Smash Pages Q&A: Gengorah Tagame

Alex Dueben goes back to the vault to share an interview with the legendary creator from 2017 on ‘My Brother’s Husband.’

Gengoroh Tagame is a comics legend, though many fans around the world may not know his work. He has long been acclaimed and beloved for his series of gay erotic comics, something that he’s achieved more attention for in recent years here in the U.S. with the publication of The Passion of Gegoroh Tagame and other books. His most recent project is the award-winning My Brother’s Husband, which after being released in hardcover in two volumes, is available now in an oversized paperback.

The book tells the story of Yaichi, a divorced father in suburban Tokyo who is visited by the widower of his twin brother, Ryoji. Mike wants to know and understand his late husband’s family, and Yaichi’s daughter is eager to, but what follows is a thoughtful meditation on prejudice, gender, conformity and identity. It is a hopeful and moving story about family life, masterfully told by one of the great cartoonists of his generation. At one point in the interview I mentioned the late Robert Mapplethorpe, an artist who remains beloved and perhaps best known for his erotic work, but who was a great portrait photographer with a gift for capturing people. Tagame has spent his career working as an artist, but while most straight people might be able to simply say that he was a great draftsman, he’s much more than that. What has made him great is his skill at body language, at conveying subtlety, depicting hidden or buried emotion. This is a project where he is putting those skills to work in a different way, and one that will hopefully introduce him to even larger audience.

I had the opportunity to interview Tagame in 2017, when the first volume was released in North America, although the article was never published. The collected paperback edition of My Brother’s Husband comes out today from Pantheon Books, and I’m happy to show this conversation with one of the world’s great cartoonists.

Where did the idea for My Brother’s Husband first come from?

I’ve been making manga for gay readers for close to 30 years, but in 2006 I was invited to contribute to a young adult manga magazine for the first time and thought it would be interesting to do a gay manga for hetero readers. Unfortunately those plans never came to fruition, but around 2011 I started seeing that marriage equality had become a global issue. I was posting a lot about it on social media, and the response from my straight followers was overwhelmingly positive. I started to think of how gay marriage as a thematic subject might make for compelling gay manga directed at a straight audience. In 2013, Futabasha approached me to write for their young adult manga magazine, and I presented those earlier ideas I’d fomented around gay marriage equality issues. This would eventually form the basis of the plotline for My Brother’s Husband, and the editors seemed extremely interested, giving me a development schedule and everything. We started serialization the following year.

How do you describe the book? Which I ask both as a way of describing the book, but also, you’re a well-known creator and this is a very different kind of book for you, so I wonder how you talk about it.

When writing manga for an adult audience, I incorporate gay themes from my POV as a gay man. The basis of the gay thematics is me, which means I’m essentially accessing parts of my own interiority as a writer and person. With My Brother’s Husband, I’m not writing about my personal experience as a gay man but rather how society interacts with the gay community. There is no need whatsoever for me to reflect on personal tastes, much less my sexual proclivities. So there are vast differences between the two styles, both thematically and in terms of artistic expression, but I do insist that both styles are still gay manga.

How important for you was it to have a protagonist like Yaichi, who is living a non-traditional life in many ways to be the center of the story?

My Brother’s Husband is in one sense about gay marriage, but that is not to suggest to readers whatsoever that I think marriage is the ultimate goal for all people. The prejudices of traditional Japanese society don’t stop with the gay community. There are many prejudices against single parents, for example, and manifest themselves in gender bias. I wanted to point out those prejudices through the character of Yaichi, and by using gay issues as a starting point, I wanted to open up the conversation to issues surrounding our perception of the nuclear family.

Why did you decide to make Mike a Canadian?

When I first started writing this story in 2013, my story required a connection to a country with a national marriage equality law. For research purposes, I wanted this to be a country I’d been to, and if I had any questions about it, I could hopefully rely on friends from there to help. It would help that there’d be a lot of information about said country, on the Internet, in English (so I could read it). Canada fit all those requirements.

Is there a significance to the fact that Yaichi and Ryoji are twins?

Yes. Firstly, it makes for very convenient drawing because the two characters are so similar, but their resemblance is also crucial to the building Yaichi and Mike’s characters.

To what degree is the book an expression of where you see Japanese culture at this moment?

I wonder…I can’t say objectively but I hear from readers that the book was like “removing blinders.” People have also told me they’re reading it with their children or that their parents started reading it because they got into it, so the book has a sort of impact.

LGBTQ+ culture has been attacked around the globe as a foreign influence, as American, as something that never existed before American pop culture or Western ideas or whatever is being blamed suddenly “invented” it. Is this the case in Japan?

There may very well be people of this opinion, but I don’t hear them, or else they don’t stand out. There is a very long history of trans culture in Japan, for example, and historically speaking, Japan has not had laws against homosexual intercourse. There are however, a not insignificant number of Conservative Japanese politicians at the center of the current administration who claim that our idea of inalienable rights for all humans, of gender freedom or gender fluidity, are bad influences from the West. These are the same people who oppose all “liberal thought” and promulgate the idea of traditional Japanese family values, not realizing that value system itself is the product of the Meiji import of Western culture. It represents a relatively brief 150 year history in Japan. Opposition to LGBTQ culture is merely hidden under these auspices.

Do you think that pop culture has played a role in cultivating a greater acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ+ people and do you see that younger people are responding to things differently – like Kana and her friends – than adults?

I do believe that’s the case. The publication of My Brother’s Husband is part of that. If you’re writing a manga aimed at as wide an audience as possible, it would be a challenge to depict gay issues in the casual manner that mainstream manga is known for as a medium. However, as far as Kana is concerned, she is so young that I don’t think she fully understands what LGBTQ+ means.

You have a pretty massive cult following around the world and have for years, but this is a very different book for you. Knowing this do you think, I need to keep doing what I’m doing or are you always thinking about trying something new?

Ideally I continue to work in my original style and in this new style, but the fact is, gay porn manga has fewer outlets these days owing to the shrinking gay magazine market in general, and works like My Brother’s Husband, while fun for me, aren’t necessarily what general interest magazines are looking for. In my 20 plus years of working as a professional manga-ka I’ve learned that what I want to do and what I can do aren’t ever necessarily equal, so I can’t possibly know what’s next.

You’ve worked with translator Anne Ishii and designer Chip Kidd in the past and on this project. What do you like about working with them?

I hope that as professional colleagues and as personal friends, Anne, Chip and I get to continue growing together. I have nothing but respect for their professional work and they’re both cute to boot.

I wanted to ask about Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work I really love and I’m guessing you do as well. Was he a big influence on you when you were younger? What about his work did you really respond to – and continue to respond to?

I was very influenced by Robert Mapplethorpe’s work when I was in art school. In particular, the work that demonstrated fetish and BDSM motifs excited me both sexually and artistically. This sensation—the mutual possibilities of expressing sexual eroticism and artistic integrity—holds deep meaning for me in my life.

So this is volume one, which has 15 chapters. I know that you’re doing this series monthly in Japan. How long do you think the series will be and what do you want to cover and talk about in the series going forward?

The Japanese version of My Brother’s Husband will be four volumes long, and the English edition (which collates two volumes to one), will be two volumes total. The latter half of this story will address the definition of family vis-a-vis gay identity in society at large. I hope my readers enjoy it!

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