Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins JiraiyaUnisex JIraiya Sweatshirt in Multi Jiraiya Greeting Card in multi

New-to-OC Brand MASSIVE on Husky Gay Asian Erotica

BY Dana Melanz | Tue. January 14, 2014 | 12:00 AM | OC,A La Mode
I am a fan of manga and anime, but my interaction with it has been limited to Pokémon and shoujo/josei slice-of-life stories, which depict the daily life of high school and college students. I never branched out into other genres, although I knew of them peripherally. But bara, which new-to-OC brand MASSIVE specializes in, was one I'd never heard of. So I reached out to the label's founders Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins, and the artist Jiraiya (whose work is featured on a sweatshirt and a greeting card) to find out what's behind those husky lovers.

"Bara is husky gay erotica. It actually means rose [in Japanese]," Anne explained. But because it's a derogatory term for gay people in Japan, the genre is known there instead as menzu rabu, or men's love. Anne and Graham were friends prior to starting MASSIVE, but when Graham reached out to Anne for help translating author Chip Kidd's personal bara collection, she wanted to get deeper into the genre. "Nothing was being published in English yet," Graham said. "There was an online community but it didn't know much about the artists or how they were being talked about in Japan. So that was the impetus for us to investigate it and bring it over here."

The first step was to get in touch with the forefather of bara, artist Gengoroh Tagame, who was more than happy to work with the duo. Together, they created The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame (in stores now, online soon!), a tome of translated bara short stories and the artist's first foray into writing for an English-language readership. Along the way, the three became friends; Tagame even recommended his favorite cat café to them before Anne and Graham took a trip through Japan. "It's so funny, he'll post pictures of puppies on HIS TWITTER, but this is the guy who's known for depicting dismembered bodies being tortured," Anne said of the artist. 

On their trip, Anne and Graham interviewed various bara mangakas (manga artists), including Jiraiya. The two also found that Western depictions of a repressed and reserved Japanese society are not necessarily accurate. "It's basically okay to be gay in Japan, as long as you don't flaunt it. It's on a need-to-know basis," Graham said. Jiraiya confirmed this, saying, "I grew up in the Susukino neighborhood of Sapporo and encountered a lot of transvestites growing up. Then when I was 22, I purchased a gay magazine called Sabu and realized there were actually a lot of gay people in Japan. I was so happy, I almost cried. Sapporo had one of the first gay parades, right after Tokyo. I think it's a very tolerant city."

The reception of erotica––especially gay erotica––in countries outside of Japan show that it isn't as taboo as it once was. Last May, Anne and Graham took Tagame to the Toronto Comic Arts Festival and a book release at The Standard Hotel in New York, which attracted people from all walks of life. "In Toronto, I was stunned at how many women were buying his book––there were a few librarians, actually." Anne said. One of the main draws to these North American events could be their literature's lack of censorship; In Japan, even in animated content, genitalia is blurred or blacked out, so few readers get to see Tagame's work in its unadulterated form.

Overall, Anne and Graham are very excited by the work's acceptance worldwide. "We get readers all the time telling us that they can't believe it's taken so long for this to be published," Anne said. But now, people are approaching the pair to bring more work out of Japan, generating more and more interest in the genre. Even Jiraiya has a growing fan base: "I was in a men’s room on a gay night at a bar when the guy peeing next to me said, 'I'm a huge fan,' and then we continued talking about comics while peeing." But as bara becomes better-known, Anne and Graham say that it's important not to pigeon-hole the genre. "It's not just men writing for men, it's more nebulous––the boundaries are being blurred," Anne said.

Just for fun, I asked Jiraiya what a date would be like between the two men featured on his sweatshirt. He replied, "I wouldn't want these two to ever go on a so-called 'normal' date. I picture them traveling in a beat up, dirty vehicle––destination unknown."

Images courtesy of MASSIVE.

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