Ep. 58: Birds of Shangri-La, by Ranmaru Zariya
It’s about to get pretty steamy on Mangasplaining, as the crew travels to an unnamed tropical island to visit with The Birds of Shangri-la, our first venture into verrry spicy BL territory. In this NSFW episode, we learn the ins-and-outs of more explicit BL manga stories, talking about genre conventions and external censorship, along with love and lust, and projecting yourself into a narrative. A very good time is had by all.
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WARNING: This episode and the images in the show notes are extremely NSFW. If you click the ‘read more’ link, know what you’re getting into.
Birds of Shangri-La Volume 1
By Ranmaru Zariya
Translated by Adrienne Beck
Touch-up art and lettering by Deborah Fisher
Cover and graphic design by Alice Lewis
Edited by Jennifer LeBlanc
Published by SuBLime Manga (Print and Digital)
Show notes by Christopher Woodrow-Butcher and Deb Aoki. Audio editing by David Brothers
CW: Lots of sex, penises, discussions of sex work and trauma
Before We Get Started:
We should note that we tend to use the words “prostitute” and “sex-worker” interchangably in this episode, and we understand not everyone loves the word “prostitute.” All four of us are firmly pro-sex-worker, sex work is work, and no offense is intended.
Both Christopher and Deb recorded this particular episode at 1 am, due to the time difference between the U.S. West Coast and Europe (where Christopher and Deb were at the time). Please be kind if they sound a little low-energy at points.
About Ranmaru Zariya
Like many BL authors, not much is known about Ranmaru Zariya. You can check out their Twitter @zariya_ranmaru. They’ve had four releases in English, all published by SuBLime manga, including Void (Digital-only), Liquor & Cigarettes, Coyote and Birds of Shangri-La, with latter two as currently ongoing series in Japan. In fact, the third volume of Birds of Shangri-La has yet to be released in Japanese (though many chapters from the serialization have been published), so it may be a little while until we get to the… bottom of the mystery between Apollo and Phi.
About Birds of Shangri-La
A paradise of sensuality, Shangri-La is a male brothel celebrating the glories of gay sex. Newly-hired Apollo is in charge of getting the men ready for clients, but as a straight man, he’s a bit naive. Phi, one of the brothel’s most sought-after prostitutes, is tasked with getting him up to speed, but not before toying with him a bit. Too bad the rules of the brothel are clear—no orgasms, no penetration, and no falling in love! One night, a distraught Phi, not wanting to be alone, begs Apollo to stay, but a “just this time” turns into more, and the two break one of the cardinal rules all teasers must follow!SuBLime Manga website
2:25 The first panel of this title is cum leaking out of a freshly-f*cked man’s ass. That’s what this episode is folks, you can tap out now if you need to, but we highly recommend you stick around… this might just be our best episode yet.
4:00 Yeah, gotta be honest, the pointed lack of d*cks in this manga, in all but the most obscured ways, is probably its biggest downfall as a piece of erotica. We talk a lot more about this, but one thing I didn’t mention on the podcast is that not including d*cks that need to be censored… leads to a complete absence of censorship. There’s no pixelation, ‘cones of light’, or black censor bars in this manga, which makes for a more naturalistic reading experience…. until of course there should be a d*ck there and there just isn’t. Scenes like this are about as much c**k as you’ll find in this manga:
And this scene in particular shows how jarring it can be when something isn’t drawn:
7:00 Here’s a few examples of how d*cks are generally censored in BL manga:
The conventions in Gay Manga (as opposed to BL) are mostly, historically the same, though these days almost everything is relatively inconsequential black bars or cone of light, rather than anything else.
11:00 Censorship is f*cking stupid. We talk at some length about censorship in Japanese manga and the arts in general in the show notes for our BL Metamorphosis Vol 3-5 episode. Here’s the link, and you can scroll down to 56:30 to see the written response, or FFWD the episode to that part to hear our discussion. I almost cut-and-pasted it all here again, just to make sure you read it, but I’m sure you’ll click the link and check it out. 😉
12:20 Best joke in Mangasplaining History.
12:45 Don’t worry, it gets more traumatic as it goes. As we mention at the end of this episode, more of Phi’s really terrible past is revealed in volume 2, and that also kicks the mystery around the island into gear as well. It’s a pretty fine line to walk here, between a compelling dark-past plot, a developing relationship, and hot porn, and I think Deb is right (later) when she mentions that this has a LOT more plot than your average BL title.
“If I’m gonna be turned on by gay stuff… I need d*ck.”Chip Zdarsky
14:10 Here’s that transparent piece of jello d*ck, that Chip mentions.
16:18 [Deb:] David’s comparison of Phi and Apollo from Birds of Shangri-La with Revy and former salaryman Rokurou Okajima from Black Lagoon is both unexpected and brilliant. If you haven’t read Black Lagoon, go check out this preview from VIZ Media.
19:30 David’s right, the part when he turns out the light before they… spend time together… is very good. It’s actually one of the most sensual moments in the book.
This imagery is repeated in volume 2, and it’s even better there.
20:30 Chip: “It never gets as extreme as that first panel.”
Birds of Shangri-La: Hold my beer.
24:00 Young people probably have no idea what I’m talking about, but there was a TV Show called Fantasy Island (I think it got remade a few years ago), and it starred Ricardo Montalban as the guy who ran a (magical?) island where guest-stars would discover their heart’s desire. He would usually welcome guests to the island with the phrase “Welcome, the Fantasy Island!” in his distinct and lovely way.
It’s probably, subconsciously, why when I wrote the default script for this podcast, it was “Welcome to Mangasplaining” as opposed to the more popular “Hey guys, what’s up?” that rocks a lot of YouTube these days. David was far closer than he perhaps realized. Anyway, the dude who runs the island… of fantasies… in Birds of Shangri-La gave me major Ricardo Montalban (known in the show as Mr. Rourke) vibes. Now I kind of want to see a melding of these two properties. That might just get me back into serialized television.
Also, we have read a LOT of books about fantasy islands. Maybe we’ll do a tally in the show notes for Dick Fight Island.
26:30 Yeah, the Lawyer in this is just like… a fascinating character. Did he and Apollo fool around in college together? He’s married but so secure in his heterosexuality that he comes to a gay sex island and watches some dudes f*ck? He gets given a membership card and is he considering using it to return to the island or is he just amused by this “gift?” This character is wild, and I hope he comes back in volume 3.
Meanwhile, the phrase “Lube Butler” that I used is a term I learned about… in a comic! The author has seemingly chosen to scrub that comic from the internet for their own reasons, so we’ll let that go, but it basically means someone who likes being around sex and helping out with accoutrements or like, holding the camera, but for their own reasons doesn’t wanna be involved directly. Comics ARE learning, folks!
[Deb:] Also here’s that opening scene of chapter 3 with the dive into the swimming pool.
28:30 As a reminder, Coyote by author Ranmary Zariya, is now available. If the idea of barely-restrained Werewolf sex is a thing for you.
29:00 So I know we’ve discussed the manga Cherry Magic before, but there was some cool news relevant to this podcast so I thought I’d go over it again. We’re going on a total tangent, here.
The full title is Cherry Magic! Thirty Years of Virginity Can Make You a Wizard!? and it’s by author Yuu Toyota, and published by Square Enix. It’s technically a josei manga, though it’s marketed in the U.S. as BL. It’s about a salaryman who, when he reaches his 30th birthday, gains magical powers and becomes a wizard because of his virginity. One of those powers is reading minds when he touches people. This is how he accidentally discovers that his popular, handsome, outgoing co-worker is secretly in love with him and since this is manga, sparks will fly!
Launched in 2018 through online serialization, the manga is now complete in 5 volumes, and Deb keeps teasing us with reading it but hasn’t committed yet. Haha. But it seems like good fun, and very much in the vein of other cute manga titles (though I’m really curious to see if it ‘earns’ that Parental Advisory sticker on the cover). The series got a live-action drama adaptation in 2020 in Japan, and it was also shown on Crunchyroll with English subtitles. It develops into… a real relationship.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. Recently the series got a live action film (it opened at #6 in Japan!), continuing the story and the romance from the live action drama. In a somewhat uncharacteristic move for a Japanese BL manga creators, the series’ creator Yuu Toyota actually made a public monetary donation using the film’s proceeds, to Japanese charity “Marriage For All Japan,” an organization that’s fighting for marriage equality!
“I hope that our society can become a place where people can love each other in the form they desire regardless of gender.”Yuu Toyota, on Twitter
That’s a pretty big deal, to have a prominent, popular BL manga actually acknowledge real-world gay people and offer financial support and huge visibility. I mean, it made the anime news. That’s pretty great!
So yeah, I can’t think of a better example of showing how things are changing in and around BL, even after this episode was recorded, when talking about how gay people are perceived in Japan. It was a bright spot of news. 🙂
30:00 “Hitting the buttons,” LOL.
30:34 “A brothel of soft boys” is… haha. Okay, I think we get this lack of variety because ultimately works in BL are heavily, heavily niche. Like in ALL porn, more or less. It’s all about how it’s tagged, and if you like a certain type of body type, a certain type of style, basically if you want a certain set of porn tropes, then you find the exact author & work that matches your desires as close as possible.
Deb mentions that there are lots of different body types in BL (there could be more), but generally not in the same work. There’s dozens of BL titles released a month, and maybe thousands of different doujinshi released in a month, so you’re spoiled for choice and can narrow, narrow, narrow down what you want. But if you wanna be cynical and step back a little bit, this is a book with a hot cut bad-boy character and a bigger hot cut stoic-guy character, and those two dudes together are like 80% of the male protagonists in mainstream female-oriented erotica (and gay erotica too, fwiw).
32:02 David bleeped none of this episode.
32:12 Okay, so we need to talk about Tops and Bottoms a little bit.
So, basically, a top is the person who usually inserts a penis or other object, and the bottom is the person who receives that penis or other object. In BL manga, the Japanese terms used tend to be ‘seme‘ for top, and ‘uke‘ for bottom. But as the genre as progressed, and folks have looked for more diverse stuff, we tend to get reluctant seme, and aggressive uke, or sometimes they’re both aggressive or reluctant, sometimes they’re just tsundere or prickly on the outside, but soft on the inside. Sometimes there’s no dynamic at all, or characters switch. It’s just more tropes, more genres conventions, more ‘tags’ to look for if you’re interested. 🙂
Also worth noting that actual Japanese gay people don’t generally use these words. A nice gay bartender in Japan clarified that generally gay dudes use “tachi” for top, and “neko” (which means cat) for bottom. It’s very evocative. 😉 Here’s an article offering possible explanations of that.
32:30 David with the podcast’s second Dragon’s Crown reference. Here’s a dude from that video game with very big boobs, who has just… finished off… a whole bunch of bad guys.
34:30 So when talking about ‘sub-genres’ within BL, I think it’s fair to say that while BL is very popular and sells very well in Japan, it doesn’t sell quite as well in the U.S., mostly thanks to the huge, huge, huge, problem with piracy. Adult works tend to be pirated at a higher rate than non-adult works in general, and the stigma around sexual works and women buying sexual works and the intersection of a bunch of those and other things…. Basically, it has created a culture of, at best, the majority readership of BL read pirated work AND buy the legit stuff they like when it’s available. At best.
This tends to create a situation where only the stuff with the broadest appeal and the highest level of professional polish gets picked up for English language print release (digital is a different matter, more on that in a second), and that’s to say nothing of the personal preferences of the acquiring editors. So, yeah, the BL that we get in English tends to be pretty close, aesthetically and interest-wise, to one another, but there is a great deal of variety in the genre once you get to the outer edges. And there are always outliers, like the absolutely insane Dick Fight Island, which has three different body-types!
But if you look at something that isn’t about print publishing and its restrictions, like say the catalogue of books at 100% legal digital BL manga site Futekiya or Renta! you can see that there’s a bit more variety. Some light furry stuff (like Coyote up top, but more cat boys and… dog boys), some different art styles, more historical settings, more fetish-y stuff, etc. And of course, there’s even more variety in art styles and stories in doujinshi and self-published comics.
We did specifically mention the work of Natsume Ono, who does both BL manga under the name BASSO, as well as a bunch of manga that feature a variety of body-types of gay characters. It’s a little more unconventional, but really good and might scratch an itch you didn’t know you had…
[Deb:] Please read Natsume Ono’s manga! It’s awesome! Most of the titles pictured above, La Quinta Camera, Ristorante Paradiso, Tesoro, not simple and Gente are available from VIZ Media, Danza is available from Kodansha, and ACCA 13: Territory Inspection Department is available from Yen Press. However, her BL works as BASSO — well, you’ll just have to look for them at doujinshi shops like Mandarake or K-Books.
We should also absolutely shout out the work of the incredible est em here, a manga-ka who draws people of all ages, shapes, and sizes (though she does like her muscley dudes, heh). Sublime has a book of hers available digitally, Tableau No. 20, about a man who falls in love with a young man in a painting, and then, somehow, magically, meets him in real life, 20 years later. Plus six other stories! Some good stuff in there.
As for the gay stuff, it’s definitely out there, but it’s a little more off the beaten path, and depressingly little gay manga has been translated to English, let alone oyaji (older man) stuff. I will say that a collection of Gengoroh Tagame’s short stories, Fisherman’s Lodge, was published in English by Bruno Gmunder in 2014, but it’s sadly out of print, no digital copies, and it goes for hundreds and hundreds of dollars on the secondary market. It does feature a very hot older bear dude though. Maybe one day we’ll get gay print manga again?
[Deb:] It’s worth noting that Gengoroh Tagame is offering his manga in several languages (including English) online, so you can buy it directly from the source!
36:00 Man, I almost regret bringing up Banana Fish here because I knew I’d have to write about it in the show notes, and it’s kind of a big subject. Basically, Banana Fish is a 19 volume manga series by Akimi Yoshida, a crime-fiction shojo series (yes, really) published by Shogakukan in Japan from 1985 to 1994, and by VIZ Media in North America.
The story is set in New York City in the 1980s, and it’s about a light-haired, teenage gang leader named Ash, and a budding relationship of circumstance that develops with a Japanese photographer’s assistant named Eiji. Both influenced by (and influential to) the BL genre, the series was a huge crossover success in Japan, though slightly less so in North America (it did get released in two editions and multiple printings though!). It was adapted into an anime in 2018, kickstarting another wave of popularity, and it’s currently available on Amazon Prime Video, I think.
The manga may or may not be in print right now, I’m honestly not sure because of the sales and paper shortage stuff, but VIZ did at least release the whole series digitally.
38:00 New Greatest Joke in Mangasplaining History, Rebel Without A Cock.
38:43 YAOI Hands, like the discussion said, is about drawing very large hands in yaoi manga for… expressive reasons. I mean, it could be more than just a dick-stand-in… but it might not be. Here’s a link to KnowYourMeme about it.
[Deb:] Because you may not know the origins of the “short-fingered vulgarian” comment from Graydon Carter (former editor of Spy and Vanity Fair magazines) that tormented Donald Tr*mp for years, Vanity Fair has the deets on that.
FWIW, the panels that David calls out in this are still at least within the realm of possibility, as it’s a pretty realistically drawn manga, but yeah, not surprised that’s the first thing he thought when he saw page 22.
40:25 Your weekly reminder that we record video for this podcast that we will never, ever share.
42:25 As Chip said, the cut-aways and transparent butts (and multiple layers of transparency in the image below) are the HEIGHT of manga technology, it’s taken us decades to get here.
“It’s the x-ray cut-away of like Tony Jaa punching someone and breaking their bones, except it’s fingers in an asshole.”Christopher Woodrow-Butcher, Mangasplaining
Just as a point of clarification, I was specifically thinking of this scene in Riki-Oh: The Story of Riki. Not Tony Jaa (who is also bad-ass), but basically, the x-ray-cutaway-bone-breaking-punch. That whole clip is… insanely violent, age-restricted so I can’t link it here. Don’t click on it if you aren’t prepared for it. You might’ve also seen the effect in Jet Li’s Romeo Must Die.
“You probably don’t want a Big Honkin’ Dong… So to speak.”David Brothers, Mangasplaining
48:15 It’s funny, I think I disagree with David a little (not about the big honkin’ dong… although…), I love the brothel owner’s partner who shows up, I love the lawyer friend, the secondary characters are some of the best. The fact that Apollo can’t remember Karna’s name is like, the funniest thing because none of us remembered his name either. And then this scene with the partner being like, “Wow, this is certainly a thing you’ve got going on here, isn’t it?” is my favourite.
51:28 “Capitalism doesn’t matter.” I wish I’d dug into this idea a little more, because on some level this is all about capitalism. Birds of Shangri-La features a rich dude running a brothel charging wealthy men to have discrete sex with hot dudes. He also has to pay off the authorities on the mainland to keep things going smoothly. Apollo is only in the brothel because his wife threatened to send him to jail and ruin him financially too. Phi was turning tricks to survive on the streets before he got to Shangri-La.
Money runs all the way through this book, but it’s also almost completely irrelevant to the core relationship between Phi and Apollo. There’s such an interesting dichotomy there that is probably worth exploring with a longer review. Anyway, there’s definitely room for more readings of this manga, there’s a lot of very weird texture.
1:01:10 Condoms and lube! I know it seems strange, and I appreciate that it does ruin some people’s ‘fantasy’ of the sex at hand, but yeah, I’m with David on this one, I like the little attention to detail for the sexy romps.
1:03:40 So, Bondage Fairies – Sorry, can’t find those essays. And those manga are long, long out of print. I have to imagine FAKKU! might bring them back some day? I mean the work’s already done? Although they’re so pirated at this point I can’t imagine there’s much interest in that anyway. ANYWAY.
I just went to the FAKKU website and realized I haven’t sold comics for 5 or 6 years, so I’m not actually sure what the good straight porn manga is these days. I invite folks to list their favourites in the comments, for folks looking for recommendations. Just try to keep it legal, in all respects, please and thank you.
“Apollo has a hole in his heart… that only Phi’s hole can fill! Cuz a negative times a negative is a positive. It… it’s a math joke. Anyway.”Unattributed, Mangasplaining
1:08:39 THE BREAK
And now after the break it’s time for Shout-outs!
Christopher shouts out France, because of course he does. He also shouts out Kyoko Okazaki’s River’s Edge, which Kodansha has announced and will be out this fall! Very exciting.
[Deb:] Because Christopher is too modest to mention the story behind his Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres medal, here’s a closer look at his medal, and a little more about this honor and how/when he received it, courtesy of Quill and Quire.
David recommends the film Silence by Martin Scorsese.
Chip recommends Taskmaster, the British television show. He loved it so much he sent us a clip.
He also gives a conflicted shout-out to the HBO show Winning Time.
David brings up this story about Winning Time basically ending the friendship of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell. It’s super sad.
Finally Deb shouts-out French dairy and bread, and damn, did we have some good cheese and milk and bread in France.
[Deb:] Also: we are not kidding about how amazing France’s manga selection is! Here’s a pic from the FNAC in Montparnasse, Paris
And that’s this week’s episode! Thanks so much for listening and for reading along with us! We’ll be back next week for Taiyo Matsumoto’s Ping Pong volume 1 & 2.
You can find a comics and manga specialty retailer near you at Comicshoplocator.com. Also check your local library for print and digital lending options.
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