Without a doubt, the works of Tagame Gengoroh hold a very special place among the huge manga production: gay, openly pornographic and SM, they regularly feature musculary, manly figures, with no resemblance to the androgynous ephebes that are the standard fare in yaoi books. Welcome to this terra incognita.
Xavier Guilbert : I spent five years in Japan, but I wasn’t aware of the existence of a gay culture there. On TV variety or talk shows, you would sometimes see extravagant transvestites on display, but with no context. In Tôkyô, I was aware of the gay district in Shinjuku 2-chôme, but apart from that, homosexuals seemed pretty much invisible.
Tagame Gengoroh : Yes, there are very few places where gays can meet in public and broad daylight.
Xavier Guilbert : So then, when did you realize you were homosexual ?
Tagame Gengoroh : I really came to grasp with the fact that I was homosexual when I was between 15 and 18 years old, between the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s. At the time, there was very little information on homosexuality. Doing some research, I found books of cultural anthropology and cultural studies. I learned and understood that there were many people like me, and that helped me accept my own homosexuality. But, then again, I had already browsed through gay magazines, back when I was 12 or 13.
Xavier Guilbert : I have rarely encountered manga targeting homosexual readers, or dealing with homosexuality in a realistic way. Is it something you have to look for in specialized bookstores ?
Tagame Gengoroh : No, not really. At the time, in most cities, there always was a small bookstore where one could find gay magazines. In Kamakura, where I come from, every month there were a few magazines in the small bookstore in front of the train station. This is where I bought one for the first time. At the beginning, I bought them without thinking about it, but when I eventually realized I was gay and I was buying porno magazines, I suddenly felt ashamed and started buying them at the next station down the line !
Xavier Guilbert : How did your family react when you told them you were gay ?
Tagame Gengoroh : My older brother found out first. I had stored my magazines at the top of a cupboard. My brother found them and rearranged them so that covers and spines were hidden. He told me that if our mother were to find them, she would be in for a shock ! I revealed my homosexuality to my parents only later, after having moved out of the house. When I was about 25, they started talking about marriage, and I told them that it was impossible, because I was gay. At the time, they thought I was joking about it, but they eventually had to accept the fact. They are okay with it now.
Xavier Guilbert : How did you become a manga-ka ?
Tagame Gengoroh : I don’t think I ever wanted to become a manga author at all costs, but I wanted to draw. I took some courses, and I pursued studies in visual arts, fine arts. I wanted to make a living out of drawing, but I had no particular interest in drawing manga. But when I was 18, the media started talking about a genre of avant-garde and experimental heterosexual erotic manga [BL Manga, or Boy’s Love]. I started reading magazines about manga, manga criticism, and graphic design. I discovered this fascinating world, and drawing manga suddenly appealed to me.
Xavier Guilbert : Did you start by submitting pages to the gay magazines you used to read ?
Tagame Gengoroh : In fact, at the time, gay magazines did not run any manga. They had erotic photos, short stories and personals. Yet there existed a manga magazine, René, which sometimes featured (somewhat idealized) love stories between boys, and I sent them some of my work.
Xavier Guilbert : I have the impression that BL or Boy’s Love stories are not really representative of gay culture in Japan. Those manga are usually written by women, and often deal with a world completely disconnected from the realities that homosexuals have to face.
Tagame Gengoroh : That’s true, but in the BL genre, there were sometimes female authors who did research on the subject, like with the gay culture in New York, and who did introduce some actual facts in their pages. Also, little by little, some female BL authors have started using male pseudonyms to contribute short stories for gay magazines. Some of those BL stories penned by gay authors, a little racy and potentially appealing to a female readership, were collected in anthologies.
Xavier Guilbert : Did those magazines publish short stories or illustrations by foreign authors ?
Tagame Gengoroh : Very rarely, but yes. Sometimes, you could find drawings by Colt or Tom of Finland, published without any authorization.
Xavier Guilbert : Have you published collected editions of any of the serialized work in the BL magazine you mentioned ?
Tagame Gengoroh : No, once my pages had been published, that was the end of the story.
Xavier Guilbert : When did you get published for the first time in a gay magazine ?
Tagame Gengoroh : Things happened in a very confusing way. The first time my work got published, that was in a BL magazine, when I was 18. I actually got paid for that. The second time, I did a gay manga. One day, a friend introduced me to one of the editors of the gay magazine Barazoku (“the clan of the roses”), who was looking for content to publish. I left pages and drawings with him so that he could get an idea of what I was doing. Later, another friend who was going on a trip left me his gay magazines while he was away, and as I was browsing through them one day, I discovered that my work had been published without my being informed or paid for it ! I have excluded those pages from my catalog. Later still, some drawings that I had sent to another magazine ended up being used to illustrate a short story. After that, I sent a short story that got published, and I ended up sending a manga story that also got published. In the meantime, I had also contacted another magazine, which had again published some of my work without paying me for it. In the end, out of three different magazines, only one had actually paid me, and I naturally decided to keep on sending my work to this one. I was about 22 when I really started submitting work professionally.
Xavier Guilbert : As a professional gay manga artist, you are a unique case. When did you start to make a living out of your work ?
Tagame Gengoroh : About 20 years ago, I think. Before that, I used to work as a graphic designer, and I drew during my free time. That lasted about 6 or 7 years, and then when I was 29, a new gay magazine called Badi came out and I went to meet the committee of editors alongside a few of my fellow authors. Until then, gay magazines were published by hetero people who were only in for the money. But the publisher of Badi was himself gay, he had a bar and a video production company in Shinjuku 2-chôme and those revenues were financing the magazine.
Prior to Badi, the other magazines were targeting an audience that wasn’t displaying their homosexuality, and they never dealt with topics such as the movements for gay rights or AIDS. Badi was the first magazine to tackle those subjects. I worked for Badi for a year, and I brought them themes for special issues. The magazine was mostly intended as a source of information for a rather young readership, the 20-to-25 age bracket. Later on, with two people who were working at Badi, we founded G-men, a new magazine, with more short stories and in-depth features, targeting more mature readers, such as the machos and the bears in the 30-to-40 age bracket.
Xavier Guilbert : What were the circulations of those magazines ?
Tagame Gengoroh : I think that at the peak, Badi used to sell 30,000 copies. For G-men, the figures were around 25,000.
Xavier Guilbert : Those are rather impressive figures.
Tagame Gengoroh : Yes, but this was before Internet came into the picture — afterwards, sales did drop. With the Internet, information became free, and no one needed to buy a magazine at 1,000 yen [about $10] to keep informed any more. As major advertisers did not invest in gay magazines, except for the issue sales the only revenue came from the ads placed by small gay bars, and from the fees collected for personal ads. But the bars started advertising for free on the Internet or using free papers, and people neglected the personals to turn towards forums or online dating sites. Many magazines did not manage to find other revenue sources, and eventually folded.
Xavier Guilbert : How many magazines are still publishing today ?
Tagame Gengoroh : Three : Badi, G-men and Samson, each published by a different publisher. Even so, there’s an ongoing fight between two of them !
Xavier Guilbert : How are gay manga published ? Do you have a similar structure to mainstream manga, with serialization first, and then publishing as collected volumes ?
Tagame Gengoroh : Today, there’s only one publisher left who does both serialization and collected editions. But according to some, there are a lot of irregularities : the book comes out, but the author doesn’t get anything from the sales, or very little.
Xavier Guilbert : You have turned to self-publishing yourself.
Tagame Gengoroh : My first six books have been published without ISBN, and were directly sold in the circuit of gay stores and bars. After that, I had four books with a publisher who distributed them to bookstores, the normal way. But the contract conditions weren’t that good, and it didn’t end up being a good experience for me. Then, one of my stories got published in a boys love macho anthology [intended for women], by a mainstream publisher, and there weren’t any problems with it [so I’ve continued to publish that way sometimes]. Today, my stories mainly come out in Badi magazine, but Badi doesn’t publish collected volumes any more. My collected books are issued through another publisher, Pot Publishing, and they also publish some of my old stories that had been rejected from being collected at the time, because they were considered too harsh.
Xavier Guilbert : Is Badi a monthly magazine ?
Tagame Gengoroh : Yes.
Xavier Guilbert : How many pages do you have per issue ?
Tagame Gengoroh : 16.
Xavier Guilbert : You said your work was sometimes rejected for being too extreme, was that some kind of censorship ?
Tagame Gengoroh : Oh no, that had nothing to do with censorship. The thing is, the publisher who put out my first few books was not exactly a publishing house, but a production company for gay videos, and they had neither the capacity nor the know-how to have access to the bookstore distribution network. Moreover, we weren’t sure that the books would sell even if we had access to that network, and eventually we decided to go through only the gay stores and bars, without ISBN. It had nothing to do with being condemned for not having respected the publishing code. And when my books ended up being sold in bookstores, we never had any problem on this side, even with my more explicit titles.
Xavier Guilbert : But you just said that a publisher had rejected your work for being “too hard”.
Tagame Gengoroh : Oh yes, but that was because it included mutilation scenes where I showed feet and hands being cut off. Those were published in the magazines, but not collected in books. At the time, G-men were publishing the book collections, and they were very anxious about how the female readership would react. That’s why they did a selection among the stories I created, they did not want any hairy characters, or pornographic scenes or SM for the collected volumes. So the decision was linked to a commercial strategy rather than censorship, but in the end, it proved to be the wrong choice, since my most hardcore books are those that sold the most !
Xavier Guilbert : Do you know if there are magazines specifically targeted at the lesbian audience ?
Tagame Gengoroh : There used to be one, but I think it folded after two or three issues, I don’t really know why.
Xavier Guilbert : Shinjuku 2-chôme is known as Tôkyô’s gay district, but are there lesbian bars there too ?
Tagame Gengoroh : There are, yes.
Xavier Guilbert : And yet, their patrons don’t have any real interest in manga ?
Tagame Gengoroh : I have never read lesbian mangas, but I know they exist. A few titles have even been translated and published in Italy. Those were mangas with a somewhat cartoonish style, originally published in Anise, a lesbian magazine.
Xavier Guilbert : Similar to the yaoi genre, there is the yûri genre, which involves lesbian characters — but just like for yaoi, those stories are usually rather disconnected from reality.
Tagame Gengoroh : Yes, there are quite a few being released, lately.
Xavier Guilbert : Except from Blue, by Nananan Kiriko, I don’t know of any manga that deals with this topic in a realistic way.
Tagame Gengoroh : You’re right, in some manga magazines not specifically geared towards a gay or lesbian audience, there are some authors similar to Nananan Kiriko, publishing work for lesbian audiences.
Xavier Guilbert : In gay rights movements, gays and lesbians usually side together, but I have the impression that they represent two very distinct cultures, and that each sexual minority uses different publications to express itself in Japan.
Tagame Gengoroh : Japan is an extreme case, where the separation is far more important than elsewhere. A while back, during a gay and lesbian parade, the organizers got into a fight, and the gay representative told his lesbian counterpart : “Shut up, you dirty dyke !”, and since then, there’s been a huge fracture. I have a very good lesbian friend, whom I met when I was between twenty and thirty. I still have many friends like that. But on a general basis, even in the bars in 2-chôme, gays and lesbians do not mix. We only meet during special, activist events, such as pride parades.
Xavier Guilbert : What do you think of the current situation of gay rights in Japan ?
Tagame Gengoroh : Some of the young people are rather active, but overall, people don’t feel concerned about it. Even without coming out of the closet publicly, they still can have fun thanks to the Internet and to weekend parties in gay bars and nightclubs. They don’t ask for anything else, and they don’t see the point in exposing themselves to the problems that coming out could bring.
Xavier Guilbert : This is a very Japanese attitude.
Tagame Gengoroh : Exactly. As we use to say in Japan, “if it stinks, put a lid on it”. When there are social issues such as racism or discrimination, we try to address them not by bringing them to light, but by stepping around them and confining them to places where it’s easy to overlook even their existence. It is the same with gays and lesbians. And this is not the result of a pressure coming from the society, it is a conscious choice that people make themselves.
Xavier Guilbert : As a manga-ka, what are your influences ?
Tagame Gengoroh : What influenced me are the gay magazines and the books of the Marquis de Sade, that I discovered when I was 13..
Xavier Guilbert : Like Tom of Finland, who might be the most well-known gay artist, you represent archetypes of male homosexuality, with muscle-bound and hairy bodies, very distinct from the slim, wispy pretty boys that one can find in yaoi publications.
Tagame Gengoroh : Truth be told, before I started drawing, there wasn’t any artist in Japan who drew a ‘bear type,’ with body hair and beards, as someone that could be attractive. I believe I was the first to do so. I don’t know if there is any direct connection, but today this style is accepted and has become part of our cultural landscape. A lot of people tell me that before they read my manga, they were very self-conscious about their body hair, but since they realized that others could find this attractive, they regained their self-confidence.
Xavier Guilbert : Do you have any interest in foreign comics ?
Tagame Gengoroh : I don’t know much about the subject, but I sometimes read some, yes.
Xavier Guilbert : I find similarities with the work of French bande dessinée author Fabrice Neaud.
Tagame Gengoroh : I met him a few times, in particular last year during the Comicket, the Japanese self-published fanzine and manga market.
Xavier Guilbert : Your work reminds me of Justine, or Good Conduct Well-Chastised, by the Marquis de Sade. You are less interested into eroticism than in domination dynamics. Mechanical aspects are fairly detailed, while desire is almost completely absent. Not all of your stories fall under this structure, but do you consider that you are more interested into domination dynamics than sex ?
Tagame Gengoroh : A while ago, a reader wrote me after reading one of my SM stories, telling me he had been surprised not to find any ejaculation scene. I realized then that for most people, this kind of scene was an integral part of the contract. What troubles people is that my work mixes both SM and gay pornography, and if I put the emphasis on one of those two aspects, the other becomes naturally less prominent. The more you insist on the SM angle, the further away you get from the clichés of gay porn. And if you stick to the gay porn clichés, you end up giving a very distorted view of the world. Women disappear completely, and only Hercules-types remain ! This is not the kind of thing I want do draw. In my SM stories, I insist a lot on domination and submission relationships.
Xavier Guilbert : Your stories often feature ordinary people who suddenly stumble into the SM universe, a world they didn’t even suspect existed.
Tagame Gengoroh : I find it more interesting when a situation provokes a strong contrast. I like to make my characters suffer. On the sexual level, I equally enjoy both sides of sadomasochism, but when I write, I tend to adopt the point of view of the one who exerts pain. I think of all the ways I can torment my characters.
Xavier Guilbert : On this aspect, there are a lot of similarities with Suehiro Maruo’s approach.
Tagame Gengoroh : Absolutely. When I was in high school, the discovery of his manga was a huge shock for me. The same goes for Hanawa Kazuichi and Hiraguchi Hiromi, this is a group of authors who have influenced me as much as the gay manga artists I was referring to earlier. Thanks to them, I realized what was possible to do through manga. For instance, in a very old Maruo story involving feudal sadomasochism, you could see a young boy cut off a gardener’s penis with scissors. In another Hanawa story, the only remedy to cure an illness was to cut off bits of human meat, and have the patient eat them.
Xavier Guilbert : There is no doubt you enjoy domination and violence.
Tagame Gengoroh : Indeed, as you can see, I really love violent mangas ! And I also like violent movies.
Xavier Guilbert : In your mangas, alpha males end up being dominated and tortured. Your stories present an extreme version of this role inversion, as those characters are often highly-ranked police or military officers.
Tagame Gengoroh : This is a way for me to bring more emphasis on contrast. For me, there are two sorts of masochism. The first consists in lowering oneself to a miserable level, and to worship a dominatrix or any other authority figure. The second way is a little different ; it’s a macho masochism, which consists in proving one’s virility in being able to withstand the worst ordeals. In old issues of Men, an American magazine, there are a lot of illustrations of this sort of heroism, where proud Yankees are getting raped by Nazis and wild beasts, but nevertheless manage to survive. For me, this is a form of narcissistic masochism. This is the kind of masochism that I prefer. I don’t relate much to the kind of masochism that consists in getting humiliated and worshiping someone, as you can find for instance with Numa Shouzou (the mysterious author of Kachikujin Yapou [“Yapou, human cattle”]).
Xavier Guilbert : One thing that strikes me in your stories, is that there are nearly no descriptions of the ordinary life of homosexual men — except for the first part of Pride, with the encounters in the park. Would you say you are not interested in the daily life ?
Tagame Gengoroh : No, for me, the daily life is sufficient in itself, there’s no need to read manga about it on top of it ! Myself, I want to tell in my stories things impossible to obtain or experiences impossible to get in real life. Art, as satire or reflection of reality, does not interest me… neither as an author or a reader. In Pride, I indeed attempted to depict everyday life, I tried to include details of that time and place, especially the situation of prostitutes. My aim was that, after having read the story, the reader could eventually reassess his own sexuality. That is why the story deals with someone who does not suspect his own masochistic inclines, and eventually accepts this part of himself. The same goes with homophobia : one can read this story as the trajectory of a homophobe who eventually accepts his own homosexuality. In order to bring out the satire, I chose to introduce a homosexual character who considers homosexuals indulging in sadomasochism as perverts, and therefore reveals his own phobia. This is a mirror that I am handing out to the reader. This is why this story is very different from the others, and references very specific details regarding gay prostitution at the time.
Unfortunately, the story reads as very dated now, the park and the public bathrooms have disappeared, and no one ever uses pagers or voicemails anymore ! The fact that only five years after I had written it, the story became obsolete is really a bitter failure for me.
Xavier Guilbert : And you’re not considering writing a similar story dealing with the current situation ?
Tagame Gengoroh : I consider that I have already said all I had to say. Look at my manga Gunji, a story that was published in French I believe ? The first chapter tells the reunion of two men who used to be in a sadomasochistic relationship before, which is then described in the next four chapters. At the start, I intended in showing what was going to happen after they met again, but then I realized that the story’s themes would resemble Pride’s too much, and I gave up. Unless I do it unconsciously, I don’t like to repeat myself, it bores me. I want to change my approach. And today I wonder if, in order to talk about the question of homophobia I was referring to earlier, I still have to do it through manga who are targeting an audience already aware of this problem, or if I would better try and explain my point of view by writing an essay. In Pride, my arguments often take the shape of dialogue that expose my thoughts in a painfully obvious and clumsy way. I am glad I tried it once, but I don’t see the point in doing it again.
Xavier Guilbert : Changing subjects a little, you are editing an anthology series of Japanese gay erotic illustrations ?
Tagame Gengoroh : In old gay magazines in Japan, there were a lot of illustrations that I liked. But those works have been published once and then forgotten forever, and I wanted to show that what we think of today as contemporary Japanese gay culture, has actually existed for a long time. For me, gay culture in Japan only exists in a very sporadic way. Even if some artists have managed to influence a given generation, with the next generation there is no one to carry on the torch. I wanted to link the pieces of this fragmented culture and show its evolution.
Xavier Guilbert : It was an art book, and as such was distributed in the normal bookstore circuit, outside the relative “ghetto” of gay bookstores.
Tagame Gengoroh : Exactly, I conceived it as an art book. Both the publisher and the bookstores were very appreciative of it. The big Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku did put it on display (for free !) in a special corner, and there have been many other such initiatives. But unfortunately, and despite the large public acclaim for the book, both the specialized art press and the mainstream art community ignored it completely.
Xavier Guilbert : As something of a rarity for gay and SM authors, your work has been translated and published both in French and in English. What do you think about this ?
Tagame Gengoroh : I am very happy with that. Sometimes I look at French bande dessinée, but as I don’t read any French, I am often left wanting, not understanding fully what the work is about. Because of this, I am glad that French readers who could only enjoy the visual part of my work can now read my stories too.
Xavier Guilbert : Considering you both have very different points of view on the gay culture, would you say that your exchanges with Chip Kidd have influenced you, or have you influenced him in return ?
Tagame Gengoroh : The story that was commissioned for The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame was specifically written with the American audience in mind. And when Chip Kidd selected the stories that are collected in this book, I found his approach very refreshing, both in his tastes and the way he was making his choices. I had a lot of fun too seeing how some rather raunchy Japanese expressions were translated into English ! But the main difference between the United States and Japan, is that in Japan, one wouldn’t have had access to a graphic designer as well-known as Chip Kidd, or someone as prominent as Edmund White for the foreword. That is unthinkable. In Japan, very few people are open about their homosexuality. And even well-known authors and artists, whose homosexuality is a known fact, never publicly reveal their homosexuality and don’t get involved in the community. In the States, when I bought the collection of Tom of Finland drawing published by the Tom of Finland Foundation, I was really surprised to see that the foreword had been written by the photographer Bruce Weber. That kind of thing never happens in Japan. In the United States, gay culture did manage to take roots, so that anyone can reaffirm their homosexuality without being singled out.
Xavier Guilbert : The collection The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame has just been published. Has this publication already changed anything in your life ?
Tagame Gengoroh : Well, not really ! Oh yes, now other publishers are willing to publish my work in English !
Xavier Guilbert : This book certainly gave you the opportunity to look back on your debut. How do you reflect on your past works ?
Tagame Gengoroh : I realize that my art did change a lot ! In fact, I changed my style intentionally twice. The first time, it was for Shirogane no Hana (“The Silver Flower”), a story published in Badi. At that time, I decided to be serious about drawing, something I hadn’t done up to that point. For this story, I did my best from start to finish. And after that, I tried to keep on progressing as an artists while sticking with that style, but when I got to about the time of Arena, I felt that I had reached the end, that I couldn’t improve. Then, for a while, I didn’t know what to do, and what I did at that time was only halfway done. This corresponds to the Hairy Oracle story.
After that, in order to get out of this dead-end, I decided to start over, and I thought about what was defining my style. I realized that it was because I set out to draw the perfect line, a single, clean, and thick line. When I started working on Inaka Isha (“The Country Doctor”), I understood that this line didn’t fit the story, it was too heavy and conflicted with the mood I was trying to set. In order to begin anew, I started drawing without pencils, just outlining rough shapes and then inking in details directly. The first story I did this way is not in the collected volume, it’s called Sarashidai (“The Pillory”). I really liked the result. Even if the line did go over in places, even if I had to correct it sometimes, it didn’t matter and I carried on without slowing down. I mixed this approach with my usual style, and now I play with both, sometimes using a rather neat line, and sometimes opting for a more spontaneous line.
[Interview conducted on May 9 2013, during the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Translated from the Japanese by Aurélien Estager, English proofreading and corrections by Christopher Butcher.]