark, or their wives were nagging them, so they were out there.
B: (Laughs) But your imagination went in a totally different direction.
e: Exactly. I thought, if I was going to make a drama from that, what would it be. I wanted to draw someone waiting, and I started to think about if Spain was the setting, then what would he be waiting for? What if he was in exile? It was a really difficult time when Franco took power after the civil war in Spain. And I thought I could use that, not as the main story, but a reason for being out there.
B: So it wasn’t like you were thinking from the start, well, it’s this genre, so I have to write this.
e: No, not at all. And sometimes, I start by talking to my editor about how to handle a certain kind of character, and decide to try this or that.
B: Do you often write after consulting with your editor?
e: I often consult with my editor about the general direction, well, I ask if it’s okay, I get it checked. (Laughs) I’m not doing stories where a high school kid ends up liking a boy at school, so, well, I first ask if the setting is okay, or if this type of thing is all right. That’s how I ended up writing a story about an astronaut once. At the time, I really, really wanted to write a story about an astronaut, it was even in Russia.
B: You often use foreign countries for your setting, or foreign protagonists.
e: I think that’s an effect of having watched Western films since forever. People who read a lot of manga draw manga-like manga, people who read novels, I think they probably draw things that have a lot of monologues or dialogue. My biggest influence is the Western films I’ve been going to see since junior high school, mostly American films, but also French films, Italian films, Russian films.
B: You can see that in your work. There’s a real movement in the way you draw. I wondered if you didn’t have a background in dance or something. You see it in the lines of the people, and dance comes up a lot.
e: I personally can’t do any of that. (Laughs) But I’m so attracted to that world. Telling stories with your body… I’m so attracted to people who can dance well. But I can’t dance at all. Although by drawing I can do anything!
B: I guess so! Is there something in particular you’re trying to communicate by using foreign settings? Or do you do it unconsciously?
e: I think it’s easier to draw without an awareness. The images, let’s see, I simply like to draw chiseled faces, and I guess these lines are more alive when I draw foreigners. Drawing Japanese people, I have to work hard to control the lines, keep them tight, so it’s actually a bit tough.
B: So foreigners are easier to draw.
e: They are. Well, it’s not just that. Maybe I could call it more of a trip effect? When I’m writing a story, some parts are easier to draw with worlds completely removed from my everyday life. And it’s fun to do research while I’m drawing. Reading or going to the actual place. When I actually go to the place, sometimes, a story will pop into my head.
B: I wonder if you aren’t creating yet another layer of distance in BL using foreigners as protagonists. BL has men in romantic relationships with each other, and the readers are mainly women. So you could say there’s a distance already in that. It seems to me that female Japanese readers can further divorce the stories from reality and perhaps feel freer in losing themselves in your stories, without having to consider any gender or social roles that might bring them back to reality. Was that your intention?
e: That’s very true. That’s something that’s often said. In my case, putting the story in a foreign country allows more of a third-person view? Although I’m not consciously bringing it to a place where there’s absolutely no gap to project yourself. But in the end, even if you’re drawing men, in the case of BL, readers are looking for some kind of empathy somewhere. Very much. My editor often points this out to me, the need for empathy, for that joy when the other man is, in the end, also in love with the protagonist we’ve empathized with so much. But when I’m writing a story, whether it’s two men, two women, or even a man and a woman, it’s better if I’m not really there. It’s better that way. I’m just looking.
B: The more distance there is, the better.
e: Yes. When there’s distance, I can really draw something interesting. I like drawing worlds I don’t know.
B: I know your work has been translated into English. What did you think of the English versions?
e: I was really happy. Although in the beginning, when they translated the first one, Seduce Me After the Show, it was full of mistakes. They let me check it before the final version came out. The nuances were just too different from my text, so I asked if we could have one of my professors from university, Matt Thorn, look at the translation. I thought he might be able to do something with it. The publisher was the overseas division of Ohzora Publishing, the Japanese publisher, rather than an overseas company, so it was easy to talk about the whole thing. In Seduce Me, there’s a story where they speak in Kyoto dialect. I wondered how to translate that, and Matt Thorn, he did it with the Wales accent from the UK.
B: That’s really clever!
e: It’s amazing! After thinking about where would be good, he decided on Wales. And he asked me “Is that okay?”, and I was like, I have no idea what a Wales accent sounds like! (Both laugh) I do wonder for people overseas where the America I draw and the real America differ. A Spanish friend of mine told me to make sure to put that the Spain in my work is fiction, that there are no men like that in Spain. (Laughs) She said, make sure to put that there are no good men.
B: Really? She said there were no good men like yours?
e: We’re terrible. Spain, I’m sorry for saying that you don’t have any good men. (Laughs)
B: Manga critic Deb Aoki commented that the men you draw are not like the other feminine men in BL, but are men that she would actually have sex with.
e: Wow! Whoa! That’s incredible! That’s the highest praise I could get!
B: So why did you end up drawing BL?
e: A publisher contacted me about it. I made this thing with my friend and someone who read it came and asked me if I could draw BL. At the start, I really had absolutely no idea how to draw it.
B: How did you decide on how to go about it?
e: Well, BL is stories where two guys appear, so I decided to draw with that in mind, the idea that it’s BL as long as there are some feelings of love in a story where two men appear. The first thing I drew was, um, with Nero who’s in Seduce Me After the Show, a story about twin cats. Since I didn’t really didn’t know how to draw BL, I was all, is this okay? (Laughs)
B: Like, am I doing something wrong?
e: Exactly. Is this all right?
B: Do you like it? Drawing BL?
e: Drawing BL is fun. I just jump into BL and the readers are there. For example, with general magazines if it’s a story about a musician, you have to be ready to take it seriously and to really create that world, draw it carefully. With BL, you can just draw the elements of it. As long as the emotional part is there and the characters have a humanness to them, readers will read it.
B: North American female readers are attracted to BL in the same way as Japanese readers. What do you think the commonality there is?
e: For me, one thing is really, maybe it’s cliched, but societies where BL is popular are ones where women have rights to a certain extent, whether it’s France or the US or Japan. I think BL is popular in places where regular people have jobs and can speak their opinions, where people aren’t oppressed. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t almost something women read to confirm their superiority over men.
B: So many of the works I’ve read interpret yaoi as being a “safe space” where women are free to explore their sexuality without having to consider all the realities of the fact that they are women; i.e., sexism, the position of women in society, etc. Is this a simplistic view of the genre?
e: The thing is, of course, there is that too. But BL is really broad, it’s broad. I don’t think it’s possible anymore to put everyone together in a big lump as people who read BL. I mean, people who like my manga are not the same people who devour manga with tons of sex. There’s something lacking in my manga for people who like those portrayals of sex, and that’s fine. They make that choice, if it’s something they’d buy or wouldn’t buy.
B: I read that women don’t generally appear in BL because of the hatred women have for their own selves.
e: I think that initially, that was probably true, and even now, you see genres which could probably be analyzed that way. I often get complimentary copies of books or magazines that I draw for. And just flipping through them, [I see] the ones where absolutely no women appear, and my work has that theme to it (laughs), but I think the nuances are different. When I draw everyday life normally, of course, women make an appearance too.
B: Right. And lately, you often see women appearing more in BL.
e: In the old days, if they did appear, it was a really horrible woman.
B: Exactly! And then she would die right away or something.
e: Yeah, yeah.
B: And her death would bring the two men together.
e: (Laughs) And you’re just thinking, huh?
B: Like, wait, I’m a woman.
B: That’s true. In your own work, Kinein, a fairly regular girl makes an appearance.
e: But I really like drawing men. When I was in junior high, high school, I loved Michelangelo, and there was a period where I copied him obsessively. I just adored the human body that he drew. I really love drawing the male body, the muscles. Simply in terms of the lines, there’s a tremendous amount that interests me. And also, the fact that you don’t have to protect yourself makes things really easy for me. With female protagonists, you really have to put in a lot for the psychological portrayal. Monologues, what the character is thinking at that time, you really need that stuff for josei manga. It’s a world where feelings need to be made clear, and drawing it is a good bit of work. So when I do BL, I draw worlds that are far away from me, but when I’m drawing women in manga for women, it ends up being a world that’s really close. It’s from my own experience, or from my family or something. That said, I probably learned this from when I draw faraway worlds because I feel out of place somehow. I’m a woman after all.
B: So as a woman, what do you think of BL? (Both laugh)
e: It’s not like I got stuck on the manga. I just liked drawing the relationships between men. I like the drama there, so I do relationships between men. It doesn’t matter if it’s love or not. That closeness, a closeness that’s not there with women, well, I guess it’s a kind of human relationship. And I really love that part. So if we’re calling that genre BL, then it’s a fascinating genre and I love it.