Mike’s husband, Ryoji, died several months ago. Now, to help him cope with the grief, Mike travels to Ryoji’s homeland of Japan to meet with Ryoji’s estranged family. In Japan, Mike meets Yaichi and Kana, Ryoji’s twin brother and his young daughter. From the moment Mike arrives, Yaichi’s biases against gays filter through. It is through his daughter’s unassuming innocence that Yaichi is compelled to extend the same hospitality to Mike that he would have extended to any heterosexual guest.
The longer Mike stays with Yaichi and Kana, the more Yaichi learns how little he knew his now-deceased brother. The soul-searching isn’t limited to the way he and his sibling drifted apart, either. Kana’s unassuming questions and expectations with regard to how she and her father interact with Mike end up forcing Yaichi to not just grudgingly accommodate Mike, but to recognize his prejudices for what they are and reevaluate what it means to be gay. Yaichi is also learning that, as a parent, he may have to explain and defend a lifestyle he never gave much thought to.
This is a graphic novel (or “manga” for the Japanophiles out there) that has been written by a gay Japanese manga-ka (that’s the word for a comic book artist) and translated into English. To which I feel obligated to disclose: I am a Japanese/English interpreter/translator myself. I love reading Japanese comics, I lived in Japan for almost a decade, and I am no stranger to certain subcultural phenomenon—namely “yaoi” (which is the Japanese term for what Americans generally call “slash”).
First, the physical presentation. Pantheon kindly provided a dead-tree copy of the comic and I was tickled that they retained the traditional layout of reading right to left. This is the kind of stuff I totally dig because what is the point of retaining this Japanese convention when publishing the work for an American audience? Whatever the reason, they chose to stick with the Japanese right to left format and even included a note so readers didn’t inadvertently start at the end. In fact, the only improvement the presentation might benefit from is giving credit to Anne Ishi, the translator, on one of the covers and including a bio. The English-speaking audience wouldn’t be enjoying Tagame’s work if not for her (or another translator’s) efforts.
Second, since this is a graphic novel, let’s talk about the aesthetics. Unlike the long, lean figures slender and graceful as are typical in the yaoi genre, Tagame’s style is what I imagine would appeal to actual gay men. Mike and Yaichi are beefy—the former more in a couch-potato way and the latter in a more gym-rat way. Both characters get displayed in non-sexual environments that allow the reader to enjoy their physical attributes (i.e. getting into/out of the bath, dressing, gym etc). The way frames are set also makes me believe Tagame is trying to appeal to gay men—shots including hairy chests, hairy legs, hairy armpits (and the flaps inform us that Tagame is, himself, a gay man). Well, let me expound on that…Mike, who is caucasian, is a bear. Yaichi is relatively hairless. I find this interesting since the whole theme of the book is about overcoming prejudice—but here, the aesthetic seems to reinforce stereotypes (Westerners are hairy and Japanese are not).
Moving onto the content of the story, I must also inform potential readers of another facet of Japanese comic book conventions: volumes (like My Brother’s Husband) are usually collections of several weeks’ or several months’ worth of chapters that get released in weekly (or monthly) publications. What this means for this comic is that when you get to the end, there is no traditional resolution because the threads continue into the next volume. My Brother’s Husband contains 14 chapters and when I finished the 1voume, I didn’t feel like the entire series was anywhere near a resolution, but I felt pretty satisfied with Yaichi’s development.
On the other hand, I was sort of disappointed with Mike. Don’t get me wrong, he does a great job of serving as a foil to Yaichi’s prejudices, but I didn’t feel like he did much beyond that. Personally, I felt this sort of blandness is reflected in the character’s appearance as well. With rare exception, he only seems to have one expression—blandly happy. He seems to be blandly polite in interacting with Kana and Yaichi, too.
Overall, the centerpiece of the story seems to rest with the changes in the relationship between Kana and Yaichi and Yaichi’s personal growth as he learns to accept Mike. These changes obviously include Yaichi figuring out how to respond to Kana’s questions about Mike being married to Yaichi’s brother—and again, to be completely frank, these changes in Yaichi are bit undermined by the fact that it seems like he tempers his “gut reaction” based solely on the fact that Mike is often there when Kana asks. Apart from the still under-the-radar gay culture, Tagame also brings up divorce and child-rearing in Japan with Yaichi being a divorced single parent.
What I found sort of at odds was this presentation of Japan as being a society that still does not accept people who are not cis-gendered. Clearly, Tagame’s experiences and my own are wildly different, but there is gay culture in Japan (Shinjuku 2-chome) and there are gay and transgender people on TV (albeit relegated to novelty status? Yet, when they’re in their prime, they are splashed around prime time TV without any problem…this includes Ai Haruna, Ikko, Kaba.chan… Haruna and Ikko are actually transgender; I think Kaba.chan is gay). Whether or not this means wide acceptance, I can’t say, but the fact that they were (and maybe still are?) popular TV personalities seems to indicate there is at least acknowledgement.
Short story long…this is a personal tale that focuses not on big drama, but the little slices of life that we all encounter. It’s not really a romance, though some of the scenes have me wondering if Yaichi could turn out to be attracted to men much later in the story. The title character (Mike, the husband in “my brother’s husband”) figures into the story more as a foil for Yaichi and his family, but he might end up being more engaging in later installments. All in all, not a bad introduction to Japanese comics.
NOW! A note about TRANSLATION STUFF! Clearly, this comic was written in Japanese for a Japanese audience. Translating it into English (any language, really) obviously presents interesting challenges. The one thing I was most hung up on is how much were Yaichi/Kana and Mike communicating in Japanese versus English. This, to me, is potentially huge for my view of Mike as a character. He seems sort of aloof in his smilingly bland way… but if he’s actually engaging with Yaichi and Kana in Japanese, then it might simply be a limitation of his language skills rather than him actually being aloof. Sadly, I didn’t think it was very clear what language they were communicating in, but again, it’s not like Tagame necessarily wrote this comic with the idea with would be translated and it’s not like Ishi (as the translator) is necessarily at liberty to make changes to the text to indicate when the characters are speaking one language or another.
These are the kinds of things I think about constantly at work and, now, when I read works translated from Japanese to English. Fun! And, just extra trivia here, Ryoji is the YOUNGER twin. This is made clear in the original Japanese title, but English, unfortunately, has no elegant way of distinguishing birth order without saying “my younger brother’s husband,” which is just wonky, even if more puristically accurate.