"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

"I love you and I'm not afraid." -- Evanescence, "My Last Breath"

“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Uh -- He's Back?

Maybe not completely in residence, but feeling up to making more frequent guest appearances. (And thanks to reader PietB for his expressions of concern. I'm doing very well, Pieter.)

The one problem is still the schedule, which doesn't leave me a great deal of time in the mornings, and by the afternoon, my get-up-and-go has -- well, you know.

Now I have to pull a book review out of my . . . hat.

But, as a parting shot, my anime wish list (the next big passion, I can tell):

Haru wo daiteita: A classic series, a wonderful anime; I've only seen it through once, but it impressed the hell out of me.

Ai no kusabe: another classic, one that I'm going to have to steel myself for: from what I know of it, it's pretty depressing but I've seen enough to see that it's really well done. The visuals are gorgeous.

Gakuen Heaven: on the basis of having seen the last episode, I can say without qualification that I'm in love: delightful romantic fluff. Give me more.

Loveless: of course, although I would have thought I had saturated myself by now. However, I seem to be able to keep going back to it. One of the two or three best BL titles I've seen.

Araiso Private High School Student Council Executive Committee: original manga by Kazuya Minekura of Saiyuki fame: bishonen boys with atttitude, and screamingly funny in places.

Sukisyo: more fluff, silly and cute.

Bronze/Zetsuai: looks edgy, rough and scary -- striking graphics.

Friday Gay Blogging, Saturday Edition: "Compromise"

This is a late commentary on this OpEd by David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch, published last weekend in NYT. Everyone seems to have taken a swipe at it, but I haven't seen a full-scale take-down. It purports to lay out the case of "compromise" on the issue of same-sex marriage, and needless to say, I find it lacking in important respects. It starts:

IN politics, as in marriage, moments come along when sensitive compromise can avert a major conflict down the road. The two of us believe that the issue of same-sex marriage has reached such a point now.

There's a basic question here that, as far as I am concerned, blows this whole piece out of the water: why would anyone expect a minority to compromise on an issue of fundamental rights? I'll come back to this later, because it actually impacts a couple of points in this OpEd.

It would work like this: Congress would bestow the status of federal civil unions on same-sex marriages and civil unions granted at the state level, thereby conferring upon them most or all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage. But there would be a condition: Washington would recognize only those unions licensed in states with robust religious-conscience exceptions, which provide that religious organizations need not recognize same-sex unions against their will. The federal government would also enact religious-conscience protections of its own. All of these changes would be enacted in the same bill.

We start with the "separate but equal" fantasy, coupled with redundancy to protect freedom of conscience. The "robust religious-conscience exceptions" are already embodied in the First Amendment, and in practice, no church is required under any law to recognize or perform weddings that violate church doctrine. This seems to be a red herring born of a straw man, which is a major flaw in this whole exercise. This proposal also awards the term "marriage" as the sole prerogative of heterosexual couples on the federal level, which is a major bone of contention. Do you begin to see which way this "compromise" is heading?

Whatever our disagreements on the merits of gay marriage, we agree on two facts. First, most gay and lesbian Americans feel they need and deserve the perquisites and protections that accompany legal marriage. Second, many Americans of faith and many religious organizations have strong objections to same-sex unions. Neither of those realities is likely to change any time soon.

This is a mischaracterization, as far as I'm concerned: the conflict is not between religious objections to same-sex marriage and those who want to be married, but between those who want a fundamental civil right and those who want to impose their religious views on civil law. If it were merely a matter of some people objecting to same-sex marriage, the answer is simple: don't marry someone of the same sex. I know it sounds smart-ass, but that's what it boils down to: do what you wish and mind your own business.

Further sharpening the conflict is the potential interaction of same-sex marriage with antidiscrimination laws. The First Amendment may make it unlikely that a church, say, would ever be coerced by law into performing same-sex wedding rites in its sanctuary. But religious organizations are also involved in many activities outside the sanctuary. What if a church auxiliary or charity is told it must grant spousal benefits to a secretary who marries her same-sex partner or else face legal penalties for discrimination based on sexual orientation or marital status? What if a faith-based nonprofit is told it will lose its tax-exempt status if it refuses to allow a same-sex wedding on its property?

Cases of this sort are already arising in the courts, and religious organizations that oppose same-sex marriage are alarmed. Which brings us to what we think is another important fact: Our national conversation on this issue will be significantly less contentious if religious groups can be confident that they will not be forced to support or facilitate gay marriage.

Here's another misrepresentation. The reference here to a "faith-based nonprofit" losing its tax-exempt status seems to be to the Ocean Grove Beach Pavilion case in New Jersey, which Timothy Kincaid has dealt with quite judiciously here and here. This one has been a favorite scarecrow of the anti-gay right, and has quite consistently been presented in pretty much the same terms Blankenhorn and Rauch present it here, when the truth of the matter is that the pavilion was a public facility and the tax exemption was granted on the basis of it being available to the public, which it had been -- including wedings for couples of many faiths -- until a lesbian couple tried to rent it for a commitment ceremony.


Gay couples have concerns of their own. Most, of course, want the right to marry, and nothing less. But federal recognition of same-sex marriage — leave aside what you think about the merits — is not likely in the near future. The federal Defense of Marriage Act forbids it. Barack Obama and most other Democratic presidential candidates opposed gay marriage. And most Americans continue to oppose it.

President Obama has pledged the repeal of DOMA -- it is, after all, a statute, not the Eleventh Commandment, and can be repealed. And while Obama opposes same-sex marriage personally, he also opposes laws and constitutional amendments forbidding it. He, at least, understands the difference between personal belief and civil law.

Yes, most gays are opposed to the idea that religious organizations could openly treat same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples differently, without fear of being penalized by the government. But we believe that gays can live with such exemptions without much difficulty. Why? Because most state laws that protect gays from discrimination already include some religious exemptions, and those provisions are for the most part uncontroversial, even among gays.

This one starts off with flat assertion that I think requires some back-up. There's no evidence that most gays have any such attitude. In fact, the prevailing attitude seems to be "believe what you like, and keep it off the law books." (Update: It occurs to me that Blankenhorn and Rauch are probably trying to slide this one past us by using "religious organizations" to include any outfit that has even the most tenuous relationship with a church. For decades, churches that wanted to get government grants to do humanitarian or other charitable work spun off separate, more or less secular entities -- such as Catholic Charities -- to take care of that and preserve the separation of church and state. In the past twenty years or so, these have suddenly become "religious organizations" for the purpose of avoiding antidiscrimination laws. They don't admit it, but that's the case. And I'm sure that Blankenhorn and Rauch are buying into that wholeheartedly in order to make this point, which otherwise is poppycock.) Yes, there are always those spoilers who are prepared to litigate on the slightest pretext, and the gay community (-ies?) has its share. They deserve to get slapped down in court if their cases have no merits. (As a sidelight to this, Blankenhorn and Rauch fail to mention those organizations that suddenly became "religious" organizations, such as Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army, when it looked like they could avoid complying with civil rights laws that way. Do we see a little bit of duplicity here?) They also point out what I pointed out under the section abouit "robust religious-conscience exceptions": those already exist. Everyone's fine with them.

And while most Americans who favor keeping marriage as it has customarily been would prefer no legal recognition of same-sex unions at either the federal or the state level, we believe that they can live with federal civil unions — provided that no religious groups are forced to accept them as marriages. Many of these people may come to see civil unions as a compassionate compromise. For example, a PBS poll last fall found that 58 percent of white evangelicals under age 30 favor some form of legal same-sex union.

Another flat assertion that the authors then proceed to demolish on their own. It's also a bit misleading: those who favor keeping marriage as it has customarily been happen to be those opposed to gay rights in general, and yet that very population, or the core of it -- white evangelicals -- now support some form of legal recognition for gay families. Having your cake. . . .

Linking federal civil unions to guarantees of religious freedom seems a natural way to give the two sides something they would greatly value while heading off a long-term, take-no-prisoners conflict. That should appeal to cooler heads on both sides, and it also ought to appeal to President Obama, who opposes same-sex marriage but has endorsed federal civil unions. A successful template already exists: laws that protect religious conscience in matters pertaining to abortion. These statutes allow Catholic hospitals to refuse to provide abortions, for example. If religious exemptions can be made to work for as vexed a moral issue as abortion, same-sex marriage should be manageable, once reasonable people of good will put their heads together.

"Reasonable people of good will" seem all to be on the pro-marriage side. It is not the gay civil rights movement that has started this war, and it's not reasonable people of good will who produced, for example, a campaign of lies and deception to pass Proposition 8. This is either a case of staggering naivete or butter-wouldn't-melt-in-your-mouth mendacity. I'll let you decide which.

But clinging to extremes can also be quite dangerous. In the case of gay marriage, a scorched-earth debate, pitting what some regard as nonnegotiable religious freedom against what others regard as a nonnegotiable human right, would do great harm to our civil society. When a reasonable accommodation on a tough issue seems possible, both sides should have the courage to explore it.

The point is, there is no threat to religious freedom inherent in legalizing same-sex marriage. None. It's a favorite scare-mantra of the anti-gay right, but in reality, there's no there there. The threat is to those who want to enforce their sectarian beliefs on the rest of us being told in no uncertain terms that there are limits. Let's face it, there are limits on the exercise of every right, from free speech on down the line, which are necessary if we're to be able to live together at all. And need I point out that there are religious denominations that support same-sex marriage? What of their religious freedom, and the freedom of conscience of their followers? And once again, to characterize the insistence on our ability to participate in what not only the California Supreme Court but the United States Supreme Court has determined to be a fundamental right as "scorched earth" is ludicrous: what other position is possible? What other group would be asked to "compromise" on the exercise of its basic rights?

And did you notice that all the "compromise" takes place on the side of same-sex marriage here?

This is really no surprise coming from David Blankenhorn, whom I do not regard as a reliable commentator. In Blankenhorn's case, it's also worthwhile to look at who pays his bills. I have to say I'm somewhat disappointed in Jonathan Rauch -- I had thought that, even though he hasn't impressed me as a particularly incisive commentator, he had some respect for factual accuracy and honest representation. (Sorry, but I consider Rauch to be one of the prime exponents of the "please, kick me again" school of gay commentators. No sympathy to that point of view, I'm afraid.)

Note: Pam Spaulding has posted a series of commentaries on this OpEd, beginning here. If you search the Blend under "blankenhorn," you can pick up the rest.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Big Surprise

FGB will be delayed this week. Tomorrow, I promise.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

I Know

I know, I know, I know -- I've been really negligent lately, but you have to understand, my energy level is at an all-time low right now. I am working on -- or at least thinking about -- another David Blankenhorn take-down for FGB this week. I feel almost guilty, just because he's so easy to demolish, but I figure I should work my way back in slowly, right?

In the meantime, we're having weather. This being Chicago, that's about all you can say about it.

Tonight's project: learn to use BitTorrent so I can start downloading anime.

Yee Hah!

(And then there's the strange case of the CD player that starts on track 4, no matter what.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Social Realities

Managed to lose this one yesterday. Nice column by John Corvino that puts many of my prior statements on the role of marriage in society into sharp focus:

Two decades ago, when I first came out of the closet, my mother had an irritating habit of referring to my boyfriend as my “friend.”

You could almost hear the scare-quotes around the word as she would speak it. “This is John’s, um, ‘friend.’”

. . . .

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when Mark (my partner of seven years) and I were visiting my parents in Texas. We stopped by the large salon where Mom recently started working.

I’d visited the place before, but Mark hadn’t, so Mom grabbed him by the hand and started introducing him around. “Hey, everybody—I want you to meet my son-in-law.”

Corvino and his partner are not married, and even if they, the laws in his parents' home state wouldn't recognize it, but that's not what's important here. It's the familial and social recognition of their relationship as being the same as any married straight couple's that helps change the boundaries of what we accept.

It also touches on the issues I raised in my post on First Kisses: by putting ourselves into the social reality of "couples" as it exists, we change that reality. No apologies, no excuses: that's just the way it is.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Reviews in Brief: Siira Gou's Secret Moon

Siira Gou's Secret Moon, illustrated by Sato Tomoe, is my first yaoi novel. It's a form I've more or less avoided because a major part of the appeal for me of yaoi is the drawing. Nevertheless, this one looked interesting, and they're not as pricey as the full-blown manga, so I picked it up.

Akihiro Sanders Tomoe, a half-British grandson of a Japanese viscount, has returned to Japan after a number of years living abroad. This is necessity as much as choice: Tomoe is a vampire, although not a full-blooded one, and periodically needs to adopt a new life. This time, he's returned as his own grandson.

His life is not uncomplicated, although he's quite wealthy: he is by necessity somewhat reclusive, and doesn't go out during the day -- again, by necessity. He is not immortal, although he has a good hundred years left in him -- his conversion was the best that could be managed after he was shot by a spurned lover. And he cannot drink the blood of men, only women -- although he is not partial to women in any other way. He subsists on a mixture of blood and juice provided by a close friend. He also owns a host club, which he largely leaves to the manager, Minamikawa, who is, surprisingly enough, honest -- but then, Tomoe is a good boss.

One night while out he runs across a young man being harassed by some con artists in the slums. Tomoe finally steps into the ensuing brawl -- although the young man seems to be holding his own, knives are being drawn. After demolishing their attackers, Tomoe offers the young man, who introduces himself as Taichi Yamagami, a lift and winds up taking him home. Newly arrived from a remote mountain village that has been flooded out by a new dam, Taichi was looking for an acquaintance with a job for him.

Taichi's life also has its complications: by day he is a quiet, almost diffident young man with a penchant for books. As the moon waxes, however, he becomes more and more aggressive at night -- he proves himself to be a passionate and demanding lover, which suits Tomoe perfectly. And Taichi may not be exactly human: there are rumors of "gypsies" in the mountains descended from the mountain gods who take the form of wolves. And then Tomoe discovers that he can drink Taichi's blood without becoming ill.

This one turned out to be more engaging than I had expected. The story of the two men learning to love each other is handled very well, woven into the unfolding mystery of Taichi's origins, and Tomoe's attempts to guard him against those who would take advantage of his naivete. One of the most interesting and refreshing parts of this is that it's about two men who are both quite able to take care of themselves. Their conflicts arise not from those taking advantage of weakness, but from deciding who is going to care for whom.

Sato Tomoe's illustrations are clean and elegant -- in some pictures, Taichi reminds me of Ranmaru from A Foreign Love Affair -- and I would love to see this one get a full graphic treatment: the story is strong enough, and the images eye-catching enough, that I think it would make an exceptionally fine manga.

From Juné.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Some thoughts

on this week's FGB going through my head, but not yet ready for public display. Maybe something in the "Men with Men" series.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

What We Need More Of

Can you imagine the CEO of CitiGroup or Bank of America doing something like this?

Lots of bosses say they value their employees. Some even mean it.

And then there's Leonard Abess Jr.

After selling a majority stake in Miami-based City National Bancshares last November, all he did was take $60 million of the proceeds -- $60 million out of his own pocket -- and hand it to his tellers, bookkeepers, clerks, everyone on the payroll. All 399 workers on the staff received bonuses, and he even tracked down 72 former employees so they could share in the windfall.

For longtime employees, the bonus -- based on years of service -- amounted to tens of thousands of dollars, and in some cases, more than $100,000.

It sounds a lot better to me than spending bailout money on "retention bonuses" to executives who have no place to go anyway.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Morality and Religion

Interesting report from the Telegraph about the possible origins of morality.

Although morality has always been viewed as a human trait that sets us apart from the animals, it now appears our closest ancestors share the same scruples.

Scientists have that discovered monkeys and apes can make judgements about fairness, offer sympathy and help and remember obligations.

Researchers say the findings may demonstrate morality developed through evolution, a view that is likely to antagonise the devoutly religious, who see it as God-given.

I've been saying all along that morality is a matter of social context and that there are basic norms that develop in any social group as a means of keeping the group stable and viable -- i.e., it's not nice to kill the neighbors -- which this seems to support. It's no real surprise: anyone who's followed the work of the major ape researchers knows that the bases of many human behaviors and institutions are to be found there. If you subscribe to the idea that behavior can be a selective advantage for evolution, which I do, then it's even less of a surprise.

I love stuff like this. I want to see fundamentalist heads explode when this gets out.

Monday, February 16, 2009

First Kisses

Just remembering some scenes from some of the anime I've been watching lately, particularly some of the first kisses -- Keita and Kazuki from Gakuen Heaven, when they finally realize they're in love, against a sky full of stars during a meteor shower, or Kei and Ranmaru from Kizuna: Much Ado About Nothing in a flashback to their junior high days, and that first kiss in the dojo, Kei being nonchalant and Ranmaru being shy and eager at the same time -- and how satisfying I find those scenes. (Yes, behind that ball-buster persona is an old softie.)

And then I realize that there are people out there who think that sort of think is disgusting, perverted, and marks the end of all that's holy. It's just an example, I guess, of how your point of view can warp your perceptions, with the understanding that my point of view in this is the correct one. After all, two people falling in love and sharing their first kiss: what could be sweeter?

I also realize that I've been reviewing these things, particularly at Epinions, without disclaimers -- if male/male romances offend you, don't buy the book, is my attitude, and if you can't even deal with reading about it in a review, you need serious intervention. It's a political statement, for sure: as far as I'm concerned, these are perfectly legitimate stories about perfectly legitimate situations, and anyone who thinks they have some right to judge us for it can just take a hike. (Hmm -- seems the ball-buster isn't too deeply hidden.)

It all reminds me of a scene from real life, several years ago: Walking down Halsted Street in Chicago's Boys' Town, I encountered a couple of punked-up teenagers walking down the street holding hands. In that neighborhood, no big deal, but they were fierce and defiant, and I wanted to cheer. Instead, I just gave them my biggest, happiest grin and said hello. (As I recall, they straightened up and started walking a bit prouder. Made me feel good.)

So, yes, it is politics, and I think it's the stance we need to take: no apologies, no excuses, this is what we are: people who fall in love. And after fighting my way through all the crap I had to deal with as a boy and young man, if there were a guy in my life right now, I'd have no hesitation in walking down the street holding his hand and to hell with what anyone else thinks about it: it's about us, not you.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Reviews in Brief: Ken Nambara's Papa to Kiss in the Dark, Anime

Papa to Kiss in the Dark is one of those yaoi anime I stumbled across online and found charming, in spite of some elements that put Westerners on red alert.

Mira Munakata is beginning his first day in high school, and is running late. His papa, the well-known actor Kyousuke Munakata, is still in bed, although he promised to be up and ready to go early. When Mira goes to wake him, Kyousuke pulls him into bed for some love-making.

Needless to say, Mira is very late, and as he's trying to get into the school he meets Takayuki, a third-year student who's obviously attracted to him -- Takayuki remarks that school life looks like it's going to be much more interesting now. And when Mira finally makes it to his classroom, his childhood friend Kazuki is waiting for him -- they've made it into the same school and the same class.

However, things with Papa are not going well in Mira's mind: there are rumors that he's going to marry a famous actress, Mitsuki Utsonomiya, and his attitude toward Mira seems to be pretty casual -- he's always out and doesn't seem to be very communicative. Mira begins to wonder seriously about their relationship, but when Kyousuke is involved in an accident, Mira realizes that he truly loves him. And then he discovers he's adopted. Kazu, who's with him when this news comes down, soon declares his love, complicating matters for Mira even further.

There are a number of issues with this one, although as I said, I did enjoy watching it. First, just in formal terms, there are too many loose ends: Kazuki just gets dropped by the wayside, and there's no development of anything with Takayuki. The whole question of the relationship is murky -- Mira has grown up thinking this is a father/son thing, which is why being adopted is such a trauma to him, but that relationship just opens a can of worms for the viewer, as far as I can see. Basically, the story is full of holes.

What bothers me most about this one is not the question of incest so much as Mira's age. When the story opens, he's fifteen, which I can consider an appropriate age for a romantic/sexual relationship, but just barely. (There are states in this country in which the age of consent is fourteen, or there were until very recently; here in Illinois it's seventeen.) It's pointed up in the story that Kyousuke claims to be twenty-nine -- which, as events turn out, is probably true, but Kazu and Mira just assume that he's lying about his age. It does, however, make a relationship with a fifteen-year-old just barely credible, outside the realm of pathology. What bothers me is the next question, "When did this all start?" It has obviously been going on for a while, and I have to wonder just how together Kyousuke is, although he professes that Mira is everything to him. I guess it's a matter of willing suspension of disbelief, which in this case I have some trouble with.

I'm not going to be the one to say that no fifteen-year-old is capable of a relationship with an older man, because I'm sure there are some who can do it. (I have a history of dating much younger men -- but not that young -- so I'm likely to be more sympathetic than others might be -- I don't necessarily see such relationships as always predatory and always abusive.) I think what bothers me most is that the relationship can be presented without question, which to all intents and purposes it is (although Mira remarks to Kazu, after learning of his adoption, that they can at least drop one part of the homosexuality-shota-incest combination).

Needless to say, there is a happy ending, give or take all the ends that are still loose. It's an entertaining bit of fluff, worth spending an hour watching if you've got some free time.

The animation is good, but not exceptional, with a character template firmly in place for the semes (Kyousuke, Takayuki, and Kazuki). The boys are all bishonen, and, something that seldom seems to happen in anime, they are slender but visibly muscular, which is refreshing change. The music is good, but again, not exceptional. Hikaru Midorikawa as Mira is exceptional -- very well done, and well supported by the rest of the cast.

It's recently been licensed in English by Media Blasters, and will be released by Kitty Media, but no date seems to have been announced. I watched a fansub online.


Mira Munakata: Hikaru Midorikawa
Kyousuke Munakata: Shinichiro Miki
Kazuki Hino: Susumu Chiba
Mitsuki Utsunomiya: Masako Katsuki
Takayuki Utsunomiya: Takehito Koyasu

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday Gay Blogging, of a Literary Cast

This is sort of FGB -- not news of the day, but a look at a book that, among other things, was the genesis of the series "Men with Men." It's actually a hybrid, of sorts: half review, half essay. It started off as a review of Satoru Ishihara's Kimi Shiruya: Dost Thou Know and got a little bit out of hand. The review that finally got written is at Green Man Review; you can find a brief general discussion of manga there, as well as the basic outline of the story.

For those who don't follow the link, the basics are: Katsuomi Hanamori and Tsurugi Yaegashi are competitors in kendo, as are their younger brothers, Masaomi and Saya. The story follows the courtship of Katsuomi and Tsurugi and, in a parallel secondary story, that of Masaomi and Saya.

This is an essay, not a review, and I'm not concerned with spoilers. They're here. They have to be, for me to discuss what I found so compelling about the book.

This book is built on metaphors, both the central image of kendo, the Japanese art of the sword (and I admire greatly the way the Japanese have turned so many things into an art and a ceremonial -- it's something we need more of in our lives) and others that essentially structure the various chapters. The courtship here is cast as a duel: both Katsuomi and Tsurugi are fiercely competitive young men, heavily invested in the sport, and each sees the other as his chief rival, in spite of their immediate attraction to each other.

This in itself has more than one layer. On the one hand, Ishihara has based the central metaphor, kendo, on one of the most important characteristics of relationships between men: whether you ascribe it to nature or nurture or some combination of the two, men are competitors -- for many men, perhaps most, that's a central part of their identities as men, whether we agree with it or not -- which makes a romantic involvement edgy, at best. It's that phenomenon, more than anything else, that explains Tsurugi's motivations, his resistance to "surrender," not surrender to Katsuomi, particularly -- his attraction to Katsuomi is as strong as Katsuomi's to him, that much is obvious early on -- but surrender to the idea that there must be a loser here: he, like Katsuomi, is trying to take control of the situation, not to change the outcome as such -- he doesn't want that at all -- but to hold onto his dignity. (Ishihara has stepped right out of the standard seme/uke pairing here; while that stereotypical role-playing may have some basis in Japanese gay culture -- and I don't profess to know -- the relationship developing between Katsuomi and Tsurugi is, I think, more immediately comprehensible to Westerners.)

That works naturally into the idealism of the sport -- and I mean that in its most literal sense. The ideals of sport in general are, aside from the benefits to health of physical activity, the main reason given for teaching competitive sports in schools: teamwork, sportsmanship, dignity in defeat and magnanimity in victory. Add in the warrior's code, with its emphasis on ideals we no longer encounter on a daily basis -- honor, integrity, mercy, purity of purpose, the kind of self-respect that must be earned -- and you begin to get a very good idea of where both Katsuomi and Tsurugi are coming from. It's this idealism that sparks the relationship between Masaomi and Saya, as well: after being shamed by his older brother for leaving Saya to the mercy of the bullies among the older students, Masaomi realizes that Saya understands the honor of the swordsman -- there are things he won't do, even to defend himself -- and out of respect for that and for his own honor, he must step in.

I can't stress enough the role that I see the Ideal playing in this work. It is, indeed, almost platonic. (And keep in mind, these are young men, and the young are still idealistic.) Underlying the surface action is a pure form of the story: on the one hand, there is no compromise on either side, the situation is yes/no, surrender/conquest. That is what Katsuomi is consciously reaching for because that is what he understands at this stage of his life; and that is what Tsurugi is rejecting. But as it develops it transmutes itself: after all, no one in his right mind wants that kind of relationship with another human being if you're going to call it "love." As Masaomi observes, they're reaching for something new, something, as it turns out, "beyond gender, beyond viewpoints," beyond that win-or-lose dichotomy: as it grows, they grow into it.

In that intersection of the Ideal and what stands beyond it -- the competitiveness and the ideals of the warrior and the reality of learning to love -- lies the tension that supports the story and that provides the foundation for the relationship and the characters of the two men. Katsuomi is a "stampeding boar warrior," all power and speed, direct and unstoppable. He has the courage to lay all his cards on the table (as he does in one scene, when he tells Tsurugi "I've shown you everything I've got.") and the patience to wait for as long as it takes. Tsurugi is the wind, all grace and finesse, elusive but more than able to come back with a telling strike, sweeping through Katsuomi's defenses. And he has the will to play this game his way. Katsuomi may be the irresistible force, but Tsurugi is not an immovable object: in their final, climactic battle, Katsuomi screams at him to "stop dancing around -- stand and hold your ground." It doesn't only apply to the physical contest. (Tsurugi calls him a "log-splitter" and goes for the opening Katsuomi has left.)

Thinking about it, Kimi Shiruya is the most truly erotic yaoi I've read, in that Jungian sense of the erotic as a deep, fundamental drive that structures our relationships -- yes, sex is part of it, but there's much more. The symbolism of the central metaphor -- sword fighting -- is obvious, and one can easily imagine some of the dialogue, but that in itself is remarkable: in a genre in which everything is usually laid out plainly, this story moves by innuendo, by implication, ranging from blatant -- at one point early in the story Tsurugi says to Katsuomi, "I'd like to cross swords with you -- with real blades" (and you well know that the next kendo tournament is not the only thing on his mind: just look at his face) -- to extraordinarily subtle: there are many times when Tsurugi's response is no more than a barely lifted eyebrow over hooded eyes, the merest hint of a smile. And it's on their first meeting outside of competition that Tsurugi says to Katsuomi that he's going to breach his defenses -- just before we see Katsuomi thinking to himself "What if we were friends, closer than any others?" Given the layers of meaning in the dialogue, it's a revealing scene.

And they are friends. One thing that we must keep in mind: the two are rivals, not enemies. As the story progresses, we begin to understand that not only have they become friends, as we catch glimpses of their openness and honesty with each other, but we realize they have done so when we weren't looking.

There is a high degree of reticence in this story, not only in the absence of the nearly obligatory sex scene (which has led to the label "shounen-ai," about which more later), but in how much of the story is actually being shown to us: toward the end of the book, we begin to realize that there are events that we've not been privy to, and that a significant portion of the story has happened "off-stage." The primary example, if not the most subtle, is what I consider the key scene, a kiss shared on the night of the summer festival: we don't actually see the kiss at the time, we see some ancillary flashes -- a little tongue action, a hand parting a yukata to reveal a thigh. This scene -- witnessed by the two younger brothers -- echoes throughout the rest of the book, both as an image and as dialogue between Saya and Masaomi. (And it colors their relationship as much as that between their older brothers.) On a more subtle level, Ishihara has a knack for scattering clues throughout the story and then bringing them together with one well-placed scene -- or even a single frame, as happens with the Masaomi/Saya substory, in that case one that also reveals a great deal about Masaomi's awareness of his brother's situation and how his own echoes it: the two boys have been on the outs, and after their latest spat, which is completely Saya's doing, Masaomi's exasperated comment is "I'm probably going to have an even harder time than bro did." We already know that Masaomi knows what his brother has been reaching for, even if he doesn't completely understand it. Now he is beginning to see the shape of it. Saya, I think, is also beginning to understand: he's following Tsurugi's path, fighting to maintain some independence.

Some remarks about humor, generally an integral part of yaoi, although not always successfully incorporated: although the first parts of Kimi Shiruya are pretty much dead-on serious (with small flashes of comedy), in the last two chapters, from which the book takes its title, Ishihara turns playful (and a bit surreal), and it's once again a multi-layered thing: we are introduced to Katsuomi's coach, whom he calls the bear, who is actually portrayed in several frames as a bear, and who as a hobby collects folk tales -- even telling Katsuomi during one tournament to go ahead and lose, already, he wants to get to the storyteller's house that day. And we begin to realize the extent to which Katsuomi and Tsurugi are playing: something has happened in this relationship, it's arrived at a new stage. There's more comfort here, and although there's still quite an edge, it's become part of the game. Katsuomi is still following his "I'm naked before you" strategy -- nothing to hide -- while Tsurugi, from being enigmatic and resentful, has become almost kittenish, quite openly flirting with Katsuomi, goading him to take advantage of the situations Tsurugi creates -- itself a strategy. I think it's here, in these last two chapters, that a designation of "shounen-ai," which originally described a genre that was focused on the romantic aspects of same-sex love, eschewing sex, and was likely to incorporate references to art and literature, becomes convincing. (There's a wonderful scene in which Tsurugi and Katsuomi are lying on the deck watching the stars and quoting Kenji Miyazawa at each other -- all the more revealing when you realize that Miyazawa was noted for his children's books. Then Katsuomi says "I'm going to kiss you," to which Tsurugi responds "No. You can't control yourself." The kiss happens, of course -- the third kiss in the story, and the first that we actually see taking place, and Tsurugi, now supine on the deck, says "I told you not to." It's a terrifically romantic interlude, relaxed and playful in spite of the verbal sparring. One reads it with a sense that, in everything but the act, the two have become lovers.)

Ishihara notes that Kimi Shiruya took three years to complete, and the drawing reveals that in its variability and changes in character design. All things considered, I don't see it as that important. What's more germane is the way in which the illustrations and narration support this very reticent story, adding information in subtle ways that builds an amazing resonance. There's a wonderful sequence in the beginning of "Dost Thou Know, Part 1" in which Katsuomi is eating a ripe tomato right off the vine, marveling at how sweet it is, unlike the tomatoes that come to Tokyo, picked green to ripen in transit. The drawing somehow moves seamlessly through humor, sensuality, and an almost pristine purity within a metaphor that goes straight to the core of the story: the sweetness of fruit allowed to ripen in its own time. The contrast between the purity of that scene and the dense, violent activity of the final duel between Tsurugi and Katsuomi is amazing: the figures in the duel take on an almost sculptural weight, and Ishihara imbues the scene with a vivid sense of motion, reminding us once again of where these two men are coming from: fierce, aggressive, and determined, but finally, as it turns out, recognizing that they are equals and that victory for one is victory for both.

That comes home in the final scene, when Tsurugi, who has left kendo to focus on his studies -- he's starting medical school -- asks Katsuomi, "Why won't you call?" He is honestly puzzled, and we realize that the game is over, but that Katsuomi was so caught up in it that he didn't realize it.

One thing I've noticed about many manga, and particularly yaoi, is the degree to which the story will reach beyond straight narrative. There are, I think, two facets to this. One is narration, usually from the point-of-view character, rendered as captions aside from word balloons, and providing not only psychological insights but a context that I can only characterize as "poetic" -- there are things happening in the places between the words and pictures that the narration often brings out into the open. The other is a basic concept that seems to permeate all Japanese art: evocation. The artist evokes an image of the event, rather than portraying it. Ishihara uses these to great effect in the last two chapters, combining them in the repeated motiv "Dost thou know my heart?" and "Do thou knowest the tropic land within my heart?" It adds not only another level of meaning to the story, strongly reinforcing the romantic elements, but brings a dimension to Katsuomi that we might otherwise never have suspected. Ishihara applies that in the final scene as well, with a bit of irony that is almost palpable: Katsuomi has been so focused on the dream, on the game, that it comes as a shock to him to realize that the game is over and the dream has come true -- and, in fact, that what he wanted was always his.

There's always a question when looking at a work like this: how much of this did the artist put in there and how much did I supply? Let me state in my own defense my belief that if you only look at the surface of any work of art, you're missing most of what's there. My feeling in this case is that it's all there in the book, although I'll grant that a lot of it comes from me -- Ishihara doesn't spend time talking about men's self-images -- but that's where the book led me. I may, in fact, have only scratched the surface -- there are so many details, so many almost-hidden connections, so many delightful discoveries along the way that one can easily read Kimi Shiruya again and again for the pure pleasure of spotting them. The bonus, I think, is that one comes away with new insights into life and the way it works.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Turning Over Rocks

Actually, we don't even have to -- people like this keep crawling out from under them on their own. Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars, from WingNutDaily:

President Obama's proposed economic stimulus plan makes a deliberate - and unconstitutional - attempt to censor religious speech and worship on school campuses across the nation, according to a lawyer who argued related cases before the U.S. Supreme Court 20 years ago and won them all.

"This isn't like a convenient oversight. This is intentional. This legislation pokes its finger in the eyes of people who hold religious beliefs," Jay Sekulow, chief of the American Center for Law and Justice, told WND today.

It gets better:

Critics argued schools would accept any money offered, then impose a ban on religious events.

DeMint warned organizations such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Campus Crusade for Christ, Catholic Student Ministries, Hillel and other religious groups would face new bans on access to public facilities that would not apply to other organizations.

"This is a direct attack on students of faith, and I'm outraged Democrats are using an economic stimulus bill to promote discrimination," DeMint said. "Democrats should be ashamed of themselves for siding with the ACLU over millions of students of faith."

This is Sen. Jim DeMint (R-Neverneverland). Yes -- a sitting United States Senator.

And people wonder why the country is in the shape it's in.

(And of course, the bill does no such thing. Liars for Jesus?)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Join the Boycott

Against Kelloggs for dumping Michael Phelps. It's already starting to have some effect.

It's intolerable that some corporate mucky-muck thinks he/she can decide what's acceptable behavior -- as we've seen, they're obviously not the best judges on moral issues.

Nail 'em.

Is God?

One of Andrew Sullivan's ongoing themes is the continual debate between theists and atheists over the existence of the Divine. It's a debate that I don't see much sense to, and Sullivan brings forth the following quote from E.D. Kain that illustrates my position:

It’s just that all of this talk on whether or not God exists is simply pointless. It means nothing, signifies nothing. It has no bearing on the world itself. We all believe what we believe, and no 300-page diatribe will change that, be it religious or atheistic or agnostic. What matters is how humans interact. What matters are those fault lines where religion, atheism, politics, culture, language, economics, and history intersect and the inevitable human consequences that manifest within those intersections. I imagine a best-seller could be found among some of these themes, though it might not be so easy to pitch. Taking pot shots at those who have different views is easy money, and the choir loves it. Really trying to understand this crazy, screwed-up world of ours takes time and empathy and humanity….

Sullivan's rejoinder, alas, misses the key question and really provides no cover for the debate whatsoever:

But if the Divine exists, how do we regard it as pointless to understand it more deeply? And what else could be more important? I guess this betrays some core beliefs of mine. I do not mean to disparage an alternative understanding of the world. Nor do I disagree with Kain's disparagement of pot-shots on either side. But the religious question will never be banished from the human mind, even it is resolved only in mystery and epistemological modesty.

First off, for most people there's a lot that's more important than the question of whether god(s) exist. Like putting food on the table. Kain is absolutely correct: people believe what they believe, and that's that.

The question that Sullivan's missing, and that Kain has posed, is "Why all the energy invested in proving to everyone else that god does (does not) exist?" Who cares what they think? I really do not care that Andrew Sullivan believes in God, nor do I care that Richard Dawkins doesn't. Doesn't affect my life one bit. Where I object, of course, is when theistic whores such as James Dobson and his ilk demand that my life be structured according to their beliefs. (And, based on the evidence of their behavior, you would have to crucify me before I'd subscribe to those beliefs. They are completely immoral people.)

What's more germane to Sullivan's post is simply that understanding the Divine is not arguing for its existence. As Kain points out, you either believe in it or you don't. If you do, you try to understand it, but that doesn't necessitate arguing for its existence. The two questions have little to do with each other that I can see.

Perhaps I just have a weird worldview: Witches don't proselytize. It's not that we don't care, but we're not here to offer you salvation (because we don't think you're damned ab initio), we don't have the answers to your questions (we're trying to figure it out ourselves), and we think it's up to you to live your life, not us. (Even Christians have a saying the reflects this philosophy: "God helps those who help themselves." Think about what that actually means.)

So why should I spend a lot of time and effort trying to convince everyone else that I have The Truth, when I don't think there's a single Truth to be had? (Although there may very well be, but by the same token, there are many ways to get there.) I suspect that the root of the issue is a certain arrogance that seems to be part and parcel of the monotheisms, the assumption that one has The Truth and that no other truth has any validity. Like Joseph W. Campbell, I consider that the "desert religions" made a serious misstep when they left spirituality for dogma. (I mean, this sort of arrogance is not something you're going to find in Paganism, or Hinduism, or Shinto, or Buddhism -- you get my drift.) However, if that's what you want to believe, fine, but please stay out of my sacred grove with your hatchets.

As for the other side in this debate, I have no trouble at all reconciling my own theism with a rational mode of thought. In fact, most of what I see in the universe only reinforces my religious beliefs -- evolution, for example, as evidence that all creatures are, indeed, part of the same continuum and that all contain a certain spark of the divine: since we share so much of our physical selves, it would be silly to think I alone have a spiritual nature. And for those who might think this harkens back to animism and other "primitive" forms of religion, explain to me how it is more "primitive" to see the gods as metaphors than to see them as literal, physical realities? Because that's what happens: ask the next fundamentalist you meet about the literal existence of his God, and the angels -- and don't forget the Devil and his minions, as well. (If you want to be a real bitch, then ask him where their physical selves are located.) Ask me about the literal existence of my gods, and I'll tell you point-blank, they are metaphors and have never been anything but. (I mean, I talk to trees because they are good listeners and if you're patient you can learn a lot from them, but it's the kind of knowledge that you can't really verbalize very well.) So to the Richard Dawkinses and Christopher Hitchenses I say, "Spare me. I don't really care. I know what I believe and I know why I believe it." Which, I think, is more than most people can say. (Oh, and it wasn't the result of a rational, materialistic process either. I'm human -- I'm not bound by that.)

And this has been another installment in "Ask the Next Question." Because there's always a next question.

Monday, February 09, 2009


Just as an indication of how far off my brain has gotten, I actually had a post ready for this morning and forgot to put it up.

Eventually, it will all come back together and I'll start getting pissed off at the administration again, not to mention the usual cast of villains, but for right now, I think my left cerebral hemisphere is on vacation -- I'm doing much better with pictures than words right now.

I'll get that post up later.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Men With Men: Teachers and Lovers

The relationships I've dealt with so far in this series fall pretty much within the "comrades in arms" category, although one can see quite readily that the relationship between Alexias and Lysis in The Last of the Wine starts off as a different sort of thing entirely. (Graham Jackson, in The Secret Lore of Gardening: Patterns of Male Intimacy, does an excellent job of typifying the kinds of male/male relationships and also points up the power of the erotic in defining those relationships.) This kind of initiatory relationship is one that has an equal, if not stronger, grounding in human psychology: it's instructive to note that in Western society for the past hundred years or better, men have been taught how to be men by women, as a function of negative reinforcement: after all, the ideal father is never around, because he's out being a breadwinner.

To get a sense of how the initiatory relationship has functioned in earlier societies, I'll quote myself, in a description derived from Jackson's:

Jackson’s discussion of initiatory relationships, of which the example best-known to us is the custom of “man-boy love” (the institutionalized relationship of the erastes and eromenos) in Athens of the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, also brings in discussions and descriptions of similar practices among the ancient Albanians, Germans, and Celts, positing that this institution is perhaps an ancient Indo-European custom. The point of this was that the boy learned from his lover the ideals of citizenship, integrity and honor. Jackson takes as his archetype for these relationships the myth of Apollo and Hyacinthus, and bases his discussion on a description of the custom as practiced in Crete in the 4th century BCE: the youth was “abducted” in company with a group of his peers; the group spent two months in the bush hunting, feasting, and making love. On their return to the city, the man gifted his beloved with military gear (at this period a knight was automatically a citizen), an ox (signifying that now the youth had the right to make sacrifices, i.e., participate as an adult in the religious life of the community) and a goblet (symbolizing the youth’s readiness to participate in the civic and social life of the city, i.e., host a banquet). In the myth, Apollo is, of course, the mature yellow man, the Hellenist, while Hyacinthus is the Flower Boy. Jackson takes Hyacinthus’ death as symbolic of his passage from childhood to adulthood: it is the death of his adolescence.

Please note that the "boys" described here are older -- what the Greeks called "ephebes," boys in their later teens who were finished with their formal schooling and preparing to enter adulthood.

We don't have quite the same scenario these days, first because we are rapidly losing the institutionalized rituals that mark our life stages, particularlyl "coming of age" ceremonies, which have become so muted as to be nonexistent -- high-school graduation doesn't really mean anything any more in terms of where you are in your life. Secondly, we have become conditioned to look askance at any relationship between older and younger men, typifying as necessarily predatory -- although no one seems to object to old straight guys and their trophy wives.

And yet we have a model -- an idealistic one, but this whole discussion as been about ideals. I think any of us can point to relationships between younger and older men that have been firm and rewarding for both partners, and I think it really does become a partnership.

A more contemporary literary example, and one that I think has great relevance to the world we find ourselves in, is Yun Kouga's Loveless, an anime/manga series that I've dealt with briefly here, both the manga and, somewhat more thoroughly, the anime. (If you wonder why I keep basing these things on cartoons, just remember that graphic novels became "literature" in the 1980s, and if you care to look, you can find what's really there.) The relationship between Soubi, twenty years old, and Ritsuka, age twelve, is largely an initiatory relationship, but, unlike Lysis and Alexias, Ritsuka is being introduced to a world that is deceptive, ambiguous, and sometimes incomprehensible. He's also being introduced to love, which is something that he feels at this point, but can't yet name with any surety: it almost becomes a litany in places, "I want to see him, I don't want to see him" -- an indication of how conflicted he is about Soubi and about the whole tenor of his life right now. And, while there is no real sexual component to their relationship -- Soubi says quite firmly that he doesn't want to have sex with Ritsuka, at least until Ritsuka is older -- there is a strong element of physical affection and tenderness between the two. There is one very appealing scene in which Ritsuka, quite unbidden, gives Soubi a kiss before a spell battle, and then wonders "Was that right? Did I do it right?" If that doesn't say student-teacher, I don't know what does.

(As a footnote, it's interesting to see how often student-teacher relationships pop up in yaoi. This kind of relationship obviously strikes a chord.)

And it turns out that the key element of the initiatory relationship is the same as any other real love relationship: each partner must respect the other, else you have something much less. (Without getting into the pros and cons of S&M, bondage and discipline, master/slave, or any of the other role-playing fetishes, I just want to state firmly that I am committed to equal relationships with mutual respect as a necessary foundation. This is not to say that mutual respect is not part of those types of relationships, but simply that I don't think most people are up to it: that takes a much stronger and healthier ego than I usually see in the world these days.)

I think the key difference is that the older partner has a certain authority as mentor, and consequently a greater responsibility for the care of his partner: it's really like raising a child (something that I've always been afraid to undertake, for fear I would be inadequate, even though I know better) taken to the next stage.

This is one that deserves more exploration, and I don't have the resources on it right now. Any comments are welcome -- help jump-start my brain, why don't you?

Reviews in Brief: Mio Tennohji's Don't Rush Love

This is another one of those chance encounters that turned out to be a lucky find.

Morino is a new transfer student at an all-boys high school. On his first tour of the campus, in the company of his teacher, Kanzaki-sensei, he sees Kusama for the first time -- star volleyball player, student council vice-president, honor student -- and, as it turns out, Morino's roommate. Morino is immediately smitten, but Kusama is cool and remote. He also disappears every night until the wee hours, and comes back with -- let's call it "evidence of passion" on his body. Morino is convinced he's seeing Kanzaki, although gossip tells him Kanzaki has had a lover since his own high-school days. Finally, Morino can stand it no longer and confesses his feelings, telling Kusama that he is willing to be a substitute if that's all he can have, hoping that Kusama will see the light and fall in love with him. Kusama agrees, but doesn't at first realize that his own feelings have changed.

I found this one surprisingly engaging, with some good psychology worked into the characters -- Kusama is a very effectively presented repressed young man who's lost touch with his feelings, while Morino, after his initial outburst, is faced with the choice of having Kusama or his own self-respect. There are some fairly intense scenes between the two, and one surprising interchange between Kusama and Kanzaki -- the crisis scene that snaps everything into focus for Kusama.

Character is further developed in the two final chapters, particularly revealing of Kusama's history and motivations.

And I found the graphics extraordinarily appealing. There's an underlying weight to the drawing that makes it more substantial than one might expect from a first glance. Character designs are somewhat on the order of those in Ellie Mamahara's Alley of First Love -- tremendously elongated bodies, huge hands and feet, small heads -- but not so rough-hewn. Even the portrayal of Morino as the big-eyed uke was more satisfactory than I normally find that kind of rendering, perhaps because he's not also small and cuddly.

You can place Tennohji in the "explicit" column for sex scenes, of which there are several.

As I said, a lucky find

This one's from 801 Media.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Gathering Resources

Sorry (again) for the light and sporadic posting this week, especially for missing FGB yesterday. The new schedule is a terror -- I'm out the door at 6:45 a.m. every day -- and by the end of the week, I'm wiped. The medical treatments are taking more out of me than I had imagined.

At any rate, I have another topic for the "Men With Men" series, and you may get something special for Reviews in Brief tomorrow, if it still makes sense to me.

Hang in there

A Bit of Perspective

On yesterday's posts. From a Sullivan reader:

Wilkinson has highlighted something that I have been feeling for some time. American media, be it sports, gossip, celebrity, or politics, has for at least the past ten years (I am 24 so my sample size is rather small) presented each story of the day as something that is a really important, defining event. In turn, this has had the effect on me and many of my peers of the feeling that nothing is important. Which is why I have been so excited to see something truly important happen in my lifetime when Obama was elected. Now we have another truly important event, the economic crisis, and the media is still making micro events the story and missing the enormous picture. It truly is dumbfounding to me.

I've been seeing the Bale and Phelps stories all over the place, with all the requisite tut-tutting and shaking of heads. And in the meantime, the world is going down the toilet with the US leading the way, and do you think Oprah has time for that?

I've pretty much stopped reading the newspapers, even online, and the only reason I've seen the likes of Oprah or The View is that I've been trapped in waiting rooms over the past week or so. (Please don't make me remember that experience -- I've never seen such a collection of stupid as The View.)

And the reason is that there's no perspective. None. Everything's important and vital. Which means that nothing is.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

It's the Stuff We Don't Hear About

I do recall hearing a little bit -- and I mean a very little bit -- about this whole idea some while ago, but hadn't realized it was a done deal. This is the sort of thing that goes beyond paranoia and rests firmly in the shadow of slack-jawed stupidity. I'm glad this guy took the trouble to show just how awful it is. From Engadget:

Think of it this way: Chris Paget just did you a service by hacking your passport and stealing your identity. Using a $250 Motorola RFID reader and antenna connected to his laptop, Chris recently drove around San Francisco reading RFID tags from passports, driver licenses, and other identity documents. In just 20 minutes, he found and cloned the passports of two very unaware US citizens. Fortunately, Chris wears a white hat; his video demonstration is meant to raise awareness to what he calls the unsuitability of RFID for tagging people. Specifically, he's hoping to help get the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative -- a homeland security project -- scrapped.

Here's a fact sheet from DHS on the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative -- as usual, predicated on the idea that everything works right the first time around -- and I think it really takes someone in government to believe that -- and fankly, it strikes me as not very realistic in other ways.

Here's a video:

Write your congresscritter.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Men With Men: Romance

Going back to my recent post about relationships between men, it occurs to me that a subtext there, although I don't think I stated it explicitly, is that Ishihara brings us a highly romantic vision of relationships between men, not only in the sense of "moonlight and roses," but in a deeper sense, and one that I think informs works as diverse as Kimi Shiruya, Mary Renault's The Charioteer and The Last of the Wine, Jim Grimsley's Kirith Kirin, and any number of others.

It's a romance built on ideals, one that makes a place for passion -- indeed, the whole thing is founded in passion -- but that tries to channel that passion into something with integrity and a kind of nobility. We see that most openly in The Last of the Wine, in which Lysis and Alexias try to adhere to Socrates' ideal -- what we've come to call "platonic" love -- but ultimately give into the demands of their bodies. And yet the only thing that happens after that is that their love becomes stronger and surer: they have moved beyond the erastes/eratomenos arrangement into something that is much more a relationship of equals, two adults who love:

They are, in a sense, blessed because the love they share is genuine and deep, but in trying to live up to Sokrates' ideal of a love from the soul, they forget that Eros will have his due, and he is a much older, darker god than Reason. They must, somehow, make accommodation between their ideals and their natures and, when they have done that, their love becomes truly an ideal: a love founded on trust and generosity, engaging them on a mutual search for the best in each other and in themselves, to find the seeds of honesty and integrity that we all have and to make them flower. Renault has drawn this in such a way as to say, "Yes, we must have our ideals, for, being human, we must strive for perfection; and, being human, we will fail. That does not mean we are any less worthy."

In their case, there is a tradition that they are upholding, one that, as it happens, allows them to move past the mentoring stage into a truly adult relationship. So even from the beginning, they have guidelines, a framework to help put their feelings in perspective.

In The Charioteer, which relies on Plato's Phaedrus for its central image, Laurie is trying to make his ideals fit reality, or rebuild reality to suit his ideals -- even he's confused on it, I think.. Like Lysis with Alexias, he wants to maintain a "pure" love for Andrew, and at least has a chance on that score: as the story progresses, Ralph Lanyon becomes available for the necessities of "earthly" love, which makes its own demands -- but also provides vast rewards. Renault descibes Laurie as someone who's holding onto his few sureties with both hands, and I think that aptly describes many of us today: we've had to build our own world, bit by bit, and that includes how to love. Renault is telling us in this one, I think, that Plato's ideal is just that -- a dream, perhaps, and one worth reaching for, but not something that will ever exist in the real world. In this case, Laurie's dream of "perfect" love is shattered with one kiss -- he can't help himself, and of course they are caught. I think Renault is pointing out here that we are what we are, earthly as well as divine, and what we really need to do is learn to reconcile the two.

Kirith Kirin is a singular work, one of the more original fantasies I've encountered (and for those fans of fantasy who are reading this, I highly recommend it) In this case, his relationship with Kirith Kirin is perfectly acceptable among Jessex's people (although there are some eyebrows raised at his age, which is fourteen when the story begins -- being a forceful, if somewhat reticent young man, he eventually puts his foot down and moves in with his lover), but there is no particular tradition to reinforce their feelings: it's an acceptable love, but not an institution. And yet we see the same thing again that we see in the other books I've mentioned here: it's a love based on mutual respect and generosity -- in this instance between two men who are not competitors (and note that in this discussion, competition is not the issue) but who are searching for something that will unite them beyond death -- in this case, literally.

I think we can find things in all of this that apply to men who love men in what promises soon to be the twenty-first century. (I'm of the school that holds the new century doesn't really get its feet under it until about fifteen years in -- we're still working off the twentieth right now.) We've been building on these things for a couple of generations, and I think now it's time to take a look at what we can do from here. I think a romantic vision has a lot going for it -- it's an acknowledgment of the power of Eros -- in a nice, safe, bourgeois kind of way -- and I think for men it's a valuable antidote to the traditional ideas of masculinity, which don't make a lot of sense to me when I stop to look at them.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Reviews in Brief: Yun Kouga's Loveless, Anime

I've avoided jumping into this one because it is not only very complex and sometimes surreal, it is also a potential minefield of issues. It's huge, and I'm leaving a lot unsaid here. The manga series develops, as it goes on, a very dark edge; the anime, which was begun just before volume 5 of the manga came out, is not quite so dark but still fairly edgy. Both have been quite controversial for a number of reasons.

Aoyagi Ritsuka (and please note that since both the manga as translated and the anime adhere to Japanese naming conventions, for this commentary I will as well) is twelve years old and doesn't remember anything that happened before he was ten. His mother is convinced that an imposter is occupying her younger son's body and regularly brutalizes him. His father is in denial and largely absent. His older brother, whom he idolizes, has recently been murdered -- his burned corpse was found in Ritsuke's chair in his schoolroom.

The story opens with Ritsuka's first day in his new school, where he meets Hawatari Yuiko, who decides to become his friend, and Shinonome Hitomi-sensei, his homeroom teacher, who is concerned for him, given his history. At the end of the school day, Ritsuka is accosted by Agatsuma Soubi, a twenty-year-old college student, who introduces himself as someone who knew Seimei, his brother: he was Seimei's Fighter Unit, and is there at Seimei's orders, because Seimei's orders are absolute, even in death.

The mystery that propels this story starts when Ritsuka, at Soubi's urging, discovers Seimei's "will" on his computer, telling him that he was murdered, that something called the Seven Moons is involved, and that he is bequeathing Soubi to him. Ritsuka is determined to find the Seven Moons and find out what happened -- and exact revenge.

The fascination here is the complexity of the characters, which does come across in the anime quite well. Ritsuka is an independent boy, in some respects -- but not all -- far beyond his years, and strong-willed. He's a loner who is reluctant to allow others to get close to him, and doesn't understand the concepts of "liking" and "love" -- in fact, he finds them terribly confusing, particularly in relation to Soubi, who says early on that he loves him -- although he doesn't want to have sex with him, at least not until Ritsuka is older.

And Soubi is unreliable. He says he is under Ritsuka's orders, and regularly ignores Ritsuka's wishes, although he insists he wants nothing more than to be dominated. He's a liar, and one gets the feeling that he has his own agenda. He admits to Ritsuka that Seimei ordered him to love his brother -- but admits only to himself that he has come to love him in his own right.

A note about milieu: the setting is contemporary Japan, and the fantasy elements are not explained. Thus, the battle pairs -- Fighters and Sacrifices who share a name (Soubi and Seimei were "Beloved," Ritsuka himself is "Loveless") -- engage in spell battles, but we don't know why. (In larger terms, at least: in the immediate context, the battles that Soubi engages in are to protect Ritsuka from other pairs sent to bring him to Seven Moons.) Also, equally unexplained, people have ears and tails until they lose their virginity -- they are kemonomimi (lit. "animal ears"), a fairly common image in manga. To any hardened veteran of fantasy literature, explanations are not really necessary: just accept it as part of the setting and stop worrying about it.

The relationship between Ritsuka and Soubi, as far as I'm concerned, is the core of the story, and it's to the credit of the studio that it comes across in the anime almost as strongly as it does in the manga. It's also the complexity and nuance of that relationship that for me makes it acceptable: Ritsuka is in love with Soubi, but he's at an age where he feels it but can't yet name it, so he's terrifically confused, saying over and over again that he doesn't understand. Soubi loves Ritsuka, initially because Seimei told him to, but soon because Ritsuka is worth loving for himself. We tend to fall back on immediate, unmediated reactions when presented with something like this, but, as I responded to one correspondent, these are fictional characters, not real people, and you have to look underneath the surface to discover what's really going on: all else being equal, they are symbols, with all that implies. It's instructive in this regard to note that battle pairs --and Soubi is holding himself out as Ritsuka's Fighter, now that Seimei is gone -- are bonded, and that Ritsuka and Soubi are not, in the normal -- or I should say extra-normal -- way. Thus the story is also about the two of them finding their own connection -- outside of others' expecations. Soubi says at the beginning of episode 5, "Between Ritsuka and I, we'll destroy all the rules of this world." I think we have to take that as important to the meaning. I also found it illuminating of Soubi's character, a hint of that subtext I found in him. (And just to give you some indication of how substantial I find Loveless, as much as I've been thinking about it, that insight just occurred to me.) There's a great deal of tenderness between Ritsuka and Soubi, and that alone would make me reconsider any designation of "abusive" for that relationship. I'm certainly not going to buy into a snap judgment of Soubi as "child predator" without a lot more thought.

Needless to say, there is a huge amount of ambiguity built into this, as there is in the manga. It's problematic whether the final episode answers enough questions: it's strong, and I think it ends on a very positive note, even considering the personalities involved, but there's also the consideration that the producers obviously wanted to leave room for a continuation. (Note: production on the anime began shortly before volume 5 of the manga was released; therefore, the producers created an ending. The manga is now at volume 8, and I, at least, hope there is a continuation soon.) With that consideration, I found the ending almost satisfying enough.

I should also note that some of the criticism I've seen of the anime is that it's not the manga. Well, of course not, and I can't think why anyone would expect it to be: it's an adaptation into a different medium of a story begun in another. Another point raised by one reviewer (who hated it, pretty much) is that it's not BL. From her point of view, I have to take that as valid, but that is based on attitudes in Japan, which apparently rely more on source than content for definitions, and I am necessarily commenting as a Westerner. In my frame of reference, it's definitely BL, based on my reading of what the content actually is -- not yaoi, but certainly shounen-ai, as I understand it (which is to say, the emphasis is on the emotional context, not the physical relationship): the whole story rests on the growing connection between Soubi and Ritsuka, and it is, undeniably, a romantic bond, although not a sexual liaison.

As a watching experience, this one is superb: absorbing story and characters (and the character designs are wonderful, fully in keeping with the manga); excellent voice characterizations ( Katsuyuki Konishi as Soubi is particularly effective: seductive, understated, almost completely irresistible, and if anything, Junko Minagawa as Ritsuka is even more on target); wonderful character designs (Ritsuka is possibly the most appealing character ever, and Soubi is what they call a "quiet beauty" of a very high order, extraordinary even in a genre devoted to beautiful boys); the music is perfect, even the themes -- evocative and perfectly apt; and it's just plain beautiful -- luscious, almost impressionistic at times, and moving into hard-edged passages with never a flicker -- the battle scenes I found particularly well-done.

A footnote: If you're wondering why I am subjecting a cartoon show to this kind of examination (and trust me --I've barely scratched the surface here -- I have pages of notes on both the manga and the anime), I can only say that I don't give any particular credence to the separation between "high" art and popular forms, particularly when you take into consideration the degree of cross-fertilization between the two throughout history. The same standards apply to both, at least within genre boundaries (and even that's subject to change), and the same bases for evaluation. So as it stands, Loveless I found substantial enough and provocative enough to merit that kind of attention. And after thinking about it at length, it still does. It's certainly one I recommend investigating for yourself.

Loveless is licensed in English by Media Blasters.

Staff and Crew:

Director: Yuu Kou
Series Composition: Yuji Kawahara
Screenplay: Yuji Kawahara
Music: Masanori Sasaji
Original Manga: Yun Kouga
Character Design: Kazunori Iwakura
Art director: Rie Ota
Chief Animation Director: Yumi Nakayama
Art Supervision: Shichiro Kobayashi
Editing: Masahiro Goto (Tabac)
Prop Design: Hideki Tachibana
Sound director: Masafumi Mima, Yuuko Seki
Theme Song Arrangement: Masayuki Sakamoto (ED), Sousaku Sasaki (OP), Takeo Kajiwara (OP), Yuki Kajiura
Theme Song Composition: Yuki Kajiura (OP/ED)
Theme Song Lyrics: Yuki Kajiura
Theme Song Performance: Kaori Hikita (ED), Reika Okina (OP)


Junko Minagawa as Aoyagi Ritsuka
Katsuyuki Konishi as Agatsuma Soubi
Jun Fukuyama as Yayoi
Kana Ueda as Hawatari Yuiko
Ken Narita as Aoyagi Seimei
Akari Higuchi as female student (ep 8)
Ami Koshimizu as Ai
Asuka Tanii as female student (ep 1, 2, 4)
Aya Hisakawa as Goddess
Emi Shinohara as Katsuko-sensei
Hiroki Takahashi as Kinka (ep 5)
Hiroyuki Yoshino as Youji
Ken Takeuchi as Kaidoh Kio
Kiyotaka Furushima as male student (ep 3)
Mamiko Noto as Shinonome Hitomi-sensei
Mayuko Takahashi as committee chairman (ep 7), friend (ep 8), Natsumi
Mitsuki Saiga as Natsuo
Motoki Takagi as Midor
Rie Kugimiya as Sakagami Kouya
Rina Satou as Female student (eps 7,8)
Sanae Kobayashi as female student (ep 1), Nagisa-sensei
Satomi Arai as female student (ep 1, 2, 4), Natsumi's Mother
Shintarou Oohata as teacher (ep 1)
Takehito Koyasu as Ritsu-sensei
Tamaki Nakanishi as female student (ep 1, 2, 4)
Tatsuhisa Suzuki as boy (ep 7), male student (ep 3), Natsumi's Father
Tsuguo Mogami as male student (ep 3), teacher (ep 1)
Wakana Yamazaki as Aoyagi Misaki
Yui Horie as Ginka
Yumi Kakazu as Nakano Yamato

So Sorry

I'm really under the guns here, and circumstances make it look as though that will be the case for a while. In brief, undergoing some medical treatments that are much more draining than I had expected -- spent a large part of yesterday falling asleep. Better today, and may do some catch-up here as the day goes on, bur right now I'm behind on everything.

(Not to worry -- prognosis is excellent.)

And for the icing on the cake, it looks like my Internet connection has stabilized. I can now count on getting on and staying on when I need to.