January 05, 2009

A lily by any other name

I usually save few minutes at the end of the day to read manga, dessert to cap off the main course. As I happen to be translating yaoi for a living these days, I've been reading a good deal of yuri of late. Some yin to balance out all that yangy yang. And, to be honest, I do find women to be infinitely more interesting creatures than men.

My first sale as a writer was an autobiographical story to Cricket Magazine. In the published version, the editor changed the main character to a girl. I've favored female protagonists ever since. The New Era managing editor Richard Romney once said that I wrote female characters better than Jack Weyland. I still consider that one of the nicest compliments I've ever gotten.

Just to clarify, yaoi is a romance genre featuring guys falling for other guys. Yuri (meaning "lily") is a romance genre about girls falling for other girls. At first glance, the two would seem a complementary pair. Both are written (mostly) by women for (mostly) women. Just as yaoi is not seriously categorized as "gay" literature, yuri is not a synonym "lesbian" literature.

Furthermore, I've come to consider yaoi, if anything, as a rather strange "old school" extension of the Harlequin romance. Yaoi provides a curious solution to a knotty problem with the standard romance formula. Namely (and this is largely my sister's insight), that yaoi is a way of exploiting unequal power dynamics in romantic relationships while avoiding the taint of misogyny.

The "traditional" historical romance centers social and physical power in an alpha male--the pirate or prince or highwayman. The woman counters the total domination by the male with her sexuality and "feminine wiles." Following the customary evolutionary roles, the man ultimately "captures" the woman, and the woman in turn "tames" the man.

Translated to a contemporary context, though, this formula crashes into the wall of political correctness. The typical dodge is to give the alpha male a high-testosterone occupation or a much higher socioeconomic status than the woman (Michael Douglas in The American President, Tom Hanks as a corporate exec in You've Got Mail, Edward as, well, Edward in Twilight).

In a "chic lit" classic like Bridget Jones's Diary, Bridget is involved in relationships way above her social and economic class. And making women as sexually promiscuous as men, as in the hopelessly dreary Sex and the City, ultimately plays right back into the predatory male game plan, the old formulas rather transparently repackaged.

But if the relationship involves only men (quoting Kate),

then nobody has to excuse the blatant use of power. So teenage girls, who may feel rather powerless (since they have just seen their male counterparts gain weight, muscle and height that they don't have), may be drawn to material where real issues of power are played out without excuse or without the pretense that power isn't real, there and in your face.

The exaggerated and often S/M power differentials in yaoi essentially mirror Rhett Butler sweeping Scarlett off her feet and hauling her up to the bedroom, her protestations notwithstanding. It's retro Harlequin that conforms to every Freudian stereotype in the book.

Yuri, in contrast, tends to favor stories in which conflict arises from character largely outside men-are-from-Mars, testosterone-driven power struggles, and thus oddly mirrors classic action flick "buddy" pairings. In any case, class and power can't be entirely expunged from the narrative. There must be an aggressive member in the dyad or nothing would happen.

But while yaoi and genre romances tend toward idealistic or artificial narrative constructs (not that there's anything wrong with that--the same goes for guy entertainment), yuri (which, to be sure, hits porn at one extreme and lesbian literature at the other) remains largely rooted in how real people--specifically women--actually relate to each other in the real world.

As Erica Friedman puts it, yuri features "intense emotional connections between women" that can't necessarily be classified as love, but involve a "seriously intense bond that could easily become something more." Hence, to generalize, "mainstream" yuri can be said to revolve mainly around the evolution and devolution of friendships.

Many of the bittersweet, superbly-written short stories in Kawaii Anata ("Adorable You") by Hiyori Otsu, to take one exemplary example, could have run in the The New Era with very little tweaking. (The one place the short story is alive and well and widely-read by teenagers is Japanese manga.)

Similar yuri elements can be found throughout the Y/A canon. The kind of relationship Anne and Diane enjoy in Anne of Green Gables is a mainstay of yuri fiction. In her short story collection, Kuchibiru, Tameiki, Sakura-iro ("Her Lips, a Sigh, and the Color Pink"), Milk Morinaga has a character introduce herself as "I'm Diane to your Anne."

The core material from Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, and Anne of Windy Poplars fits squarely into the yuri genre. Interestingly, these are the three novels that Kevin Sullivan tapped for his two miniseries, leaving out most of the formulaic (hetero) romance material from Anne of the Island.

Other examples includes Harriet and Beth Ellen from Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret (which I've always considered the better book) by Louise Fitzhugh. And at the other end of the genre scale, Lynne Ewing's Buffyesque Daughters of the Moon series.

Evolutionary psychology provides a useful tool for analysis here. Unless placed in a competitive context or placed outside behavioral norms (the nerds in any John Hughes flick) or given special attributes (every sports and superhero fantasy from Star Wars to Harry Potter to Spider-Man), normal boys are not that interesting. Unformed clay.

This is apparent in the NHK kid's show Whiz Kids. Imagine if the old PBS series Electric Company was produced by the Dr. Who people. The anime series Kodocha is based on shows like this, a bunch of preternaturally smart kids doing what a bunch of preternaturally smart kids would do with a television studio at their disposal.

Aside from the handful of adults who help "anchor" the show, the age cutoff for the cast is around twelve or thirteen. And reflecting a phenomenon that every geeky teenage boy is painfully aware of, while many of the girls can be categorized as "young women," the boys are still Bart Simpson. Even the preternaturally smart ones are candles competing with tungsten arc lamps.

Manga publishers and anime producers have long known that they can exploit this painful differential with some gratuitous nudity or by dropping yuri-ish hints into otherwise "guy" material--the vicarious thrill of imagining girls getting hot and heavy with each other being preferable to watching the kind of girl you'll never have doing the same thing with the BMOC.

The necessity of this spark remains when the hinting and nudging is taken away. In The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Kyon is a blank slate until Haruhi bounds into his life. In Ah! My Goddess, Keiichi is immobility incarnate, even after Belldandy shows up. In Sing Yesterday by Kei Toume, Rikuo hasn't gotten to first base with Shinako or Haru after six volumes.

Alas, the brilliant Ranma 1/2 begins to grate when you realize that, male or female, he's never going to grow up.

To compare, Akiko Morishima's collection of yuri short stories, Rakuen no Joken ("Conditions of Paradise") isn't chock full o' plot either. But Morishima's wonderfully-drawn stories and realistically-aged characters do depict lives moving forward, which is enormously more satisfying.

The odd shounen exception proving the rule are manga like the Kimikisu series, based on dating sims. Because the whole point of a dating sim is to challenge the player to round the bases, the story has to go somewhere with a refreshing alacrity. Kimikisu boasts little else in terms of plot--getting to first base alone is a challenging-enough goal. But at least they get there!

Now, I do understand characters like Ranma, Rikuo, Kyon and Keiichi. The old evolutionary instincts grinding away in the background. It's hard for guys to move off the dime without the sense that they're accomplishing something concrete, conquering new lands, rising in a hierarchy. As in every Bond film, consummating the relationships celebrates the end of the quest. Game over.

Hence the constant keeping of things at arm's length. In contrast, shoujo and yuri protagonists are more likely to get up close and personal, pushing the story along romantically and physically. Because that's when things start getting interesting.

Nor, I find, am I alone in this assessment, as yuri manga-ka like Milk Morinaga and Takako Shimura write for magazines whose primary market is men.

To be even-handed, an equally deadly plot device on the shoujo side is the love triangle. Again, evolutionary psychology explains why geeky guys in particular loath the conceit: when two males compete for a female, somebody's going to get hurt, and probably the guy wearing glasses. For the Mary Sue, the duplication of attention is great for her self-esteem. Hell for everybody else's.

In Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery creates two interlocking love triangles, which means that everybody suffers. Kevin Sullivan's adaptation skips quickly through the love triangle business (using an either/or formula which denies the hedged bet), making the movie better than the book (though as I point out here, it slights Anne's educational accomplishments).

Granted, shounen manga and anime writers invented the male version of this, known as harem. And it's just as annoying, especially lacking any hope (in the non-porn genres) of consummation.

To be sure, Robert McKee argues that we shouldn't expect fiction to mirror real life, but for fiction to capture something that is like real life, a distinction that confuses too many artists. In the excruciatingly gorgeous 5 Centimeters Per Second, Makoto Shinkai vividly captures (in the very last frame) a very real moment of self-realization. Been there, done that. I can identify.

And that's the problem. Plot is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition. We ultimate invest in the character of the characters. And at the end of 5 Centimeters Per Second, we realize we've invested an hour of our time in a character who doesn't have any. Real? Like, man, I'm grokking it totally. But entertaining? Not beyond the dazzling cinematography.

In Video Girl Ai, Youta spends the entire series summoning up the courage to admit that he loves, well, Ai or Moemi, he's not quite sure. But at least in the end he's willing to pay a literal ferryman and literally walk across broken glass to seal his decision. Just punishment for all the angsty dithering he's put us through.

If nothing much is going to happen--essentially the most real thing about real life for most of us--then character must become the summum bonum of the story, without placing the protagonist's travails infinitely beyond the grasp of the reader. For me, yuri's consistent ability to accomplish this makes it perhaps the most "realistic" of niches in the otherwise unreal romance genre.

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# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
1/05/2009 12:17 PM   
Furthermore, I've come to consider yaoi, if anything, as a rather strange "old school" extension of the Harlequin romance. Yaoi provides a curious solution to a knotty problem with the standard romance formula. Namely (and this is largely my sister's insight), that yaoi is a way of exploiting unequal power dynamics in romantic relationships while avoiding the taint of misogyny.

It's funny you should say that. There was a similar comment on Racy Romance Reviews that put forth this argument concerning m/m fiction by and for straight women.

On the other hand, Mrs. Giggles has noted and complained about an increasing incidence of "chicks with dicks" in m/m romance in that the bottom is not really written as a male.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
1/05/2009 3:06 PM   
Last year I translated a yaoi novel (Better than a Dream) where I could have done a CTRL-H and replaced the bottom with a girl's name, and it would have instantly turned into a traditional hetero romance. It has a Harlequin plot just aching to be ripped off (I say that as a compliment). It really is a well-structured novel, following "McKee" to a T.
# posted by Blogger Katherine Hanson
1/18/2009 9:04 PM   
This was a really interesting essay. :) You did a great job articulating the differences between yuri and yaoi (aside from the gender of the characters involved), as well as why those differences exist. Aside from being personally biased in favor of enjoying yuri, I've had a much harder time finding yaoi that I find interesting because it adheres to such rigid plot and characterization formulae (even though there are some great exceptions, like Antique Bakery). But the psychology behind those formulae is pretty intriguing to me.
# posted by Anonymous jac
11/29/2010 6:01 AM   
mmm, like what katherine had mentioned there are exceptions and in my opinion there are yaoi mangas that focus on realistic relationships and such, the problem is that its much easier to find the stereotypical popular ones that most seek for...i just don't think it's right to generalize yaoi in that way. you do have a point though, good yuri is more easily available