Bara Hentai

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Bara (Hentai) is a colloquialism for a genre of Japanese art and media known within Japan as gay manga  or gei komi. The genre focuses on male same-sex love, as created primarily by gay men for a gay male audience. Bara can vary in visual style and plot, but typically features masculine men with varying degrees of muscle, body fat, and body hair, akin to bear or bodybuilding culture. While bara is typically pornographic, the genre has also depicted romantic and autobiographical subject material, as it acknowledges the varied reactions to homosexuality in modern Japan.

The use of bara (hentai) as an umbrella term to describe gay Japanese comic art is largely a non-Japanese phenomenon, and its use is not universally accepted by creators of gay manga. In non-Japanese contexts, bara is used to describe a wide breadth of Japanese and Japanese-inspired gay erotic media, including illustrations published in early Japanese gay men’s magazines, western fan art, and gay pornography featuring human actors. Bara is distinct from yaoi, a genre of Japanese media focusing on homoerotic relationships between male characters that historically has been created by and for women.

The term bar, which translates literally to “rose” in Japanese, has historically been used in Japan as a pejorative for gay men, roughly equivalent to the English language term “pansy”. Beginning in the 1960s, the term was reappropriated by Japanese gay media: notably with the 1961 anthology Ba-ra-kei: Ordeal by Roses, a collection of semi-nude photographs of gay writer Yukio Mishima by photographer Eikoh Hosoe, and later with Barazoku (lit. “rose tribe”) in 1971, the first commercially produced gay magazine in Asia. Bara-eiga (“rose film”) was additionally used in the 1980s to describe gay cinema.

By the late 1980s, as LGBT political movements in Japan began to form, the term fell out of use, with gei becoming the preferred nomenclature for people who experience same-sex attraction. The term was revived as a pejorative in the late 1990s concurrent with the rise of internet message boards and chat rooms, where heterosexual administrators designated the gay sections of their websites as “bara boards” or “bara chat”. The term was subsequently adopted by non-Japanese users of these websites, who believed that bara was the proper designation for the images and artwork being posted on these forums. Since the 2000s, bara has been used by this non-Japanese audience as an umbrella term to describe a wide variety of Japanese and non-Japanese gay media featuring masculine men, including western fan art, gay pornography, furry artwork, and numerous other categories.

This misappropriation of bara by a non-Japanese audience has been controversial among creators of gay manga, many of whom have expressed discomfort or confusion over the term being used to describe their work. Artist and historian Gengoroh Tagame has described bara as “a very negative word that comes with bad connotations”, though he later clarified that the term is “convenient for talking about art that is linked by characters that are muscle-y, huge, and hairy”, and that his objection was the term’s use to describe gay manga creators. Artist Kumada Poohsuke has stated that while he does not find the term offensive, he does not describe his work as bara because he associates the term with Barazoku, which featured bishōnen-style artwork rather than artwork of masculine men.

Gay manga is typically categorized based on the body shape of the characters depicted; common designations include gacchiri  (“muscular”), gachimuchi (“muscle-curvy” or “muscle-chubby”), gachidebu (“muscle-fat”), and debu (“fat”). While the rise of comic anthologies has promoted longer, serialized stories, most gay manga stories are one-shots. BDSM and non-consensual sex are common themes in gay manga, as well as stories based on relationships structured around age, status, or power dynamics. Often, the older or more senior character uses the younger or subordinate character for sexual purposes, though some gay manga stories subvert this dynamic and show a younger, physically smaller, often white-collar man as the dominant sexual partner to an older, larger, often blue-collar man. As with yaoi, the bottom in gay manga is often depicted as shy, reluctant, or unsure of his sexuality. Consequently, much of the criticism of yaoi – misogyny, a focus on rape, the absence of a Western-style gay identity – is similarly levied against gay manga.

The majority of gay manga stories are pornographic, often focusing on sex to the exclusion of plot and character development. Though some gay manga stories include realistic depictions of gay male lives – addressing subject material such as coming out, gay pride, and same-sex marriage – sex and sexuality is frequently the primary focus. Nonetheless, some gay manga stories explore romantic, autobiographical, and dramatic subject material, and eschew depictions of sex entirely. A notable example of non-erotic gay manga is My Brother’s Husband, the first all-ages manga by Gengoroh Tagame, which focuses on themes of homophobia, cultural difference, and family.

Gay manga is an expression of gay male identity. Gay manga does not aim to recreate heteronormative gender roles, as yaoi does with seme and uke dynamics.

The early 2000s saw a degree of overlap between yaoi and gay manga in BDSM-themed publications. The yaoi BDSM anthology magazine Zettai Reido had several male contributors.” while several female yaoi authors have contributed stories to BDSM-themed gay manga anthologies or special issues, occasionally under male pen names. Concurrently, several yaoi publishers commissioned works featuring masculine men, aimed at appealing to an audience of both gay manga and yaoi readers (see Japanese publishing above). Gengoroh Tagame argues that these crossover publications represent the movement of yaoi away from aestheticism and towards the commercialization of male-male sexuality for a female market.

Bara hentai in the late 2010s and onwards have seen the increasing popularity of masculine men in yaoi, with growing emphasis on stories featuring larger and more muscular bodies, older characters, and seme and uke characters of physically comparable sizes. A 2017 survey by yaoi publisher Juné Manga found that while over 80% of their readership previously preferred bishōnen body types exclusively, 65% now enjoy both bishōnen and muscular body types. Critics and commentators have noted that this shift in preferences among yaoi readers, and subsequent creation of works that feature characteristics of both yaoi and gay manga, represents a blurring of the distinctions between the genres; anthropologist Thomas Baudinette notes in his fieldwork that gay men in Japan “saw no need to sharply disassociate BL from gei komi when discussing their consumption of ‘gay media’.”



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