gender rebels — when uke and seme switch: yaoi’s top 10 reversi manga

too hot to handle?

Love Recipe by Higashizato Kirico

Love Recipe by Higashizato Kirico

The reversible (or switch or reversi) couple is probably my favorite pairing. When a couple trades sex roles — the pitcher becoming the catcher and vice versa — it’s such a pleasing violation of yaoi conventions. If there’s one basic move in yaoi that both ratchets up the sexy and pushes gender boundaries, it’s the act of throwing the roles of seme and uke into disorder.

Unfortunately, in yaoi truly reversible couples are pretty rare. Generally speaking, couples adhere to the seme (guy) and uke (girl) roles, which seems to be a sneaky way to keep the genre more or less anchored in familiar societal sex and gender roles.

And, alas, just being a switch couple doesn’t mean that gender roles are tossed out the window, but let’s set that aside for now.

Once, in an author’s comment pages — occasionally those things have real gems in them — the mangaka lamented how she’d proposed writing a story where the couple switched but was told by her editor that the magazine didn’t allow reversible couples. To publish in that magazine, she’d have to assign and stick with seme and uke roles.

Wow. Really?!

So, let’s see, does that mean that if suddenly there aren’t ukes and semes, then you’re left with two actual guys having sex, and that might be more than the delicate little fujoshi can handle?

Where the hell did that come from?

(hmmm… nope, I think I’d rather skip straight to the list of reversi manga)

who makes those rules?

Love Recipe, Vol. 2 by Higashizato Kirico

Love Recipe by Higashizato Kirico [editor Tomonori teaching a new mangaka about what is and isn’t acceptable in their BL magazine]

Resentfully ruminating on this story, I found myself wondering, are the magazines’ decision-makers making up rules and imposing them on their readers (independently enforcing gender norms), or have the readers themselves reacted negatively to reversi stories, to the point that the magazines are worried that reversible couples will alienate their audience?

Japanese magazines seem to actively encourage readers to write in with their opinions and are always giving readers opportunities to participate in polls and provide direct, active feedback about what’s being published. If their readers don’t like reversible couples, the magazines definitely should know about it; it’s unlikely they’d be guessing about whether or not their audience wants to see couples switching.

So, what are the results of those polls? Oh, I wish I knew!! Then I could make some interesting statements about who’s enforcing the gender norms: the adults shaping and producing the stories or the readers themselves. No, no, it’s no fun to talk about them both doing it, equal responsibility, or anything complex like that. Gray is boring. Let’s talk black and white. Whose fault is it that I don’t get to see more sexy couples trading positions and the world’s fujoshi and fudanshi don’t get to see more gender norms being trampled on?

LoveRecipeV2a2

Love Recipe by Higashizato Kirico

I think I’d be much less uncomfortable with the squashing of reversi if it truly reflected the opinions and desires of the readers. I mean, if their cultural environs have brought them to adolescence with such a deep need for clear gender divisions that they can’t stomach an uke who suddenly becomes a seme, fine. I mean, not fine, but it’s better than the alternative. If the readers would actually be open to reversible couples but adult (male?) editors are shutting down that option and limiting gender flexibility in yaoi, well, that would really tick me off. And surprise me not one whit.

If anyone can figure out a way to get the answer to that, to get the dirt on whoever’s limiting my fun (and, um, societal gender liberation), I’d love to hear about it.

KareshiGlamorous Watanabe Asia

Kareshi Glamorous by Watanabe Asia


Update October 2015: for a follow up on these questions, check out reversi revisited at yaoi-con: asking Tateno Makoto (Yellow’s mangaka)


halfway measures

Somewhere midway between the standard seme-uke pairing and the switch couple, we find characters in a seme position with one lover but an uke position with another, in other words, reversible characters. So, when he’s sleeping with guy #1, he’s always a seme, but when he sleeps with guy #2, he’s always an uke. A switch character (who isn’t in a switch couple) may reverse roles depending on who he’s sleeping with, but within any given relationship, he doesn’t reverse, and neither does his partner — the roles stay fixed.

Tango no Otoko (The Man of Tango) by Okadaya Tetzuoh

Tango no Otoko (The Man of Tango) by Okadaya Tetzuoh – switch character or switch couple?

Of course, a switch character is a nice change of pace and unusual enough in BL. But in the end, what I like best in yaoi is the truly rare beast, the genuine reversible couple, where gender roles are at least a little more fluid: sometimes I top you, and sometimes you top me. Seems to me that those couples present a more significant disruption of our standard rules of gender and sexuality. They’re much more rebellious, and much more fun.

Oh, and have you noticed that some mangakas like to tease us with a switch almost happening but then not? Where the seme agrees to be the uke, but then the uke is moving too slowly with the foreplay or seems to be nervous or gets the seme too excited, and the seme suddenly takes charge again, pushing the uke down, and the whole switch flies out the window (with a promise of “next time” that never materializes)?

Aaaargh!!  (°д°)╯︵

Once I’ve calmed down (and put the furniture back where it belongs), and I reflect on those scenes, I have a hard time deciding what to make of them. I mean, do they challenge or reinforce standard yaoi gender roles? After all, the first obvious answer is that they reinforce them, because the uke stays an uke. But from another perspective, the mere fact that the idea of the switch gets introduced… might it point to chinks in the wall between seme and uke? Or maybe it reflects an awareness of readers’ desire to see more than the typical stereotyped gender roles, even if the mangaka pulls out, I mean, pulls back at the last moment?

So I ask, does the mangaka stop because: a) the primary audience is excited by the idea but would be turned off if the boys really did switch; b) the gender-norm-enforcing editors have told mangakas they can’t do naughty things like that, so the mangakas rebel a little bit by almost doing it; or c) the mangakas are just cruelly teasing us and frustrating our desires on purpose? Ah, if only I could be a Japanese-speaking-fly-on-the-wall for some of those editorial discussions.

Sekaiichi Hatsukoi by Shungiku Nakamura

Sekaiichi Hatsukoi by Shungiku Nakamura

who’s in charge?

I admit that I also I find it frustrating that many of the reversible couples seem to largely maintain the seme/uke gender status quo by having the seme stay in charge of the switch. He is the one that decides whether or not they’re switching.

Of course, looking at it that way may be a problem of perspective. Perhaps it’s realistic to say that the one who will be receiving is the one who has the ultimate veto power (his body and pleasure are far more at risk than the pitcher). Maybe the usually-semes are just kinda cowardly about bottoming (does that mean the ukes are the genuinely brave ones in a yaoi relationship?). But I tend to lean more towards believing that what the usually-semes are avoiding is that surrender of power and control that the seme position occupies. Hmmmm… ok, not sure what to think. What about you?

Still, even if they aren’t crushing gender norms and stereotypes, switch couples are at least stepping outside the “normal” in a way I can enjoy. So I’ll take them in whatever form they appear…

the list

All that being said, today I’m really in the mood for some reversi couples… Bring on the hot, sexy gender disruption!

Yume no Kodomo by Hamada Shouko

Yume no Kodomo

Okay, I can’t claim this is the definitive Top 10 Yaoi Switch Couples. However, the first eight of these stories are genuinely great; a couple of them are even on my personal “top 25 yaoi” list. The final two are one-shot collections (not a format I like much), but they were still worth listing.

I tried to be pretty strict with the list’s criteria. A manga is only here if the mangaka actually shows the characters reversing at least once (even if you only catch a glimpse, you gotta see that it’s happening).

Sadly, even with reversible couples, the characters tend to have a standard default seme/uke position, with the switch being an occasional thing, so aside from works by Sadahiro Mika (who loves reversi) most likely you’ll only get to see the reverse pairing once per couple. Such a shame.

And yet, even so… I’ll take it.

  1. Haru o Daiteita by Nitta Youka – 16 volume slice of life, very graphic, 99% consensual story about two actors struggling to build their relationship and careers. My rantings about the awesomeness of this story can be found here.
  2. Mukizu ja Irarenee by Sadahiro Mika

    Mukizu ja Irarenee

    Mukizu ja Irarenee by Sadahiro Mika – one of Sadahiro-sensei’s easier reads (relatively speaking, & mostly due to the lack of noncon), a hot, angsty teenage romance with summer sun, motorcycles, and oodles of fantastically graphic sex. As indicated above, this mangaka has many reversible characters and a number of additional reversible couples in her works — perhaps more than any other yaoi author — so you can think of this manga as standing in for all of them.

  3. Three Wolves Mountain by Naono Bohra – a sweet, well-developed, consensual fantasy tale about a cute little werewolf and the earnest but cranky human he falls for.
  4. Three Wolves Mountain by Naono Bohra

    Three Wolves Mountain

    Yume no Kodomo by Hamada Shouko – a multi-volume slow, complex romance between a teen and an author. The reasons for my love of Yume no Kodomo are detailed here.

  5. Sojou no Koi wa Nido Haneru (The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice) by Mizushiro Setona – A rather dark sequel to Kyuuso wa Cheese no Yume wo Miru, about a man who’s deeply conflicted about stepping away from “normal” and accepting a relationship with the gay man who loves him. Moderately graphic, consensual.
  6. Kareshi Glamorous by Watanabe Asia – a hilarious, over-the-top pair of couples (one of high school boys and one of working adults); little story, lots of extremely graphic, consensual sex. Wild and wacky.
  7. Scandalous Seiryo University by Tatsukawa Kazuto – wilder and wackier — pee-your-pants funny, with an ample supply of “did he just do that?!” moments. One of the most evil-lovable student body presidents ever, generously endowed with delightfully graphic (and mostly consensual) sex. The images in the scanlation are heavily censored, while the published volume is not, so if you like lots of crazy-graphic sex scenes, I highly recommend buying it (the story fills the 1st half of this volume & continues in subsequent related volumes).
  8. Hatsukoi no Atosaki by Hidaka Shoko – a quiet, grown up story about former high school friends reuniting as working adults and facing the pain that stands between them. Despite that depressing-sounding description, the story has a generally sweet flavor that balances the bitter coffee that Miyama serves at his cafe. Entirely consensual, moderately graphic.
  9. Sojou no Koi wa Nido Haneru by

    Sojou no Koi wa Nido Haneru

    Affair and Natsukoi (Special Summer Vacation) by Kano Shiuko (her oneshots occasionally have switch couples) – highly graphic sex, usually consensual — oneshots are kinda’ hard to summarize, ne? Suffice it to say, it’s pure Kano Shiuko…

  10. A 1-En no Otoko side story and its sequel in Limiter by Monden Akiko – a young man who had tried to leave the family business is called back by his childhood companion to take over after his father’s death; however, the willful young master will only come if… Overall, it’s a sweet yakuza love story. The two volumes both feature other strong detective/cop/investigation tales, attractive art, and graphic, mostly consensual sex. In contrast to a lot of yaoi, Monden Akiko’s semes tend to be more bear-ishly handsome than strikingly beautiful, which is very appealing.

So, those are the reversible couples of the day. There are more, of course. If you have any favorites, I’d love to hear about them…

Sono Mama de by Asou Kai

Sono Mama de by Asou Kai

Wishing you happy switch!


supporting the mangakas

also see buying yaoi… why and where

purchasing information as of August 2014 — no, I make no money if you buy…

  • Love Recipe by Higashizato Kirico: English edition in print.
  • Kareshi Glamorous by Watanabe Asia: unlicensed; scanlation by Dangerous Pleasure
  • Tango no Otoko (The Man of Tango) by Okadaya Tetzuoh: in print.
  • Sekaiichi Hatsukoi by Shungiku Nakamura: unlicensed; scanlated by September Scanlations (DVD of the anime also seems to be out of print).
  • Haru o Daiteita (Embracing Love) by Nitta Youka: first four volumes in print.
  • Mukizu ja Irarenee (Can’t Help Getting Hurt) by Sadahiro Mika: out of print; publisher (DramaQueen) seems defunct.
  • Three Wolves Mountain by Naono Bohra: in print.
  • Yume no Kodomo by Hamada Shouko: unlicensed; scanlation only.
  • Sojou no Koi wa Nido Haneru (The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice) by Mizushiro Setona: unlicensed; scanlation only.
  • Scandalous Seiryo University by Tatsukawa Kazuto: in print.
  • Affair and Natsukoi (Special Summer Vacation) by Kano Shiuko: Affair is in print; Natsukoi is unlicensed & scanlated by Nakama.
  • 1-En no Otoko side story and sequel in Limiter by Monden Akiko: both unlicensed & scanlated by Nakama.
  • Dare ga Omae wo Suki dato Itta and its sequel Shinu hodo Suki by Yamada Yugi: both unlicensed; Dare ga Omae wo Suki dato Itta‘s scanlator is no longer publically active); Shinu hodo Suki was partically scanned by Dangerous Pleasure (the other scanlators are no longer active).
Mukizu ja Irarenee by Sadahiro Mika

Mukizu ja Irarenee by Sadahiro Mika

12 thoughts on “gender rebels — when uke and seme switch: yaoi’s top 10 reversi manga

  1. First, I LOVE your links to buy at the end 🙂 Reading online is fine to sample, but I always try to buy whenever possible.

    The switch problem, really is an issue. I just cannot believe that any polls (if they were truly from a representative sample) would show a strong predilection for static roles in BL relationships. Isn’t that part of the fun, either one can take either role?

    There is also the issue of the hyper-feminization of the uke. I am not a fan of trap or characters that are so ambiguous that the other characters can’t tell it is a guy. We want two men for a reason, right? It is like we can’t make up our minds, take out the treacherous female body, but leave all the most undesirable stereotypes.

    As always, excellent post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, as you can tell, this is a topic I’m rather passionate about. I agree that when the uke is made to conform to feminine gender norms/stereotypes, suddenly I feel like I’ve almost slipped back into shoujo (although, I do still prefer a feminized-uke-yaoi to actual shoujo…). I want my yaoi to be yaoi, not a thinly veiled heterosexual romance. But I get the feeling that the industry thinks that either fujoshi want or should want to keep the heterosexual gender roles, even if the couple is supposedly malexmale. So disappointing. *sigh*

      Thank you for coming by and taking the time to comment!

      Like

  2. Pingback: the blog and I, take 2: Liebster Award nomination | the joy of yaoi

  3. Pingback: reversi revisited at yaoi-con: asking Tateno Makoto (Yellow’s mangaka) | the joy of yaoi

  4. This is a very interesting blog, even if i’m usually not agree with your considerations. Maybe bl is not only seme/uke, but also a whole “yaoi logic”. Do you like it? Becouse reading this post I feel like you’d prefer a world of western gay comics or m/m novel narration in bl manga art.
    Anyway thank you for this blog…ah, I love feminine uke. Also otokonokos. I like them becouse they attract also straight otaku, even if * but, he’s a guy*…^^

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    • Oooh, excellent comment!

      While I do wish there was more reversi in yaoi — it would make me incredibly happy — I’m still a sucker for yaoi, femme ukes and all. I just took too many feminism and anthropology classes in college, and sometimes I can’t resist getting wrapped up in cultural analysis. 🙂

      I admit, though, the prevalence of reversi characters in m/m is one of my favorite things about that genre, because I find it really hot (and more gender subversive). But m/m has its own gender stereotypes that I could totally rant about. XD

      Also, it would be terribly disappointing to have yaoi turn into m/m overall and lose what makes it unique. I definitely agree with you about that.

      I find your idea of “yaoi logic” really interesting. That would be something fun to pursue.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your reactions! ❤

      Like

  5. I just think that the static relationships are simply unrealistic. People are not like that. In both gay and hetero relationships static roles aren’t the rule.

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    • I would like to agree, but it probably varies culture to culture, depending on what gendered meanings they assign to different sex acts. If you see taking the uke/passive/receiver role in sex as being opposed to who you are as a man, you aren’t going to want to switch. You’re going to want to take the seme’s role and find a man who’s comfortable taking the feminized role.

      It all depends on how rigid people are in their beliefs about gender (and how it’s tied up with sex). Even here in the US, there are some men who only top or bottom. But I think it’s more common here to be okay with sex/gender flexibility than it is in many places around the world.

      Like

  6. So, there’s this yaoi (though it’s really more of a shounen-ai) that I thought was both hilarious and adorable.
    50×50
    It’s basically a reversi from the get go, leaving room for both to top the other at any given situation. Both are pretty manly and both started out fetishizing women. (not specifically but the general look of them anyway) It’s sadly quite fast, but I guarantee it’s worth the read. 😋

    Like

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