Wednesday, 14 March 2018

My Brother's Husband, Volume 1 by Gengoroh Tagame Review

Single dad Yaichi’s estranged gay brother recently passed away. In the wake of his death, his burly, friendly Canadian husband, Mike, has come to Japan to finally meet his brother-in-law and niece for the first time. Mike’s presence forces Yaichi to confront his own deeply-buried prejudices about gay people, as well as address his strangely emotionless and lonely life. 

I love Japan, the people and the culture, but, speaking from personal experience/observations, I know many of its societal attitudes are ass-backwards to say the least. As well as having an insanely brutal work lifestyle that drives too many people to suicide each year, the Japanese in general are extremely racist, xenophobic and sexually repressed (though these aspects are hidden from the outside world so as to maintain the facade of being harmless, amiable eccentrics to keep the tourist income rolling in). 

Sadly, the absurd caricature of gay people as perverts remains fixed in Japanese society still and gay marriage is illegal over there. Gay relationships is the subject that writer/artist Gengoroh Tagame explores in his superb all-ages manga, My Brother’s Husband. 

I loved everything about this book. See my belligerent political rant above? That’s a shitty way to try to convince anyone of your point of view. Instead Tagame adopts a far more winning approach, emphasising the similarities - not the differences - between gay and straight people in order to good-naturedly and gently demystify outdated and offensive stereotypes. But - better - he does this through primarily focusing on creating strong, compelling characters and a quality story, ie. the reason why anyone would pick up this book in the first place: to be entertained, not to be lectured at. 

Each of the three main characters has a story that could be a fine book in themselves. Mike’s just lost the love of his life and is trying to keep his memory alive through meeting his family and going to places he’s only heard stories about. Yaichi is divorced but still has feelings for his ex-wife. He’s struggling with being a single dad as well as confronting the long-suppressed ghosts of the past that Mike’s appearance has resurrected. Kana, the young daughter, is clearly damaged by her parents’ split and has abandonment issues - the scenes where she turned from the door to confirm that her dad or Mike would be there when she got back from school were heartbreaking. 

There are a lot of emotionally-charged scenes - almost too many; I literally had to put the book down halfway through and resume the following day because it got to be too much! Mike breaking down in front of Yaichi after getting drunk, the closeted teen finding acceptance and strength after talking with Mike, hell, even Kana finding out what hugging was - yeah, the Japanese are genuinely that physically distant even to their own kids! Not that Yaichi is a bad father - he’s clearly a great dad who cares deeply about his kid - but there’s something undeniably cold about the lack of physical affection between Japanese parents and their children. The West hasn’t got it all figured out but it definitely has a thing or two it can teach Japan - some traditions deserve to die. 

Ultimately it’s an uplifting and charming story of three likeable, ordinary people who are profoundly troubled but work through their issues and find strength in each other. It’s sweet to see Kana - and her dad, though he’d never admit it aloud - learning about how benign and human homosexuality is, and, by extension, the uninformed reader. Most beautiful of all was Yaichi’s transformation through asking himself some tough questions about his beliefs. His growing friendship with Mike was very moving who manages to turn Yaichi into a warmer person with a closer relationship to his daughter as well as finding solace for his loss through his new family. 

You can tell Tagame usually draws adult gay manga with certain panels centred so acutely on Yaichi and Mike’s toned male physiques, though, of course, given that this is an all-ages book, the angles are tastefully chosen. And I learned something about Japanese society that I didn’t before: if you have tattoos on display, you won’t be allowed to work out in gyms (because tattoos are equated with the yakuza - Japanese gangsters)! A lot of people have tats - are they all likely to be in the mafia? But then that’s just another sign of Japan’s general oversensitivity. 

Certain plot points stay unresolved by the end but that’s because this is the first part of a series and I’ll definitely be returning to see what happens next. My Brother’s Husband, Volume 1 is remarkably powerful and masterful storytelling - easily one of the best mangas I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.

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