The First ‘Beautiful British Boy Boom’ (1988-1989)

Note: I’m currently conducting research on the history of foreign (male) star ‘booms’ in Japan, beginning with what’s been called the “first beautiful British Boy Boom” (第一英国美男子ブーム) and eventually ending with the present-day second British Boy Boom. I’ll be posting bits of this as I go, beginning with this introduction to the first phenomenon and its origins.


Based on the three photobooks (two from Haga shoten and one from Screen magazine) that first identified the popularity of a handful of British male stars in the late 1980s as originating in their quintessential ‘Britishness’, it seems provisionally safe to say that the first ‘beautiful British boy boom’ (英国美男子ブーム) originated in the 1988 exhibition of the Merchant-Ivory film Maurice (James Ivory, 1987) at Tokyo’s Cine Switch GinzaMaurice was the top-grossing film at the ‘mini-theater’ Cine Switch Ginza in 1988, and it was their third-highest grossing film of all-time as of 1998, running for 15 weeks (Jan. 29 – May 12) to an audience of 95 thousand, and grossing 122 million yen (approx. US$938,461 in 1988). [Otaka, 217]

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Prior to Maurice and other works of what has been designated ‘British heritage film‘, postwar Japanese interest in foreign stars appears to have been confined largely to a bevy of American, and a handful of individual European and British, stars. I base this assumption primarily on the star-centered photobooks, or ‘cine-albums’, produced by Haga shoten through 1989 (which is to say, I have information on these publications  through 1989, but they were produced post-1989 as well), which typically focused on individual stars. The front covers of mainstream movie magazine Screen, which almost exclusively featured foreign stars from the magazine’s inception in the 1960s, seem to support this.

Prior to the publication of Haga shoten’s Young Noblemen of Britain (イギリスの貴公子たち) in 1988, cine-albums only rarely foregrounded stars’ countries of origin. Most stars were American by default, their nationality hardly worth mentioning, and while European stars may individually have been credited with possessing one or another ‘national characteristic’, these were specific to the individual actor and not generalized to a group. Even in the case of martial arts films, which were almost exclusively a Hong Kong phenomenon (with a smattering of Taiwanese influence primarily by way of filmmaker King Hu), the emphasis was on individual stars (Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao) or the martial arts and emerging action genres themselves. Only Hong Kong Cinema Special (1984) links place to films, but even here it’s less stars who embody specifically Hong Kong characteristics than the genres in which they performed (that said, as early as the mid-1970s posthumous popularity of Bruce Lee in Japan, he was credited by Japanese film critics in the pages of monthly film journal Kinema jumpo (Movie Times) with embodying a uniquely ‘Asian’ ferocity that was the seed from which later discourses of stars’ innate ‘Asianness’ would grow).

As such, it’s notable that Haga shoten’s Young Noblemen of Britain organized foreign male stars by country of origin, and for an implicitly female readership. Comparison with earlier cine-albums reveals a far more masculinist orientation: sexy female stars (including the more moe early 1980s set: Diane Lane, Jennifer Connelly, Nastassja Kinski, Brooke Shields, Kristy MacNichol, Molly Ringwald, as well as such soft porn stars as Sylvia Kristel) and manly men. The same women were featured on the covers of Screen magazine of the same period – stars for women to emulate and men to ogle. Thus, not only was YNoB effectively the first cine-album to organize actors by nation, but it was also the first in which men were uniformly depicted as gentlemen, rather than rugged action heroes.

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Indeed, the female readership to which the book was targeted was made explicit in the book’s first essay, “The Sexual Appeal of Daniel Day Lewis,” which was followed by “A Genealogy of Fin de siecle Beautiful Men: From Valentino to Daniel Day Lewis,” and then, towards the end of the book, a piece entitled “Qualifications for Beautiful British Boys” (イギリス型の美青年の条件), which listed 11 conditions for stars to be considered “beautiful British boys”:

  1. They’re beautiful
  2. They’re tall and have pretty legs
  3. They’re white/Caucasian
  4. They include no Schwarzeneggers or Stallones (シュワちゃんやスタローンはいない)
  5. They have long necks/arms/fingers
  6. They’re good at English
  7. If possible, they’re baritone
  8. Their tousled hair is breaks hearts
  9. They kiss the backs of women’s hands naturally/effortlessly
  10. It doesn’t really matter where they went to school
  11. For some reason, jeans don’t suit them

There may well have been similar discourse in cine-albums featuring such stars as Alain Delon, Sean Connery, or Giuliano Gemma – particular that of their sexual appeal. But here it’s given a generalized national inflection. Moreover, the featured stars (Rupert Everett, Daniel Day Lewis, Hugh Grant, James Wilby, Rupert Graves, Cary Elwes, and Colin Firth) are defined at least in part by what they’re not: they’re not action stars like Schwartzenegger and Stallone, they’re not American (“jeans don’t suit them”), they’re fine-featured rather than rugged. The terms used to describe them, “gentlemen” (紳士) [97], and “young noblemen” (貴公子たち) [106] are nothing so much as indexical nods to British refinement. Perhaps more significantly, the term Igirisujin-ron (イギリス人論, lit. theory of British people, but more generally a kind of ideology of Britishness) is used here as well, discursively linking this star-embodied Britishness to theories of (Japanese) exceptionalism (Nihonjin-ron 日本人論) – which is to say, discrete, culture-based national identities that, ironically, effectively disallow transcultural mixing. Again, there may have been discussion of American exceptionalism/Americanness in other books (particularly about stars like John Wayne), and as noted above, I wouldn’t be surprised to see nation-based qualities assigned to individual stars such as Roger Moore or Gerard Philipe, but what we have in YNoB appears to be among the first – if not actually the first – instance of a group of male stars being explicitly linked to discourses of nation-based characteristics. So it is that we begin to see here a set of baseline criteria for the sparking of male foreign-star booms in Japan; namely:

  • they’re “beautiful” (bishonen (美少年), biseinen (美青年), or binan (美男))
  • they’re inherently organizable; that is, there’s a coherent body of work to which one can point and say “this is where they come from.” Here, it’s primarily (although not exclusively) Merchant-Ivory and other works of British heritage film (which, as Claire Monk argues, seems to have held a singular appeal for female audiences)
  • they have a certain (vague or otherwise) homoerotic appeal, which I will discuss in an upcoming post

Ōtaka, Hirō. Mini shiatā teki: eiga ga motto motto suki ni naru hon (Mini-theater style: a book to make you love movies more]. Tokyo: Wēbu shuppan, 1998.

7 thoughts on “The First ‘Beautiful British Boy Boom’ (1988-1989)

  1. 1. You’re just completely amazing (I should be doing my own research in this fashion, instead of willy-nilly all over tumblr, and 2. sumimasen…Brideshead Revisited (1981)? I notice there are stills from it on that cover. It has always seemed to me to have been more [doesn’t want to say seminal]…seminal, at least in the US, perhaps being the success that then made the Merchant-Ivory pretty boys possible (including Julian Sands, the Benedict Cumberbatch of his time). But maybe just that one short miniseries wasn’t enough to make an impact in Japan? and just to go back to 1. for a moment: YOU’RE AMAZEBALLS.

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    1. Thanks very much – I actually really needed to hear this today! :’)

      As for the cover, the stills are (clockwise from top left) Daniel Day Lewis in A Room with a View, Rupert Everett in… something, I can’t figure out what, and then the cast of Maurice. From what I can find (online), Brideshead Revisited wasn’t aired in Japan until 1992. There are stills from it in the follow-up to Young Noblemen of Britain (YNoB Part II), but none in this first volume. Another Country does feature somewhat prominently in this volume, but at the time of its theatrical release in Japan (1985), it failed to make quite the same impact as Maurice. BUT, I think this ?may? have been at least as much due to venue as not – but this will take more research of materials I don’t yet have on hand. 🙂

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      1. Oh, nicely done—I mistook Day-Lewis for young Jeremy Irons (facepalm) (all the beautiful British boys looking fundamentally similar somehow to me)—you’re killing it. This work really inspires me—

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  2. This was such an interesting read! I stumbled on the film Maurice a few days ago and watching it I was struck by how much it reminded me of a manga from the nineties/nauties I had read as a teen (Kaori Yuki’s “Count Cain/God Child”, published in French in the early to mid-nauties) and how the two main characters are visually modeled on James Wilby and Hugh Grant (even their respetive postures in the cast picture from your article are mirrored in the cover illustrations of the manga!). And this post explains why! The artist mentions other celebrities in side notes such as Jennifer Connolly and Gary Oldman but never any cast member from Maurice or other Merchant-Ivory films. I guess the reference would have been obvious to the manga’s original readers. I find it very amusing, having grown up in Europe, to have my own euro-centric appraisal of this type of period film confronted with the japanese take the very same material through manga that I perceived as something quite exotic when I read it at the time. It just goes to show that globalisation of culture is quirky.

    Having read your posts about the Sherlock wave, I wonder if anyone has said anything about the fact that Rupert Graves is the only actor to be part of both waves (possibly to a lesser degree as Lastrade… but still).

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    1. Wow, I didn’t know about the manga – thanks!! I haven’t seen much about Rupert Graves’s crossover, to be honest; I would have expected a little from certain quarters in Japanese magazines, but they’ve seemed pretty focused on the ‘new’ generation (except for Colin Firth and Daniel Craig – and Alan Rickman, before he passed away). IDK.

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