Unless you’re a fan of manga, you probably won’t know about this niche but popular subgenre called BL – short for ‘boy’s love’. While the genre is about male on male relationships, the audience is almost exclusively female; it’s not exactly new if you’re familiar with ‘shipping’ two male characters in fanfiction.
The BL genre is so popular in Japan, there’s even a name given to its avid fans: fujoshi, which literally translates to “rotten girl”. And there’s a fast-expanding international online community of fans, fueled by the many forums, manga reading sites, and volunteer scanlation groups.
In recent months, there have been more and more BL titles licensed for anime series and movies – like ‘Twittering Birds Never Fly’ and ‘Given’. In 2020, there were BL dramas and movies adapted from manga, like ‘Cherry Magic’, ‘The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese’, and ‘Sei no Gekiyaku’.
Part of this online growth could be attributed to one forum in particular: Aarinfantasy. Established since 2004, the forum has catered to its worldwide audience with its huge collection of BL manga and anime. It may come as a surprise that the site is based right here in Southeast Asia.
We spoke to the founder, Aarin, who explained her stance on all things BL.
How Aarinfantasy got its start
Like Alice in the rabbit hole, her interest in BL started with her obsession with Final Fantasy games way back in 1997, which led her to reading fanfiction romance between two male characters from the game. In fact, it was her love of Final Fantasy that led her to name the forum “Aarinfantasy”.
“Since then, I looked up a few BL fanfiction and it led me to discovering BL anime,” Aarin says, affirming that it is the interesting relationship dynamic and the engaging storylines that drew her in.
It was the slow internet that prompted her to start the forum. “I [was] having a really hard time downloading them and it takes days or even weeks to have one title finish downloading at that time”. With perseverance, she amassed a small BL collection on her PC which she wanted to share with others.
Aarinfantasy was mainly set up with the help of a male techie friend she met on an anime-sharing forum; interestingly, he wasn’t even into BL, and was actually based in the USA!
The booming early days
During the forum’s early years, it experienced a huge surge in traffic, leading to site crashes during peak hours. Tens of thousands of fans signed up, lured by access to content that is rare outside of Japan, and translated into English. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that most of the users – about 60-70% – came from the USA, aged between 18 to 25 years old.
For a forum that was established to share BL anime, it was soon overtaken by BL manga. Not long after Aarinfantasy started, teams of ‘scanlators’ – people who voluntarily translate original manga material into other languages – started to populate the forum, offering even more access to these hard-to-find manga titles. Sometimes, two (or more) teams would be ‘competing’ to scanlate a particular title, leading to some ugly blame wars.
The volume of titles being scanlated caught the attention of publishers, who began to license these manga titles in English to be sold to a wider audience – in part to prevent the widespread piracy of such intellectual properties.
Connections forged over the years
After over 10 years of running the forum, Aarin has made many connections with artists, mangaka (manga artists), and publishers of the BL genre.
Aarinfantasy was such a force in the BL genre that it influenced major Japanese BL publishers to expand their titles for the English-speaking market. In the beginning, popular titles such as Nekota Yonezou’s “Don’t Be Cruel” series, as well as Ayane Yamano’s “Crimson Spell” and “Finder” series were translated, and their popularity fueled the flurry of more officially licensed English translations in the following years.
Over the years, Aarin has also attended numerous anime and manga conventions. “I only go to comic conventions now to promote my BL magazine and help my BL artist friend to sell his items, but another main objective for me being there is to meet new people like BL fans and catch up with friends that I often see at events,” she adds.
However, at almost 40, Aarin cites that her age is catching up. “Don’t get me wrong, I am excited and happy every time I attend a convention but my energy level drains out faster than I want it to.”
The impact of manga readers
As years passed, social media overtook online forums, and a proliferation of online manga readers populated the Internet, making it easier for people to access these scanlated manga. No longer will they need to have a forum membership or download them – they can simply read them from smartphones or tablets on the go.
Not surprisingly, Aarinfantasy numbers fell by the wayside; most recently, Aarin took to social media to ask for donations to help keep the forum alive for those still using it. From having teams of moderators in the past, there are just 2-3 active moderators these days.
In recent years, Aarin has been running the forum as a hobby that “I would like to keep for the longest time or as long as people still feel the forum is a home.”
More than just a fandom, the forum connected people from all walks of life across the world. According to Aarin, “those who have been with the forum for so long, we kind of ‘grew up together’ so that will make them in their 30s-40s now, and most of them still like yaoi.” Even motherhood, it seems, doesn’t diminish their interest in BL entertainment.
Where will BL go from here?
As a sub-genre that began as a parody in the 1970s, the BL genre came into its own by the 1990s. Fast forward to today, and you’ll find tens of thousands of BL titles, with many created outside of Japan – like Korea, USA, and even Malaysia.
As someone who knows the industry well, Aarin believes that the trend of incorporating BL into everything – from games to movies – will only grow. BL RPG games has recently seen an increase in official English versions from game developers like Nitro+CHiRAL and Parade.
There are even BL-themed commercials like Sakeru Gummy (see below), in which a woman fantasises about a mysterious ‘Long Long Man’ who is actually in love with her boyfriend. Beyond Japan, Thailand has even built a sizeable entertainment industry based on producing live action BL dramas.
Today, BL works, culture, and fandom are prominent subjects of Japanese culture that are studied and discussed by scholars worldwide. It’s fair to say that for a forum that started sharing just a couple of BL anime titles, Aarinfantasy’s impact over its booming years has reached a global scale, spreading the genre further than anybody could predict.
EDIT: Updated Mar 02, 2020 to reflect that more BL manga titles are being adapted to screen.