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      Inside the Taboo-Filled Mind of Japan's Best BDSM Manga Artist

      By Kaz Senju

      March 6, 2016

      Gengoro Tagame makes gay manga, and it's some of the best out there. His stories often involve characters in homoerotic settings or participating in BDSM scenes where the macho main character is transformed into a sub and finds his true calling in chains or fetish-gear. Tagame is not afraid of touchy subjects and taboos, writing stories featuring Nazi prisoners, bestiality, incest, scat, permanent body modification and Japanese WWII soldiers captured and tortured by Chinese liberation groups. Yet, his manga goes beyond illustrated fan fiction or quick masturbation fodder, and often feels more like it's depicting a quest for an existence beyond pain.

      Tagame realized his own BDSM fetish when he was a child. After watching the scene inPlanet of the Apes where Charles Heston is dragged by a leather collar, he felt an indescribable sensation inside him, leading the artist into further research about S&M. While studying art in college in the 80s, he started publishing queer illustrations under a pen name, and continued writing erotic stories throughout his twenties while supporting himself with a job as a graphic designer. Over the next 30 years, he published more than 20 books in four languages in addition to selling hundreds of fine art prints and illustrations. Today, at 51-years-old, the illustrator continues to expand his creative horizons, and recently serialized a queer story called My Brother's Husband in Monthly Action Comics, an otherwise-hetero magazine. The manga was then collated into a book with the same title, which is now in its fifth printing due to overwhelming popularity.

      One of Tagame's most notorious stories is Shirogane no Hana (Silver Flower), a historical drama set at the start of the 20th-century about a spoiled son who's turned into a sex worker before exploring his own passion for S&M. The epic, three-volume story totals 900 pages—the 1Q84 of niche, queer manga. His latest, My Brother's Husband shares the same focus on identity, despite the text being young adult-friendly and safe for work, unlike his most famous work. Both stories affirm that we should be proud of who or what we love no matter how different or extreme it may appear to be.

      This past November, My Brother's Husband received the Excellence Award from the Japan Media Arts Festival by the Agency of Cultural Affairs, one of the highest recognitions in Japanese pop culture. VICE spoke with Tagame about his life and what it means to be a queer artist in Japan.

      VICE: When did you first begin to understand your own sexuality?
      Gengoro Tagame: Naked and bound men have excited me since I was in elementary school. I remember getting excited watching Italian Hercules movies and Hollywood science fiction films like the original Planet of the Apes. I liked the scene where Charlton Heston was ordered to take his stinky human clothes off in front of the ape's assembly, then dragged by a leather collar.

      Later, I found a copy of SABU [a queer Japanese magazine] at a bookstore when I was in middle school. I got excited reading any S&M stories, including heterosexual ones, as long as the men in the stories got abused. In contrast, I was not turned on by love stories where two men make love to each other. I was confused about my sexuality, both about being gay, as well as being into S&M.

      By high school, I started to question why I couldn't be honest with myself. I realized I didn't have to suffer while hiding my true emotions if I was up front about my sexuality from the very beginning. This led to me coming out during my freshman year of college.

      How did you start submitting work to gay publications?
      I started to submit my work during my college years under different identities. All of the work was based on BDSM; dark stories, incest, sons murdering fathers, a high school student turning a teacher into his slave, abduction, confinement, and so on... Some were just stories and others were illustrations and manga.

      During this same period, I had my first trip to Europe and discovered the American hardcore S&M gay magazine DRUMMER. It featured a drawing by Bill Ward, who made a strong impression on my art. Bill had an exceptional quality beyond what I found in Japanese gay art at that time. American magazines also featured masculine gay men and guys with beards—which was unheard of in Japan. With that influence, I developed KUMA-KEI, or a "bear type," in the Japanese magazines I was contributing to.

      Then, when I was working on the magazine G-Men, I made an effort to change the status quo of gay magazines. I wanted a strong emphasis on machismo, and also to make it scary, have no text on the cover, no smiles, and include bearded, tough-looking guys.

      Tagame, photographed by the author

      You've been creating erotic art for decades. What is it about erotic and pornographic work that keeps you interested?
      Since college, I've been especially interested in religious art. I am not a Christian, but I'm moved by Christian art as well as Tibetan Buddhist art. Religious painters do not draw to express themselves. Rather, the act of creation is the highest form of respect, creating a symbol of their belief. That emotional strength [created by religious art] comes from purity. I believe pornographic art has the same characteristic. Porn is a search for the perfect erotic expression. It's not necessarily self-assertiveness, nor a status symbol, but uncontrollable desires. Pursuing such pure pleasure is less complicated. In such pursuits, pornographic art is pure, fine art. My goal is beyond manga or porn, but to aim for the level of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

      Cover for his new manga series 'My Brother's Husband' by Futaba Publishing Ltd.

      Your newest series "My Brother's Husband" is a big hit in Japan. Tell us what made you decide to publish your gay story in a non-gay manga.
      A publisher approached me and was very supportive, so the project took off quickly. At the time, gay marriage was becoming a worldwide trend, but in Japan gays are still invisible to society and the gay rights movement does not resonate with many. Manga is a part of pop culture and may be an interesting tool to spread gay rights issues to larger audiences, so I came up with a plot where the main character is heterosexual but his twin brother is gay and married to a man. This set up was easier for straight people to accept.

      Do you expect Japan to change its attitude towards homosexuality in the future?
      Same sex marriage is moving fast and I cannot predict what will happen next in Japan. There was no term "same sex marriage" when I started to write this latest manga, but now the SHIBUYA district in Tokyo passed "partnership recognition" and the SETAGAYA district passed a same-sex marriage bill . Reality is moving faster than the pace of my manga.

      However, I don't think there are any good role models in Japanese gay society. I wrote My Brother's Husband with my known identity, hoping that sends the right message. I'm a gay artist and I don't have to hide my identity to make a manga for straight people. I'm hoping younger gay artists can see there are options here.

      For more info about Gengoro Tagame's, visit his website here.

      Follow Kaz on Instagram.

      Topics: sex, manga, japan, tokyo, lgbtq, lgbt, VICE US, queer, queer manga, japanese art, bdsm, fetish, bdsm manga, hentai, art, gengoro tagame, tagame anime, anime, manga artists, LGBTQ

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