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."

It is in this gay area Kizuna falls.
"I was talking to my foreign-rights guy . . . and I told him I was really getting out of that area of the [straight slasher film] business; I wanted something that has a gay or lesbian theme to it. He goes, 'It's funny you should mention it, because this thing came across my desk and I don't know what to do with it.' He said it was a cartoon and it was kind of like a soap opera. Most Japanese animation is very heterosexually oriented, and it's also very violent, so the companies that market Japanese animation here in the States wouldn't pick Kizuna up."

For U.S. animation tastes that traditionally run toward blood, guts and, of course, multiphallused demon spawn, Ranmaru and Enjoji were quite intimidating.

"I don't know if it was intended this way--but the reason it took off with adolescent girls in Japan is because it's beautiful, nonthreatening men. There's no image that these guys could be doing something wrong . . ."

But come on. A cartoon about two homosexuals available at Tower video, right there on the shelf where impressionable young boys can rent it instead of Aladdin? What's going on here? Where's the backlash of good old homophobia to keep this country safe for democracy?

"I've been wondering if we might [have such a reaction]," admits Shoel, "but I really don't think we will."

Ironically, the loudest gripes Shoel has heard have come from gay customers who rented the subtitled saga and found that there was no big delivery, sexual-excitement-wise.

The Right Stuff is a Japanese-animation-only mail-distribution house in Des Moines. Sean Cleckner's in charge, and here he reads us the description of Kizuna from his catalogue:

"Kizuna is 'the very first of the "bi-shonen," two-boy titles. Let's say these guys get to know each other very well.'" He laughs for a second. "We've sold a couple hundred, a lot more than I suspected," says Cleckner. "I wasn't worried about any negative reaction at all. We pride ourselves as having everything. That's why we make sure people know what it is before they buy it, and we've had a lot of women buying it, and that does kind of surprise me. Here you have to sign a statement of age, but in Japan, they don't have the type of cultural taboos that we have."

The animation field is a big deal in Japan, explains Cleckner.
"It well eclipses ours. It's not unusual for a high-level business executive to be reading a comic; it's a billion-dollar industry there." And high-level Japanese business executives--not to mention teenage girls--want a little more than what Disney has to offer.

"Japanese animation is usually very detailed and geared toward an adult audience," he says. "Whereas animation here, you've got The Lion King. It's not like, oh, Legend of the Overfiend."

Legend of the Overfiend?
"That's one of the more erotic titles, that's about horny demons," clarifies Cleckner. "But besides Kizuna, I can't tell you any other title that explores the homosexual-male aspect. With the female aspect, that's something that's toyed with throughout the entire industry. There's always a good shower scene in these shows, maybe women exploring each other's bodies, but this is the first of this type of program that's been brought over here."

Whether Kizuna can reach beyond the American gay, Japanese-animation fan, straight-young-women-in-search-of-a-warm-thrill subgroups remains to be seen. Whether Ranmaru and Enjoji can capture Yankee hearts that traditionally beat for Gigantor, Kimba and Mach GoGoGo and other beloved imports, who can say?

But if I were Speed Racer, I'd be watching my ass.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap