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My Brother’s Husband

Gengoroh Tagame
Anne Ishii
Pantheon Books
$11.99 / $24.95 digital / print

“THE BLACK SHIPS ARRIVE”

My Brother’s Husband is the recent work of Gengoroh Tagame who is best known for his homoerotic bondage stories. It is a departure from his previous work in two respects. First, it is for all intents and purposes an all ages title and secondly, it is a long form story featuring recurring characters told in serial chapters.  There is great heart and soul here and I hope this story finds its audience.

Chapter One’s title “The Black Ships Arrive” may seem like a curious, obscure, or even a nonsensical choice rather than a relevant one for Tagame to use and one which I believe is a touch stone. “Black ships” (kurofune) is the term used by the Japanese to describe the Portuguese trading ships that arrived in the islands in 1543 and the four American warships commanded by Commodore Perry whose gunboat diplomacy in 1853 signaled the end of country’s isolation from the world. Both times the ships’ presence were unsettling surprises that threatened the status quo in numerous ways.

Enter Mike Flanagan, a tall, bearish Canadian who doesn’t pose the same level threat as a demanding, ill tempered Commodore Perry but his arrival will still prove unsettling for Yaichi upon whose doorstep Mike appears. You see, Mike married Yaichi’s twin brother Ryoji who had immigrated to Canada some years ago. Sadly, Ryoji is recently deceased. Yaichi and Ryoji began drifting apart years before. Perhaps, Yaichi thinks it began when the brothers went to different colleges though memories of how they reacted differently to their parents’ unexpected deaths frequently seem to surface. Mike is as charming as Yaichi is reserved and so Mike’s attempt to fulfill a promise made to Ryoji to visit his childhood home might go nowhere as they cancel out one another. This interesting premise and Tagame’s good intentions of creating an empathetic light on Japan’s still largely closeted LGBT population avoids death through the character of Kana, Yaichi’s grade school aged daughter. Her character with all of the wide eyed innocence and unconditional love is the vehicle that propels the story forward initally thanks to a spontaneous invitation to her newly discovered uncle to stay at their home, an offer which obliges Yaichi to offer omotenashi, hospitality with Japanese sensibilities. Omotenashi is a tradition which may be traced to Sen no Rikyu and his influence on chanoyu (Way of Tea) in the late 16th century. But I digress.

Children are by nature curious and Tagame’s Kana is certainly a curious child. Tagame cleverly uses Kana’s inquisitiveness about Mike and his marrying an uncle of whom she was unaware to defuse her father’s implicit biases of which he was unaware. As Mike starts to heal from Ryoji’s death Kana becomes an unexpected tether by which Mike finds himself experiencing happiness again. Through Mike’s presence and curiosity about his marriage to his brother allows Yaichi the space to examine his past relationships with twin Ryoji, his parents, and former wife Natsuki and most importantly with Kana after she unwittingly becomes the target of a busybody mother.Through these emotions, memories, and new relationships Tagame explores the meaning of family and with enthusiastic glee has Kana in so many words proclaim a new family.

I believe the title “The Black Ships Arrive” also has another layer of significance to Tagame’s story. One which requires some greatly condensed historical background. Japan has a long history when it comes to homosexuality and other expressions of sexuality outside heterosexuality. The gross oversimplifation is that homosexuality in feudal Japan, like ancient Greece, had places where it was accepted by society unfamiliar with the concept of sin; some notable examples are Kabuki theater, sex workers, occasionally in the samurai and ruling class, and among Buddhists priests and monks. Its acceptance in society was something that greatly troubled the Catholic missionaries and priests who followed in the wake of the Portuguese to bring Christianity. This among other concerns about European intentions throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries eventually led to the expulsion of the missionaries and drastically limiting the number of Portuguese traders and the terms by which they operated. In 1635 Tokugawa Iemitsu effectively isolated the country for nearly 220 years by prohibiting Japanese from leaving the country or re-entering upon pain of death. Commodore Perry entered Edo Bay with four “black ships” in 1853 and ended the country’s isolation with gunboat diplomacy. As contact with the West increased in the following decades Japan felt pressured to remake and modernize itself and found itself appropriating some Western ideals and conventions. One such ideal was the Christian belief that homosexuality is unnatural. I have no knowledge of of the means Japan took in its efforts to distance itself from its previous acceptance but I imagine the shift was seismic, creating shame and stigma for subsequent generations of queer Japanese. Which is not to gloss over mistreatment, abuse, and laws that made the lives of queer people in America and Western countries challenging and hellish. And so it’s with this in mind that I think of Mike as a metaphorical black ship bearing hope and the portent of change that Tagame desires to foster in the hearts and minds of his fellow citizens.

On the art side there are some stylistic similarities to past work while differences in subject matter abound. Certainly there is continuity of line work. Yaichi and Mike have a restrained sex appeal here though their physiques could just as easily be at home in one of Tagame’s explicit manga. Tagame adeptly draws a range of facial expressions and gestures that at times convey cultural differences.

Anne Ishii translated the script into English. I imagine translation to be an at times difficult proposition and work that should not call attention to itself with awkward words and problematic passages. Kudos to Ishii for making every bit of dialog sound natural and believable.

Yaichi has a dream at the end of the book which I won’t spoil though I will say I interpreted it as a sign of how much Mike had changed Yaishi’s thinking. I presumed it to be the conclusion of the story and I am happy to say that I was wrong. Tagame has drawn more chapters which have been appearing in Japan’s Monthly Action Comics. I very much hope this first English volume is successful so that more English translations will follow.

My Brother’s Husband is available in print and digital formats. While your purchase of this or any item from Amazon through our affiliate link is appreciated, please also consider supporting your local comic shop or bookstore.

May 2, 2017
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