Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Shōnen-ai (少年愛 from 少年 shōnen young man + 愛 ai love) refers to anime or manga that deals with love between young men, especially of the bishonen variety. In its infancy, the genre originally dealt with very strong but non-sexual relationships between young men. Nowadays, it has come to refer to romantic, male-male relationships.
Shōnen-ai is usually less explicit or sexual than yaoi, and the characters involved in shōnen-ai are generally of a much younger age. Shōnen-ai is very popular in Japan, especially among schoolgirls and housewives, and is often to be found as part of shōjo anime or manga. It has also found a strong audience in America, especially among 18–24 year old heterosexual women.
Ironically, the term shōnen-ai is not used as often in Japan; the wasei-eigo construction Boys Love (ボーイズラブ bōizu rabu but usually rendered as English, occasionally spelled Boy's Love or Boys' Love, or abbreviated BL) has largely displaced it, due to associations of the original term with pederasty or pedophilia (which were not borrowed into English usage). (This is doubly ironic, since the similar English term boylove has the exact meaning Boys Love was coined to avoid.) The Japanese Wikipedia link on the side of this page links to ボーイズラブ (boīzu rabu) rather than to shōnen-ai.
The appeal of shōnen-ai is somewhat hard to decipher, and harder to understand from a western point of view. The vast majority of readership is young and female, and as such, the stories are drawn by and market to a female audience. Many enthusiasts say they are drawn to the beauty and distance of the characters, as well as the idealistic depiction of male love. Some argue that because shounen-ai excludes females from the relationship, it is sexually non-threatening to its female audience while still allowing them to identify with its characters. Others would argue that it is perfectly natural for women to be turned on by the idea of love and sex between males--after all, lesbian erotica is incredibly popular with the heterosexual male audience.
Most readers/viewers are likely exposed to a particular series through their peers or friends and begin to empathize with the characters and/or develop a fascination with homosexual relationships, especially those fans who are of a creative mind and enjoy watching how different people function in different situations. The scope of the fanbase shōnen-ai has found in the United States is large. In the U.S., Gravitation alone has grossed $9 million in profits and is the best-selling (and most difficult to obtain) comic book/manga series in America in twenty years.
Shōnen-ai must be differentiated from actual homosexual-market comics; the relationships depicted are between boys, often as young as fourteen, twelve or even ten years old, and are often completely psychologically impossible. The dynamics depicted are unrealistic — the goal of shōnen-ai is the perpetuation of fantasy, not an actual depiction of homosexual life. Though some gay market-oriented comics have been published in Japan, they have always been underground, independent affairs, with small circulation and little coverage.
The term JUNE has also been used in Japan, although only with respect to original works (that is, never to what would in English be called slash fiction), and mainly in reference to what is widely considered the first popular shōnen-ai published, JUNE Magazine . This magazine, reaching its height of circulation in the mid-1980s, romanticized and worshipped the binanshi, or beautiful boy, in contrast with today's popular term, bishōnen. Most professionally published shonen-ai manga has since been published primarily in mainstream girls' magazines. A thriving market for gay-themed doujinshi (independent, fan-produced comics) has also grown recently in Japan, revolving primarily around the yearly Comiket. Comiket, a large annual convention featuring multiple convention floors of (primarily amateur) manga and gekiga artists selling their works, has an entire basement floor devoted to shonen-ai and yaoi.
Some series that include shōnen-ai elements of various degrees include:
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