May 25, 2017

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Finding Family in Gengoroh Tagame's My Brother's Husband Volume 1


In his book My Brother’s Husband Volume 1, Gengoroh Tagame does something very off-putting; he makes you suspicious of a homosexual man. He makes you slightly afraid of a stranger who’s traveling in a land that’s strange on many different levels. This is a book about being scared and unsteady and Tagame puts his reader in the position of relating to multiple points of view of this book, both straight and gay. My Brother’s Husband challenges everyone from its characters to its readers to take a step outside of what they know and to realize just how much larger this world is than realize it is.

Tagame envelops three stories into one in his book. There’s the story of Yaichi, a straight man having to confront his own thoughts and beliefs about homosexuality when his dead brother’s husband shows up on his doorstep. There’s the story of Mike, a gay Canadian man experiencing a culture that doesn’t know how to accept him and others like him even as he's mourning his husband's death. And then there’s the story of Yaichi’s daughter Kana, a young girl for whom all of this is new and she doesn’t quite understand what she’s experiencing. Tagame fills each of their stories with love and uncertainty as they discover their family but are challenged by what their family means. Mike faces all kinds of adversity just because he loved another man and much of that comes from his late husband’s own brother.

As Yaichi reacts to meeting his gay brother-in-law for the first time, Tagame shows him struggling with how he’s been conditioned by his culture to deal with homosexuality and how he begins to see past his own experiences to understand his late brother and Mike. But it’s not an easy journey for Yaichi as he habitually treats his brother-in-law different because he’s gay. When Mike, a big and gregarious man, give the reserved Yaichi a hug, Mike wants to immediately yell “Let go you homo!” Instead, he awkwardly asks Mike not to hug. It’s a bit more polite than what he thought but you can see on Mike’s face that he understands a bit of the sentiment behind the request.

Throughout the book, Tagame sets up these situations that challenge you to view Mike as an awful and unrealistic stereotype as a gay sexual predator or Yaichi as a close-minded and prejudiced man. Through Yaichi’s point of view, Tagame (a gay Japanese artist himself) explores how quick we are to judge people by what we assume about them by association rather than what we learn about them by getting to know them. And like Yaichi, as we get to know Mike, we can see what a great guy he is. He’s a husband in mourning who’s trying to learn about his husband’s family and, in the process of that, discover his own family.



While Tagame is crafting this family drama, he wonderfully turns the male gaze back upon itself as both Yaichi and Mike are drawn as chiseled manly men. Tagame draws scenes of them bathing, changing clothes and working out with an eye toward the shapes and bulges of their muscles. If the panty shot is a staple of manga, Tagame even plays with that with a couple of underwear shots that frame the groin in a lingering way. His male-on-male gave functions as undermining the conventions of manga and the way it draws the female form. It also functions as eye candy for Tagame’s audience and even as a way of creating a gay point of view for a straight reader.

Through his narrative eye and through his character work, Tagame forms his book’s larger point of view that is remarkably not about sex or sexual preference but about basic human empathy. As a gay text (and I’m not even too sure that it’s that,) My Brother’s Husband Volume 1 ends up creating a story about how we treat one another. Whether it’s Yaichi’s latent fear and misunderstanding of gay people or even Mike’s difficulty of understanding the restraint and reserve of another culture, Tagame’s story explores how we encounter and react to people we may not know or understand. My Brother’s Husband Volume 1 lovingly shows a family coming together, having to learn about how they’re the same and how they are different, and learning to accept both the similarities and the differences.