I’ve been working hard to read as many translated manga with queer themes or characters as possible, so now seems like a good time to share what I’ve managed to find with all of you. There’s a little bit of everything here, from cute romcoms to murder lesbians to the origins of BL as a genre. Happy Pride, everyone!
Hana & Hina After School (vol. 1-3)
Hana and Hina are two high school girls working at the same shop, but they come from completely different worlds. Hana is petite, uncertain and shy, while Hina is tall, trendy and confident.
But they both can’t keep their eyes off things that are cute, be it the uniforms at Hana’s new school or Hana herself! Hana and Hina may have more than their shared part time jobs to keep a secret…
I said it before and I’ll say it again: Milk Morinaga is the undisputed champion of fluffy high school yuri. Like Girl Friends, Hana & Hina is a lowkey series that hits on a lot of fairly standard tropes for the genre: worrying that your crush will think you’re weird, awkward misunderstandings, fretting over whether something’s a date, and an old friend mistaken for a rival. But in execution, those staid old devices all feel believably rooted in the characters and their world.
The secret keeping setup is more metaphor than text—while the girls could technically face severe punishment for having after school jobs, it’s not so much an issue in-and-of itself as a nebulous pressure that’s keeping them from talking about the secret time they spend together. It’s extremely unsubtle, but it’s also not particularly obnoxious. It’s helped by the fact that both leads are endearing, with personalities that play ever-so-slightly against their archetypes—short, energetic Hana is the senpai; while cool model Hina secretly loves cute things and worries that Hana will consider her childish and weird.
It’s a slow, sweet romance with a happily ever after (bonus points for a high school yuri that clearly outlines the couple’s plans to stay together into adulthood!), and highly recommended if you’re looking for some comfort food reading with occasional stabs of relatable pain.
I Hear the Sunspot: Theory of Happiness
Due to the overwhelming success of I Hear the Sunspot, the sequel has finally arrived, I Hear the Sunspot: Theory of Happiness! How will this “more than friends, less than lovers” relationship evolve?
Because of a hearing disability Kohei is often alone. Taichi is outspoken and cheerful. At first, Kohei keeps himself well guarded, but after he meets Taichi he slowly learns to open up.
This is technically a sequel, but one that can be read on its own (I know, because I accidentally read it before the original Sunspot). I don’t want to make too many strident claims about how this manga handles disability, since that’s not my lane (others have written more eloquently about the subject), but I will say that it’s a crying shame that we live in a world where Ten Count is getting an anime instead of this.
This is a story of false starts and near-misses between two characters who are trying to understand one another. Crucially, Kohei’s disability is not treated as a contrived obstacle that’s “tragically” keeping the two apart. Rather, it’s a part of who he is that brings with it multiple considerations when getting into a relationship: Taichi learns to thoughtfully repeat little conversation details like jokes that aren’t “necessary” but make Kohei feel like he’s really part of social interactions; and a considerable part of Taichi’s arc is growing from taking notes for Kohei in class to earn a few dollars to becoming an earnest advocate working to create services for the hearing-impaired.
Considerable time is also spent with Kohei outside of his relationship with Taichi, observing his friendship with a hearing-impaired young woman and how they bond over shared frustrations and life experience. It’s a very delicately written manga that wasn’t originally conceived as a romance, and it shows. While the love story doesn’t feel tacked on, there’s also not a sense that every character’s motivation is somehow feeding into the overall arc of the romance, which benefits a grounded story like this one. It’s a damn fine manga, one of the best in the BL genre, and it emphatically deserves your attention.
Murciélago (vol. 1-3)
Mass murderers may not have much by way of careeer skills, but Kuroko Koumori seems to have landed her dream job as a hitwoman for the Tokyo police! A license to kill other killers? That’s some serious job satisfaction, right there!
This is so close to just being a fun, gory exploitation series. Compared to anime, manga definitely has room for a story about a depraved murder lesbian, because it’s equally easy for a reader to pick up a fluffy, healthy romcom like Kase-san or Hana & Hina. A varied market is key to being able to portray troubling or problematic versions of queerness; when the majority of queer characters in a medium get portrayed as depraved or villainous, it starts to create an implicit causality. “They’re queer because they’re depraved monsters,” and vice versa.
And in its first volume, Murciélago really succeeds in delivering a fun romp by the standards of the criminal wish fulfillment genre: Kuroko’s victims are all bigger monsters than her, she has standards in protecting her found family, and all the sex she has is consensual and apparently a great time for the other woman. It’s outlandish, graphic, and kind of a delight if you’re into trashy pulp.
Unfortunately, subsequent volumes hit a major stumbling block by deciding it’s not enough for Kuroko to just be relentlessly horny toward other adult women. While nothing explicit comes of it, multiple hints are dropped that she’d be just fine with hitting on underaged girls too, and potentially grooming the daughter of a serial killer who ends up in her care. And while all the other cool, ridiculous elements are still there around the edges, that one looming threat puts a big wet blanket on the fun.
The pushback I often hear on this complaint is that “well obviously; Kuroko’s not exactly a good person.” To which I would respond, “well, duh.” But, as always, media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Stories about straight men embraced as criminal wish fulfillment (putting aside whether the original text was attempting critique) have managed to portray all kinds of depraved lawbreakers without feeling it necessary they’d be down to fuck kids—not a plot point I remember with Dexter, Walter White, Scarface, or Tony Soprano.
But with Kuroko, the specific depravity of her sexuality is increasingly front and center, way more so than the fact that she can slice you up fifty different ways and tilt her head all the way around like an owl. And the reason I can’t shrug that off in the same way as murder or torture is the fact that the anti-queer propaganda historically concentrated (and continues to, in more veiled ways) on the implication that The Gays are coming to molest and convert your children. Those assumptions are still at the core of US society—it’s why the Boy Scouts wouldn’t allow gay men to be troop leaders and why many states still won’t allow same-sex couples to adopt. Given that same-sex couples are still banned from adopting in Japan, I’d say it’s a problem there as well.
So yeah. Miss me with that shit.
What Did You Eat Yesterday? (vol. 1-4)
A hard-working middle-aged gay couple in Tokyo come to enjoy the finer moments of life through food. After long days at work, either in the law firm or the hair salon, Shiro and Kenji will always have down time together by the dinner table, where they can discuss their troubles, hash out their feelings and enjoy delicately prepared home cooked meals!
I hope you like cooking manga, because otherwise this series is not for you. Yoshinaga made her bones on contemplative character studies, and while the intention of the series is there from the beginning if you’re familiar with her other work, the first volume might be deceptively offputting to people used to the high melodrama of the average BL volume.
This is a manga about food: about how it’s purchased, cooked, shared, and how it brings people together. Stunted lawyer Shiro, still in the closet in his 40s, begins the story as kind of a prickly asshole who’s stiff to a fault. His only real pleasure in life is cooking, and over the course of the first few volumes it begins to open up his world: he goes deal hunting with an older woman in the neighborhood, and he makes meals for his partner Kenji and their few friends in the community.
Above and beyond being a core thematic element, food is front-and-center on the page. Previews for the next volume list the meals to be cooked rather than the character interactions, and the recipes themselves are laid out so thoroughly that you could easily use them as cookbooks. Volume one is almost nothing but recipes with a few character beats on the side. Shiro and Kenji are both slow to warm to the reader as well, as Shiro’s closeting leads him to be cold and withholding while the openly gay Kenji is (understandably) jealous because he’s unsure of Shiro’s feelings.
They’re the kind of characters who’re easy to understand but sometimes hard to invest in, and it provides a minor barrier in the early going. I would encourage sticking with it, though. By the end of volume 2 there’s a noticeable trajectory to digging into Kenji and Shiro learning to communicate better, and both moving toward a happier, more open place in their lives and relationship. It’s also often very frank about issues faced by gay couples in Japan (it’s slightly outdated, but only just; it started in 2007): Kenji’s friend discusses adopting his partner so that he can pass along his possessions, and the issue of marriage and kids hover in the background when Shiro visits his parents. There’s also some decidedly unfun fat-shaming (Shiro is a relentless calorie counter), but that too becomes less prominent as the series goes on.
There aren’t too many contemporary manga about middle-aged gay couples in Japan—in fact, this might be the only one. That novelty is backed up by a talented mangaka with multiple awards under her belt who’s come a long, long way since the endearingly earnest but sometimes cringey-in-hindsight Antique Bakery. It’s a slightly pricier ask than the average manga, but highly recommended.
The Heart of Thomas
The setting: A boys’ boarding school in Germany, sometime in the mid-20th Century. One winter day, fourteen year-old Thomas Werner falls from a lonely pedestrian overpass to his death, immediately after sending a single, brief letter to another boy at the school:
To Juli, one last time.
This is my love.
This is the sound of my heart.
Surely you must understand.
When it comes to tracing the roots of the BL genre, there are two names to know: Keiko Takemiya’s Kaze to Ki no Uta and Moto Hagio’s Heart of Thomas. They gave rise to shoujo tales set in all boys’ boarding schools, following the same mentality as the lesbian pulp trend in America: these are tales of forbidden desire that usually end in death because of cultural or editorial expectation, rare expressions of explicit rather than coded queerness that are both breakthroughs and tethered by the fact that only setting things “right” at the end allows them to exist.
While reading these classic series means taking them in their historical context (Freud’s writings found their way to Japan in the 1920s and made a big splash on 20th century manga). Hagio also used male characters as a way for her young female readers to experience extreme drama with a degree of safety and separation (there are some dynamite essays and notes in this translation release, by the by). So this is a story that is decidedly not made with queer people in mind, but became a doorway to stories about gender and sexuality anyway.
And unlike the almost relentlessly tragic KazeKi (which is lengthy and has never been fully translated even by fan groups, though the frankly majestic OVA is about), Thomas is a relatively positive story for the conceits of the time. The story begins with the tragic death that would end many other early BL stories (including KazeKi and Banana Fish), and dedicates its narrative to having the characters deal with the aftermath. Rather than being a whispered “maybe” not to be named, Thomas’ romantic feelings are out there from the word go, at least to the reader.
This is classic shoujo, so everyone deals with this situation in as disastrous a way as possible—a fact that often has effects on transfer student Eric, who looks just like Thomas but is completely opposite in personality, and thus winds up accidentally serving as a damning specter to already distraught Juli.
You see what I mean about the melodrama.
Even the ending is relatively hopeful and positive both by the standards of the genre and the internal logic of the narrative, working toward a place of healing and acceptance that includes Juli not just accepting but embracing the fact that he was in love with another boy.
The story deals with a number of dark topics and the style—both writing and visual—isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you’re at all interested in classic manga this is one to pick up. Moto Hagio is one of shoujo’s greatest authors, and deserves more recognition among English-speaking audiences.