ENTERTAINMENT

12 Boys’ Love animes, shows (and a movie) every fan needs to watch

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New Thitipoom and Tay Tawan Vihokratana stars as Pete and Kao in "Dark Blue Kiss." The love story of Pete and Kao has already spanned three TV shows. Screencap from GMMTV

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The popularity of the “2gether: The Series” has prompted local media to explain and theorize why, all of a sudden, the Filipino audience is crazy over a show about two college students falling in love with each other after pretending to be in a relationship.

A local blog has described the show as “new.” “We need to face our new reality,” it said. A fashion publication has called it “unapologetically gay.” A news outfit has called it “a testament to how far we’ve come in terms of acceptance.” These reasons are not wrong, but they’re also not accurate.

“2gether: The Series” is not new — not in Thailand, where these shows are part of mainstream television, and not in the Philippines. “2gether: The Series” is a Boys’ Love show, a kind of fictional media that depicts homoerotic relationships between men. The genre, also known as yaoi, originated in Japan in the late 1970s. Yaoi content from Japan became popular in Thailand (there called y or wai) during the early 2000s. Its popularity influenced filmmakers, writers, and TV networks to produce their own BL content. In 2019 alone, more than 20 of these shows were produced in Thailand. These shows have amassed a following in Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Taiwan, and the Philippines. As early as 2018, the stars of Thai BL shows such as “Kiss Me Again” and “Love By Chance” have visited the Philippines to attend fan meetings. Tickets for these events back in 2018 were sold for as much as ₱6,500, proving that there’s a paying audience for BL content and its stars in the Philippines.

BL elements have also been present in Philippine pop culture since the early 2000s. Local TV is yet to produce an actual BL show, though there are several forthcoming. There are, of course, made many LGBT-themed shows such as “My Husband’s Lover,” “The Rich Man Daughter,” “Destiny Rose,” not to mention the many gay-themed episodes of ABS-CBN and GMA-7’s drama anthology shows. TV networks have, however, aired foreign shows with BL themes and tropes.

While BL shows do present male-to-male relationships, it can be argued that they do not necessarily represent gay relationships. Yaoi in Japan was initially created by female writers for a female audience. Because of this, early Japanese BL employ tropes that are used in straight romance fiction or are designed to appeal to women. Men in older BLs are usually classified as seme (dominant, masculine) and uke (submissive, feminine) to mirror heteronormative gender roles.

Some BL shows usually don’t tackle the sexuality of their male characters either; men in love with other men don’t identify themselves as gay but as people in love with another person regardless of gender. The characters of BL media are almost always masculine, with effeminate gays and trans women often depicted as villains or comic relief. Many critics of the genre say BL fetishizes gay sex and relationships and imply that only masculine-acting gay men are desirable.

Many of the newer BL shows do correct these faults. Characters now identify themselves as gay or bisexual, for example. But BL shows don’t always show the reality and nuances of gay lives and relationships because they have to settle for a version of it that’s palatable to a wide (mostly female) audience. Thus, they are not necessarily gay shows. This isn’t bad per se, though it’s a possible limitation of the genre. BL is a genre in itself; it is not just romantic fiction that features gay relationships.

BL, in short, is fantasy. Viewers, gay or straight, want to experience the kind of love the show presents — simple, sweet, usually unemcumbered by reality — even though it’s mostly far from possible. Being gay is hard; being in a gay relationship is hard. And many fans of the genre watch BL precisely because they don’t want to see this reality. They want to see male-to-male relationship on screen that’s not burdened by the tradition and baggage of real-life romance, heteronormative or homoerotic, fictional or otherwise.

This list of BL shows is both a recommendation of what you should watch if you want to further explore the genre and a survey of shows with BL elements that have aired on local TV throughout the years. What’s apparent here is that, regardless of how you define what BL is and why local audiences seem to crave for these kinds of stories, there is room for representation of gay love in local media.

Yukito and Touya from "Cardcaptor Sakura." Photo from MADHOUSE

“Cardcaptor Sakura”

“Cardcaptor Sakura” is a children’s magical girl anime — about the titular Sakura who is tasked to collect magical artifacts called Clow Cards to prevent some magical apocalyptic future. The show tackles gender issues and romantic relationships that’s often considered too mature for young viewers. It also has very heavy BL elements, particularly in how it depicts the relationship of Sakura’s older brother Touya and his male best friend Yukito. The show suggests they’re more than friends (Touya has had a relationship with a female high school teacher; Sakura has a crush on Yukito). But later on, what is initially just subtext becomes something more when Yukito admits to Sakura that Touya is his “number one person.” Touya also gives up his magical powers (which allows him to see the spirit of his dead mother) in order to prevent Yukito from disappearing. If that’s not love, then what is? The gay elements are subtle; a chilld watching the show may not notice it. But a more mature viewer could easily pick it up, making it very popular among adult audiences. And this isn’t even the show’s only gay-themed story.

“Cardcaptor Sakura” aired on ABS-CBN in 2001. The local edit does not gloss over the show’s LGBT subtext. Which is surprising; the US version of the show is heavily edited to remove all suggestions of gay relationships. Cardcaptor Sakura is probably the first BL content many local viewers have seen, whether they realize it or not.

Suichi and Yuki from "Gravitation." Screencap from STUDIO DEEN

“Gravitation”

“Gravitation” is a BL manga and anime that’s popular among local fans of the genre during the early 2000s. The manga was published in English by publisher Tokyopop and was available locally. It also had an anime adaptation, bootleg copies of which were available in the many unlicensed anime stores in Metro Manila.

The series is about Shuichi, an aspiring musician who meets and falls in love with popular romance novelist Yuki. It has all the trademark elements of early Japanese BL: the seme and uke identification (Shuichi, the uke, is petite, emotional dresses in colorful attire that’s reminiscent of visual kei, and has pink hair; Yuki, the seme, is tall, masculine, aloof, and quiet), the ambiguous sexuality of the characters, the underwritten female characters. When the public later finds out that Shuichi and Yuki are in a relationship, it becomes a scandal because they’re both celebrities, not because they’re both male. It’s one of the first BL titles to break through in America, catapulting the genre outside the confines of Japan and its Asian audience.

Poster from FUJI TELEVISION

Poster from MBC TELEVISION

“Hanazakari no Kimitachi e”/“Coffee Prince”

The popularity of “2gether: The Series” has prompted some older BL fans to reminisce on how hard it is to find BL content before. “Ang swerte ng mga batang bakla ngayon daming BL series dati nag tiya-tiyaga ako sa Hama-Kimi at Coffee Prince,” one Twitter user said recently.

“Hana-Kimi” is “Hanazakari no Kimitachi e” (roughly translated to English as "To You in Full Blossom"), a manga series about Mizuki, a female high school student who pretends to be a man in order to enroll herself in an all-boys’ school and support Sano, a former high jumper who has given up on his sport. Sano later finds out that Mizuki is a girl, though he keeps this knowledge a secret. The two are also friends with Nakatsu, a male classmate who falls in love with Mizuki even though he believes she is a man. Thus, romantic tension and chaos ensue. The series is adapted into a Japanese drama and a Taiwanese drama, which was aired on ABS-CBN in 2008, as an answer to GMA-7’s airing of the Korean drama “Coffee Prince.”

“Coffee Prince,” adapted from a novel of the same name, pretty much has the same premise: Choi Han-gyul (played by Gong Yoo) hires Go Eun-chan (played by Yoon Eun-hye), who he thinks is a guy, to pretend to be his gay lover to escape the blind dates arranged by his grandmother. When Han-gyul takes over an old coffee shop (the titular Coffee Prince), he hires good-looking employees to attract female customers. Eun-hye continues to pretend to be a man to get a job at Coffee Prince, where she and Han-gyul develop feelings for each other.

The two shows obviously aren’t BL; it’s a gender-bender hetero romance. But the shows don’t shrug off the implication of falling in love with a boy (who is actually a girl). “Coffee Prince” takes this further than “Hana-Kimi,” with the show depicting Han-gyul as actually questioning his sexuality over his feelings for Eun-hye. The 2012 local adaptation of “Coffee Prince,” which stars Aljur Abrenica and Kris Bernal, doesn’t sidestep the gay themes of the story, too.

Watch "Cofee Prince" on Netflix

Poster from SAHAMONGKOL FILM INTERNATIONAL

“Love of Siam”

The 2007 Thai movie is probably the first Thai BL media that became widely popular in the Philippines. It is also considered as the “first yaoi piece in Thai film cycle” by Thai scholars, though many movies in the country have featured gay themes. The movie tells the story of childhood friends Mew and Tong, who develop feelings for each other after meeting again as teenagers, despite their own personal and familial struggles. It’s a coming-of-age movie that tackles religion and the heteronormative standards of society. It became a hit because of its BL elements, with fans watching the movie in theaters repeatedly, perhaps signaling the growing interest of the Thai audience in yaoi content. Fans now consider “Love of Siam” as the prototype of the Thai BL we know today. The movie was shown in the Philippines as part of the 2008 Cinemanila International Film Festival, where Mario Maurer, who played Tong, won the Best Actor award. Mario became a popular star in the Philippines thanks to the 2010 movie “First Love” (known here as “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”). Mario did a movie with ABS-CBN’s Star Cinema alongside Erich Gonzales. Local promotional materials about Mario during the time did not mention “Love of Siam."

Poster from FREE WIKI

Poster from YURI ON ICE WIKI

“Free!”/“Yuri on Ice”

Anime and manga were the primary source of BL stories during the 2010s. BL themes and gay subtones are also evident in non-BL Japanese media, employing what many fans consider as queerbaiting — a marketing technique where creators hints at same sex romance or LGBT representation in their shows or stories without actually depicting it. Among the most popular anime guilty of queerbaiting is the 2013 animated series “Free!,” a swimming sports anime. The show features a lot of light flirting among its male characters. And while “Free!” offers some delight for audiences who want to see pretty (animated) boys seemingly attracted to each other, it doesn’t do anything with the gay subtext. There are a lot of sports anime that use queerbaiting to attract female audiences. Those who want to see actual gay representation in anime can watch the popular 2016 anime “Yuri on Ice,” an ice skating sports anime where the gay couple is canon.

Watch "Free" on Netflix

Poster from CHANNEL 9 MCOT HD

“Love Sick: The Series”

“Love Sick: The Series” is, in many ways, the spiritual predecessor of “2gether: The Series.” The 2014 show is about the love lives of high school students, but its most popular story is the one between Phun and Noh. The two pretend to be boyfriends so Phun can continue dating his girlfriend — his father wants him to date a daughter of a friend; his sister, a fan of Boys’ Love novels, will convince their father to change his mind if she believes Phun has a boyfriend instead. Naturally, Phun and Noh develop feelings for each other. The series revolve around the two flirting and dealing with the increasingly ambiguous nature of their relationship. Are they in love or are they just pretending? And how can they navigate life as teenagers when they do come out as a gay couple? The series is light, though the world they live in isn’t a gay utopia; Phun and Noh, who identify as straight, both struggle to come to terms with their homosexual feelings. “Love Sick: The Series” is often credited as Thailand’s first complete BL show, the popularity of which helped spawn other BL shows such as “SOTUS,” “Make It Right,” “Love By Chance,” and “2Moons.”

Watch it on Netflix.

Poster from ASIAN WIKI

“Ossan’s Love”

“Ossan’s Love” (which roughly translates to Old Man’s Love) is a Japanese comedy-drama about Haruta, a 33-year-old real estate agent. He identifies as straight, though he is single and isn’t very lucky with the ladies. There is no reason why anyone would like Haruta, except maybe for the fact that he’s good-natured. So Haruta gets the shock of his life when two men suddenly confess their love for him: his 55-year-old boss Kurosawa and his 25-year-old colleague Maki.

It’s hard to classify “Ossan’s Love” as a BL (some fans of the show in Japan resist the BL classification), but it employs some of the genre’s tropes. But it also subverts some of its problematic elements. While the characters of “Ossan’s Love” do not necessarily identify themselves as gay, they don’t necessarily shy away from the issues and realities of sexuality. For instance, because of their love for Haruta, we see Kurosawa separate with his wife and Maki deal with coming out to his colleagues and parents. When the eventual gay couple of the show had to reveal their relationship to a real estate client, the reaction they got is violent shock. The female characters here, while still tethering on being plot devices, receive their own emotional arcs; you end up rooting for them as much as the main male characters of the show.

The Japan of “Ossan’s Love” is realistic. It has to be, because the characters are middle-aged men. Coming out as gay has real life repurcussions beyond being teased by peers. It is hard, regardless if you’re 18 years old, or 25, or 33, or 55. It’s a refreshing change from Thai BL shows that usually just tells stories about young and attractive men. Other popular and acclaomed gay-themed titles from Japan with mature gay characters are “Kinō Nani Tabeta?” (What Did You Eat Yesterday?), a slice of life series about a gay couple, and “My Brother’s Husband.” Both are manga series that were adapted to live-action shows.

Watch it on Netflix

Poster from LINETV

“TharnType: The Series”

Locally, perhaps the only Thai BL show that could rival the popularity of “2gether: The Series” is the 2019 show “TharnType: The Series.” Type, a friendly but homophobic boy, gets Tharn, an out gay man, as a college roommate. Naturally, trouble ensues — until the tension between them turns into romantic tension. The show is possibly one of the most polarizing BL shows now, with fans praising how it tackles mature topics such as rape (and what how victims of rape are affected by the trauma). But crtiics of the show call it problematic, with many scenes depicting what many may (and, perhaps, should) consider as sexual abuse between the two main characters. (Rape and sexual abuse are common elements in Thai soap operas in general.) Nonetheless, its popularity is undeniable, thanks to the electric chemistry of its main stars, Mew Suppasit and Gulf Kanawut. “Tharntype” has an almost soap operatic approach to its storytelling (without letting go of the BL tropes, of course), a slight departure from the coming-of-age theme that’s common in the genre. It was recently announced that the show will receive a second season.

Watch it on Line TV

Poster from iWANT

“Mga Batang Poz”

“Mga Batang Poz,” produced by the ABS-CBN streaming service iWant, is the closest thing we have to a BL series. But don’t be mistaken: even with the presence of gay characters and homoerotic romance, “Mga Batang Poz” is not a BL. Not in the strictest sense of the word.

“Mga Batang Poz” is unapologletically gay. The show is created by gay men; it is directed by Chris Martinez and its teleplay was written by Jerry Gracio. It is marketed as an “advocacy” series, made to promote HIV awareness, particularly among young gay men. So the stories are specifically gay stories, about the young gay lifestyle. Its characters identify as gay, and one of its actors, Awra Briguela, is an openly gay actor. Sex in BL is often shown as tender, similar to how sex is depicted in a heterosexual romance fiction. In “Mga Batang Poz”, sex is depicted as rough, even violent. Three of the four main characters are straight-acting, but it never suggests that only straight-acting gays are attractive and desirable. In short: nothing about “Mga Batang Poz” suggests that it cares about pandering to a general audience. The show feels like it is specifically made for gay men.

It feels like “Mga Batang Poz” is what the future of what a locally produced BL could look like — written by a gay men, created primarily for the LGBT audience, concerned with gay representation in its cast and staff.

Watch it on iWant.

Poster from GMMTV

"Dark Blue Kiss"

The 2019 BL drama "Dark Blue Kiss" is about the relationship of Pete and Kao, a continuation of their love story that was featured in 2016’s “Kiss The Series” and 2018’s “Kiss Me Again.” (You don’t need to watch the previous shows to enjoy “Dark Blue Kiss,” though there’s a BL cut of “Kiss Me Again” available on Youtube.) Pete and Kao are already in a relationship when the show begins; “Dark Blue Kiss,” then, focuses on what happens after the gay couple’s supposed happily ever after — although there’s another couple, Sun and Mork, in the show that very much treads the usual BL tropes, except that Sun is already established as gay/bi. The result is a show that’s a bit more mature and grounded in reality than your usual BL show. It deals with jealousy, coming out, heteronormative expectations of society, and what happens when two people in love don’t belong in the same social class. These themes aren’t always what fans look for; BL titles don’t always show what happens to their romantic leads when they finally become boyfriends. But “Dark Blue Kiss” still offers the usual thrills and joys of a BL show, thanks to the performance and chemistry of its leads, Tay Tawan and New Thitipoom.

Watch it on GMMTV YouTube.