Gengoroh Tagame’s second installment in his manga series My Brother’s Husband continues the story of Yaichi, a Japanese single dad, who is visited by his dead brother’s Canadian husband, Mike. What follows is a revelation for the close-minded Yaichi. After watching his daughter, Kana, instantly bond with the burly, lovable Mike, Yaichi starts to reconsider his own views. In his Eisner Award–winning work, Tagame’s illustrations animate everything from a character’s sudden realization to a family outing for ramen. We talk with the Tokyo-born author and artist about marriage equality, the art of manga, and James Baldwin.
What made you want to tell a story of a “hulking, affable Canadian” who comes to visit his dead husband’s twin and niece in Japan?
I was inspired to write a story that would incorporate themes of marriage equality when it was making global news (several years ago). At the same time, a general-audience manga magazine happened to offer me work, so I got to thinking, I could write an entertaining manga aimed at straight readers that still incorporated gay themes; a gay marriage story would be a totally new kind of work that would appeal not just to me, but to the Japanese manga industry.
So then I started thinking about how I could make a straight audience more personally invested in a story about marriage equality, and I thought, nothing could be more personal to a straight person than having a family member marry someone of the same gender. By staging a marriage with a family member of a straight character, I wanted the straight character to realize marriage equality doesn’t just affect gay or lesbian couples (i.e., the special circumstances by which marriage “equality” is defined), but that it’s an issue that affects all of society, including straight people. And then because same-sex marriage is not possible in Japan, the character marrying into the family necessarily had to identify by a different nationality where gay marriage was legal. Taking all of this into consideration, along with some other factors, I ended up making Mike a Canadian.
Why do you think manga lends itself so well to portraying nuanced emotions?
Manga is a format that incorporates text and images at the same time. Logical thoughts or feelings that can easily be expressed in words can be efficiently expressed through text. Complicated feelings that can’t be rendered into simple words can be expressed as a matter of fact through visual imagery (provided you have the artistic skills, of course). For that reason, I pay particular attention to the details of my characters’ moods. It’s also important that a manga story flows, frame by frame, and balancing the relationship from one frame to the next is crucial (this is called “komawari” or frame-division). You can calibrate the tempo of the story and movements of the characters through effective arrangement, and I find the simultaneous possibilities for manga composition and the complexity of the structure of this medium to be incredibly interesting, personally.
The visit to the onsen, or hot springs, is magical. Does manga give you a chance to portray some of your favorite aspects of Japanese culture?
Let’s just say manga is a very versatile medium for depicting all kinds of motifs. LOL
Who are some of your favorite LGBTQ writers?
As far as artists, Jean Cocteau, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Tom of Finland all come immediately to mind. It’s a little harder for me to identify writers because, first of all, there are few writers in Japan who publicly identify as LGBTQ, and I feel like even of those writers, none of them are writing explicit LGBTQ thematics. What’s more, foreign LGBTQ authors or works are not frequently translated into Japanese, and what I have read of translated LGBTQ writing is limited. For example, I remember avidly reading Another Country by James Baldwin when I was 17, loving it, but the only other book by him I’ve read since is Giovanni’s Room, so I can tell you Another Country is a novel I really like, but I can’t say I like James Baldwin as an author based solely on two books.
Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.