Book Review: My Brother’s Husband, by Gengoroh Tagame
My Brother’s Husband, a manga by Gengoroh Tagame, immediately pulled me in and never once made me feel like an outsider, as I often do when reading stories with gay male protagonists (reading as a cisgender lesbian). The story, although based on the love between two men, is really meant for everyone to read, regardless of your gender, sex, or sexual orientation:
Yaichi is a work-at-home suburban dad in contemporary Tokyo; formerly married to Natsuki, father to their young daughter, Kana. Their lives suddenly change with the arrival at their doorstep of a hulking, affable Canadian name Mike Flanagan, who declares himself the widower of Yaichi’s estranged gay twin, Ryoji. Mike is on a quest to explore Ryoji’s past, and the family reluctantly but dutifully takes him in. What follows is an unprecedented and heartbreaking look at the state of a largely still-closeted Japanese gay culture: how it’s been affected by the West, and how the next generation can change the preconceptions about it and prejudices against it.
This manga tackles a lot of things, specifically through the lens of Japanese culture and their societal norms, which in comparison to Western culture, is very rigid. It shows how foreigners are treated, how tattoos are taboo in their culture, and that, even though many Japanese people aren’t vocally homophobic, they insist on not talking about homosexual lifestyles and simply ignore it, which is just as bad and harmful in some cases. Yaichi has a realization that the reason they grew distant wasn’t because his twin changed, it was because he changed once Ryoji told him he was gay. He thought he was being respectful by not talking about it, but it simply made the two grow apart.
The story does a wonderful job of illustrating how Japanese etiquette differs by having Yaichi explain things to his grade school daughter, Kana. Narratively, using Kana to explain why things are the way they are allow the reader to watch as Yaichi begins to question the same things that Kana is questioning in her innocence and general life inexperience. And by using Kana as a narrative focal point, the reader gets a semblance of a call to action to be more accepting and supportive of LGBTQ+ people as Yaichi begins to wonder what he would do as a father if his daughter were to ever come out to him as a lesbian later in life.
Kana instantly loves her bear of an uncle from Canada, Mike. Seeing Kana’s immediate acceptance and love for Mike juxtaposed to Yaichi hesitation towards him allows the reader to experience Yaichi’s steady character growth over the two large volumes. This growth is also literally illustrated in the manga, as there are a few scenes where the reader gets to see what Yaichi is thinking versus what he actually says:
Read right to left
Read right to left
Speaking of the illustrations, Tagame does some subtle, but poignant things within the artwork. We see Yaichi during his journey of understanding and acceptance of his deceased gay twin “talk” to Ryoji through mirrors and shadows. These moments have very little text or dialogue and focus entirely on how Yaichi is interacting with the environment while thinking of his brother. My favorite scene like this is after Yaichi leaves the school when he is finished talking with Kana’s teacher. He walks outside, notices his shadow in front of him and looks up at the sun as it shines directly down on him. This is one of the few instances within the entire work where Yaichi smiles. It is almost as if his brother is shining down on him from above, happy with how he stood up for Kana and her gay Uncles.
It probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for me to describe it, but I promise that the scene is very powerful despite not having any words to pull at your heart strings – it definitely still pulls. Hard.
Even though the illustrations are beautiful and evoke all types of emotions, the narrative has some powerful punches of its own. The second volume focuses on the family, what makes up a family and what it means to be a part of one. There is a wonderful scene where Yaichi, Mike, Kana, and Natsuki (Yaichi’s ex-wife) all go to a bathhouse and Yaichi makes an off-hand comment about how odd their group must look. Natskui responds with:
“I think we can call us… a family. You and I have split up, but we used to be related. Our relation is now through Kana. You and Mike… are related through Ryoji. Besides, we’re at a [bathhouse] together. That definitely makes us family.”
This leads Yaichi to reflect on his relationship with Mike and it leads him to letting his walls down and sitting down and really talking and opening up to Mike, having Mike catch him up on what he’d missed out on with his twin. It is because they have this conversation that you understand why Mike came to Japan in the first place. I won’t spoil it, but I’ll tell you that it made me tear up.
My Brother’s Husband is very much worth the read. Not only is it a super quick read (I read both volumes in a little over an hour), it packs an emotional punch while leaving you with warm fuzzies. It also gives you dialogue points to help you talk to others when they express their disapproval for homosexuality. It is a story that warms your heart and shows that your family is more than just an arbitrary bond, it is what we chose to make it.
4.5 out of 5 rainbows – The only reason this gets 4.5 out of 5 is because the book’s narrative is contingent on Ryoji’s death, perpetuating the bury your gays trope.
Recommended Reader: This is a great book to have non-gay individuals read, as it does a wonderful job of breaking down the walls that society builds around the idea of gay being taboo. It shows it through the eyes of a child (Kana) as well as the emotional confusion and turmoil in an adult (Yaichi).
And of course, everyone else. It is a story that not only delves into gay topics, but goes deeper into looking at how we react to things based on what our society perpetuates and teaches.
Seriously – read it. You’ll be glad that you did.