What is Bara?

(EDIT: For links to English-language bara — and for a deeper comparison of the contrasts between yaoi, bara and Western gay male comics, check out our post “How To Find Bara In English”. Also, be sure to check out the comments of this post for more general information.)

In online discussions about yaoi and gay men appreciating yaoi, the subject of bara — Japanese gay male comics targeted at a gay male audience — invariably gets mentioned, but rarely does anyone seem to have much information to offer. I myself have often been curious about finding out more about this genre, but as the big publishers here seem to have taken little notice of it, I’ve had difficulty finding out anything of substance. (Let’s face it, even my ever-trusty Wikipedia draws a blank. EDIT 8/30/09: Yay! Wikipedia now finally has an entry for Bara — and it’s absolutely excellent! Very thorough and illuminating. Alex says “Check it out!” [And thank you to commenter SykoSilver for giving us the heads up!])

Well, Tina Anderson again comes to our rescue with her excellent overview of the topic in Bara is Not BL…but it Could Be? In it, she discusses the history of BL, its ups and downs in the Japanese market and why it might appeal to those of us in the states. She even has a nice selection of covers to share with us with the cute (muscular) boys.

Definitely worth a visit to Guns, Guys and Yaoi to check it out.

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  1. You know what's weird, I'm sure gay/gay romance manga existed pre mid90's, but the model that all the niche publishers now have are all from that damn BL explosion at Comiket in the mid-90's. So I was trying to present a history based on the first [A5] anthology style that came out…which as far as I know, is P-Nuts. LOL! I think P-Nuts was real indie, about 3 to five copies in existance, it didn't last a year because the BL boom at 'ket was rather substantial for the ero genre.

    If there is anything from 97-2003, I'd love to know about it…but 2003 was sort of the high water mark for BL in Japan, and so…of course anything interesting on the horizon would come out of the woodwork about that time. 0_0.


    1. The problem with finding pre-mid-1990s manga would likely be because ‘manga’, as in the word itself, is a relatively recent invention. I don’t know how recent – my in-depth knowledge of Japanese history and literature goes up to but not past 1800. Japan was the first country in which half of their rural population was literate – a big deal since they used even more kanji back then. But tales when written had pictures in them. It was just a part of a book. It’s one of the main complaints about the English versions of the Tale of Genji: they’re missing the pictures. So, it may be that you couldn’t find manga because they just called it literature.

      In terms of the BL genre, I would imagine there are some existent examples, at least. The oldest poetry anthology of Japan has some clearly (ie subtly, but with a subtlety everyone at the time knew) homosexual themed poems, and at the very least, Tsuretsuregusa (Essays in Idleness) has a few episodes on it (or chapters if you’d rather – sections scattered through out the book seemingly at random, of differing lengths, which is the style of the book as a whole). Yoshida Kaneyoshi wrote Tsuretsuregusa in about 1330 if you’re curious. His Buddhist name was Kenko or Kenkou (depending on who’s spelling it; the ‘o’ is elongated), which I mention because sometimes one name is credited as the author, sometimes the other. As another potential area of inquiry, it’s known that when women were banned from theatre in Japan due to the wars the samurai would fight over them (circa 1500s I believe), the samurai started wars over their favourite actors: generally these were the male performers who played women’s rolls, but not always. Too, lower class theatre was part of the prostitution trade, so not all the wars were just because/if the actors looked pretty or played convincing women. I would be surprised if there was no literature about it, but I have no idea how one would go about finding said literature. There are probably other kinds of works written back in ‘old Japan’ in what today we call the BL genre, but those are the examples I know about. I still deal primarily with works in translation, or works that have translations. I can’t read beyond first-grader level Japanese, yet.

  2. I'd certainly be interested to know more, too. Perhaps one of my Gentle Readers could help us out with some more information on the history of bara?

    I think P-Nuts was real indie, about 3 to five copies in existance, it didn’t last a year because the BL boom at ‘ket was rather substantial for the ero genre.

    This discussion of the BL boom overshadowing everything else is making me think about another interesting take on alternatives to BL, Simon's post about how BL is totally kicking the butt of ero-manga here in terms of distribution, retail support and creative output. Boys Love shall conquer all, apparently. 😉

    Oh, and when you say "about 3 to five copies in existence," do you mean that there were only 3 to 5 issues printed during that year or are there really only a few copies of this anthology left?

  3. It was my understanding that P-Nuts only ran from July of 96 to January of 97. The final volume's cover is on my web site, and that's #4. It had about 8 manga peices in it, one peice of long fiction, and 5 to 6 articles, one of which was always about the gay scene in the US. 0_o.

  4. In trying to help us track down the mystery of the origins of Bara, I reached out to Simon Jones of Icarus Publishing who, like Tina, is very familiar with manga in Japanese culture. While he hesitated to speak with any authority on the subject, he did refer me to a book that at least offers some possibilities for where the common use of the word "Bara" comes from.

    Gay Erotic Art in Japan Vol. 1: Artists From the
    Time of the Birth of Gay Magazines
    compiled by Tagame Gengoroh, translated by Kitajima Yuji

    The story of contemporary gay erotic art in Japan can start with the magazine, "Fuzokukitan" (1960-1974). "Fuzokukitan" was a magazine that included all sorts of kinks, both male and female: S&M, fetishism, homosexuality, lesbianism, and transvestism. In short, it was for abnormal sexualities…. At the same time, in the 1960s in Japan, there was a medium, which can be called "the root of gay magazines." It was a member's only small circulation magazine "Bara, "(Note 7) It was established in 1964. It happened to be at this time that the four artists [featured in the book, Okawa Tatsuji, Funayam Sanshi, Mishima Go and Hirano Go] most frequently contributed to "Fuzokukitan." In my research, three among the artists covered in this book, Mishima, Funayama,and Adachi, also contributed to "Bara." Considering this, together with the fact that male nude disappeared from the magazine cover [of "Fuzokukitan"] in the following year and the number of gay articles decreased, it can be suggested that many readers as well as artists and contributors switched to "Bara" from "Fuzokukitan." In 1971, the very first gay commercial magazine "Barazoku" was established. Encouraged by the success of "Barazoku," "Sabu" and "Adon" were established in 1974, and at last gay erotic art in Japan finally started moving forward.

    Now, it's my understanding that the word "Bara" means "rose" in Japanese. (But perhaps there are other meanings that more knowledgeable readers could share…) Regardless, the above text suggests that the origin of the word "Bara" as a common term for a genre of manga might very well hail from this first members-only magazine.

    After this paragraph, there's a very brief commentary on the site about connections between gay erotic art and yaoi, but unfortunately nothing tremendously helpful (and it includes some very odd statements such as "Their "liking of very young boys" cannot be considered the same as gays' liking for very young boys." that gave me a couple minutes of "Huh??" pause.) Still, it's another piece of the puzzle and perhaps the actual book contains even more info.

    At the very least, it promises lots of fun pictures. Next time I'm in Japan, I think I might pick it up. (Thanks, Simon!)

  5. (and it includes some very odd statements such as “Their “liking of very young boys” cannot be considered the same as gays’ liking for very young boys.” that gave me a couple minutes of “Huh??” pause.)

    He's talking about shota manga. I'll explain Shotakon [a woman's genre] later on in the week when explaining why there will never be a 'Western Shotakon'


  6. Yeah, I've heard of Shota and that definitely was what he was talking about. Now, what he considers "gays' liking for very young boys" and what kind of distinctions he's looking to draw between that and other folks' "liking for very young boys" is the thing that caused me some pause. The truth is, I don't think I really want to know.

    But I am looking forward to your take on the subject — I'm sure it will be thorough and excellent as always. 🙂

  7. Just to jump in real quick. Shota isn't necessarily a women's genre… it's a theme which doesn't seem to have the strict gender association that BL/Yaoi, Ero, or Ladies comics have, and sort of just pop up everywhere. I know an editor/artist for the Koushoku Shounen no Susume anthology, and as he related to me, there are many male shota artists, and they are not necessarily gay. (He himself vehemently denies it. ^_^;;) It's actually not uncommon to find one or two shota-themed stories in an otherwise hetero-porn ero-manga.

  8. @SykoSilver

    AWESOME! You folks have done great work! 😀 I recommend that all my readers check out the very thorough article and, if you have good information to share, to help out with making it the best it can be. And I will update my post to point directly to it right now.

    Thank you very much for letting us know!

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