Random Musings: Two from Tagame

Endless GameGengoroh Tagame is an extraordinarily important creator of gay erotic art and manga. He is extremely influential in Japan, but his talent is also recognized worldwide. Tagame’s work has been published in French, Spanish, and Italian, but it wasn’t until 2012 that any of his manga received an English-language release when “Standing Ovations” was collected in the third issue of the erotic comics zine Thickness.

There was a persistent rumor that Tagame didn’t want his work to be published in English, which may have been one of the reasons it took so long for a major release of Tagame’s manga to emerge. Happily, that rumor was unfounded and not at all true; 2013 saw the publication of The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame: The Master of Gay Erotic Manga, which collected stories from over a decade of Tagame’s output.

In part, The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame and the efforts of its editor Graham Kolbeins and its producer and translator Anne Ishii led to the establishment of Massive, a line of apparel and goods inspired by gay manga (and especially by the work of Tagame and Jiraiya). Massive also imports, produces, and translates gay manga and collaborates directly with creators of gay Japanese art and comics. I’m very much looking forward to Massive and Fantagraphics’ release of Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It in late 2014 which will include interviews, photography, essays, illustrations, and manga. Tagame will be one of the nine artists featured in the volume.

The publication of The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame may have also helped to open the doors for the German publisher Bruno Gmünder to release two more collections of Tagame’s work in English: Endless Game and Gunji. Bruno Gmünder specializes in high quality releases of gay fiction, nonfiction, comics, art, and photography, so Tagame’s manga fits the publishing house perfectly. In addition to the manga themselves, the volumes also include color illustrations by Tagame. Endless Game and Gunji are the first volumes in Bruno Gmünder’s Gay Manga line of comics. 2014 will also see the release and English debuts of works by Takeshi Matsu and Mentaiko Itto, as well as one of Tagame’s most recent manga, Fisherman’s Lodge. Tagame was also included in Bruno Gmünder’s 2014 artbook Raunch.

Interestingly enough, Bruno Gmünder’s release of Endless Game was actually the volume’s world debut. The English-language edition of Endless Game was published in 2013, while the Japanese edition of the manga wasn’t collected until 2014. Endless Game originally began serialization in 2009 and was completed in 2012. I was particularly interested in the volume because prior to its publication I had only had the opportunity to read selections of Tagame’s short manga; all one-hundred-seventy-six pages of Endless Game are devoted to a single story about a young jock named Akira and his descent into prostitution.

GunjiTagame is particularly well-known for the hardcore BDSM themes found in his manga and artwork and he doesn’t shy away from rape scenarios in his work. The sex in Endless Game however, while still being hardcore and exceptionally explicit, is entirely consensual. Granted, Akira might not be aware of the extent to which he is being manipulated. But everything that he does, all of the filthy and degrading acts in which he participates, he does so willingly. Akira has an insatiable sexual appetite and even when he is being taken advantage of, he revels in it. There is still power play and intense sexual scenarios in Endless Game, but the extreme brutality seen in some of the shorter manga collected in The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame is missing, making this volume more approachable as a whole to a wider audience.

Gunji collects two of Tagame’s earlier works: the Gunji tetralogy (“Gunji,” “Scars,” “Flash Rain,” and “Pyre”), which was serialized between 2002 and 2003, as well as a slightly revised version of “The Ballad of Ôeyama” from 2004. Both of those manga had previously been released in Japanese and in French before the English translation was published in 2014. The Gunji series was serialized in the Muscle Man manga magazine. The anthology became a crossover of sorts between boys’ love and gay manga and attracted both female and male readers and creators. Because of this, Tagame deliberately incorporated more boys’ love-esque elements into the story. The men, while still very masculine, have considerably less body hair compared to some of his other works. “Gunji” was initially written as a one-shot story, but proved to be popular enough that Tagame followed it up with a serialized prequel. Whereas sex drove the plot in Endless Game, in the Gunji manga the plot drives the sex. The titular Gunji is a skilled sushi chef who is tormented by the sadistic son of his late master, whom he loved.

“The Ballad of Ôeyama” is a historical period piece set in 10th-century Japan. The short manga was inspired by the military commander Minamoto no Yorimitsu (also known as Raikō) and the legend of the oni Shuten Douji. In the afterword, Tagame notes that “The Ballad of Ôeyama” was also greatly influenced by Osamu Tezuka’s 1969 manga General Onimaru which he enjoyed reading as a child. (Even Tagame is influenced by Tezuka!) Raikō and two of his followers are sent to quell a demon which has been terrorizing the people of Ôeyama but find themselves captured instead. The demon, it turns out, is a shipwrecked foreigner who after being shunned for so long desires human contact and forcibly takes Raikō. Tagame’s reinterpretation of the Shuten Douji myth is spun into a surprisingly romantic tragedy. As with the Gunji tetralogy, while the erotic content is certainly important to “The Ballad of Ôeyama,” the story itself seems to take slightly more precedence in the development of the manga. Granted, Tagame himself would be the first to admit that his work is pornography and he is very candid about that fact. But one of the things that I appreciate the most about Tagame’s manga is that in addition to being gorgeously and viscerally drawn they also have interesting narratives and compelling psychological elements.

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  1. I read Gunji in French and it solidified my decision that I didn’t need to read any more Tagame, but I was mildly curious about what the Bruno Gmünder edition would use to replace the two schoolboy-gangrape stories which they (quite sensibly) removed. (Does it still have the convenience-store story?) “The Ballad of Ôeyama” certainly sounds more interesting, but still like something I don’t need to read. :)

    I was kind of struck by the way that the Gunji storyline parallels the Genma/Himi storyline in Yuki Shimizu’s BL series Ze while also being quite different (and not just because Ze is fantasy). Mainly because of Tagame being Tagame, but in part also I think because of the different esthetics of BL vs gay manga.

    And I’m still waiting for someone to freak out about rape-fantasy in Tagame’s stuff the way they would if it was written by a female BL author. Lack of exposure, maybe?

    • Ash Brown says

      No, I don’t believe the convenience store story is included in this edition. (I’m away from home at the moment, so I can’t double-check, but I don’t recall it.) “The Ballad of Ôeyama” is still very Tagame, so if you’re not inclined towards his work you probably won’t miss not reading it. :)

      I hadn’t initially thought of the Genma/Himi storyline in Ze, but you’re absolutely right: there are some striking parallels and similarities between the relationship dynamics.

      I’m not sure why there isn’t the same sort of outrage over Tagame’s work as there is over rape fantasies in BL. It might be lack of exposure, or it might simply (and unfairly) be because he’s a man. Or it could just be that that’s what his audience has come to expect from his manga and illustrations.

  2. “No, I don’t believe the convenience store story is included in this edition.”

    OK, then I suppose it was left out for space reasons (it concerns a guy who is harassed and tortured by a couple of thugs while shopping at a convenience store – cue lots of misuses of assorted merchandise; the twist ending is that the victim is a masochist and loved every minute of it.)

    One thing I find amusing about Gunji is that, if I recall correctly, the Japanese cover was made with Poser models (or some similar CG software); both the French and English translations use a real illustration of the characters (although different ones). Tagame used CG for a couple of his covers; he says in his interview in Pilcher’s Erotic Comics that his editors demand PG covers and he doesn’t enjoy drawing non-explicit pictures… I find it funny that a book entirely made up of hand-drawn illustrations would have a CG cover. :)

    • Ash Brown says

      Ah, nope, I would have definitely remembered that story! Only the four Gunji stories and “Ballad” are included in the English release. I think I’ve seen the CG cover you mentioned; I much prefer Tagame’s hand-drawn illustrations. (Also, that’s an interesting anecdote. Thanks for sharing!)

  3. Ash maybe you can answer this question for me what’s the difference between erotica and pornography?

    About the only real difference I can notice to put it cynically is the class of the purchasing audience, is it simply a form of “self-delusion” on the part of erotica consumers?

    So they can think that they are some how different from someone buying Project H titles or some of Fantagraphics more overtly pornographic titles. Also in reviewing pornography/erotica how is it possible to form an intellectually coherent appraisal of something that is pornogrphic?

    Not saying it can;t be done it’s just the ultimate end of all pornography is (with out hopefully being too crude) to elicit an sexual response in it’s consumer even if it has a good story it’s ultimately something that exists as an “sexual stimulant.”

    So I’ve always found “serious” reviews of Hentai and Erotica to be intellectually dishonest, maybe again this all boils down to a question of presuppositions or what the ultimate end of art is but I digress don’t wan this to turn into too much of a dissertation.

    • Ash Brown says

      Personally, I don’t make much of a distinction between erotica and pornography. Generally though, most people would probably say that erotica has more literary and artistic merit, but I don’t think that pornography necessarily lacks that.

      Human sexuality is something that has been studied for centuries, entire academic journals are devoted to it, and pornography is part of human sexuality. Therefore, I don’t see reading and reviewing pornography to be at odds with intellectual pursuits.

      Just because something has sexual content does not mean it inherently has less worth or that it can’t be analyzed. And like any other genre out there, quality varies from work to work. Reviews, commentary, and discussion help other people determine what they might be interested in or what is worth their time to pursue.

    • “Ash maybe you can answer this question for me what’s the difference between erotica and pornography? ”

      My personal definition is that porn exists primarily for the purpose of stimulation, to the point that narrative or artistic aspects that would interfere with that are avoided. Erotica, on the other hand, has narrative or artistic aspects as a primary or at least equal goal, and is willing to sideline or even work against the stimulating aspects. Obviously the dividing line is somewhat subjective.

      “Also in reviewing pornography/erotica how is it possible to form an intellectually coherent appraisal of something that is pornogrphic? ”

      You can form an intellectually coherent appraisal of anything, right down to doodles on cocktail napkins. Just like any other type of media, porn has visual and narrative mechanics, affective qualities, reveals the creator’s attitudes and opinions and the norms and presumptions of the society in which it was created, etc.

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