Thursday, September 2, 2010

Pour some sugar on me, baby.

It’s almost midnite in Fukuoka city and I’m partying solo in an internet café. I’ve got movies and porn and comics and coffee and I’m set to be here for the next ten hours. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Japanese internet cafés are known as manga kissas and they are the coolest terminal-teen nerdout space in the world. A manga kissa is kinda like a library that replaces the canon with magazines, comics, movies and games. You can’t take them off the premises but you can stay here and use them as long as you like. There are free sugary drinks and vending machines full of food and cigarettes. There are slippers and blankets and pillows. The toilets are equipped with showers, bowls of toothbrushes and toothpaste and little ‘girl’s kits’ that have disposable swabs and cotton tips in case you need to fix your makeup or drug habit. The going rate to camp all night and bed down on a comfy matt is about 30 bucks.

I’ve been looking forward to doing this for ages. Scoping out the best ones. Rating them – some have soup, some have soft serve ice-cream. Some have videos, some have cinema channels. I have ended up in Media Café Popeye, a chain, not the best of the bunch, but right here when I needed a place to stay.

Mediacafe popeyes’ are ubiquitously black with exposed pipe work, also painted black. There are much classier Manga Kissas that look like the lobbies of mid-price hotels but the commonality is little cubicles instead of rooms, and in every cubicle is one or two Japanese 20 somethings and a stack of manga.

My little black booth is perfect. The desk is low to the ground and you have to slide your legs under or kneel before the alter of television and internet. I excitedly boot up the PC and the TV. I can watch movies and browse the internet at the same time. The overhead lamp illuminates a marbled, suffocating haze. Everyone around me is smoking cigarettes and the thick cloud spirals up around the blackened pipes.

Hour One, 1 Nescafe creamy ice-latte with added chocolate cocoa mix and a scoop of softserve. This sounds like Bridget Jones. Cyber Bridget Jones.

Firstly, it’s the internet so I do what I always do. Check my email, find nothing worth getting excited about, check my Facebook, same. Swear on my best friend’s ‘wall’. ‘Like’ something that my sweetheart said. I check my Ebay favorite search terms – ‘plastic shoes’ and ‘jukebox’ and ‘XC Falcon’. There’s nothing new since searching two days ago. Cool. 9.5 hours to go. Cough. Admittedly, at home I’ve wasted hours of my life caught in a banal net loop not much more exciting than this. But tonight I am looking for more. My eyes are stinging a little. I go check out the DVDs. They have some bad teen girl movies that I wanna pick but don’t. Then I pick up Where The Wild Things Are and stare at it for a while but somehow whimsy just doesn’t fit. I want something sci-fi. Something Gibsonian or at least jammed packed with action. I’ve seen the newest Star Trek movie which is a shame cause it would be perfect. I finally decide on Avatar. I don’t know if I am trying to sabotage this experience for myself or what but I just can’t put it down. Avatar it is.

Hour two. 1 miso soup in a paper cup. 1 blue flavoured powdered milk drink.

Avatar is very boring. My attention is fractured and in a Manga Kissa, that’s totally encouraged. On every trip back from the bathroom I pick up one or two Mangas with appealing covers. Typically I like the girly or the robotic not the tough-cop or fantasy. I browse comics while the blue pussy people learn to hunt in the forest. I look up when the expository dialogue is particularly cringe inducing.

Manga in Japan is fascinating. For me the hardest thing about being here is my inability to read Japanese. Even though most of the narrative is carried in the images I can’t get past my curiosity over the words. I find myself focusing minutely on a hiragana word for whole minutes even though the exposition is provided in the frames. It reminds me of Patt Crack’s irritation with people reading comics like novels, glancing over the illustration and hooking quick meanings from the text. I’m a bad comics consumer. Oh, the shame.

One manga sub-genre I’m totally captivated by is Boys Love. These are Manga erotica titles about homosexual relationships between boys but they are aimed at a readership of girls. Boys Love is also known as Yaoi, an acronym taken from the Japanese phrase Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi (ヤマなし、オチなし、意味なし which translates as "No climax, no point, no meaning”). The climax that’s absent is only a profound or unexpected narrative climax. There are plenty of the other, less-lit-more-spit kind and the Yaoi acronym is sometimes cheekily referred to as Yamete, oshiri ga itai (やめて お尻が 痛い? or "Stop, my butt hurts!") with it’s creators emphasizing that the story is totally irrelevant and only exists only to give spurious context for more anal sex.

Typically, Yaoi titles focus on a sexual relationship between two boys, one is Seme and one a Uke, terms which derive from martial arts and can be translated as ‘pitcher’ and ‘catcher’ or hilariously in some translations as ‘insertive’ and ‘receptive’ partners.

I hadn’t held out much chance for being able to locate the Yaoi titles amongst the rows and rows of neatly stacked shelves but amazingly, at the back of the room a shelf is crowned with the decorative lace bordered sign, labeling a whole section “Boys Love”, in pink, puffy English.

It’s thrilling to peruse the volumes. I like the 90s looking ones. I like the ones with racy titles. I settle on a couple of issues from the series’ ‘Sex Pistol’ and ‘West End’ and head back to my booth via the drinks machines.

Hour 3: Affogatto made from soft serve and black vending machine coffee. The secret to a good soft serve affogatto is to fashion the icecream into a volcano formation and then tea spoon the hot coffee into the crater. No-one else seems to be taking advantage of this free shit. The counter guy is always there, cleaning, but no-one is gulping down the free slurpies. Weird. I get a bit self conscious. In my booth, the cups are stacking up. How is it possible to serve french fries from a vending machine? Would hot dog be a better or worse choice? I think maybe better… I walk back from the machines past a guy with a stack of three packs of camel unfiltered cigarettes and at least 10 thick, tome like comic books.

The protagonist of ‘Sex Pistols’ by Tarako Kotobuki (2004) is a girly, angular Uke. From the very first page he's shown brutalized at the whim of various business men who can morph into animals. The sex scenes are both nightmarish and surreal. Faces distort. The Uke’s eyes bulge and sweat as he takes another suited baboon’s member. His main lover/rapist is revealed a tall Seme who turns into a cheetah in the sack and purrs like a kitten after he cums. Together, they are tender and the dynamics are familiar/unfamiliar in the sense of translation into a hetero-normative or even homosexual couple framework. In addition to dealing with reluctance, control, dependence, there’s the whole anthropomorphic factor and with it, the laws of the jungle.

Like sometimes a cheetah has to kill a bear to keep him away from his hole. The even compassion of the Uke is often enough to reduce his insertive partner to tears of jungle vulnerability. Cheetahs have feelings too. It’s proof of love stronger than sexual passion.

In the second chapter we find out the Seme has a girlfriend. From what I’ve been reading this is not so typical in Yaoi narrative. While the Seme is totally blasé and seems uninterested in explaining his desire to either of his partners, our Uke feels betrayed. The girlfriend’s pouty absence imply that she has either encountered this before or doesn’t take it seriously or both. Also, she’s gross, monstrous even. Her tits, arse and lips are blown out of proportion, her eyes are blank, the pupils shattered. She is not a real woman at all but a monstrous fuckdoll, a caricature of the blindness of societal values.

Spurned, the Uke turns to other men and is dressed as a school girl, a nurse or a slut and impaled on the laps of various impassive anonymous semes. You can tell he’s on a downward spiral. Then one day - soaked, stretched and wretched upon the cruel dong of emotional neglect – it all becomes too much. Our little Uke scrunches his eyes up into a pained grimace, tenses every muscle in his tiny, oversexed body and turns into a small monkey, perhaps a marmoset. This morphic episode represents personal catharsis and corresponds with his acceptance of his sexuality (submissive-twink-and-lovin’-it). In the books which follow, the more we see him as monkey, the girlier, camper and also the happier his human form becomes.

With West End (1996) Aoi Futaba eschews cerebral themes to pen an ultra violent fuck narrative with deplorable moral values and amazing costume design. In the first few pages the Uke leads a hapless chap back to his dingy room where he seduces them or allows them to think he's seduced. But when get down to fucking, the arch Semme who has been hiding in the shower, (and resembles the dude from Def Leppard) jumps into frame to slit the man’s throat and gleefully disfigure him. Then the arch Semme and Uke fuck gaily.

The sex in West End is more explicit, the cum frames are many and the act is varied and quite hardcore for black and white line drawings. Further issues drift into a formula. There is a lot of rape/revenge/rape and then a very touching scene where the Uke’s dogcollar is exposed as a symbol of love and safety rather than dominance and ownership.

Until now I had read more criticism about Yaoi than actual comics and it occurs to me that none of that criticism addressed the pleasure element. Of course it’s interesting from a gender studies perspective that there is popular gay sex-act cartoon-porn aimed at women but why do the women want it? I suspect the reason is not as complex as the potential the genre presents for academics. I.e. It’s hot, right? Hot for girls. Boys love is a romance genre that appeals to young women like Mills and Boon might once have.

Apart from all the gore, the relationship in West End is pretty romantic. They have a lot of violent sex, commit the odd glee-murder but they also take long relaxing baths. The Seme ruffles Uke’s hair when he’s washing it. They play like brothers in a nineties hair metal band.

Back in the critical realm one of the appealing aspects of Yaoi is the destabilizing of rape-sex fantasy, which is problematic for women. When you recast the actors as men you remove yourself from the object (read victim) position. In absentia you can enjoy the image without being implicated by it. This is reemphasized by the media. There are no human actors in comics therefore the amoral, exploitative elements of porn as well as the medical ‘ick’ factors are avoided. So Yaoi can be framed as a kind of a reclaiming of the potential power dynamics of violent fucking without the immediately visible and prescriptive definitions of oppression and abuse. Here, tops and bottoms are established through emotional and visual foreshadowing and not necessarily through prescriptive gender norms. Redrawing sex between two (notionally) male subjects is a way of examining female sexuality within present social context without being forced to explicitly address the feminine or being-a-woman-in-the-world. It’s not advocating violence against women because there are no women other than creators and fans. And there are no ‘real’ men either. Boys Love boys are object-men created by women for women. And the women who draw them and the women who read them want brutality, not responsibility. This has its own problems but, like I said, there’s a hot factor, and if women want these kind of images, why shouldn’t they have them? Men get them every day.

The agenda for toughing-up the women’s romance genre is also being addressed in the countless supernatural sex narratives we have been seeing lately. If it’s no longer girl meets boy, but girl meets wolf or vampire or just watches while the twinks 69 in the abandoned playground all the established rules of hetero-sex are off and imagination comes back into the fore.

Hour 5, Hot Chocolate, corn soup x2.

The young men who have been chain smoking in the upright chairs that line the hall are gone and a new group of young men are arriving. These are last train guys, a bit too pissed to make it back to the suburbs. They mill around the vending machines and pick comics with slurry movements

The corn soup must have quite a bit of msg. After the second cup I’m mad with it. Plus I’m beginning to LIKE the smoke. It makes everything feel like its happening in a misty, magical glen.

Avatar is still bluing up my booth and the dude next to me is snoring so loud I can hear it beyond the overdone score, beyond my noise cancelling headphones.
I try and make a list of James Cameron films I actually like. Terminator. Is that it? I flick restlessly through an issue of Cosmode, a magazine aimed at anime fans who engage in Cosplay i.e. dressing up as their favorite characters and doing whatever it is that comes next - going shopping and to conventions I think. The magazine is funny. Helpful schematics for how to tie your Final Fantasy shroud just right to intensely detailed makeup combinations to pages and pages of different one day contact lenses.

The digital clock on the toilet seat tells me its five am. Everyone is quiet now, though not necessarily sleeping. In the black no-time no-space we are smoking or eating sugar and reading. We are no point, no climax, no meaning. All quietly absorbed together and it's comforting. However, if the whole scene became too much I could go into one of the solarium rooms for a dose of the warming, artificial sun and then head to the treadmill to work up a sweat.

Hour 6, This is what a vending machine hot dog looks like: The packaging is prettier than the product. But no vending machine goods are as gross as all that tendrilly jacking-in to other species that goes on in Avatar.

The blue pussies are a horrible group of eco-nostalgic doofas who want pre-modern pastoralism but don’t wanna give up the internet. I have only made it three quarters of the way through the movie when the smoke shutters up my eyes and I drift into a confused, sugared dreamland.

When I wake up the blue pussies are sutured to the screen frozen in time like James Cameron’s film making itself. I have lost the will to write. I am weak from lack of air. The google search on my screen reads - do ice-cream spiders work with soft serve?

I’m hungry and consider getting something from the vending machine but there’s just gotta be a better vending machine. My neighbour’s mobile phone is buzzing persistently. I don’t even know her but having spent the night so close together I get the psychic prickle that it must be her mother. The smoke has sunk now, my eyes are puffy and the inside of my mouth feels like a fender bender.

Part of me wants to run. Another part says no, stay. Eat more sugar. See it through. I pick up a comic book with a picture of a semi naked girl and boy embracing in a sea of hippy, organic inspired splodges. Did Avatar sub consciously make that choice for me? Am I watching 90s revival whole earth double halcyons in a murky black no-place of cyber-space for a reason or am I trying to find meaning in a meaningless world? These are all questions buzzing around my 6 am.

I can hear the sounds of girls scrounging in bags. Perfume is being sprayed. I gag on the fumes. People are leaving. The first trains will be starting soon. Business men will go straight from here to work or to the airport. Backpackers will be heading for the shinkansen to the next temple speckled city.

I need natural light. I want to walk on solid ground. At the desk I pay and smile and head out into the early morning city. The heat of the day is previewing as Japanese cleaning crews set to work picking up all the scraps of the night before. Old women hunch over and clean the grit and gum from the cracks in the pavement. Flyers for strip clubs and all night shot-bars are packed up for the incinerator. In an hour the whole city will be clean. Efficiency and escape – these seem to be two of the major principles of Japanese cities. Participation is mandatory. Employment, work ethic, consumption. And then, when you need to, you escape into the pre-determined escape holes like Maid Cafes, Cosplay or Manga Kissa. Transgression is performed in prescribed ways.

There is no way that Manga Kissas could exist in Australia. They would be full of drunken loutish man-gangs and noise and bad nu-metal. In Japan we can all be quietly and politely unwholesome together before heading back into the bright, sanitized future. I blink, adjusting my eyes to the third dimension. In the sky the neon sign buzzes and shouts:

“We love escape! Thankyou for enjoying your escapism! Please remain productive! We love enjoying imagination! Please leave your imagination at the designated space to enjoy next time!” And the doors to the shopping mall open wide to take me in.

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