Ever watch a show with two (or even more) male characters acting a little too buddy-buddy with each other? Wonder what the heck was going on? Better yet, have you ever seen suggestive fan art of two male characters from a squeaky-clean sports anime? You may have just seen what would fall under the Boys Love label, a genre of fiction depicting romantic relationships between two men directed at a presumed female audience.
Even for those who know Boys Love, the meaning of the term is confusing when considering other names associated with it, most notably yaoi and shōnen’ai. What's the deal with yaoi? Shounen’ai?? Aren’t they all the same??
To ease the confusion over these terms and the genre, we will define Boys Love and yaoi along with shōnen’ai. In doing so, we will also briefly touch on the history of the genre and introduce a few series that best represent it.
Now, without further ado, let’s yaoi it up!
First, it is important to note that the definitions of Boys Love, yaoi, and shōnen’ai outside of Japan are different than their meanings within Japan. In countries outside of Japan, the following is a breakdown of the meaning of these terms:
Boys Love (often shortened to BL):
A relatively new term used to indicate broadly manga, anime, or fan works depicting love between men for a presumed female audience. These relationships between men are often sexual and have determined and visually codified “top” and “bottom” positions. The “top,” also called the seme, “attacks” or rather gives love to the “bottom,” or in other words the uke. Throughout this article, I will mainly use Boys Love as an all-inclusive term for media depicting male/male couplings.
While yaoi is used like Boys Love to describe a genre with works focused on men loving men for a female audience, it has the additional connotation of depicting graphic sexual scenes. In typical advanced search options for anime and manga online, yaoi appears far more often than Boys Love, and is used in conjunction with shōnen’ai.
When used in opposition to yaoi, shōnen’ai means a boy/boy manga or anime without any explicit sexual scenes. It is often viewed as focusing more on story rather than hot and heavy action between two men.
In Japan, however, there are slightly different meanings to these words. This has much to due with the history of the Boys Love industry and the gradual development of the genre over the past forty years. The following is a brief overview of the history and meaning of the terms used in Japan:
Yaoi developed as a term used to describe non-commercial works depicting relationships between men for women during the boom of the Japanese noncommercial market centered on dōjinshi in the 1970s and 1980. Yaoi in these early years established many conventions that became common in the Boys Love genre, namely explicit sex scenes and the seme/uke framework (Mizoguchi, Akiko, “Reading and Living Yaoi : Male-Male Fantasy Narratives as Women’s Sexual Subculture in Japan,” 59-60, 64).
Etymologically, “yaoi” is an acronym meaning “no climax, no point, no meaning” (yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi) used originally by Osamu Tezuka to refer to manga he viewed as inferior. The usage of the yaoi began around the 1970s among the readers and writers of dōjinshi to self-deprecatingly refer to male-male love works viewed as having poor plot structure and many sexually explicit scenes (Suzuki, Kazuko. Boys love manga and beyond: history, culture, and community in Japan. 105-106).
Even Though this term began to describe non-commercial works, it has been also used to refer to both commercial and non-commercial as well. While it can be seen as another umbrella term used in conjunction with Boys Love, in recent years, BL has eclipsed yaoi in terms of usage.
Boys Love (BL):
Boys Love first appeared in the 1990s to indicate a commercially produced genre of media depicting relationships between men meant for women. While it primarily has the connotation of being commercial, it has increasingly been used as an umbrella term to mean all male-male romances, both commercial and non-commercial, for women. It is often used in opposition to yaoi, in this case more closely associated with noncommercial works like fan art, and bara, a genre of male-male love media directed at gay men (Sugiura, Yumiko. 2006. Otaku joshi kenkyu: fujoshi shiso taikei. 135).
Why commercialized male-male narrative for women became more widespread beginning in the 1990s had in large part to do with the economic situation facing Japan at the time. Following the burst of Japan’s bubble economy in 1990, manga publishers faced a crisis in creating new content in a depressed economy. Finding an already established fan base and creators in the yaoi sphere, publishers turned to yaoi as a lucrative means of generating sales. As such, Boys Love manga entered the market for specific capitalistic motivations and can be viewed as an extension of yaoi dōjinshi (Welker, James. Boys love manga and beyond: history, culture, and community in Japan. 63).
While in placed like the United States shōnen’ai is used to indicate non-explicit material, in Japan the term is used to describe early manifestations of male-male romance in shōjo manga during the 1970s. These works did times contain sexually explicit content for its time and were largely written by a group of female mangaka now called the Fabulous Forty-Niners who established male-male love as an important trope in shōjo manga (Mizoguchi, Akiko, “Reading and Living Yaoi : Male-Male Fantasy Narratives as Women’s Sexual Subculture in Japan,” 59-60).
The first shōjo manga to depict male-male love was Takemiya Keiko’s “In the Sunroom” published in 1970 and was then followed by The Gymnasium in November 1971 and Heart of Thomas 1974 by Hagio Moto, and The Poem of Wind and Trees in 1976 by Takeyama (Ishida, Minori. Hisoyaka Na Kyōiku: Yaoi, Bōizu Rabu Zenshi, 21). Characteristics shared among shōnen’ai works are that they ends in tragedy, take place in Europe, depicts bishōnen (beautiful boys), occur in a school setting, and features a bildungsroman plot (Welker, James. “A Brief History of Shōnen’ai, Yaoi, and Boys Love,” 44).
With these definitions in mind, let’s take a look at a few notable Boys Love anime.