Scene from “If It’s With You“
“It’s going to take some time, but [boys love dramas are] going to be very popular in the near future,” A.C.E’s Jun told Teen Vogue last year. The best BL dramas of 2022 prove him right — the genre is only growing, and this year’s dramas brought everything we love about the romance and queer representation they bring to the table.
Some of the BLs from this year operate in a world where queerness is normalized; some approach queerness head on. South Korea’s STRONGBERRY production studio is getting their flowers with the release of Choco Milk Shake (though their content has always been great), and the Philippines offered a romantic serving in Beach Bros with Sean Tristan and Raven Rigor hitting the kilig button several times.
In June, I wrote about the evolving pride of BL Dramas, a cross-continent piece examining the significance of BL across Asia, with thoughts from people like Max and Tul, Ohm and Nanon, Off and Gun, Copter Panuwat, and Holland. In some ways, queer fantasy and queer reality are converging. The simple act of developing, scripting, producing and releasing fiction like these shows is aligning with platformed activism; actors First and Khaotung recently partnered with the Thai Red Cross Society to raise awareness of HIV stigma in Thailand — further proof that these faces on screen are not passive performers in queer stories.
Without a doubt, gay teen romance Heartstopper has been one of the big television success stories of the year. Netflix‘s British series—adapted from the graphic novels by Alice Oseman—became an international smash when it hit the streamer this past April, with viewers across the world swooning over the the love story of Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson.
But Heartstopper isn’t without precedent. In fact, it follows in the footsteps of a number of wildly popular Thai television series that fall under the genre known as “boys love”—commonly referred to simply as “BL.” And it’s fairly self-explanatory: These are shows mostly about young adult gay romance.
The popularity of these stories in Thai television has exploded in recent years, becoming a proper phenomenon that draws in viewers from Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and beyond. Per fan site BLwatcher.com, 17 BL series have premiered so far this year, with a combined 43 released in 2020 and 2021.
The first thing Thai Boys Love drama star Panuwat Kerdthongtavee does when they arrive on my screen is confess their nerves. But from their neatly-styled light chestnut hair and that smile, you’d never know.
The actor, known as Copter, posted a series of tweets on June 6 that concluded by announcing that they are nonbinary. “I had a question in my head, will everyone understand what I am? But I think at this point, I’m not afraid of anything anymore,” Copter tells Teen Vogue. Zooming in to lend their thoughts for our Pride of BL story, they wind up giving so much more. Time with Copter feels like two friends around a campfire, a flame that only swells as they share their truth.
As the star of BL dramas such as 2Moons and Gen Y, the 25-year-old actor is no stranger to LGBTQ+ culture in Thailand, and being in proximity to queer issues because of these roles has meant constantly learning new phrases and identities.
They weave a story about their questioning of gender and frustration with operating under a binary way of thinking. Imagine two boxes: “I’m trying to bring my body into one of the boxes, and then I found that my head was pushed into another box,” they say. Even after trying to change their posture to fit into one box, their feet were thrust into another. This reckoning of experience and environment, struggling to fit into either of two pre-defined spaces, is ultimately what led them to discover that they are nonbinary.
Some of the best BL dramas (shorthand for Boys’ Love) to date have made global waves in 2021, from countries such as Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, China and the Philippines. This year’s BL dramas have ventured into uncharted territory, showing us again and again the value of nuanced, romantic queer storytelling.
K-pop group A.C.E’s leader Jun told Teen Vogue in August that he hoped BL dramas like Light on Me and others could “help break down prejudices and create a more equal world for all,” knowing back then that his forthcoming role in Tinted With You would do exactly that.
Light On Me star Kang Yooseok put it like this to Teen Vogue earlier this year: “A person can fall in love with anybody, because a person can love anyone.” That’s the essence of BL in its most fundamental state.
Current series Bad Buddy — will we ever truly move on from that scene? — will ring in the new year, vying for BL supremacy in 2022 as we wait for dramas such as To My Star 2, PondPhuwin’s Never Let Me Go, and KinnPorsche The Series. But for now, here are the 11 best BL dramas from 2021 that deserve your attention.
For many queer fans, one of the most iconic moments in modern anime fandom was the finale of figure skating anime series Yuri!!! On Ice. It seems difficult to imagine the show topping the dramatic (probable) kiss in episode seven, but the series ended on a note that seemed to say that the future for Yuri and Victor would be one where they’re together as partners on the ice — and off of it as well.
Yuri!!! On Ice has since become an international sensation with countless fans still eagerly waiting for more content. A big reason why is that it blends the familiar sports anime vibes with queer themes that call back to another popular genre: boys’ love (BL).
In the introduction to the 2015 collection Boys’ Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan, editors Mark McLelland and James Welker walk readers through this subtype of manga and how it’s commonly defined. “If you walk into a typical bookstore in Japan today, somewhere on the shelves you are likely to find various books depicting romantic and sexual relations between beautiful, stylish male characters.
These male homoerotic stories might be found in the form of manga — the name for Japan’s globally known narrative comics — or in the form of “ light novels” — a local label for lowbrow, highly disposable prose fiction,” McLelland and Welker write. “If the store you’re wandering around is large enough, you might find these texts occupying an entire shelf, floor-to-ceiling, or even multiple shelves. In fact, it’s quite possible that the bookstore will have one section for manga and a separate section somewhere else for light novels, all depicting male male romance.”
Since 2019, there has been a rapid surge in the popularity of the Boys Love (BL) genre spilling from Asia. The emergence of BL can be traced back to Japan in the 1970s, so it has been around for quite some time. While it’s unclear what’s responsible for the surge in its sudden popularity, this newfound appreciation for the genre has many folks rejoicing.
With the influx of fans now flocking to the genre, this means there’s money & space in the industry for more productions. Japan is the OG of BL productions and used to be considered the industry leader in this area. Many other Asian countries are now throwing their hat in the ring, though, and certainly attempting to give Japan a run for their money.
The sheer number of productions being churned out right now is overwhelming. Consumers of BL are binge-watching new productions left, right, and center. Additionally, the quality of BL productions is also rapidly improving. More viewers lead to higher budgets which inevitably result in better quality productions.
Based on a novel series, No. 6 presents a dark dystopian world where class divides are extreme, even deadly, and easily lost. Shion, a boy raised in the elite and privileged environment of the city of No. 6, doesn’t sound the alarm when a boy named Nezumi (or “Rat”) breaks into his home on the stormy night of his twelfth birthday.
The consequences of this are almost immediate and forever intertwine the lives of Shion, who falls from grace, and Nezumi, who tries to protect him the whole time. When wasps begin killing members of the seemingly idyllic community of No. 6, it reveals a new host of horrors, as well as the desolate lands outside its guarded walls. Shion and Nezumi try to uncover the truth and grow into lovers in the process.
In the anime and manga world, there have been countless debates on whether, No.6, a series by Atsuko Asano, is considered to be BL. BL, or boys love, is a genre of stories that depict romantic and sexual relationships between men.
But although No.6’s main characters are both male, and they engage in acts that may be considered homosexual, Asano adamantly refuses the BL label. In her attempt to pull the series away from the charged label BL, Asano opens up the possibility of seeing it as queer. No.6 is a queer text because of its rejection of paranoid reading and exploration of nonsexual romance between men.