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August Author Spotlight: Fashion, Gender Expression, and Trans Representation with Keito Gaku

Learn more about the story behind our August Book of the Month, Keito Gaku's Boys Run the Riot: Vol. 1, self-expression through fashion and the culture of Japanese street fashion, and trans representation in Japanese media!

Image ID: An image of Ryo from BRTR depicts him kneeling and wearing a black tracksuit. The background is patterned with colorful graffiti.

Keito Gaku’s wildly popular and groundbreaking manga, Boys Run the Riot, tells the tale of Ryo Watari, a transgender teen who finds his footing in the world of Japanese street fashion as he makes new friends who guide and inspire his path, all while following their own. Volume 1 of the series is a heartwarming coming of age tale told through the spray paint splotches of Ryo’s graffiti art– his journey to true self expression as a transgender man flourishes when he meets Jin, a classmate turned friend, confidante, and business partner as they develop the “Boys Run The Riot” fashion brand together. We’ve truly loved this manga so far, and it’s brought sooo much inspiration to our closets ;)

The Beginnings of Boys Run the Riot

Gaku’s series began as a serialized manga, meaning new stories rolled out on a weekly basis. Rather than a continuous novel, BRTR began as a series of episodes with a continuous story arc. Prior to its release in 2020, Gaku’s debut one-shot, Akarui, which centers on a transgender boy working at a bar, won him the 77th Tetsuya Chiba Prize. BRTR was released in Weekly Young Magazine in Japan soon after, and immediately made waves given Gaku’s emotionally honest depiction of Ryo’s gender identity. In an interview with Crunchyroll, Gaku explains that “the only way I could think of to make the manga worth reading was to be honest with the material I was writing,” as serialized manga are, according to Gaku, “a race against time.” In his words, “what happens to Ryo isn’t directly inspired by my own life, but how he feels and reacts when he encounters the events in the story is often just what I would feel or think if I was in his shoes.” By bringing his personal experience as a transgender man to BRTR through Ryo’s exploration of identity, Gaku has been able to appeal to audiences on a newly personal level.

On Manga Translation and Localization

Manga and anime translation teams often take on responsibilities of localization and reformatting, or recontextualizing the work to fit within another country’s frame of cultural reference and market. Localization can be controversial when considering westernization and its often harmful impact on media, but the process was especially important with the subject matter of BRTR. When it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, it’s important to recognize the power of terminology– especially when translating between two languages with different common contextual references, like English and Japanese. The team from Kondansha Comics which worked on BRTR was led by trans non-binary editor Tiff TJ Joshua Ferrentini. Ferrentini assembled an entirely trans localization team to bring Gaku’s message to US readers, adding another layer of representation that BRTR has brought to the world of manga. Ferrentini’s translation honors the original Japanese narrative, and imparts the novel’s dialogue with honest emotion– ensuring that Gaku’s message of acceptance is reached across audiences.

A Brief History of Trans Representation in Manga

Gaku’s relationship to Ryo’s character provides BRTR with much of the relatability it's celebrated for– his depiction of Ryo’s transgender identity is unique in its embrace of Ryo’s humanity and struggles, while remaining positive. This is particularly evident in the embrace of Ryo’s identity by his friends and supporters. While trans characters have existed throughout manga’s expansive history in Japan and the US, they haven’t always been treated with the care Gaku extends to his protagonist. Manga has a deep history of including characters who challenge gender norms– with the one of first examples being Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight in the 1960’s, and the first transgender protagonist in Riyoko Ikeda’s 1978 Claudine series (for a more in-depth history of depictions of transgender identities in manga and anime, head to this article!) However, these characters, and many others who represented transgender or gender-nonconforming identities in manga and anime, often shared tragic storylines or were subject to fetishization. Hisashi Eguchi’s Hibari Ozora in Stop!! Hibari-Kun! is one of the first examples of a positively represented MTF transgender protagonist, which served as a personal outlet for Eguchi’s gender expression.

Street Fashion and Self-Expression

Gaku was drawn to explore street fashion for a multitude of reasons– most importantly, it provided a space for Ryo to explore his gender identity. Finding an item which you feel truly comfortable in, and feels like yours, is nearly an indescribable feeling which is paralleled with the experience of exploring gender identity as a young person in BRTR. As Gaku proves through Ryo’s different relationships to his female-coded uniform and the masculinely-read clothing he wears outside of school, fashion can greatly impact one’s self-image and sense of self esteem. Ryo’s exploration of his fashion sense and the power of self-expression through clothing parallels his growth in terms of his gender identity. Due to the teenage-driven culture of Japanese streetwear, Gaku saw fashion as an arena in which readers of BRTR could participate themselves. According to a sociological analysis of Japanese teenage subculture in the form of street fashion by Yuniya Kawamura, teens drive Japan’s fashion market by dictating which items and styles are most popular. In the 1970’s, different styles and trends quickly gained popularity as younger populations turned to fashion as a means through which younger generations could individualize themselves and find commonality through creativity. For a breakdown of each style and a brief history of Tokyo street fashion, head here! The diversity of styles which make up the greater world of street fashion make it the perfect setting for Ryo’s inner and outer development. As Gaku says, fashion is “a place where the main character [can] take the gender-related issues they’re suffering from and turn them into a strength that [is] theirs and theirs alone.” While transgender individuals in Japan have historically faced adversity, fashion can provide respite by allowing one’s external self to reflect the internal.

LGBTQ+ Rights in Japan

According to a guide to transgender life in Japan from Stonewall Japan, the country’s perception of trans identity has changed greatly since The Gender Identity Act was introduced in 2003. While it marked progress in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in Japan, many deeply harmful and inhumane aspects of the Act have drawn controversy– the medical requirements to change one’s gender identity on legal documents necessitate a Gender Identity Disorder (GID) diagnosis and gender affirming surgery. While mounting pressure by those advocating for transgender rights has caused Japan’s Supreme Court to reconsider the law, legal equality and protection for transgender individuals is yet to be granted. On the whole, however, Japanese citizens are generally supportive of LGBTQ+ rights with help from positive media representation like BRTR.

With Gaku’s first appearance in the U.S. coming up at this year’s Cartoon Crossroads Columbus festival, we hope this article gets you excited for his talk, SATURDAY September 30th from 8:00-10:00pm at CCAD! Gaku will be chatting with Justin Hall, a renowned queer cartoonist and editor known for works like Hard to Swallow and No Straight Lines.

CXC 2023 --> head here for more info about this year's programming (you don't want to miss it-- the schedule's packed with so many comic and animation icons and learning opportunities-- and for free!!!)

Tickets for Gaku and Hall's talk Saturday, September 30th can be found here!



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