Young, Gifted, Gay and Animated

Japanese animation icon Speed Racer does many extraordinary things.
He has fantastic driving skills. His car can perform amazing feats. He is adept at throwing a punch, and getting himself into and out of incredible jams where evil lurks just around the next hairpin turn.

But one thing the hot young animated Racer doesn't do is make sweet, passionate love to another man.

No, you won't find Speed (known in Japan as Mach GoGoGo) getting it on with, say, Astro Boy (I would have said Racer X, but he was secretly Speed's brother and that's simply going too far), gripping the sweat-soaked sheets and muttering, "Your hair, your hands, your heart . . . are all mine."

In fact, throughout the colorful three-decade history of Japanese animation--a history that has landed the likes of Gigantor, Kimba, Getta Robo G, Lemon Angel 2, Grave of the Fireflies and Irresponsible Captain Tylor on these shores--there has never been any kind of homoerotic offering for cartoon fans.

Enter Kizuna.
Welcome to the world of Ranmaru and Enjoji, two GQ-ready high school lads who live together in exciting, sometimes treacherous, soft-porn bliss. Two guys who have been known to grip sweat-soaked sheets and mutter, "Your hair, your hands, your heart . . . are all mine."

They are the gay heroes of the two-volume video, a work created by a female cartoonist named Kazuma Kodaka and now imported stateside exclusively by Phoenix Distributors of Tucson.

Kizuna is part of the shounen-ai (which translates to "boy love") genre currently going like gangbusters in Japan, catering mainly to an enormous audience of straight, adolescent schoolgirls.

The actual sexual content of Kizuna (which means "bonds") is fairly tame, by porn standards. There's kissing and grunts of passion, but no visible genitalia. And these guys are cartoons, after all. As for the melodramatic, Melrose Place-ready plots, well, here's the blurb from the video box of volume one:

"Ranmaru is a very handsome and legendary high school fencing champion whose sports career comes to abrupt halter after he is mistakenly run over by a car intended to kill his boyfriend, Enjoji, the son of the mafia don in Osaka. After the accident, Ranmaru becomes paralyzed. Thanks to encouragement from Enjoji, Ranmaru is able to endure the difficult rehabilitation. Recognizing their intense love for one another, they begin to live together. Some years later in college, they happen to learn that Enjoji's half brother, Kei Sagano, is in Tokyo. Having fallen in love with Ranmaru, Sagano has taken fencing and now gotten into the same college Ranmaru and Enjoji attend. Sagano's love for Ranmaru is intensified by Enjoji's presence. Caught between the rival brothers, Ranmaru is . . ."

And so on.

Jennifer Moore is a writer for Animerica magazine, a publication devoted to Japanese animation. She's also a big Kizuna fan.

"It's a lot of fun, it plays like a love-story soap opera," she says. "It's really refreshing, because a lot of Japanese animation that's adult themed is not very girl-friendly. Basically, the stories are about nympho girls or multiphallused demon spawn. Some really surreal, disturbing stuff is out there. . . . This stuff is produced by heterosexual women for heterosexual women."

Not being a heterosexual woman, and not wanting even to guess at why this sort of thing might be attractive to one, I asked Moore about it.

"Speaking for myself--I'm a heterosexual woman and I love men--I guess it's the same mentality that men have watching lesbian scenes in porn. I like men, so what's better than one man? Two men on top of each other. There's that whole element of its being taboo, it's new and it's different."

Apparently, the straight animation fanboys out there--guys who might be uncomfortable watching Brian's Song--are happily purchasing copies of Kizuna. While the video is available in adult stores that cater to hard-core tastes (it's sold out at one local Castle Boutique, and the copy at Movies on Central is broken from use), it's also right there in the Japanese-animation section at Tower.

This is no accident, explains Michael Shoel, president of Phoenix Distributors.

"When I took it, I knew that it would reach a crossover audience; that's why I went for this. I knew it would work in the gay market, and I suspected it would work in the Japanese-animation market. And I turned out to be correct," he says. "Any store that carries gay product, we've got it in there, and we've sold about 500 pieces through regular comic-book stores."

For more than 10 years, Shoel's company has been distributing titles like Woodchipper Massacre, Rock and Roll Mobster Girls, Assault of the Killer Bimbos and Cannibal Campout--"Where Saturday's campers become Sunday's brunch."

"This is a gay-owned company," offers Donald Zelkowski, Shoel's partner, "and basically, we were just tired of selling the violence. There's enough violence in the world. So we thought, 'Gee, we're gay. We know all these gay contacts. Let's start selling gay product.'"

But Rome was not built in a day, and from "Gee, we're gay" to actually creating a thriving business has been a four-year job, and not always easy, says Shoel.

"What we started doing is building up this niche of customers that are interested in gay and lesbian movies that are not X-rated movies. Which is actually a long process because a lot of customers and video-store owners don't understand that a movie can be a gay movie and not be an adult movie."

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