‘Brokeback Mountain’ might be ultimate ‘chick flick’ in Japan, says literature expert

America’s conflicted cultural obsession with the gay cowboy movie “Brokeback Mountain” might seem old-fashioned in Japan where stories of love and romance between beautiful young men have been entertaining women for more than a decade, suggests a Japanese studies professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Stories about male-male homosexuality have been extremely popular with Japanese women for decades,” says Rebecca Copeland, Ph.D., an associate professor of Japanese language and literature in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.

Widely known for her research, teaching and translations, Rebecca Copeland traces the evolution of Japanese women writers.
Widely known for her research, teaching and translations, Rebecca Copeland traces the evolution of Japanese women writers.

In Japan, a movie like “Brokeback Mountain” might be the ultimate “chick flick,” suggests Copeland, noting that mainstream Japanese theaters attract huge, mostly female audiences for romantic stories of troubled love between sensitive and impossibly beautiful young men, known as bishonen.

In addition to movies, male-male romance is a popular theme in a variety of other Japanese pop culture media, including book-length graphic novels and comics, known as manga, and an array of animated cartoons and television action series, known as anime. All of which have developed cult followings on the Internet and among fans of late-night cable television programming, including large numbers of American teens.

Copeland, whose research explores the emergence of women writers over several centuries of Japanese history, is one of many scholars who see Japan’s fascination with male homoerotic themes as one facet of a larger societal struggle over the relative role of women in a highly repressive, male-dominated culture.

“There’s a theory that suggests Japanese women are attracted to stories of male homosexuality because it’s the only place in their society where they can see images of men in a loving, caring relationship where both partners are considered to be equals,” she explains. “It’s the kind of relationship that Japanese women crave for themselves but rarely find within the confines of traditional Japanese society.”

Stories of male-male love in Japanese fiction, comics and animated films are known collectively as “yaoi” (pronounced yah-oh-ee), a term derived from an acronym for a Japanese phrase meaning “no climax, no punch line, no meaning.”

Yaoi males are often depicted as highly idealized “beautiful boys” with vaguely androgynous traits — slender builds, small chins, stylish clothes, big hair.

Like “Brokeback Mountain,” which is based on a short story by Annie Proulx, most stories in the yaoi genre are written by women for the enjoyment of other women.

And, if American men find themselves cringing at the thought of watching a gay cowboy movie, they may be totally unprepared for what might well be Japan’s next big cultural export, an onslaught of brutally violent and sexually explicit mystery fiction written by Japanese women intent on raising questions about men’s often-privileged place in society.

The ‘bad girls’ of Japanese literature

Copeland’s current research focuses on the work of Japan’s wildly popular detective mystery writer Kirino Natsuo, and other contemporary women novelists who are fast becoming known as “the bad girls” of Japanese literature.

“Kirino is part of a new wave of Japanese women writers who use shocking tales of sex, pornography and extreme violence to raise questions about the role of women in Japanese society,” says Copeland. “By portraying women as desperate, aggressive and potentially violent, these writers are forcing people to view women in a much different light.”

The realistic, often bitter, depictions of women in stories by modern Japanese women writers offer sharp contrast, says Copeland, to the Japanese women portrayed in another current American film.

“‘Memoirs of a Geisha'” is a Cinderella story written by an American man,” Copeland says. “It mixes together all sorts of misguided notions of what a geisha is all about, confusing professional geisha business women with common streetwalker prostitutes. Both the book and the movie represent geisha as very vulnerable and subservient, when, in fact, the art of being a geisha is knowing how to take complete control of a man’s desires.”

Now in her early 50s, Kirino is the author of 13 best-selling novels, most featuring colorful women characters who are unafraid to tread on male turf, to mix it up with the seediest sides of Japanese society — street crime, drugs, casino gambling, prostitution and pornography.

Kirino’s novels, like those of her younger counterparts, often revolve around the lives of ordinary women — students, career women, housewives — driven by frustration and loneliness to act out some bizarre sexual fantasy, to commit cold-hearted crimes of revenge against the uncaring men in their lives.

In Kirino’s novels, straight men are portrayed as cruel, self-serving manipulators, as disinterested businessmen, as clueless, insensitive louts incapable of expressing basic feelings, much less love and romance.

“Out,” Kirino’s first novel to be published in English, offers a bleak, gory tale of a middle-aged housewife who strangles her unfaithful husband with a belt, then conspires with other women on her nightshift factory job to dismember and dispose of the body. The book sold reasonably well outside Japan and was nominated for a prestigious international literary award.

Copeland is now in the final phases of translating a second Kirino novel into English. The book, titled “Grotesque,” offers an explicit look at prostitution and murder in one of Japan’s most elite all-girl high schools.

“It’s a very dark story,” says Copeland. “It’s about the way desire for power and privilege compels women (and men) to behave with utter depravity.”

Inspired by a true story, “Grotesque” pivots on the brutal murder of a prostitute who turns out to be an upscale high-school graduate. Investigators learn she has been leading a double-life, a rising corporate career woman by day, and a sordid streetwalker by night.

‘Tapping into a frustration’

“These writers are tapping into a frustration that is almost universal among young people in Japan,” says Copeland. “Japan’s economic bubble has burst and for many young people, a period of great promise seems to be over. They’re left with no sense of direction, no sense of what really matters in life.”

Copeland sees the angry writings of Japanese women as a rebellion of sorts, a reaction to centuries of repression in a male-dominated society.

In a 2004 article for Japan Forum: The International Journal of Japanese Studies, Copeland explains how Kirino uses themes of power and pornography to place the lives of ordinary women in conflict with traditional norms of Japanese society.

“Kirino takes readers through the dark and dangerous world of the pornography industry where women are exploited as objects of desire,” she writes. “By deftly juxtaposing the marriage system alongside the pornography industry and by comparing heterosexuality with homosexuality, Kirino undermines the sacrosanct position of the Japanese family. Refusing to provide readers with the typical vicarious adventure, Kirino implicates us in the voyeuristic pleasure of the detective genre, by making us conscious of our act of watching.”

Copeland’s translation of Kirino’s “Grotesque” is scheduled for publication in early 2007. Other novels by contemporary Japanese women, including “Soft Cheeks” by Kirino, are also in the translation pipeline.

Will English translations of these novels find success in American bookstores?

The answer may depend on whether young American women are sufficiently disillusioned to identify with the angst of their Japanese counterparts. But otherwise, the timing may be just right, suggests Copeland.

In her class work, Copeland has witnessed a steadily increasing fascination with Japanese culture among American college students, many of whom grew up as devoted fans of Japanese animated films, television programs, video games and comic books.

If America’s love affair with Japanese pop culture continues to escalate, the next hot export of Japan’s “cool” urban youth culture may be the risqué novels of Kirino and other “bad girls” of Japanese literature.

Related links:

• The Guardian newspaper (United Kingdom) offers insight on new wave of violent female fiction sweeping Japanese youth culture:

• Links to various newspaper reviews of Kirino Natsuo’s first novel to receive English translation, “Out”:

• International Herald Tribune profile of Kirino Natsuo, “On the Trail of Japan’s Crime Fiction Queen.”:

• New Line studio plans 2006 American release for film based on Kirino Natsuo’s novel “Out”:

• Los Angeles Times: Japanese manga cartoon debuts in 30 American newspapers:

• Knight Ridder: American teens latch on to Japanese pop culture:

• MSNBC: U.S. papers to add Japanese-style comics; Editors hope to attract young readers with addition of manga: