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Japanese illustrator Gengoroh Tagame has drawn erotic gay manga for decades. His innovative work champions hairy and large men, an anomaly in the world of Japanese manga, where skinny, hairless boys tend to be the norm. His exquisitely drafted comics intertwine beauty with BDSM and violence, expanding the boundaries of how eroticism is expressed in comics – and all this, in Japan – a country where LGBTQs are more closeted than in the U.S.
Tagame’s latest book, My Brother’s Husband, opens a series that is aimed at decidedly different readers from his earlier work – this story is for an all-ages audience. The story begins when a hairy, friendly Canadian knocks on the door of Yaichi, a stay-at-home dad, who lives in suburban Tokyo. Yaichi and his wife Natsuki are divorced, and he is raising his young daughter Kana.
It turns out the Canadian, Mike Flanagan, is the widower of Yaichi’s gay brother, Ryoji, who has recently died. When Ryoji came out he became estranged to his family and moved to Canada. Kana doesn’t even know her dad had a brother, much less a twin. Mike is visiting Japan, hoping to pay respects to Ryoji’s relatives and to heal by learning more about his husband’s past.
Yaichi is put on the spot. He’s uncomfortable with his brother’s – and Mike’s – gayness – but believes it’s only right to invite Mike, who is after all, now a relative – to forgo hotels, and stay at his house during his visit.
Young Kana has no problem with all the homophobic worries her dad frets over. When she doesn’t understand something, she just asks. Mike introduces himself at the door as her relative. “I married your Dad’s brother in Canada. That makes me your uncle.”
“WHAT?! Daddy has a brother?! Men can marry each other?! Is that even allowed?!” Kana replies. Mike assures her it’s possible, if not in Japan, in Canada. Kana takes to Mike right away, following him around, advocating for him to stay at their house, and marveling at his chest hair.
“Hey Dad, look! He’s hairy all over his body!”
In the meantime, Yaichi wrestles with his own homophobia. Is it OK for men to marry? Will Mike be a bad influence on his daughter? Even Yaichi’s actions are restrained by his fears. When he gets out of the bath, instead of walking around naked like he usually does, with Mike around, Yaichi quickly dresses. It’s another thing the sharp-eyed Kana points out to Mike.
Tagame skillfully portrays his characters’ emotions and he is especially deft at showing how bigotry can subtly poison people’s thoughts and actions. But he also shares how open-mindedness, love and exposure to larger worldviews can bring about change for the better. For example, some neighbors find out about Mike and refuse to let their kids play with Kana. But it turns out one of the neighbor kids, a teen, is gay too, and he sneaks over to talk to Mike, thrilled to have an adult role model who is out and OK with his gayness. While the adults fret and worry, ”But what about the children?” Tagame shows us that mostly kids get it; it’s adults’ prejudice that often mucks things up.
Tagame’s fantastic art is equally nuanced in conveying the subtle emotions of the story. Whether it’s showing us Kana’s amazement at Mike’s body hair, or the hair itself, readers will know they are in the hands of a master illustrator. It’s a sensitive story readers won’t be able to put down, one that hopefully engenders discussions and builds acceptance amongst readers who like Yaichi, struggle with their own biases. Kudos to Pantheon too, for printing the English version of this manga in an appealing format, with a well-done translation, that should attract even those Western readers who’ve never read a Japanese comic before.
My Brother’s Husband
By Gengoroh Tagame
Hardcover, 9781101871515, 352 pp.