Ah, BL, the central tenant of female otaku fandom. The proud, slashy tradition of squeeing over male-male love has seeped into the anime mainstream — shonen doesn’t seem to be made for guys anymore, Gundam has had to separate its fangirl friendly continuity from its die-hard one, and there are even guys in Idolmaster now. For original BL work, there seems to be no stopping the genre on either of the Atlantic, and the trend of “real gay” stories seem to be infusing the genre with artistic merit. But regardless of how popular BL has gotten…isn’t it kind of odd? How does a genre like this get started?
Well, BL year zero was 1970, when Keiko Takemiya came out with the one-shot In the Sunroom. Sometime in 1971, she showed her flatmate/ similarly esteemed shoujo mangaka Moto Hagio the French film Les Amitiés Particulières. Hagio came out with the one-shot November Gymnasium that same year. The floodgates opened when Hagio came out with the three volume Heart of Thomas in 1974 and with Takemiya’s seventeen-volume-long epic The Song of the Wind and the Trees in 1976. I can’t make any assumptions about In the Sunroom, because no information about it exists in English, but the latter three share similar settings — all-male European boarding schools, just like in Les Amités. Not only that, but the multi-volumed works and the movie share tragic plot points, such as suicide and sexual abuse. Clearly, without this movie, BL would not exist. With this in mind, I felt it my duty to investigate further.
Les Amitiés Particulières came out in 1964, and is based off of a novel, which was a thinly disguised autobiography of the author’s experiences. It takes place around the early 1900s in a Catholic, all-boy’s boarding school. If you haven’t guessed already, the story revolves around “special friendships” the boys have with each other. At it’s heart, the film is a pure love story, with the boys focusing on love letters and finding secret places to meet up with each other than sex — the two mains don’t even kiss once. Given the specter of religion over the story, though, you can bet that things don’t end well.
There are two things I feel I have to point out. One, the movie treats its subject realistically. It never feels like the film makers are exploiting the idea of a gay romance, or being voyeuristic about it. While the movie has its cute moments, the romance part is overshadowed by how restrictive religion is regarding love and homosexuality. Even though most characters in the film act gay, there is the very real threat of being kicked out of the school in being outed, and a few are kicked out over the course of the film. Two, the second half of the lead couple is a pre-pubescent boy, which I was not expecting, and filled me with squick. While his age was a good way to convey several ideas — that youth are capable of making their own decisions when it comes to love, the beauty of man, etc — it was still pretty creepy.
The most obvious way Les Amitiés influenced early BL was through the sheer beauty of the setting. There’s androgynous, well-behaved pretty boys, ridiculously elegant buildings, and even beautiful language. It was as otherworldly in the 70’s as it is today, and lent itself well to shoujo settings and art styles from that time. Pluck out the too-realistic elements (religion, people getting punished for being gay, self-conflict over being gay), and you’ve got a good escapist setting for a love story. The works I mentioned even keep the cultured air the film has by making references to literature, music, and poems I had to google to understand.
So even though by ’76, there was several types of BL out at that time, such as gag comedies and action series (I have no idea how that stuff got started), it was the inspiration that Takemiya and Hagio got from Les Amitiés that really gave the genre that initial push. If you like Heart of Thomas or The Song of the Wind and the Trees, I definitely recommend it, as all three have the same feel to them.