BL Dramas – Which Country Does BL Best?

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….

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Review – Color Rush

In the world of this drama, some people are born color blind. It is inexplicable color blindness, having nothing to do with traditional color blindness that involves genetics and cells in the eye’s retina. These unique people are called Monos. They see only in shades of gray.

Monos can be triggered into seeing color, however, if they find a person known as a Probe. Also incredibly rare, these individuals can activate (for lack of a better word) the eyes of Monos. The Monos then experience a color rush – as their eyes change to see color. It’s an overwhelming experience, causing fainting and blackouts. The Monos only experience color in the presence of their paired Probe.

Needless to say, this change in world view is very disorienting and compelling to the Monos. The experience causes obsessive tendencies and can even result in violence. The Monos desire to be always in the presence of the Probe leads many to stalking, kidnapping, and assault. There have even been cases of Monos eating their Probe partners.

So when our cute young Mono unexpectedly discovers his cute young Probe, all he wants to do is run away before the madness takes him. And all his Probe wants to do is flirt and invade his personal space, red flags of warning be damned. He strings along his color-rushed Mono, dolling out small doses of overwhelming color in carefully crafted (and surprisingly thoughtful) experiences. He drapes himself around this fainting, confused cutie and drags him into closets to see rainbows. Even when it’s obvious the experience is having an unsettling effect on the Mono, our slinkly Probe keeps pushing him along. Cause if you can see the world in color… why would you ever go back? Isn’t it worth the gamble of madness? Isn’t it worth turning your life upside down for? Isn’t it… the perfect metaphor for discovering you’re gay?

To say the premise of this series about all the colors of the rainbow is dark is the understatement of the year. It’s deliciously dark. My only complaint about this show is that it didn’t lean in harder to its obvious tonal values. It wanted to be both dark while also cuter than a basket of kittens… which is impossible to pull off under this plot line. I mean, we are told the color rush experience triggers cannibalism in the first episode. You can’t toss out information like that and not have it color, so to speak, the budding relationship.

Honestly, the entire show was just middle of the road for me – the actors, the locations, the cinematography, the side story (which was non existent but could have been awesome), and the romance. Not bad but not good either. Just a solid “eh.” BUT – the plotline elevated this show into a higher status by being so intriguing that every episode felt exciting. The “what if…?” and the “oh god, is he…?” and the “OH MY GOD, IS THAT-?” that you’ll be asking yourself throughout the run time were massively engaging. Ultimately a bit of a let down, too, but enough to propel you forward at an enjoyable speed through this shows short run time.

I’ve got more to say – but it skirts into spoilers, so let’s just drop a quick rating before we get into more. Though it really only deserved a 6 or 7, I’m gonna drop it in the top tier cause I doubt I’ll ever stop thinking about the BL story that tempted me with flesh eating insanity.

Overall Rating: 8/10 – You’ll See Colors and Cannibals Everywhere.

Spoiler time…

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Review – Itaewon Class

Itaewon Class. What a strange love story to Capitalism, am I right?

Here is how I imagine this drama was pitched between the writer and the studio executive.

Executive: “So what have you got there? You said it’s a revenge story set in the food industry?”

Writer: “Oh yeah. It’s gonna be great. We’ve got this stubborn, solitary guy who doesn’t need anyone’s approval, he’s just gonna go his own way and do what’s right. Stick to his principles. Never budge an inch.”

Executive: “Like a John Wayne type?”

Writer: “Teenage John Wayne.”

Executive: “But better looking than John Wayne.”

Writer: “Much better looking.”

Executive: “Who does he want revenge against?”

Writer: “A CEO of a worldwide food company. This guy is just super rich and powerful, so it’s gonna be hard to get revenge, ya know?”

Executive: “He’s gonna get his revenge by becoming rich too, right?”

Writer: “Of course. That’s how justice works.”

Executive: “It’s how product placement advertising works too. Sounds like a win!”

Social taboos unveiled in hit South Korean drama Itaewon Class ...

Itaewon Class had all the elements of a quality fairy tale K-drama: A strong archetypal hero with impeccable values and a heart of gold who rises over adversity, meets his goals, finds loyal friends and allies, and of course discovers true love. There was a nice sized cast of diverse characters with unique plot lines and motivations. I was interested in the fates of everyone I’d been introduced to, good and bad. It was far better than the majority of K-dramas I have seen in the past year and not bothered to review.

And yet it had serious problems. The last few episodes really fell off the gas pedal and the plotline slowed down considerably. Ironically, the most dragging episode was the finale – which had a preposterous amount of exciting things happening and somehow managed to muffle all the energy of the climax. And worst of all, in my opinion, there was the problematic underlining theme of the entire show. It’s what I like to call the Capitalist Dream, the lie we all tell ourselves: If you just work really, really hard then you can achieve anything. Entry into the golden palaces of the 1% is possible for anyone willing to work overtime. This idea has tucked the poor into bed since the dawn of time, soothing their anxieties about class inequality with a little fairy tale about how some people sneak into the castle… and get the prince to fall in love with them… and that could be you.

So, yeah, there were issues. But I still highly recommend this drama. It’s 16 episodes, which is a nice length for a series. They managed to fill each episode with enough plot that we didn’t have to over indulge in excessive flashbacks, pointless walking or staring scenes, or other fillers. It was lighthearted and funny at times without being silly or cartoonish. I especially enjoyed the spunky, quasi-sociopathic lead female. And who doesn’t love a good revenge story?

Itaewon Class – Overall Rating: 8.5/10. Feel-Good Capitalist Propaganda.

More – about characters and themes below. SPOILERS GALORE so watch the show first, my dear readers.

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Review – Where Your Eyes Linger

Where Your Eyes Linger is the first openly gay romance where the two lead characters fall in love. Can we call this a drama? It’s really not even as long as a traditional film, let alone in the league of sprawling K-dramas. It was released online, so technically it’s a web series, but whatever. We’ll take the 8 episodes (only 10 minutes long each) and be happy we got it – because when they start handing out appetizers surely it means they’ll be serving up a main course of gay loving soon!

The plot in a nutshell is basically this. There’s a rich boy who’s dad is some mega CEO tycoon but also clearly mafia. Rich boy has a best friend, who is also his guardian and protector, and adopted (I guess, we didn’t really get much of a backstory here, though honestly it would be cool to know – this mini short could easily turn into a full blown drama in the hands of gifted writers) boy who relies on the charity of the mafia family for survival. The boys live together and go to school together and work out together and fall in love together and that’s about it. Two very handsome young men pining over each other with increasing intensity. There isn’t much to the story beyond this, so I won’t really spoil the ending except to say neither of them die. That’s saying a lot, as the Kill Your Gays trope has been around for a long time and it’s often easier to have one character sobbing on a grave than deal with the backlash of angry homophobs upset that gay people might be happy.

The two leads have believable chemistry, which was a plus. The side characters are minor, to say the least, but we really weren’t given time for anything else. The whole show feels a lot like a play, set on a few key locations, generally no more than two or three people in the room at any time. It had just enough conflict to make it satisfying, just enough dialogue to set up the structure of the story, and heaping spoonfulls of very PG but also very joyously-overt gay flirting and repressed longing.

It was a short but sweet addition to Pride Month. Is it perfect? Far from it. Did it end up seeming more like porn for girls? Definitely, but I’m not in the mood to do a deep dive essay on the problematic nature of female objectification of gay men through boys love media right now. Was it a bit of a rip off of Tight Rope and about a dozen other Yakuza themed BL manga? Okay, yes, but let’s not split hairs in the genre. Did I kinda love this very short gay love story? Yeah… I kinda adored it. I was texting my best friend during the entire screening.  “Oh my god, the waitress lady just asked which of them is the top. Straight people are so freakin’ rude” and “Oh my god, they’re wrestling with enthusiasm, this is definitely code for sex” and “Oh my god, he’s washing his freaking hair. This is the most orgasmic sudsy nonsense I’ve ever seen, it’s gotta be code for a blowjob” and “Oh my god, now he’s begging him to snuggle in the bed, cause of course they share a bed cause how positively heterosexual of them, hahahahahaha” and “Oh my god, why is forbidden love so ridiculously addictive?” and “Oh my god, I think we might actually get a kiss in this show. Like, mouth to mouth!” and “OH MY GOD!!!!

Anyways, it was cute and there’s no reason everyone can’t give up 80 minutes of their day to watch it.

Overall Rating: 8/10. A Rainbow Sprinkle Romance.

Now I get to go update my Gay K-Drama List!

MORE HAPPY THAN NOT by Adam Silvera

More Happy Than Not is the book that tried to kill me.

It was exceptional – incredible! And it just walks you right off the edge and leaves you a devastated puddle at the end. 100% worth it, though.

It’s the story of a young guy growing up in the Bronx, in poverty, all the games he and his friends play, their favorite comic shop, their quest for tail and a free beer and even a flicker of hope in their lives. I don’t even know how to talk about this book… it’s so good! It’s completely unexpected and emotionally gut wrenching and romantic and raw and remarkable for a first novel (well done Adam Silvera). It’s written with the authenticity of someone who grew up the same way… so I can’t help but suspect there are many mirrors of Adam’s own story in the text.

Anyways, nothing you think is going to happens. I think anyone who reads a lot or even watches a lot of television gets used to following certain plotlines – and this book destroyed them all. Repeatedly. Gah. I cried. And then I kind of gaped in horror as the narration drew to a close because… gah. For the brave readers, I highly recommend jumping off this cliff.

RATING: FOUR STARS

Title: More Happy Than Not
Author: Adam Silvera
Originally published: June 2, 2015
Genre: Fiction

I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson

“I’ll Give You The Sun” is a story about fraternal twins, both resoundingly artistic with jealousies and rages that compete with mythological gods. This story is told in alternating voice, between the siblings, and in alternating times… before and after. Before what and after what are the mystery of the novel – and there are several befores and several afters hidden in the pages. In the end, it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful story about family, unconditional love and conditional love, first loves and deep seeded regrets. The plot in itself is outstanding – a very richly layered story with fully realized characters, both young and old. I feel in love with everyone in this story, and saw a little bit of myself reflected in each of them.

But the story is not what makes this book great – it would have been pretty good if anyone wrote this plot, probably – but what makes this book shine is revealed in the cover: huge implications in small words, “I’ll give you the sun” indeed – the title surrounded by a radial explosion of colors. That’s what this book is – words crafted so unusually, so cleverly, so astoundingly that they paint in your head. It’s overwhelming at first, all that language, all those images, but it tames down a bit after a while. Or maybe I just grew accustomed to it after a while, I’m not sure. I’ll have to re-read it for closer inspection. And I’m sure I will re-read it.

Though I loved all the love stories in this book (there is more than one), the one that hit me hardest was Noah’s. Torment, fascination, recognition… and always that burning question “Are they?” I cried on and off repeatedly while reading it – sometimes with joy, too. The only problem I had with the book was the character of Zephyr… and the bag of mixed messages there, but it’s only a side plot so I’ll happily put it aside for now and just bask in the contentment of finishing an excellent book. Anyways, it was a remarkable novel and I highly recommend it.

RATING: FIVE STARS

Title: I’ll Give You The Sun
Author: Jandy Nelson
Originally published: September 16, 2014
Genre: Young adult fiction

A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara

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The majority of this review will be in the spoiler section – down below – because I need to talk about this book, ramble and rave and rant.

Without spoilers – let me say this book is excellent. It’s thick, but it manages to flow smoothly from one section to the next.

There is a hook that will dig pretty deep into your subconscious, the mysterious past of one of the main characters, that will gently pull you, then drag you, then rip you out of the water as you struggle to regain your sense of reality. This mystery – and my burning need to KNOW WHAT HAPPENED, even as I knew that it would be awful and make me cry and I might regret finding out – is what truly made this book stand out from the crowd.

Like all the characters in the book, who also don’t know the secret the one guy keeps buried, but also got hints, that dared to imagine yet couldn’t quite ask outright, you are deeply, deeply compelled to reveal this mystery – even as you subconsciously shield yourself from it. There must be some psychology about this reflex – the need to know mixed with the instinct to remain ignorant. The reason we can’t help but look at car crashes, the ways it plays with our minds, the ways tragedy changes our view of things. It’s such a push and pull.

This book is a car crash you can not look away from.

And like a car crash, you will be forced to reflect on your life as you witness the decimation of others. Even though you most likely don’t know them – even though it doesn’t touch you directly – it is a shared fragility, our humanity. And how we think depends on where we are in the equation. Who are you in the scenario – The one driving the crashed car? The one driving by the scene? The one at fault in the accident? The one who walked away? The one would couldn’t? The one brought in to clean up the mess? The one who tries to get everyone around it moving again? The one who will report it? The one to examine the corpses? Inform the families? Cry at the funeral? The one who will remember that once they knew that person and now they are gone and be shaken by it? The one who will turn over to find an empty bed because of it? The one who will defend the guilty party in court? The one who will judge them? The one who will see only a singular mistake that cost so much or the one who will see only a slaughter that deserves retribution? And even as this web of interconnections spreads out and unites us all – it also thins out and we know the scene will be cleared, the departed put to rest, the fates of those affected will be altered but continue on, to new fates. And we will never forget. Or often forget. Or forget immediately. And all of those responses are correct.

This book is not, mind you, about a car crash. I mean it is. But it’s not.

This is a book about people. And how we are nothing to almost everyone, and yet how we are everything to ourselves and the few people whose lives intimately touch ours. It’s about how we get to know people and how we are never known. It’s sad and beautiful, because we are all such complicated messes. Our insecurities are deep and profound and stick with us throughout life, like a deep layer of skin we can never shed. It doesn’t matter how our personal insecurities compare to others – whether they are warranted, earned, deserved, or simply there. They are huge and they dictate our lives and are the shadow our bright suns fall into and escape from each day.

If you haven’t read it – well, you may not want to. Look at the cover. If that cover appeals to you – then you should read it. If you look at that face and think, “My God, what is this the cover image?” then perhaps it’s not. The book cover is perfect – a handsome face contorted in pleasure or in pain? Is that beautiful? Is that ugly? We always smile for pictures – or at least try to look attractively neutral. We are composed and presented – but we really can’t see what others see – what we look like when we’re caught in a moment. We don’t see ourselves when we’re lost in thought or crying or laughing or staring at a computer screen. So many things shape who we are. Our bodies. Our genetics. Our upbringing. Our experiences. We are inside and out, always.

Rating: 5 Stars.

So – let’s just… ditch the metaphors and get right into the mess.

Follow me to spoiler land…

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HALF BAD by Sally Green

“Later I remember what I could do. It’s easy. I could kill them all.” 
― Sally Green, Half Lost

Just finished Half Bad, by Sally Green. Hm… well, it was pretty good for a YA novel with a male protagonist. Very gritty – lots of violence and push ups and such. I’m not entirely sold on the entire set up: White Witches and Black Witches are at war for various reasons? Why again? Whatever… most YA novels don’t worry too much about plotholes, they are largely character driven. And the characters are pretty good.

Our hero, Nathan, is a half breed (white and black witch). Raised by White Witches who hate and fear him, (cause of his baddie daddy) and, uh, keep him in a cage – he eventually comes into his own and is currently deciding which team to play for, if any. Ironically (or not), he is also caught in a love triangle between his childhood sweetheart Annalise and his new roommate, Gabriel. Huh. I’ll probably read the next book since I brought it home… kinda curious now. I’m a sucker for the queerbaiting.

UPDATE: I finished this series today – the first book was decent, the second book was tolerable and the third, officially, was garbage that basically destroys my mild enjoyment of the first two books. I literally threw it. The ending sucked! It was absurd! I hated it. And honestly, I usually don’t bother reviewing books at all if I don’t like them… but whatever. I’m sticking to my guns and taking this series out.

RATING (Books 1-3 average): TWO STARS

Title: Half Bad, Half Wild, Half Lost
Author: Sally Green
Originally published: March 3, 2014
Series: The Half Bad trilogy
Genre: Young adult fiction, Fantasy, Horror

 

 

 

Review – Painter of the Wind

Review – Painter of the Wind

This is less of a review and more of me expressing my frustration over this drama.  The costuming, the cinematography, the sets, the actors – all fantastic.  The music was wonderful.  It offered a nice twist on the cross-dressing girl trope.  You had a lady  disguised as a dude so she could perfect her artistic skills and study the craft under the masters.  There’s some royal conspiracies and a lot of fuss about a portrait of the prince, all of which was rather underwhelming and generic “historical political” hoopla.

My problem is this:  Our female lead didn’t come across as a girl pretending to be a guy, in the style of this tried and true K-Drama trope.  She came off as a cute, artistic lesbian.  Thus my exasperation with this show.  Painter of the Wind should have embraced its obvious natural direction and  gone gay.  The entire show felt like an indie coming-of-age lesbian drama, but failed to fully embrace its already deliciously implied girl-girl romance and instead meandered around with an old man artist and attempted to go straight.  Don’t they remember the lesson from art class… that if the straight line is long enough eventually it will curve?  Come on!

 

Overall Rating – 2/10 For Not Coming Out of the Closet.

or…

Overall Rating – 8/10 If You Ignore The Lesbians And Watch It Straight.  This is probably the more fair rating – cause it really is a lovely drama and the subject of old school painters is very interesting and beautiful to explore.  But… I just can’t.  Cause this is my blog and my review and fair is for love and war.  And this is war!

More bitching and moaning and some sexy photo stills and SPOILERS follow.

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