Nothing tastes better than BL and orientalism!
Having somehow had the Japanese release of Our Kingdon: Arabian Nights end up in my hands about two years ago at Anime Boston 2009, when I saw an English language release sitting on a shelf this past April at Anime Boston 2011, I knew I had to buy it. I’d paged through the Japanese release several times, only able to decipher bits and pieces of the narrative. Curiosity was fully piqued. There were decent deals on manga. I took the plunge.
I got around to reading this English language edition a couple of nights ago, and, well… it was kind of an odd read. The strongest impression I got of it was the bizarreness of the entire venture – that is, of a Japanese author writing about a half-American, half-French boy and an Arab prince in ‘Arabia’, a country which appeared to resemble Dubai much more than any other, even considering the obvious inspiration of Saudi Arabia and its royal family.
This isn’t to say, by the way, that a person can only properly write about their own countrypeople, but that OK: AN was stuffed to the brim with both orientalism and occidentalism (preferring that turn of language to ‘reverse orientalism’ which is really descriptive of another mindset entirely, i.e. the ways in which the orientalist subjects viewed and reacted to their colonizers). Raoul, our French-American guy, has a big penis (at least according to Ashif!) and is aggressive. Ashif, our Arab prince, is childish but good-hearted. Its the colonial encounter as played by an external individual.
I’ll be honest – I could really dig into this, touch on how Japan occupies a fairly unique position in that they were an Eastern colonizer during the modern imperial era in exception to the West-to-East power-flow of the age, look at French involvement in the Middle East, draw in America’s current involvement in the Middle East… but I don’t really feel like devoting that much time to it. I just really wanted to emphasize that OK: AN made for an intensely weird read for me and probably will for anyone with the slightest awareness of colonialism and orientalism.
For instance, we have Raoul, who will subjugate the Arab uke, Ashif, with his penis. Raoul is French and American – France colonized much of the Middle East in yesteryears (Great Britain, of course, had the remainder), while America now at least appears to have imperial interests in the region. So having a prince of an Arab kingdom dominated by a French-American is kind of uncomfortable when considered in greater depth than “hey, hey, who’s the uke?”.
Ashif, for his part, is depicted essentially as a child despite his physical age. He kidnaps Raoul and holds him captive, although he is never really in control of the situation as he is easily outwitted by Raoul. Ashif undertakes his course of action in an attempt to help his older sister and his bodyguard, who are in love but blocked by the bodyguard’s shame over his own mixed heritage. But Ashif’s plan is pretty silly from the start and only achieves the desired result because of Raoul’s failure to behave as expected by the plan. Ashif is incapable of affecting anything by himself.
It is also important to consider how childish Ashif is, too, because it makes their eventual coupling extremely squirm-inducing. At the beginning of the sex scene, it becomes obvious that Ashif doesn’t know what is happening. He must be lead by Raoul, the Western adult, and he looks bewildered about what is going on. As a person who is of the belief that if you don’t know what sex is, then you shouldn’t be having it, I found the entire scene pretty cringe-inducing and not at all enticing, as I’m sure I was supposed to take it. In fact, quite bluntly, I felt pretty gross after reading it.
Of course, none of it was helped by how poorly characterized the main characters were and the fact that the plot was thin at best. There is no fleshing out of the relationship between Raoul and Ashif – Ashif just reminds Raoul of his crush from the main story, Our Kingdom, and… well, apparently that is enough. As for Ashif… well, who knows why he has an interest in Raoul? Up until and even after that sex scene, the evidence for Ashif’s own attraction to Raoul only appears to be at the level of platonic affection one has for a good friend or someone they admire.
But, ultimately, Ashif isn’t really a character. Ashif is just a placeholder, someone with whom our lead may have sex, probably so that he was not left all alone after getting the boot in Our Kingdom as a romantic rival. Raoul does have development elsewhere, and we occupy his point of view for the story at hand. Ashif doesn’t; he’s a stereotypical uke, existent only to provide pleasure to our main character.
I wasn’t expecting Shakespeare from a BL manga. But I also found OK: AN to be pretty poor in comparison to to other BL manga that I have read previously. The plot was silly and inconsequential, the romance sketched so lightly as to be barely there at all, the characters to be lacking. The added orientalism moved it from being merely bland to being weird. I doubt that that was at all intentional; I am certain that the orientalist, occidentalist, and colonialist aspects were not at all planned but simply appeared in the text because of unexamined assumptions and beliefs on the author’s part.
I can’t recommend OK: AN at all. As I said just a moment ago, its unrelentingly bland mixed with uncomfortable stereotyping. The only reason for reading it would be if one wanted an example of present-day orientalism, or if one is the sort who finds it intriguing to examine that sort of thing (like me!). It isn’t good as BL, that’s for sure – one creepy sex scene, and a few scenes that are essentially of boys being physically close to each other while blushing is all you’ll get for your efforts. Yawn. Pass.