The Erotic Antagonism of Gengoroh Tagame

Mishima meets Mapplethorpe—that's one way of describing the erotic, often violent, gay manga of Gengoroh Tagame. Which, thanks to book designer Chip Kidd, is proving to be an unlikely sensation with North American manga nerds. Hazlitt talks to Kidd and the artist himself.

During a trip to Japan in the summer of 2001, the renowned book designer Chip Kidd found himself captivated by some meticulously drawn bondage porn. He was on a tour of gay Tokyo given by his friend Donald Richie, the late film critic and ex-pat memoirist, but these comics were different from the homoerotic manga most familiar to North America, yaoi or “boys’ love,” melodramatic tales of beautiful, intermittently androgynous youths, predominantly drawn by and for women. The male figures were muscular or chubby or somewhere in between. A few looked hairy enough to make Wolverine seem like an alopecia patient. The sadomasochistic tortures visited upon them recalled the classical style and stark grace of traditional woodblock prints, or Robert Mapplethorpe. Buying whichever volumes could pass through customs, Kidd tried several times to contact their creator, this Gengoroh Tagame, but there was no response. He wanted to read the stories of “erotic antagonism” in English; to know, as he writes, “what the heck all these characters are saying (yelling, moaning, pleading, instructing, ordering)…”

Earlier this month, Kidd sat on a spotlight panel for Tagame at the annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival, where his literary fixation was a featured guest. They were celebrating the arrival of The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame, his first English-language collection, which bears a striking amount of prestige and care: released by the influential comics/art publisher PictureBox, introduced by Edmund White, designed by Kidd himself. (The text is literally bound inside the Japanese wrapping called an obi.) Sitting alongside the other members of the book’s production team, Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins, he deadpanned that his interest was “purely for scholarly purposes, as a comics historian,” but his admiration for these stories, which he places in the artistic tradition of Pasolini, de Sade, Yukio Mishima and Lolita, was unmistakable. There was a big crowd, and despite Tagame’s near-total association with stereotypically “macho” characters, half of it was female. Several rows back, a woman’s turquoise hair spilled beneath her cap (feathered, not leather). The cartoonist brought together an audience only just beginning to recognize its own existence.

In person, Tagame’s aura is not exactly Sadean. As we spoke in his TCAF hotel room, with Anne Ishii interpreting, his soft, low voice chuckled like an echo whenever somebody laughed at translated jokes. One assumes that he wouldn’t quibble if you described him as a bear, although his huge glasses and bristly grey facial hair evoke a more aquatic mammal. Tagame was born in 1964, the younger of two brothers, to a family distantly descended from samurai. His strict parents forbade pop music and comic books, with the exception of foundational manga artist Osamu Tezuka, suspected to have some sort of literary merit.

He would find horror and shonen (boys’ manga) stories strewn around the barbershop waiting room, by creators like Kazuo Umezu and Go Nagai, and vividly remembers a tableau from the latter’s work: “There was a girl who was at a strict all-girls’ high school, who wasn’t allowed to bring pictures of idols or [pop] stars. You weren’t allowed to carry those little pictures, but she was caught with them, and her punishment for having them was, she was pinned up naked and then they pinned the pictures on her tits. I [couldn’t] believe this was supposed to be shonen manga. And that’s something I read in elementary school.”

On his part-Japanese, part-English website, Tagame has posted charmingly idiomatic lists of “horny things” from various periods of his life—The Thousand and One Nights, Story of O, Joe Gage films—and when I asked about the first one he could recall consciously taking in as erotica, he mentioned feeling intrigued by posters for Salò, Pasolini’s abject transposition of de Sade to the doomed fascist redoubt of the Italian Social Republic. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll go to the bookstore and look for the original book, ‘cause it looks like it’s based on something.’ And when I was looking for it I found by chance an issue of something with a picture of a naked man from the waist up, and I thought, oh, what’s this?, and opened it and went ‘ohhh!’, because it was basically a gay porn magazine. I have no memory of what happened after that, but somehow I obtained that magazine and went home with it.”

Anne Ishii says that her initial exposure to Tagame’s work “was like listening to rap with parental advisory labels on the covers for the first time.” She also worried, however, about dismissive “used-panties-in-vending-machines” reactions—the Western caricature, both scandalized and titillated, that Japan is a nation of slavering perverts and the schoolgirls who avoid them. They would struggle to maintain those misconceptions after reading these comics, which present the stereotypical face of swaggering masculinity only to slap it around.

Tagame began drawing manga in high school, and it seems he was precocious—when a girlfriend urged him to submit his work to the yaoi magazine June, they accepted it. The periodical had a daring, avant-garde sensibility; “June” is a pun on the Japanese pronunciation of Jean Genet’s name. (Chris Butcher, the manager of Toronto’s Beguiling comics shop and TCAF co-founder, said in an email, “There were gay comics before Tagame—[he’s] even editing a series of books about the history of gay comics and illustration in Japan—but I feel like his work defies tradition.”) Although his family expected him to attend Tokyo University, the country’s most prestigious, and become a banker, Tagame chose Tama art school instead. It was a fertile environment. The nascent cartoonist liked to read homoerotic magazines in class: “I just wanted everybody to know how gay I was.” Japan happened to be undergoing what he describes as a “gay boom” at the time, thanks in part to that ambiguous perennial of media-declared hipness, enabling authors like Edmund White to be translated and popularized beyond the underground.

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A précis of “Arena,” The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame’s centrepiece: the arrogant karate star Tanba Nobuaki signs up for a clandestine American fighting league, telling reporters, “Just watch a real man in action.” Smirking at the rule that permits combatants to do anything to each other, he still seems understandably surprised when his first victorious opponent decides to fuck him. The head of the championship (who resembles, for some reason, Sean “Diddy” Combs) reveals that it’s all a military-pharmaceutical conspiracy to create the ultimate super soldier, their serum’s side effect being uncontrollable horniness. Tanba asks for the latest formula, but this version of “Priapus” ends up making him a bliss-dazed masochist instead, and the crowd cheers our hero into battle against a bunch of musclemen in bondage masks, “SEX PIG” tattooed on his chest. A singularly idiosyncratic interpretation of Street Fighter, “Arena” doesn’t represent all the stories in The Passion—some of them are downright romantic—yet its extreme purity, or pure extremity, feels immediate. In a recent interview, Anne Ishii told Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter that her initial exposure to Tagame’s work “was like listening to rap with parental advisory labels on the covers for the first time.” She also worried, however, about dismissive “used-panties-in-vending-machines” reactions—the Western caricature, both scandalized and titillated, that Japan is a nation of slavering perverts and the schoolgirls who avoid them. They would struggle to maintain those misconceptions after reading these comics, which present the stereotypical face of swaggering masculinity only to slap it around.

The gay subculture that would be known as “the macho look” first emerged from American motorcycle bars in the early 1960s. That style became omnipresent during the disco era, until uncomprehending straights absorbed it too – the U.S. Navy almost used those clean-cut young men from the Village People in a recruitment campaign. In her cultural history of the period, Hot Stuff, Alice Echols notes how much this challenged the previous association of gayness with “failed masculinity,” or “ideas of morbid, narcissistic femininity.” Tom of Finland’s leather men epitomized the look, and although Tagame is a big fan, who played an instrumental role in shepherding the first licensed Japanese edition of his work, Chip Kidd rightly denies any deeper resonance between them, writing that the Scandinavian’s figures “never quite seem alive.” Cranking out thousands of buff bikers presumably requires genuine fascination, but his were static, illustrative; they might as well be posing inside quotation marks. Tom of Finland wasn’t really a cartoonist. In another life, Tagame could’ve drawn visceral action manga.

As Hot Stuff suggests, to be macho too often meant “stigmatization of effeminacy.” Echols paraphrases the writer Seymour Kleinberg, who “believed that in refashioning themselves as specimens of masculine hardness, gay men were dressing up like the enemy.” (In Japan, people still call a leather daddy a “Hard Gay,” after the local title of William Friedkin’s Cruising.) Even as Tagame was sketching after school, however, he had a significant female audience. When I mentioned how the protagonists/victims in his comics tend to be traditional male authority figures, he laughed: “I actually really love taking, you know, the guy who says ‘I’m a real man!’ and saying to him: ‘Maybe you’re a woman.’” Although certain bara artists, such as Jiraiya, have followings as boyish as their casts, Tagame estimates that his readership is half female, perhaps because he goes beyond burly romance to darker, broader themes. Abjection is more universal than brotherhood. Three decades ago, Edmund White argued that BDSM stages “the mysteries of domination, of might, that obsess our cultures,” before quoting Deleuze and Guattari: “Class struggle goes to the heart of desire.” One might question whether the route is quite so direct, but in that struggle, Tagame is a fellow traveler.

At times, his gender-blurring becomes overt. The title character in “Country Doctor,” who’s been hooking up with patients, learns of a local tradition: now and then, during a “Man Festival,” the village invites a suitable male candidate to be its kaehime, a “bride” or friend-with-benefits to every guy around. That sounds delightful to the physician, who pays tribute to their phallic Shinto idol in the same revealing attire as the rest of the crowd, rather literally performing gender. It’s an odd, cheerful pastoral, imagining a town where the entire population is kind of queer. (A parallel Woman Festival is left suggestively unseen.) Tagame blended real socio-cultural practices into his invented mythology: “In pre-modern society, there were rituals where men would take on female gender roles, and that’s the case in Hinduism and Native American religions…I found something in a very obscure Buddhist scripture, about using the sexual energy and power of each gender in exchange…In Hinduism there was a god that is the man and woman having sex. So then it became plausible to do a story where there was this particular sect of Hinduism that influenced the Buddhism which influenced the Shinto aspects.

Homosexuality and heterosexuality as stable identities are a legacy of modernity. When the Meiji regime came to power in 1868 and set about transforming Japanese society with unprecedented speed, it discouraged customs that struck Westerners as “degenerate” and backwards, such as cross-dressing. Gay expression that had once been accepted in certain forms was pathologized and criminalized. According to Jim Reichert’s study In the Company of Men, nanshoku (male-male desire) was a respected literary mode in the previous Edo period, and its standard relationships, like the transitory ones of ancient Greece, often involved exploitative power disparities: samurai and their teenage trainees, or femme-presenting kabuki actors and their urban customers. Though the common yaoi pairing of seme (dominant) and uke (submissive) partners is a plausible descendant, they’ve become equal enough that a reader could imagine themselves in either guise, or both. Tagame has appeared in magazines that publish both yaoi and bara, and at conventions where they bleed together too; perhaps he offers fans a thornier, black-shined version of that roleplaying.

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Tagame’s fetishistic toolbox overflows: clamps, electrodes, chains, candles, gags, ropes, hooks, dildos, thumbtacks, blades, piercings, handcuffs, canes, vinegar, belts, needles, and a memorable Perrier bottle. Yet the ritualized, almost solemn staging of their employment distinguishes his comics from ero-guro manga, or “erotic grotesque nonsense,” to use the wonderful literal translation – an artistic phenomenon dating back to the 1930s, in which human bodies become props for extravagantly cruel theatre, aberrant and amoral. Tagame eschews such glee. In “Missing,” a journalist investigating his brother’s disappearance follows the trail to a demonic cabal of corrupt military officers; when he shoots two of them and escapes, the violence is brushed to the panel’s very edges, as if to staunch any gore. The cartoonist told me: “In masochistic fantasy, I think what makes a person—the victim of it—so beautiful is that they are a beautiful person who undergoes this. I actually loathe stories where it’s like ‘look at how disgusting he is!’ or ‘look at how disgusting this is!’”

Earlier, after I asked Tagame to elaborate on a comment about the importance of despair to his BDSM vignettes, he mentioned childhood fixations on Shakespearean tragedy and German opera, and added: “I think something they had in common with a lot of Japanese tales is an appreciation of the beauty of destruction, or deterioration. In stories and in eroticism, I’m very particular about heroes, and I’m very concerned with the idea of the hero, but the hero that I fantasize or dream of isn’t somebody who builds nations or brings peoples together, but a person who’s falling apart.”

As it turned out, a period of depression had left him unable to respond when Chip Kidd first wrote in—far from despondent about English publication, however, he generally welcomed it, and tried to dispel the rumour that he didn’t want his work translated at all. Kidd, who’d worked with her at the manga publisher Vertical, entreated The Passion’s co-producer Anne Ishii. She brought Graham Kolbeins aboard (his research into gay manga was swelling from an article to a potential book) and emailed Tagame, receiving an eager reply. Kidd was even able to commission a new piece, a fantasy loosely inspired by him and his partner. It’s metafictional.

At the same time, others were in pursuit. The young blogger/translator/editor/publisher Ryan Sands had as one of his many projects an erotic comics anthology called Thickness, curated with Toronto cartoonist Michael DeForge. The first issue’s cover, lovingly Risographed, came to exemplify the series and its artist Johnny Negron: a thick, fierce woman, nose upturned, gloves studded, bikini overmatched. “It’s a quintessential large lady looking gorgeous and fearless,” Sands told me. “We wanted to do the equivalent for gay comics and depictions of maleness. And immediately, what is the—it’s not even a polar opposite per se, but what is the mirror reflection of a Negron lady? It’s a Tagame dude.”

As a Japanese-fluent foreign student, he had encountered the bara godhead’s work in an indie manga setting; only after reading a long introductory post by TCAF impresario Chris Butcher did he put a name and a queer-comics context to it. Sands is friends with a lot of people, one being Anne Ishii, and they got the story “Standing Ovation” in Thickness #3 last year before its appearance in The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame. “People talk a lot about the usefulness or utility of porn,” he told me, “and you know, it’s a nice euphemism for what at its essence porn is really about. But people like Tagame and Brandon Graham, some of the early Suehiro Maruo…the work has a pornographic intent, but if they meet those requirements, the rest of the world is wide open.”

The opportunity to enmesh one’s art and one’s labour seems a rare monomania already; what is it like to bring sex into that circle as well? Talking to him through linguistic echolocation, I had the sense that Tagame does not devote his life to his work so much as he allows the latter to shape it. During part of the 1990s, his partner was a gay porn actor, and their first meeting sounds like a fairy tale, pre-sanitization: “When I was doing [historical epic] Silver Flower, I was trying to think of who to base a character on, so I just drew a big picture of that actor and pinned it on my wall…I was self-publishing then, but he had apparently ordered [a comic] and I had apparently not sent it, so like a good stalker he actually looked up my home address and came to my house. So when I opened the door I was like, ‘Oh, this guy looks a lot like that porn star.’ And what’s more, I had just broken up with somebody, so I was free as a bird, I was like, ‘I’m just gonna do everybody and everything.’ So when he was at my door I was like, ‘c’mon in.’ And I had totally forgotten that I had this poster I’d drawn of him on my wall.”

Those strict parents have long known Tagame was gay, yet they never saw one of his stories or even figured out what he did for a living until last year, when they found out his pen name and got to Googling. My family did buy me comics as a kid, but if they discovered that I drew BDSM porn to make rent I’m not sure it would be received with the equanimity that this apparently was. Tagame’s oeuvre and its audience are emblematic of a world where the late 20th century’s rigid categories, those genders or orientations you can count on one hand, fit fewer and fewer lives. In certain cases, they feel like a traumatically false imposition; in some, they just chafe. So it’s unsurprising that bears and girls might both want to read about hairy sadomasochists, that women would tell their creator about reading the manga and having wet dreams—or, as he reports, that “plenty of gay boys” prefer yaoi. (One or two other straight guys aside, my friends at TCAF most excited for the PictureBox collection were all female.) What does seem extraordinary, but maybe also perfect, is how Tagame wriggled a beckoning hand out from porn’s formal restraints. As John Donne put it in a rather different context, “to enter in these bonds is to be free.”


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