“Bara” is a term commonly used in English-speaking manga reader communities to generally describe a genre of manga depicting romantic and sexual relationships between men with art styles showing more realistically-drawn characters or muscular men. In Japan, however, the term is not commonly used with the same meaning and has a more complex history.
The term “Bara” is written with the kanji 薔薇 which literally means “rose.” Its common usage can be traced back to the first magazine catering exclusively for gay men in Japan, Barazoku (薔薇族).
The origin of the term “Bara” was actually from a slur for gay people in Japan. During the early 1970s, perhaps echoing the rising gay rights movement in the west, the magazine Barazoku called for the gay community in Japan to be out and show themselves instead of keeping to the invisibility offered by being “underground.” It was also an attempt to re-appropriate the slur “Bara” for the gay community. The usage of the term faded as more and more people in the gay community used “gay” and “homosexual”.
“Bara” made a comeback during the 1990s through online chat rooms and messaging boards. Around this time English-speaking audiences mistook the term to specifically refer to the artworks posted in the online boards—most of which were drawn in an almost hyper-realistic muscular style. The word spread widely and resulted in this style being synonymous with “Bara.” At one point, it even became an umbrella term for all artworks depicting romantic and sexual relations between men.
The early 2000s found BL publishers trying to sell more variety and subgenres of BL, including what can be simply called “muscle BL.” This trend began with anthologies such as Kinniku BL, which also featured geikomi artists. While modest, the efforts were successful and gave way to more anthologies published and more publishers interested in the subgenre. This subgenre, commonly known to the English-speaking community as “Bara,” while still targets the female audience, is also quite popular among the gay male audience in Japan.
Bara: Modern Usage
As we had briefly touched at the beginning, “Bara” is not exactly a term commonly used in Japan. If it is used, if at all, it is pretty much used as a synonym to BL. The English-speaking community continues to use “Bara” to refer to manga depicting romantic and sexual relationships with the specific big, muscular, sometimes hyperrealistic art style. However, the awareness of its complex history and its relations with the history of geikomi often eludes many English-speaking readers. If you want to know more about what geikomi is, check out our fu-pedia entry on it!
TCAF 2015 – Gengoroh Tagame Talks Gay Manga, “Bara,” BL and Scanlation
Itō Bungaku and the Solidarity of the Rose Tribes [Barazoku]:
Stirrings of Homo Solidarity in Early 1970s Japan
Size Matters: An Interview With Anne Ishii
About futekiya: BL manga subscription
In 2018, futekiya began as a Boys’ Love manga news and culture website operated by FANTASISTA, INC., a CG/VR production studio based in Tokyo, Japan. futekiya transformed into a budding global distributor of officially licensed BL manga in 2019.
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