BL, or Boys Love, is nothing new to the scene. It’s been around for quite a while, largely in print or anime format. It’s also been extremely diverse from the get-go with many different genres and settings offering us male/male relationships from super sweet romance romances to intensely sexual content. I still remember stumbling across the anime Ai no Kusabi (1992) – which was burned onto a CDR and stuffed in as some free bonus content from my order of Wolf’s Rain (2003) I’d received off eBay.
Ya’ll. I was not prepared for Ai no Kusabi.
I’d stumbled across the Finder manga in 2002 and thought I’d found the peak pervy storyline of the sexy mafia boss and his feisty reporter twink… but no. Ai no Kusabi created an entire world around sex pets, like the Claiming of Sleeping Beauty trilogy and Exit to Eden books by Anne Rice, this was a society built upon BDSM and sexual servitude.
So, like many others, I discovered BL through Japanese manga and anime. Some of them creeped me out with their childlike boy characters (No Money, Boku no Pico), while others made the age-gap work for them (Junjou Romantica). And of course, there were plenty of manga and anime series with heavily implied gay storylines and artwork, giving us “manservice” if you will, where they would show you they were gay but wouldn’t tell you they were gay. One of my all time favorite series X/1999 is one such storyline. I mean… that entire story is just queer escapism. The manga, the anime, even the weird movie… it’s good stuff. Super gay. And yet… not.
The 21st Century has already seen many cultural shifts and changes, one of the most positive of those has been the push for global acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. We have seen gay marriage, gay rights, and gay issues become major movements around the world. My ardent wish is that by the mid-century, LGBTQ+ people will have equal rights and protections under the law everywhere.
In the past few years I have watched an explosion of BL live action dramas coming out of Asia, the popularity of this genre increasing almost exponentially whereas now it seems a global phenomenon. This is largely due to the fact that gay content has always been enjoyed outside the gay community. Love is universal, after all, and whether it’s two boys, two girls, a boy and a girl, or a pairing of other gender or sexual identities, it all reads the same – people falling in love.
Since 2020, BL is increasingly common in the live action drama market. So… which country does it best?
I’m not sure there is a real answer to that, as everything boils down to preference. Whether you prefer Thai, Taiwanese, Korean, Filipino, Japanese, and Chinese dramas will, undoubtedly, heavily influence your rankings. I certainly have my preferences, as I am sure you have yours (if you have watched more than one BL, that is). My preferences tend to be related to the storylines and dynamics more than the country, though. So in the genre of BL, I tend to stray from my preference for Korean Dramas, though there are a few from Korea that I enjoyed.
Anyways, without further adieu – here are my favorite BL drama series that I’ve seen from various countries….
Let’s start with my standard. Korea.
Korea tends to make short, sweet, BL dramas thus far. They are all nicely done with good cinematography, very small sets and cast, and very wholesome romances – very PG. Personally, I find them a bit boring. Many have the possibility for more drama, angst, and conflict (which sharpens the romance in my opinion) but none of them have leaned into this yet (except Devil Judge, but it’s closeted BL). The Korean live action dramas are still getting their feet wet in the gay baby pool and not yet ready to jump into deeper waters with confidence. I think once they finally get comfortable enough with gay story lines we will be delivered some of the best BL of all time… but we are not there yet.
Of the Korean BL I’ve seen, these are the ones I liked best:
Where Your Eyes Linger (2020) – fun, lightly angsty drama of childhood friends to lovers with some mafia flavoring
Color Rush (2020) – cool lite sci fi story of magical connection between high school boys – could have been a dark masterpiece, but alas. Read review.
To My Star (2021) – sweet, emotional drama about a popular, playful actor and a serious introverted chef
You Make Me Dance (2021) – sweet, playful romance of a dancer and his debt-collector
Semantic Error (2022) – sweet, quippy romance of two college boys in design school
The Devil Judge (2021) – probably the best BL from Korea without explicitly being a BL drama. You can read my Review about this gem – and how it’s definitely 100 percent gay (like all the recent Chinese BL dramas that are definitely 100 percent gay… but they just can’t “say gay” gay).
No one can really compete with Thailand right now in the BL market – merely for the sheer volume of BL this country puts out. They cornered the market first when it comes to BL live action dramas and have maintained their dominance by relentlessly creating and releasing good BL shows each year. There is a certain vibe to Thai BL that is difficult to explain – but they always feature handsome, confident actors. The flirtations are always sexually charged, and there is rarely sexual shame in Thai dramas. The story lines stay close to the romance and in general tend to stay firmly in the contemporary realism genre… which I think is their biggest flaw… but they do lean into the angst and sexuality of gay romance, which rules.
I have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to Thai BL. Of those that I have watched, however… these are the ones I actually enjoyed.
KinnPorsche: The Series (2022) – the pure insanity that is KinnPorsche! – a very sexy, very funny, action-ish series about a mob family who live in a high rise and the flirtatious bartender who becomes one of their bodyguards. Hands down one of the best BL’s ever made. Read Full Review.
Not Me (2021) – very cool story line of political activists and artists, some action and adventure with some darker political thrills underneath the usual campy, sexy romance story featuring a favorite trope – twin identity swapping.
I Told the Sunset About You (2020) – one of the most visually stunning BL series I have ever seen – with a real passion for capturing the small, every day moments of people coming together. Reminded me of the movie Call Me By Your Name which also used the location and the slow rhythms of every day moments, body language, and behavior to build to the romance rather than words or declarations. However, Call Me By Your Name only made me cry once whereas I Told the Sunset About You had me tearing up in nearly every freakin’ episode. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, but well worth the ride.
TharnType: The Series (2019) – simple sexy story of a closeted homophobic gay guy coming to terms with his past trauma and sexuality by letting his extremely attractive college room mate jump all over him.
Bad Buddy (2021) – Charming enemies-to-lovers story about the sons of two families who hate each other, who happen to live next door to one another. Their relationship changes when they finally leave home and start college (where they ironically also end up in rival departments). Great story, great chemistry between the leads, highly entertaining the entire run.
Taiwanese BL shows rule. Taiwan is responsible for the HIStory franchise, all of which are currently on Viki. Like Thai BL, these dramas tend to be stuck in contemporary realism but there is even more sexuality and acceptance of LGBT+ people, which undoubtedly is due to this country being the only one in East Asia to legalize gay marriage (as of March 2022). There is a joy to the romances that is unseen elsewhere as well, which I also believe is a reflection of the society’s acceptance of the gay community there. Taiwanese BL can be steamy, dreamy, and very enjoyable. They don’t shy away from angsty relationships either, which in book just means they’re more comfortable with the topic. Listen, the gays can be toxic, too, people – real representation is including that.
No. 1 For You / Fighting Mr. 2nd (also known as We Best Love) (2021) – The Best Chemistry Award of any BL series goes to the couple in this show. The first season was a fun, shenanigan filled romance of two hot swimmers coming together – but the second season threw the couple into the work force and poured gasoline all over their smoldering relationship so that it would burn up the screen. (Update) there is a Special Edition version of this series which I recently watched and it’s significantly better all around, particularly season 2.
I felt like I was hypnotized by the actors, because typically I’m not a huge fan of fluffy romances but I could not stop watching the first season despite being completely bored by the majority of the plotline. The second season, however, was much more aligned to my taste of super-angsty, emotional turmoil and reconciliation and is definitely the better installment. I watch fan made videos of this BL couple all the time.
HIStory 1 (ep 3): Obsessed (2017) – I doubt it’s any surprise this is my favorite in the HIStory series – as it’s the exact brand of crazy love that I live for. Angry, confused, overdramatic relationships that threaten to tear down the world. All consuming madness. The irresistible nature attraction. Love, love, love it.
Oh, what a loss. China has really been pulling the angry-grandpa move of censoring the hell out of its gay community, as if it can make the millions of LGBTQ+ people and their millions of allies disappear if they don’t show them kissing in dramas. It’s so frustrating because I know there are so many citizens in China who want to enjoy gay content and see the country move towards more acceptance, not away from it. And the creators of BL are trying to hard to sneak it in, any way they can, and work within the restrictions, but it’s so difficult. It’s so regressive. It’s such a shame.
Despite it’s “Don’t Say Gay” policy, China deserves snaps for having the best mix of genres in their repressed, censored BL empire. They have given us historical gay dramas, fantasy gay dramas, detective gay dramas, science fiction gay dramas, as well as the traditional contemporary realism gay dramas… all without being explicitly gay, of course – but the fans know the stories are gay, so I suppose we should count them.
The only two I have seen that I actually enjoyed were from 2016 – which was the year the government freaked out over gay stuff, apparently, cause since then it’s been a sad story in the world of Chinese BL dramas. One of these two remains my favorite BL, and the other one might have been… if it were developed more and dug in a bit deeper to the plotline.
Addicted (2016) – My personal fav. Well written, well acted, and well directed. Though it has a very small cast of characters, it manages to capture that feeling of young love and young lovers. The insecurities, the excitement, the bluntness and the playfulness, the push and pull, and the pure adoration of first loves. The characters are so grounded, so unique, so real. This show felt more authentic too, the behavior of the young men was realistically horny and pawing and relentless. Most of the gay dudes I knew growing up (and most of the straight dudes, too) were horny and relentless. I loved every single episode. The cohabitation trope never gets old – and these two have never made sharing a bed more exciting. This one ended with a cliffhanger -and the second season never came out.
Irresistible Love (also known as Uncontrolled Love) (2016) – Flawed but interesting story premise about a young boy adopted to be the play-mate of a wealthy heir. As they grow up, the two must navigate their changing power dynamics as one is openly gay while the other is just figuring out his sexuality. There’s a ton of angst and violence in this – which is realistic as the wealthy heir knows society will not be tolerant of his sexuality and he is suddenly faced with the one thing money can’t buy him an exception to. His world of privileges’ comes sharply into focus as its contrasted against the repression and hostility of homophobia. This short, ultimately depressing (even with the pseudo happy ending you can find if you dig around long enough) series could have been amazing. The chemistry was great between the male leads, the obstacles to overcome were obvious and easily recognized (wealth, privilege, position, family, and society), and the cinematography was gorgeous. The chess board was all set up and ready to be played, but they just moved a few pieces around haphazardly and ultimately laid down their kings in forfeit rather than give us a masterful game of gay conflict in a homophobic world.
Though Thailand won the prize as far as production of live action BL, Japan still reigns supreme as far as familiarity with the genre. BL manga in all its variation is still massively popular in Japan. And BL anime still comes out fairly regularly. There is a consistency to the treatment of LGBTQ+ subject matter in Japan… in that it is never consistent. They’ll put out a depressing storyline one day and a bubblegum pop light storyline the next. They are well aware of the contradiction of this – of the acceptance and simultaneous subjection of their gay community – and in a way that Yes/No dynamic is very similar to America’s POV in the BL movement. It is everywhere and it is nowhere. It’s scattered about various medias with no particular preferred genre or presentation. Neither sticky sweet nor bitter. They’ll throw a gay pride parade one day and yank all the gay books off the school library shelves the next. It’s a conundrum.
I’ve seen a lot of Japanese BL and enjoy the variety of it, the problematic nature of it, the various degrees and angles from which they approach a story. I am never sure if I will enjoy Japanese BL when I start it – even when I’ve read the summary of the series – because each show is unique.
Old Fashion Cupcake (2022) – unbelievably good small-scale series about two men working together who form a beautiful relationship together while going out for lunches, desserts, and snacks. For a five episode drama, I could talk about this one for years. Let’s just say it’s perfect, top tier, the best of the best, and move on.
A Man Who Defies The World of BL (2021) – the perfect representation of Japan’s current mood with the LGBTQ+ community. This is an entire drama about BL without actually being a BL drama. I was amused and I was confused.
My Beautiful Man (2021) – another good representation of BL in Japan, this drama uses all the tropes of decades worth of BL and then shows you how awkward and horrible it is to live within these stereotypes. Both the hot, unattainable sexy guy and the shy, subservient obsessive guy are stuck in the roles they’ve assigned themselves and unlike most dramas in which the characters have to understand the other person to be together, these two have the more difficult task of figuring themselves out and breaking down their own misconceptions of their identities and needs in order to be together.
Life~Love on the Line (2020) – an unusual story that follows two men’s lives, and love, through several decades. I wasn’t a huge fan of this series, but I stuck with it and admit the atmospheric nature of the story and the “what will happen next” installments made it relatively enjoyable.
Mood Indigo (2019) – ah, Mood Indigo. Another perfect example of Japanese BL. It’s an atmospheric and slowly intense drama about two adult men figuring themselves out, struggling to find their place in society and in the work force, unsure of how to find happiness or navigate their feelings. And they never really figure it out.
In a way, this series is the ultimate realism of many gay and bisexual people. You stumble into things, sometimes intentionally and sometimes accidentally. You are pulled into someone else’s orbit by attraction but you don’t know to call it that. You make a mess of everything. And hopefully you have a few hot memories to comfort you in the destruction and slow rebuilding that eventually that follows whatever tryst you allowed yourself. You’ll most likely live your whole life this way. Avoidance and denial for large chunks of time, drowning out whatever desires you’ve repressed with work or booze – with random bursts of clarity, excitement, and lust that you immediately self-sabotage. This is the prequel story to The Novelist, and in my opinion the more interesting story. It’s quite mature – a moody, broody rumination on complicated relationships.
The Novelist (2018) – Why do we do the things we do? Though I didn’t necessarily enjoy this story, I appreciated its cynical and cold appraisal of certain aspects of gay romance that are largely ignored in other media. Mainly, how for many gay people in society, especially those dealing with shame or acceptance – lying is massive influence on your life. You will lie to yourself and others ALL THE TIME. It’s so much a part of your life that you barely notice it or acknowledge it.
This is an entire series dedicated to various lies, from small white lies to more sinister and openly deceitful dark lies. Lies the characters tell themselves, lies they tell others. Full disclosure is not an option for these men. All three of the main characters kind of hate themselves as much as they love/hate each other. I think this drama will appeal more to an older audience or any young people who were raised in a repressive society.
I have only watched one BL from The Philippines thus far, but it was quite charming and available on Youtube. I personally think the Filipino is one of the most beautiful sounding languages on the planet, so I will definitely be watching more content from this country. I am also mesmerized by how easily they transition between perfect English and Filipino, often times within the same sentence.
Gaya Sa Pelikula / Like in the Movies (2020) – two young college students end up sharing an apartment together and discovering they have more in common than their loves of movies. I really enjoyed this small but cute production, especially for it’s portrayal of a young man struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality paired up with someone who is out and proud. The chemistry isn’t perfect, but they’re both such fun to watch I didn’t mind.
It’s not like the above listed are the only Asian countries putting out BL live action series. Vietnam has a bunch out and Malaysia is testing the waters.
And of course there’s everybody else… but whatever. The focus of this blog has always been Korean content… with a few book reviews on occasion.
So, dear reader… which country do you think puts out the best BL live action series? And what is your current All-Time-Favorite BL show? I’m only just beginning to watch BL shows in between my regular K-dramas, so I’d love some suggestions.