I decided to read a graphic novel on my way to work today, feeling a little bored of prose after recently reading a few fine but unremarkable novels. This book, the second and final part of Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband is a Japanese manga that explores prejudice, shame and family. It’s a beautiful, chokingly moving piece that had me weeping multiple times on the Catalunyan public transport this morning. It was the first anniversary of the 2017 thwarted independence referendum (1st October), so maybe other people on the train thought I was crying over that. In some ways, maybe I was.
Anyway, Volume 2 of My Brother’s Husband continues from where the previous one ends, with Yaichi and Kana, his daughter, hosting Mike Flanagan, the widowed husband of Ryoji, Yaichi’s twin brother, who was once estranged and is now dead. Mike Flanagan is in deep mourning (obvs), and is in Japan to fulfil a promise made at his wedding, to make sure his husband’s family met him and accepted him, to make sure they acknowledged and understood his and Ryoji’s love.
An even more cynical person than I could perhaps criticise My Brother’s Husband for being emotionally manipulative, but I personally think that catharsis is the most justifiable purpose of the arts, and as such I WANT to be weeping in public when I read. About halfway through this volume, Yaichi is summoned to school for a meeting with Kana’s homophobic class teacher, who tells Yaichi he must order his daughter to stop talking about her gay uncle so she won’t be bullied. After an important personal journey, Yaichi defends not only the individuals involved (Mike Flanagan and Ryoji), but also the institution of gay marriage itself (which is still not legal in Japan). This public defence, in the presence of a representative of “authority” is a clear, cathartic development for Yaichi.
Equally, when Mike Flanagan, Kana and Yaichi visit the family grave so that Mike Flanagan can be formally introduced to his husband’s ancestors, it is deeply moving. When Yaichi finally looks through Mike Flanagan and Ryoji’s wedding photos and not only sees his brother happy, but sees his brother happy and accepted and LOVED by Mike’s parents and sister, this is also a big tear-jerking moment. The narrative within My Brother’s Husband skirts an emotive subject – love and repression, but when it explores regret and shame, the shame RIGHTLY falls onto the person who deserves it – Yaichi, who let his ingrained, insidious, homophobia draw him away from his brother.
We meet more gay men who live near Yaichi, this time an old friend of the dead brother, Ryoji, who refuses to come out and sees that as pointless. It is his self-hating prejudice that makes Canadian Mike Flanagan the most visibly uncomfortable, and he feels reassured by later interacting with the older brother of one of Kana’s friends, who he met in Volume 1.
There is a lot more tourism here, too: Mike Flanagan visits an onsen and sees Mount Fuji, all of which is drawn with an intense and detailed beauty. As well as being about Yaichi’s personal journey of understanding his own prejudice, My Brother’s Husband is also about Mike Flanagan’s journey into his husband’s origins. We see Japanese culture as experienced by an outsider and we see Yaichi as he becomes aware of societal norms that he had never previously questioned or noticed. There are lots of journeys here, but also an important and a valuable lesson: love is love, innit, and prejudice is bad.
If I was more confused, I’d flag up Mike Flanagan’s chasteness here as a thematic problem, but I think it is a significant – and necessary – narrative decision, required for this book to present its argument. When asked for reasons as to their “discomfort” around gay people, homophobes answers are often rooted in a deep prurience and a crude obsession with the mechanics of gay sex (whether that is two men or two women). Heterosexual people do not feel that the act of putting vaginas on their dicks or dicks n their vaginas defines their existence, and society’s obsession with reducing gay people to their sexual activity is understandably offensive. Very few of our direct encounters with people involve sex (“speak for yourself,” I’m sure the jokers are shouting), and this prurience, this reduction, is bad. Mike Flanagan is chaste in this book not because of Tagame’s prudishness, but because fucking has nothing to do with Mike Flanagan’s presence here, and exploring the validity of public homosexual love in a socially conservative country is easier to do when a reader is allowed to – as happens in real life – not see the sex that others have.
Love is not the same as sex, and this is something homophobes (and anyone else who tries to police the sex acts of others) are often guilty of claiming. It doesn’t matter what people do with and to each other if it’s what they both want, it doesn’t matter who and how people love, and if you think that it does you are at best ignorant, at worst a hypocritical dickhead.
Love is love, innit, and if you don’t think it is, you’re exactly the kind of person who needs to read My Brother’s Husband and copy Yaichi’s journey.
Who and how people love is more significant to most people than who and how they fuck. Plenty of people fuck in secret, very few people get married in secret. Mike Flanagan and Ryoji were in love, they were lovers, not just people who hooked up a few times, and the importance of the public recognition of their relationship was important, and particularly important when when the members of the public refusing recognition are family. Yaichi rightly feels guilty he didn’t reconnect with his brother before death, because the reason he didn’t reconnect was prejudice. Because Ryoji had sex with men, Yaichi was never able to meet him with a person he loved. It’s a sad narrative, and one that still occurs around the world.
My Brother’s Husband is a beautiful book, highly recommended.
NB: it translated by Anne Ishii
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