manga bookshelf

Roundtable: Gerard & Jacques

Fumi Yoshinaga’s Gerard & Jacques is a two-volume boys’ love manga that tells the story of Jacques, a young aristocrat swept into a new, terrifying world following the death of his father, and Gerard, the unlikely man who eventually becomes his new family.

Published in English by BLU Manga (Tokyopop’s BL imprint) Gerard & Jacques was recommended highly to me when I first began reading yaoi, but I’ll admit I had some difficulty with it my first time around, due to some specific content in the manga’s opening chapter which kept me from enjoying it at all at the time.

When I began to make plans for this special week of Yoshinaga, I decided to give Gerard & Jacques another try. I was also interested to hear what some of my favorite critics (and BL fans) thought of the work, so I invited a few of them along for the ride.

Joining me in discussion are Michelle Smith (Soliloquy in Blue), Danielle Leigh (Comics Should Be Good), Eva Volin (Good Comics For Kids), Robin Brenner (No Flying, No Tights), and David Welsh (The Manga Curmudgeon).

MELINDA: Re-reading Gerard & Jacques, I’m struck by how much is crammed into just two volumes and how remarkably believable the relationships are that Yoshinaga has created in such a short time. But before we get into all that, let’s begin with the element that was my greatest obstacle to enjoying this story–the initial non-consensual sexual encounter between the two main characters.

As much as I love Yoshinaga’s work, this scene in which Gerard, a well-heeled novelist, takes by force the young boy, Jacques (who has been sold into prostitution as repayment for his aristocrat father’s debts) was not something I could like or even really tolerate. In fact, this is exactly the type of thing that would usually be a deal-breaker for me in any romantic manga, and had I not already known and liked the author, I doubt I would have continued with it. What were your reactions to the story’s first chapter?

MICHELLE: Though this was my first time reading Gerard & Jacques, I already knew how the story would begin and so was expecting it. I wasn’t expecting the conversation they have while this is going on, though, which I think elevates the scene beyond your typical nonconsensual encounter. I think my main reaction, without yet knowing what followed, was to wonder how on earth Jacques would end up falling in love with Gerard and to ponder what Gerard’s motivations were in bedding and then freeing his unwilling partner. Humiliating a member of the aristocracy certainly seems to figure in, but was it also an attempt to challenge Jacques’ pride? I don’t want to ascribe philanthropic motives to what Gerard did, but it’s interesting to ponder whether, afterwards, he intended the experience to be something that would spur Jacques to get out and labor like a commoner.

DAVID: I admit to being disappointed. Yoshinaga was the first Japanese creator I’d ever seen feature a character who self-identified as gay (in Antique Bakery), so I think I had a different set of expectations for her yaoi work. And I freely admit that I had a bunch of incorrect expectations of the yaoi category in general. This was before I really grasped the distinction between gay manga and romance manga featuring two ostensibly male protagonists. (And it isn’t like we’re inundated with licensed gay manga.) But really, Yoshinaga’s work was about as close as we seemed likely to get, so for her to indulge in the rape-as-precursor-to-romance was really, really irritating. It was like, “Oh, Fumi, not you too…”

DANIELLE: I’ve very vocal about my love for Yoshinaga but I continually struggle with depictions of non-consensual sex or rape in yaoi. I honestly don’t feel more put out by Yoshinaga using that trope than anyone else I read since any instance of it will bother me and force me to examine both myself and the genre as a whole (And what I’m examining is the odd and perhaps hypocritical balancing act I try to do when I’m reading works that constantly make me wonder how can I like something so much that so often pains me versus the relative enjoyment I get out of reading the genre).

However, I would follow up on Michelle’s insightful analysis of Gerard’s motivations in that scene to note that for me this isn’t a scene of “rape-as-precursor” to romance because that isn’t what follows at all, at least in my mind. In fact, what is more problematic for me might be Gerard becoming a father-figure to Jacques as precursor to romance.

EVA: As Melinda knows, I’ve read a lot of romance novels — not romance manga, although I’ve read plenty of those, too — and I was reading those novels back in the 1980s and early 1990s, when I was in high school and college. (Back then, books for teens consisted of Robert Cormier-style angst or Lois Duncan-style thrillers. Since I wasn’t interested in either of those genres, I jumped straight to Harlequin Romances.)

Now, back then, the sub-genre du jour was rape fantasies, much like Navy Seals and paranormals are in vogue today. The hero, who is known to be a gentle lover, is asked to break in the unwilling virgin. The virgin says things to anger the hero who, despite his fury, still tries to make the experience good for the freshman whore. The whore doesn’t thank him for it. So, for me, the first chapter of Gerard & Jacques is just a better written example of an opening scene I’ve read a million times before.

As Michelle says, the conversation between the characters raises this scene to another level. I would add that it’s also the art. The reader is expected to look, really look, at the drawings. If he doesn’t, the reader will miss the furrowing of Gerard’s brow when Jacques insults him one too many times, and two panels later, still wordlessly, Jacques eyes widen as he realizes he’s maybe gone too far. This precise storytelling, to me, is what makes Yoshinaga’s work, even when the subject is distasteful, worth reading.

DAVID: Oh, I’d never deny that Yoshinaga presents this with a great deal more grace than anyone has a right to expect. But there are some tropes that will just never work for me. It’s like a conceptualized production of Taming of the Shrew. The effort is impressive and the thinking astute, but the core is still gross to me.

ROBIN: I admit to having multiple reactions at once to the opening nonconsensual sex scene. To the general trope, I very much had David’s “Oh, not you too!” reaction — I’ve never been a fan of noncon sexual encounters within romances, and this scene bothered me no less because it was a Yoshinaga book. I know its a standard plot device in both yaoi manga and in romance novels (as Eva explains), but I still try to avoid it in my reading. I kept reading this series because it was Yoshinaga, and I bet on the fact that this story would not progress in the usual manner.

However, there is a large part of me that accepts the encounter, and Jacques’s youth, as part of the setting and period. If we’re assuming this is pre-Revolution France, then we’re look at the late 1700s. I had the impression when I first read this book that one was considered an adult, with adult responsibilities and duties, far earlier than what we would consider normal today. I did a bit of research to find out if this was actually true, and I discovered, in essence, yes, one was considered an adult quite a bit earlier than today’s more standard 18 or 21. In the late 1700s, age of consent was 11 years old. Girls were considered ready to marry and start families by 11, and 16 is the age when men were considered adults by the 1790s census in the US. Not only that, people were expected to be adults by this age — there was no sense of a idealized, romanticized childhood that we maintain today (that all cropped up in the Victorian era, if I recall correctly.)

Does this mean it’s still not a bit squicky from a modern perspective? No. But it does give the story context, and I can’t read it without that historical note floating in the back of my mind. Jacques in this story is not necessarily the innocent teenager we might presume him to be were this a modern story, and I am able to accept the whole premise of this beginning more easily precisely because it’s period.

As everyone has said, the entire conversation at the beginning marks this scene as a far different work than the usual yaoi. We’re not being told to expect that this encounter is romantic. It’s many things: a lesson, a tease, a show of power, and a demonstration of class. We are not asked to believe that it is an expression of love. That’s when I get annoyed at yaoi, and Yoshinaga sidesteps that cliche neatly here.

This also leads me to consider the further point about rape leading to a father figure for Jacques. I actually don’t really see this relationship as a father relationship (especially as it seems that Jacques’s father was no peach.) I see it more as a mentor relationship, but as it starts sexually and continues with that undercurrent, I don’t really feel that it’s right to call it a father-son sort of relationship. Older friend and impressionable youth, perhaps, but I never really got a creepy incestuous vibe (and goodness knows it’s not like those are unexpected in yaoi, unfortunately.)

I totally see where you’re coming from, David. The Taming of the Shrew comparison is very apt — I too find that play difficult toenjoy precisely because the core idea is difficult. Now I’m debating in my head whether Gerard and Jacques is the yaoi manga version of 10 Things I Hate About You for me, fixing all the problems with the original premise to make the story enjoyable. (And wow, that’s a comparison I wasn’t expecting to make tonight!)

I’ve found the one Yoshinaga title I found more problematic is Solfege because the age/power difference was off-putting to me. This is why I am pushed to examine why I forgive Gerard & Jacques. Partly it’s the period, as I said, and partly it is the direction that twists the reader away from expectations. It’s also that the bursts of comedy that punctuate the story lend the whole tale a layer of fantasy goofiness. I do feel that in the end, Gerard & Jacques never presents their initial relationship as a romance, and that’s what saves it for me.

DAVID: I think it ends up being more of a mentorship relationship than parent-child, which is one of the things that compensates for the opening. I see it as a young man who wants to live in the world on his own terms hoping to learn from an older man who’s already there. That rings very true for me.

DANIELLE: Well, interestingly I think their relationship ends up being a strange mix of a mentorship and a child and parent one. Actually, I’m a little surprised about the response to my interpretation — Yoshinaga explicitly makes the connection no less than three times that Gerard thinks of Jacques as his own child. He actually states that he loved Jacques as he would his his own child the first time they make love as equals (although he says this in order to compare it to the romantic love he has developed for him), when drunk he tells Jacques that he’ll love him more than his mother or father ever did (as he’s feeling him up…hence my feeling conflicted about this relationship), he once is startled by Jacques looking entirely too much like his dead “daughter” when Jacques is sleeping peacefully. And there’s no doubt that he is constantly haunted by Jacques’ obviously similarity — not only in looks but in biological backstory — to the girl he lost.

So, I think the reason this is difficult for me is because the first real affection that surfaces between the two of them isn’t sexual (i.e. there’s no love in the rape scene) but clearly an (adopted) familial bond that does evolve into romantic love (but this happens much more quickly for Jacques, which makes sense because Gerard will always be remembered as the person who initiated him into the world of sexuality).

MELINDA: Though it doesn’t bother me, I do agree with Danielle that Yoshinaga makes the point repeatedly throughout the story that Gerard thinks of Jacques as his own child. Gerard even says these exact words, “I loved you like my own child.” I think the reason it doesn’t bother me in the story is that Jacques is the first to really make the shift from that relationship to something different, and he does so as an adult, so the situation lacks the kind of abuse of power one might typically find in either a parent/child or teacher/student relationship.

I’m with David otherwise, however. Though I’m certain its true that the first encounter between Gerard and Jacques is likely true to the period, it’s difficult for me to accept a man raping a young boy (for however different the accepted age of consent may have been in those days, it’s still a grown man using both his position and his superior physical strength to force someone much younger and smaller into sex) as something presented for my entertainment and titillation. I’m not comfortable with it, and I doubt I ever will be. It’s not a trope I can enjoy.

It’s difficult, then, for me to root for the relationship when it has begun in this way, because at least one of the parties involved has done something I find really abhorrent. It is perhaps made even worse in this case, since Gerard is portrayed as someone who has probably done this quite often before. Also, I’m always uncomfortable with stories that conflate homosexuality with pedophilia, and though Jacques’ age here is uncertain, this comes a bit too close for my liking.

All that said, it’s fairly remarkable that the story Yoshinaga weaves out of this beginning has honestly engaged me, at least this time around. On my first read, I was so distracted by the way the story began, I couldn’t enjoy much of what came after, but knowing what I was getting into on my second read, I was able to really appreciate how well she develops both characters and their relationship over the course of the story.

For those of you who began as I did, was there a particular turning point for you?

MICHELLE: I don’t think I began disliking the first chapter as much as you did, but I think I thawed just a little toward Gerard with the library scene, even though I don’t understand why he belittled Jacques so much at first—seeing him more as an aristocrat than his own person, perhaps? From there, the story gets a little more funny, Jacques proceeds to grow up quite a lot, and we learn more about how Gerard’s heart got so twisted. What I like is that Yoshinaga doesn’t use this backstory as an attempt to excuse Gerard’s actions with the boys at the brothel, and he never apologizes for same, but only to elucidate how he became the way he is. This, too, informs his difficulties later in determining whether what he feels for Jacques is, indeed, love.

ROBIN: I do see in rereading the series Danielle’s point about the father/son aspect of the relationship in the ways that Yoshinaga points it out. I think for me they work more as Gerard using the idea of fatherly love to keep his distance. He’s tempted, as we see many times with
Jacques, to fall into the pattern of lovers, and he keeps pushing sex away so as to concentrate on a deeper love than the emotions Gerard equates with sex or lovers. Think of his past experiences — none of the lovers he’s had thus far have been faithful in any way, and sex is always a tool. He wants to be something different to Jacques.

As to your point, Melinda, about the sexual encounter at the beginning, I would certainly never tell anyone they should accept it as anything but what it is: an older man having sex with a younger man with very dubious consent. There are elements that mitigate the circumstances: the period and the fact that Jacques is in fact presented as a prostitute, not just a random person Gerard decides to pounce on. Not that rape can’t happen between a prostitute and client but more that it’s not such an odd expectation from Gerard that sex would be on the menu. For me, at least, that makes Gerard less of a creep. But nowhere in all of this would I say anyone should find it romantic or dismiss it. I read that scene as a way to show sex in an unsavory context. I don’t find that scene sexy, to be sure. Maybe I’m giving Yoshinaga too much credit, though.

I’m reminded of when I read Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, and any number of romances (novels, fanfiction, etc.) Everyone has their own individual lines they cannot cross, and I have experienced that with other texts. There are things that kill a fantasy for me, no matter how skillfully presented (I personally can just not enjoy a story that’s incest.) Fantasy allows a lot to a point, but I think all of us have a point when we can’t ignore problematic content in our fantasies. Clearly, this title hits that point for some readers.

(Also, Jacques’s age is not really in doubt — they say 16-17? Yes? Are are we to understand they’re lying?)

Given the rest of the sexual encounters in the story, aside from our main pair at the very end, it’s clear to me that a lot of the sex in the story is not of the romance novel, earth-shatteringly romantic variety. The balances of power are too often in play, and only the cold-hearted characters are shown as enjoying rape and sexual manipulation. The sex in this book is varied and character-driven, hurtful and destructive as much as it is redeeming and loving. I think Yoshinaga is doing what she often does — taking the tropes of a genre and making them more complicated and more honest while still dancing along the edge of what’s expected. Do you think she succeeds in creating a romance for Gerarad and Jacques, or does the story strain too much against the conventions of the subgenre? Do the touches of realism somehow destroy the fantasy readers expect from yaoi? Is that a good or bad thing?

On a totally separate note, there is a part of me that thinks Yoshinaga must have written this after watching Dangerous Liaisons a few too many times, getting silly late at night, and deciding to make a romp out of it. Perhaps she just wanted to redeem Valmont?

I do find it amusing that reading it makes me want to break out my reference books to remind myself just how the French Revolution actually went down.

MICHELLE: I approached Gerard & Jacques more in the sense of a manga by Fumi Yoshinaga rather than as simply a BL manga. Because of that, I didn’t expect that it would comply to typical fantasy romance scenarios scene in a lot of BL manga. In fact, I think the very best of that genre incorporates reality, so I definitely appreciated the touches of realism here. As for whether she succeeded in creating a romance—well, sort of. She created a loving relationship between two characters that develops over a very long period of time. I’d personally prefer that to a whirlwind romance with much angsting.

EVA: In an effort to defend myself, I was responding directly to Melinda’s first question: “What were your reactions to the story’s first chapter?” I never said that I condoned Gerard’s behavior or that rape fantasies are my kink. I just said that I wasn’t surprised by the events in the chapter, as I’d read this type of story before. As a result, I can’t answer your second question, Melinda, as I didn’t react to the opening the way you did.

Like Robin, I had French history rolling around in my head while I was reading the book, as well as some knowledge of the social dynamics of the time. I know I harp on this a lot, but I do think that if one is going to demand historical accuracy from a historical novel, then one also has to make allowances for the social mores of the time. (This doesn’t mean that we can’t, as readers, criticize the mores of the time, but we shouldn’t condemn the characters for not living according to the mores of our time.) We also need to make allowances for the rules that define a genre (i.e.: urban fantasies having fairies popping up out of nowhere, or mysteries having a character die by chapter five).

Does this mean you have to love reading about rape? Of course not. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable for an author to expect the reader to know something about the genre he/she is reading. Yes, this is yaoi, but it’s also a historical romance and, at least in this book, the rules that guide historical romance trump the rules of yaoi. As has been mentioned, what makes Yoshinaga’s writing so interesting is that she takes those genre rules and plays with them, creating thought-provoking stories that work both with and against the expected storylines. As soon as I read the opening and realized which genre Yoshinaga was playing with in this series, I knew what to expect. I wasn’t shocked; I wasn’t dismayed. She’s following the rules of this particular sub-genre, as she has with the alternate history Ooku, the high school coming of age story Flower of Life, and on and on. Much more interesting for me was how she weaves discussions on philosophy, class inequality, politics, and FOOD! into the story.

MELINDA: While, again, I can agree that the first chapter is probably true to the period, and I can even appreciate that Yoshinaga is taking a common yaoi trope and making that work more realistically in a historical context than what is typically seen, it’s the trope itself that disturbs me. And, frankly, I’m much more critical of that than I am of the sexual mores of 18th century France. This is a modern manga, originally released by Biblos, a yaoi/hentai publisher and sold as such, so I don’t think I’m out of line to view it in that context.

Robin, you’re right about them having stated Jacques’ approximate age. It’s right in the first couple of pages, too. I forgot it right away, since he (and the other boys in the brothel) look so young to me as they are drawn.

So Eva, to give you your own thread to follow (since my second question doesn’t apply), elaborate on your last sentence there, about all the things you like most about the story. I’ll certainly agree they are more interesting, which I why I started with the topic I did–so we could get it out of the way and move on to what we all enjoy in the story.

EVA: Knowing Yoshinaga’s love of food, it’s always fun for me to go back and re-read some of her earlier books (G&J was published ten years ago) to see how she manages to work descriptions of incredibly delicious sounding meals into her stories, regardless of what the actual topic under discussion is. Charlotte discussing things like various condiments that best complement venison happen most often in volume one and I’m always charmed when it happens.

DAVID: I liked what I always like in Yoshinaga’s comics… idiosyncratic characters with interesting, resonant back-stories, highly caffeinated levels of dialogue, quirky romantic chemistry, blurting passion, and hilarious but astute digressions about politics, philosophy, class and (of course) pornographic novels. I think the beauty of her work is that her characters don’t care exclusively about the plot. They almost have to be herded back to caring about the skeleton of the narrative. That’s not to say that Yoshinaga can’t structure a story so much as she’s generous with the inner lives of her characters.

ROBIN: I will admit what makes me revisit Gerard & Jacques is the humor and the slow build of the relationship once we get past the intro. (On that note, I will say if I pick this one out of my stack of Yoshinaga to reread, I almost never read the beginning, just flip to the later parts and especially volume two.)

I love the visual jokes that magically work in manga, like Jacques exploding every time Gerard unwittingly (or wittingly) gets too close. The actual explosions on the page never fail to make me giggle.

I love the parade of commentary on pornography’s appeal, especially in (ahem) hard times. I relish the lengthy explanations of Rousseau and political theory plus snide jokes about Robespierre. I do get the sense that snide jokes about Robespierre were never hard to find at the time.

Using the horror and drama of the Revolution to lend the story unexpected weight is deftly handled. Yoshinaga never dismisses the sheer terror of not knowing when the government might decide to execute you, but she also doesn’t let the historical realism muddy what is her real point: a love story.

And David nails it calling it blurting passion — the awkwardness and moments of genuine surprise and longing between Gerard and Jacques are what make the romance work so well. The quiet moments are when Yoshinaga excels: how many times does Gerard reach for Jacques only to pull away? Beautifully done.

And what about those villains, eh? Always cruel, witty, and dashing even as they crush hearts. And always frail and human at their core.

Now I want a madeleine.

MICHELLE: I’m also a big fan of the humor in the series, as well as simply how long it takes these men to realize their feelings. Essentially, it takes three years for Jacques to realize what he’s feeling and another five for Gerard to accept that this really is love. I loved the scene at the end, when he, having finally told Jacques he loves him, can’t stop telling him so.

I must say, though, that the villains didn’t really work for me. I understand their function in the story, but everything with Gerard’s wife and her lover was so excessively melodramatic it robbed the backstory of some poignancy for me.

MELINDA: I’m glad people have been bringing up the slow progression of the relationship, because ultimately, that is what really won me over to this manga. One of my major complaints about yaoi as a genre has always been that I feel too many romances are rushed, so much so as to be utterly unbelievable, simply for the purpose of getting the characters more quickly into the bedroom. While I appreciate a well-written sex scene as much as anyone, most often I find them to be either a pointless distraction from the real story or, as in the case of these super-rushed romances, the story’s utter ruin.

I love romance. I really do. But I have to believe the romance to love it, and that happens much less often than I’d like. Gerard & Jacques‘ slow-building romance is perfect for me in that way, and doubly impressive since Yoshinaga manages it over the course of just two volumes.

Michelle, I didn’t have the same reaction to the drama with Gerard’s wife and lover, but perhaps I too have watched Dangerous Liasons one too many times.

DAVID: I don’t know. I think Yoshinaga really nails the vicious, self-absorbed cruelty of the antagonists, and I found it so interesting, since she’s usually such a generous sort. I love the way she can make protagonists obnoxious and antagonists kind of lovable, so it was sort of fun to see her just go full-out in crafting nasty types. I think they also represent the decadence and vapidity of the aristocracy, which makes the Revolution somewhat less surprising and intrusive than it might have been. They seemed eminently beheadable to me.

MICHELLE Besides just my personal preference for sympathetic villains, maybe part of the reason I see them differently is because I actually haven’t read all that much Yoshinaga yet. This is actually the first BL manga of hers I’ve read, unless you count a glimpse at an Antique Bakery doujinshi that made me feel like I was intruding too much on Ono’s private life! :)

MELINDA: At this point, I’m mainly just giggling over “eminently beheadable.” :D

MICHELLE: Oh yes, I loved that line, too! I realized in my reply I neglected to commend David for his remarks about their decadence and vapidity, which helps me to see them in a new light.

MELINDA: Though, since David brought it up, what was everyone’s reaction to the heavy Revolution plotline in the last half of the story? Once again, this seems like something that *should* take many volumes of build-up, yet Yoshinaga manages it in no time at all.

DAVID: This would be a good opportunity for me to note that I invariably find the pacing of the second volumes of Yoshinaga’s two-volume yaoi stories to be very strange, whether it’s this one or Moon and Sandals or Ichigenme. They aren’t bad comics by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re sometimes very different comics than the first volume would lead the reader to expect. It’s more evident in Moon and Ichigenme, but there’s some of that in Gerard & Jacques, and I think the somewhat rushed addressing of the Revolution reflects that.

ROBIN: I must agree about the frequent awkward skips and jumps in Yoshinaga’s two-volume works. It always makes me wonder if she finds herself with about a volume and a half worth of plot and then fills in with sex (at least many of her second volumes entirely revolve around sex). She often saves the story by making it character development sex, and it is well drawn and erotic, but still, dramatic increase in sex.

The Revolution has certainly been looming in the background since the beginning of the story, and the arrogant viciousness of the upper classes is obviously represented in Gerard’s wife and Almaric (sp?). The cramming in of the details of the Revolution does end up being a device to spur Gerard to admit his feelings, and I can forgive that as a tool for furthering the romantic plot. However, the Revolution itself would have been building for quite some time, and it’s clear that Gerard was more a part of it than we’re able to see (given the references to his debates and knowledge of key figures), and I would have like to see more of that.

Then again, this is when I remember that this is, in fact, a yaoi story. However much it is Yoshinaga, she’s still working with the genre’s conventions. Antique Bakery is not yaoi, and thus the other plots and relationships are more important than whatever romance might be happening. Gerard & Jacques is yaoi, and therefore its focus must be romance, so I don’t find the incomplete references to the politics as problematic. In a way, the fact that she fit in as much as she did is rather a feat.

DAVID: I agree about the successful juggling. It reminds me of another interesting aspect of her two-volume titles. There’s always an interesting, forceful female character in the first volume, and while she generally vanishes by the second (three’s a crowd), it’s another way that Yoshinaga injects some realism. Her stories don’t take place in an all-male vacuum.

MICHELLE: Yeah, it did feel a little rushed. I wondered if Jacques’ critique at how little the revolution factors into the Gerard’s novel was Yoshinaga actually poking fun at herself. Raul’s decision to divulge all the information he’d betrayed was also quite convenient. I had actually forgotten by this point that Jacques was an aristocrat—and how awesome did he look in his finery?—so wasn’t expecting them to need to flee.

ROBIN: I think there is a lot of meta-commenting going on with Yoshinaga in this particular series, especially with the constant “why is this porn so popular!?” exclamations from Jacques. It’s actually quite enjoyable to see a creator poke fun of the industry. It makes me wonder if Yoshinaga gets that gleeful grin on her face that Gerard has when he explains how his novel is filthy porn and will make him buckets of money!

To pose another few questions, one barrier I know many readers (manga fans and non-manga fans) have complained to me about with Fumi Yoshinaga is her spare artwork. In a period piece like this, the lack of sumptuous detail is particularly apparent. Personally, I’ve always found her artwork to be refreshingly clean and focused on gesture and expression. I might even hazard to say that an overabundance of costuming in many manga often covers a lack of skill in rendering emotions as opposed to silks and satins (although I admit this is not always the case.)

Did anyone miss the costume porn in this series? Did you want more details of corsets, scarlet heels, and brocade?

As for another question, this title is one that I have hesitated adding to my library collection, even in adult, due to the explicitness of the sex. Nothing is left to the imagination here, and I’ve also seen other reviewers completely put off by the explicit nature of the sex. David already mentioned her tendency to have very different first and second volumes, but this series is a different all the way through in terms of explicitness. For me, if I’m going to be reading yaoi, I rather expect it to be explicit, but it’s not a requirement. Steamy and passionate, yes. Full of fluids and detailed anatomy, not as necessary. Did anyone find the level of explicitness jarring or felt it was unsuitable to the story?

MICHELLE: You know, I honestly didn’t realize any of the costume porn was missing until we finally see Jacques dressed in courtly garb. That was a stunning sequence, which satisfied me utterly in the costume porn department.

Regarding the real porn, it’s interesting, because although the anatomical detail is greater in this work than in other BL, I actually thought the sex was less explicit, or at least much more about the characters themselves and not simply, “Insert tab A into slot B.” I admit to a certain level of prudishness, and I had absolutely no trouble with the sex scenes in Gerard & Jacques where the same level of explicitness in a less well-written work would probably make me go, “Eww.”

DAVID: I always feel like the level of emotional detail, body language and expression, make up for the lack of set dressing. As for the sex scenes, I always find that the sometimes clumsy, often conversational quality makes them as intimate as they are smutty. So Yoshinaga wins, basically.

MELINDA: I’m a fan of Yoshinaga’s sparse style and I’m more interested in the characters than I am in what they’re wearing anyway, so I have to admit I never really noticed the absence of costume porn. I’m sure if she’d drawn lavish costumes, I’d be noticing them and saying, “how beautiful!” Instead, I’m looking at her characters’ faces and saying the same thing.

As for the other kind of porn, I actually think it is very tastefully done. It may be explicit, but it doesn’t strike me as crass. Perhaps it’s because she’s able to be so visually explicit, but one thing I very much appreciate is the fact that Yoshinaga (or at least her BLU editor) avoids cramming the page full with sound effects like “slurp” and “spurt,” which I’ll admit I find a little bit gross. And because the sex is always a vital part of the narrative, it seems very appropriate to me.

EVA: I’m a big fan of Yoshinaga’s close-ups and two shots, despite the fact that all of her characters look remarkably alike. She includes those finely detailed panels when necessary, making their impact all the more dramatic. I also love her use of wordless panels. I get to wallow in eyebrows and smirks and search for hidden meaning or secret irony.

As to your question about the explicitness of the sex, I have to admit to a certain fondness for glowing cones of light. I’m more familiar with the bedroom scenes in yaoi featuring strategically placed pillows and smugly satisfied Ken dolls. Once my eyebrows dropped back into their proper positions, I found the penises quite refreshing.

MELINDA: Eva, I’m glad you brought up the close-ups, two shots, and wordless panels because one of my favorite things about Yoshinaga’s work is the way she manipulates pacing with her panel choices, particularly the types you mention.

And you know, it’s funny, I hear everyone saying that her characters all look alike, but I think she creates such beautifully distinct characters that I’ve never even noticed. I’m sure that makes me incredibly lame, but I’d like to chalk it up to her brilliance. :D

ROBIN: I am in complete and total agreement about unnecessary sound effects. I just…don’t need to hear it in such detail!

I have always taken the criticism of “all her characters look the same” as being a bit funny, as with most manga artists this is true. Look at CLAMP, for goodness sake. Or, you know, every character drawn by Frank Quitely in superhero comics. The differences in how characters’ faces are drawn is very subtle for any manga design, and sometimes I think this complaint is more a result of inattentive reading (or inexperienced reading). Perhaps I am too harsh.

In reading most of Yoshinaga, I’ve come to the conclusion that she really shines in both pacing and expression/gesture. You have to be a reader who enjoys those moments, the quieter pauses, to really fall in love with her work.

Thanks for commenting on the levels of explicitness! It’s certainly not so terribly explicit in the context of many prose romance novels, but pictures still cause a lot more controversy than words, so it’s something I consider a lot when debating about what to add to a library collection. Doesn’t mean I won’t, just that I think about it carefully.

MELINDA: One last question to wrap things up! Whatever misgivings any of us might have about individual elements of this manga, it seems that ultimately we all enjoy it–even me, which was a nice surprise on my second read! So with all this in mind, to whom is it recommended? Is this a title of interest only to seasoned BL manga fans, or does it have a wider appeal?

DAVID: That’s a great question. I’ve seen people who’ve really enjoyed Yoshinaga’s general-interest series (Antique Bakery, Flower of Life, Ooku) be left cold by her yaoi work, so it’s never safe to assume that someone would like all of her work. (I think that’s one of the things that’s most interesting about her as a creator, too, that her body of work has so many shadings to it.)

At the same time, I’m always looking for comics that feature interesting, nuanced portrayals of same-sex relationships, and several of Yoshinaga’s works offer that. I think even Gerard & Jacques offers that, assuming you can get past the opening sequence. I could, but I could basically because I was familiar with Yoshinaga’s style and sensibility and trusted that it would go someplace more interesting and emotionally rich. But for some people, non-consensual sexual content or a relationship with a significant power imbalance is a real deal-breaker when it comes to reading romantic fiction, no matter what the gender composition of the couple is.

Ultimately, I don’t think I’d recommend Gerard & Jacques to someone who isn’t already familiar with some of the tropes of boys’ love and yaoi, and I would be frank about the more problematic aspects of the book. I’d recommend “Ichigenme” or Moon and Sandals without hesitation, though.

ROBIN: As a person who spends a good deal of my day helping people find the books they want and need, I’d have to agree with David. While other Yoshinaga series have a wider appeal, Gerard & Jacques is first and foremost a yaoi series. Both manga and yaoi fans will have more of an understanding as to what that means, and thus will be more likely to engage with the series.

Romance readers of all stripes might enjoy the story, provided they understand the gender of the lovers and are aware of the consent and power issues. The younger generation of romance readers are already reading m/m romances (like those from these folks) and yaoi, though they may well have problems with consent issues. Romance, of course, means many things to many different people, which is why there are a ton of variety within category romance prose, so there may be a niche audience out there I’m unaware of.

MICHELLE: I agree that a knowledge of more run-of-the-mill BL, and perhaps a desire to find something different and more meaningful, would be prerequisites before I recommended this as someone’s first Yoshinaga work. (I usually suggest Antique Bakery first.) It’s interesting to ponder that her BL works may be a better gateway for her more slice-of-life offerings than the other way around.

ROBIN: I also think her BL works might be a sly way to encourage readers to demand more from their BL reading. I know at least I do — the standard, cliche-driven yaoi don’t particularly work for me as it once did, and I much prefer more complex, realistic, and challenging works that still contain the necessary romance (like Future Lovers.)

EVA: I agree. I’d never recommend a Yoshinaga story as anyone’s first introduction to a genre, even Flower of Life, which may be her most accessible title. Because of the way she twists conventions, it’s helpful to know what those conventions are. But even Yoshinaga’s least interesting books are so much more cleverly written than other authors’ best books, that I’ll still pick them up and read them.

DAVID: It’s hardwired in me that, whenever someone mentions Future Lovers, I have to drone on about how much I love it. It’s one of the only yaoi titles I would recommend to gay readers without any hesitation at all, and I love it to a perfectly sickening degree. But… that’s not the subject of this roundtable. Receding now.

ROBIN: Just to say, I don’t know that there’s an immediate link between Gerard & Jacques and Future Lovers — I wouldn’t immediately recommend Future Lovers to a Gerard & Jacques fan, or vice versa. It’s more the idea that both challenge expectations for yaoi, and I’m always on the lookout for more of that.

EVA: Ha! I remember once reading a short story that I liked as much as Future Lovers, but I can never remember what it is, because David has so firmly hammered home that Future Lovers Is The Best.

ROBIN: I keep waiting to discover if US audience tastes will slowly change to purchasing titles more in line with Future Lovers and Fumi Yoshinaga, but I think that’s more just what I like rather than necessarily what manga readers like in terms of what gets bought the most.

A million thanks to Michelle, Danielle, Eva, Robin, & David for joining me in this discussion!

For more on some of Fumi Yoshinaga’s BL works (including several mentioned during the course of this roundtable), take a look at BL Bookrack: Yoshinaga Special, the first installment of a new monthly BL feature here at Manga Bookshelf. For links to all of this week’s Yoshinaga goodness so far, check out my introductory post, updated daily!

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  1. Thanks so much for hosting this! I had a great time chatting with you all about lusty Frenchmen.

  2. “In the late 1700s, age of consent was 11 years old.”

    Age of *consent*?

    Laws refusing to count someone’s “yes” to sex until age X as consent, lest they were coerced into saying “yes” by their families interested in arranging marriage or pimping them out, are age of consent laws.

    Laws allowing a girl’s parents to marry her off once she’s age X and refusing to arrest her husband for rape for forcing to have sex with him against her will after she’s age X do have something to do with age but nothing to do with consent.

  3. “Girls were considered ready to marry and start families by 11”

    …and most girls were even less physically mature and less able to have healthy pregnancies and survivable childbirths than 11-year-olds in France today are.

    When poor conditions increase infant mortality for your siblings, hasten bodily wear and tear and old age for your parents, and decrease your family’s average lifespan, they sure don’t make you grow and reach puberty *faster* than better conditions which would also increase your family’s average lifespan would..

  4. “Though it doesn’t bother me, I do agree with Danielle that Yoshinaga makes the point repeatedly throughout the story that Gerard thinks of Jacques as his own child. Gerard even says these exact words, “I loved you like my own child.””

    Did he rape her too?

    “I’m with David otherwise, however. Though I’m certain its true that the first encounter between Gerard and Jacques is likely true to the period, it’s difficult for me to accept a man raping a young boy (for however different the accepted age of consent may have been in those days, it’s still a grown man using both his position and his superior physical strength to force someone much younger and smaller into sex)”

    Right on!

  5. I just realized something else:

    ” takes by force the young boy, Jacques (who has been sold into prostitution as repayment for his aristocrat father’s debts)”

    Why do we call it “sold into slavery” when a human being is sold to someone who buys him or her in order to force him or her to harvest crops, clean house, make bricks, etc. (this still happens IRL even though it’s illegal) but don’t call it “sold into slavery” when a human being is sold to someone who buys him or her in order to force him or her to have sex with customers (this too still happens IRL even though it’s illegal too)?

    • Personally, I don’t consider the statement “sold into prostitution” as being any less horrifying or damning than “sold into slavery.” It’s just more specific.

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