The term describes an aesthetic widely shared in Asia: a young man whose beauty (and sexual appeal) transcends the boundary of sex. Recently, it has shown strongest manifestation in Japanese pop culture, but it has roots in ancient Japanese literature, the homosocial and homoerotic ideals of the medieval Chinese imperial court and intellectuals, and Indian aesthetic concepts carried over from Hinduism, imported with Buddhism to China.
Today, bishōnen are very popular among girls in Japan. Reasons for this social phenomenon may include the unique male and female social relationships found within the genre. Some have theorized that bishōnen provides a non-traditional outlet for gender relations. Moreover, it breaks down stereotypes surrounding feminine male characters. These are often depicted with very strong martial arts abilities, sports talent, high intelligence, or comedic flair, traits that are usually assigned to the hero/protagonist.
Typically, bishōnen are depicted with either outright homosexual content or some level of sexual ambiguity in their relationships and sexual identity, though in increasing instances in anime and manga, such as Saint Seiya, Fruits Basket, Trinity Blood, Weiss Kreuz, Gravitation, Fushigi Yuugi and Naruto to name a few.
The prefix bi (美) more often than not refers to feminine beauty, and bijin, literally "beautiful person", is used to refer to beautiful women. Biseinen is to be distinguished from this term as seinen is used to describe men who are of age, including those who have entered or completed tertiary education. The term shōnen is used to describe boys of middle and high school age. Last, bishota can be used to refer to a beautiful, pre-pubescent male child or a childlike male. Outside Japan, bishōnen is the most well-known of the three terms, and has become a generic term for all beautiful boys and young men.
The bishōnen is typically slender, with clear skin, stylish hair, and distinctly feminine facial features (such as high cheekbones), but simultaneously retains a male body. This androgynous appearance is akin to the depiction of angels in Western renaissance art, with similar social roots for this aesthetic.
The aesthetic of the bishōnen was recorded in Lady Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji, written in about the year 1000 A.D. Genji concerns the exploits and romances of a young prince, the son of an emperor and beloved concubine, who is not in line to inherit the throne, and follows his intrigues through the court as he comes of age. The novel typifyies the Heian age of Japanese history, a period of highly-stylized romance. Prince Genji's beauty is described as transcendental, so much so that "one could have wished him a woman", with a bewitching attraction that is acknowledged by men and women alike.
The aesthetic of the bishōnen began as an ideal of a young homosexual lover, likely arising from the effeminate male actors who played female characters in Kabuki theater. It is perpetuated today in anime and manga, especially shōjo manga and anime, shōnen-ai, and yaoi.
Some non-Japanese, especially American, anime and manga fans use the term to refer to any handsome male character regardless of age, or any homosexual character. In the original Japanese, however, bishōnen applies only to boys under 18. For those older, the word bidanshi, literally "handsome man" is used. In the place of bishōnen, some fans prefer to use the slightly more sexually neutral bishie (also spelled as bishi) or bijin, but these terms remain less common. The term binanshi was popular in the 1980s. Bishōnen is occasionally used to describe some androgynous female characters, such as Lady Oscar in The Rose of Versailles, Kaoru no Kimi and Hana no Saint Juste in Oniisama e..., Integra from Hellsing or any women with traits stereotypical to bishōnen.
Bishōnen is also used to describe an anime or manga character who is drawn as if a female, but has male components. This would make it easier for the artist to create a feminine male, rather than drawing a male character regularly.
Scottish pop singer, Momus (aka Nick Currie) immortalized the term with his song, "Bishonen" from the "Tender Pervert" album (released on Creation Records). Almost 8 minutes long, the song is an epic tale of a young boy raised to die young by an eccentric stepfather.
The enduring preference for bishōnen males can clearly be seen in Japan and throughout East Asia to this day.
In particular, Japan's largest male talent agency, Johnny & Associates Entertainment Company specializes only in producing male tarento idols. Accepted into Johnny & Associates in their early teens, these boys, collectively known as 'Johnnys', are trained and promoted to become the next leading singing-acting-commercially successful hit sensations. Almost all can be classifed as bishōnen, exhibiting the same physically feminine features combined with a sometimes deliberately ambivalent sexuality or at the very least, a lack of any hint of a relationship in order to maintain their popular availability.
Current bishōnen examples from the same agency include Jin Akanishi and Kazuya Kamenashi of j-pop group KAT-TUN, Tomohisa Yamashita of NEWS and Jun Matsumoto of ARASHI, all of whom are phenomenally successful throughout East Asia by appealing to both younger and older women and whose widely praised, gender-incongruous physical beauty is often deliberately manipulated in terms of role-playing and, most commonly, fanservice.
Besides being a character type, bishōnen is also a distinct art style not usually forgotten in books about drawing manga. In art, bishōnen are usually drawn delicately, with long limbs, silky or flowing hair, and slender eyes with long eyelashes that can sometimes extend beyond the face.
Some manga are completely drawn in the bishonen style, such as Dragon Knights. Bishōnen manga are more commonly shōnen-ai(focused on homosexual relationships), such as Boy Princess though there are exceptions.
Bishōnen and BishōjoEdit
Bishōnen can often be mistakenly categorized with bishōjo. Most people do not realize that there are major differences between the two.
Bishōjo is more commonly centered around young girls, and drawn in a cute, pretty style; bishōnen is centered around teenage boys, and drawn elegantly.
Another common mistake is that the female characters in bishōnen are bishōjo, arising from the fact that 'shōnen' means boy, and 'shōjo' means girl. In truth, the female characters of bishōnen manga are very different from those in bishōjo.
Bishōjo females are usually smaller and drawn in a more cute than beautiful way, whereas bishōnen females exhibit the long limbs and elegance of bishōnen.
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