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Pretty Boys in Anime and Manga

If you’ve ever wondered about those femme-looking men or boys in anime and manga, it’s because of a preference for “Bishounen,” which is a Japanese term literally meaning “beautiful youth.” It describes an aesthetic widely shared in Asia—a young man whose beauty (and sexual appeal) transcends the boundary of sex. Recently, it has shown strongest manifestation in Japanese and Korean pop culture, but it has roots in ancient Japanese literature, the homosocial and homoerotic ideals of the medieval Chinese imperial court and intellectuals, and Indian aesthetic concepts carried over from Hinduism, imported with Buddhism from China, and Korea.

Today, bishounen is very popular among girls in Japan. Reasons for this social phenomenon may include the unique male/female social relationships found within the genre. Some have theorized that bishounen provides a non-traditional outlet for gender relations. Moreover, it breaks down stereotypes surrounding effete characters. These are often depicted with very strong martial arts abilities, sports talent, high intelligence, or comedic flare, traits that are usually assigned to the hero/protagonist. Although they were depicted as homosexual in manga, most of them in reality are heterosexual.

The prefix bi specifically refers to feminine beauty, and bijin, literally “beautiful person”, is used to refer to a beautiful woman. The bishōnen is typically slender, with a tapered chin, stylish hair, and a facial structure likened to that of a woman, while retaining a male body. (His androgynous appearance is akin to the depiction of angels in Western renaissance art, with similar social roots for this aesthetic.) Occasionally biseinen (literally beautiful man) is seen as a synonym, but biseinen usually refers to a handsome man older than a bishōnen, with bishota referring to a beautiful, pre-pubescent male child. These terms do not appear in Japanese, but are conjunctions created by Western fans from Japanese loan-words. In the west, bishōnen is the most popular of the three terms, and has become the generic term for all beautiful boys and young men.

The aesthetic of the bishonen is first recorded in Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, written in about the year 1000 C.E. Genji concerns the exploits and romances of a young prince, the son of an emperor and beloved concubine, who is not in line to inherit the throne, and follows his intrigues through the court as he comes of age. It is a classic novel, typifying the Heian age of Japanese history – a period when culture’s obsession with romance, and a sense of refined aesthetics pervaded society. Prince Genji’s beauty is described as transcendental, so much so that “one could have wished him a woman”, with a bewitching attraction that is acknowledged by men and women alike; however, with one brief, comical exception, Genji’s sexuality is only manifested towards women.

The aesthetic of the bishōnen began as an ideal of a young homosexual lover, likely arising from the effeminate male actors who played female characters in Kabuki theater. It is perpetuated today in anime and manga, especially shōjo manga and anime, shōnen-ai, and yaoi.

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