If you’ve been around for a while like I have, you are very familiar with the concept of BL as the umbrella term for all things concerning man/man romance in the Asian realm.
Curiously, the BL phenomenon, which has its origins mainly in Japan, really took off and lost its status of underground art when Thailand took it under its wings a few years ago and began to release BL as TV series. One after another, Thai BL novels were adapted to TV until they burst the underground bubble I used to live in to become a truly international sensation. Others have tried, but it was Thailand that has kick-started the world of BL series as we see it today, and this is undeniable.
Thailand, however, is just the tip of the iceberg, and my collection of more than 200 yaoi mangas (Japanese graphic novels) is here to prove it. So it was such a delight when Japan seemed to wake up from its deep slumber to release BL series again. In honour of where it all actually began, here is my TOP 5 Japanese BL series:
1) Old Fashion Cupcake
What happens when you are almost 40 years old and realise that your life has followed the same old routine every single day? Nozue-san wonders about it. Although his life has been pretty satisfying until that point, he can’t help feeling that there should be something more to it. That’s when Togaway, who is ten years younger, comes along. Togaway is Nozue-san’s assistant, and it is clear from the get-go that he’s always been in love with Nozue. One day, when Nozue and Togaway have a heart-to-heart conversation about how predictable life seems to be, Togaway challenges Nozue to try different things. The proposal is to feel like they are young girls bursting with joy! So they began doing things they believe girls would love doing, such as taking pictures together and going to sweet shops and cafés. Pretty soon, Nozue falls for Togaway, but there are obstacles ahead of them.
Old Fashion Cupcake is by far one of my favourite BL series released in 2022. The story follows the manga almost to a T, which is quite rare for adaptations. Brownie points for bringing us more mature characters instead of coming-of-age high-schoolers (nothing wrong with it, it’s just that these are the norm) or university students who just happen to be gay for a particular character. Old Fashion Cupcake is a refreshing story in a sea of sameness. Takeda Kouhei as Nozue and Kimura Tatsunari as Togawa embrace their characters’ personalities and needs perfectly. The slow-paced and sizzling attraction keeps you on your toes all the way to the end. But what really makes it all the more special is their kissing scene. It is one of the most beautiful and heartfelt kissing scenes in a BL, and for me that makes it all the more ground-breaking and significant.
2) The Novelist (aka Pornographer) and Mood Indigo
I have so many feelings about Mood Indigo and The Novelist. First things first, though. They are both based on the mangas of the same name, and even though you don’t have to watch one to understand the other, they are somewhat connected. The Novelist tells the story of a porn novelist named Kijima who one day gets hit by a bicycle on the street as he’s returning home and breaks his arm. The one who causes the accident is Haruhiko, a university student. Since Haruhiko has no money to pay for damages, Kijima makes him transcribe the story he is writing. To Haruhiko’s surprise, the stories Kijima writes are all pornographic. It is hilarious to hear Kijima narrating the filthiest things to Haruhiko as if he’s talking about the weather. Haruhiko is intrigued, then horny, then jealous of Kijima’s editor Kido whose relationship with Kijima is ambiguous. Eventually, Haruhiko gives in to his desires for Kijima in what is a very steamy scene for a BL adaptation. But Kijima hides a secret that can destroy their already frail relationship.
Mood Indigo is The Novelist’s prequel, and it is superb. In fact, Mood Indigo could grasp the subtleties and poetic license of the manga even better than The Novelist. This is where we find out how Kijima went from being a prize-winning novelist to writing erotic novels. This is also where we learn that Kijima and Kido, Kijima’s editor, knew each other since college. Kido is reunited with Kijima at a teacher’s funeral. When he realises Kijima is having self-doubts about his talent as a writer, Kido invites him to write pornography. It is the sparkle needed for both men to embark on a journey of self-discovery and eroticism. Although it has one of the steamiest scenes in a BL series – almost pornographic – it is also heartbreaking. Both men are broken and attracted to each other’s sufferings and scars. Obviously, it doesn’t end in sunshine and rainbows. It does help to know that Kijima eventually found love in another man, though.
Rating- ☆☆☆☆☆ to both stories.
3) Life – Love on the Line
Nishi and Ito couldn’t be more different. Yet, serious Ito is completely drawn by Nishi’s naivety and rich imagination. One day as they are going to school, their paths cross as they realise they have been following the same white line on the sidewalk. This line is just as crucial to the story as the characters themselves. It is what connects them and eventually will break them apart. A little bit of the magic realism of the manga was incorporated into the series. As Ito and Nishi grow older, their differences finally began to weigh on their relationship. While Nishi keeps his boyish wonder about the world, Ito only sees life as a burden, a place where he must do what society tells him to. Their breakup is one of my top 10 ugly sobbing moments. It takes time for them to find each other again as their lines on the ground diverge. In the end, Ito realises Nishi was his life, love prevails, and they spend the rest of their lives together.
Life – Love on the Line brings us a taste of real life that we don’t always encounter in BL. It’s as endearing as it is bittersweet. And perhaps because I am also growing older, I am getting more and more into mature content rather than the usual high school/college drama. Personally, I prefer the manga. The manga is a masterpiece. But the live action is not too far behind.
4) Senpai, This can’t be Love!
Another fluffy office romance! They are becoming my favourite. Thank goodness the world of yaoi manga is full of them. Go, Japan, go!
Yanase is a CG designer who is in charge of training newbie Kaneda. Problem is that Kaneda treats him very coldly, almost as if he has a real beef with Yanase. You are left wondering what the deal with Kaneda is until we follow Kaneda home and discover that he is actually a huge fan of Yanase’s work. Unfortunately, Kaneda doesn’t know how to act in front of Yanase, which leads Yanase to think Kaneda hates him when it is quite the opposite. The moment Yanase figures out that Kaneda is just shy and truly admires him, things change. Yanase begins to fall for Kaneda. Kaneda starts to wonder if what he feels is just boyish admiration or actual love.
I am quite invested in the story. It hasn’t even finished yet, but I’m here for it. The actors are wonderful. I just love Naito Shuichiro as Yanase so much. I can see this kid going places.
5) Kieta Hatsukoi (My Love Mix-Up)
Kieta Hatsukoi is exactly what the title in English implies. It is a complete love mix-up. Aoki is a cute energetic kid with a huge crush on the girl who sits next to him, Hashimoto. One day, he borrows Hashimoto’s eraser without realising she wrote the name of her own crush on it: Ida. Ida sees the eraser with Aoki, looks at his name on it, and thinks the one who likes him is Aoki. In a rational world, Aoki should just clear up the misunderstanding, right? That’s not what he does, though. He takes the fall in order to protect Hashimoto, confessing feelings he actually doesn’t have for Ida. This takes Ida completely by surprise, and he sees himself more and more interested in Aoki as time goes by. Aoki also begins to have real feelings for Ida as they spend more time together. And that’s their love mix-up.
The whole story is hilarious and over-the-top just like a manga, with some exaggerated acting here and there followed by a more dramatic take. This is what I like about Japanese BL in fact. They tend to follow the manga closely, which pleases me a lot as I am a fan of manga scripts. The only thing missing in Kieta Hatsukoi is a kiss… This is my personal take, but if I am watching a romantic series or film that are not set in Jane Austen’s period, I expect at least a kiss. But the storyline is so cute and fluffy that I let it slide.
And that’s my list for now. Japan is slowly catching up to the game, but it is undeniable that they have far more history and experience in the BL world. I hope they release more titles in the future. I am definitely looking forward to seeing more mangas adaptations coming our way, particularly because Japan has a more mature take on storytelling.