When 11 Thai actors appeared onstage at an arena in Yokohama in August, nearly 20,000 fans were there to greet them. They were stars of a genre dubbed Thai Boys Love, and their Japanese fans had been waiting eagerly for coronavirus restrictions to ease so they could see their idols in real life.
Boys Love dramas involve love stories between two male characters and have roots in the Japanese manga industry. In Japan, though, it has always been a niche genre that never broke into the mainstream. Thai artists began producing their own texts, and production companies started translating them for the screen eight years ago. But it wasn't until 2gether appeared, with subtitles in multiple languages, that the popularity spread beyond Thailand's borders.
The timing was key. It debuted in 2020, as the pandemic was keeping people at home, feasting on streamed media, the engaging stories and good-looking stars captivated viewers worldwide. At the time of writing, 2gether had racked up more than 25 million views online.
The series that fueled the boom
2gether revolves around a protagonist named "Tine" (played by Metawin "Win" Opas-iamkajorn) who asks Sarawat (Vachirawit "Bright" Chivaaree) to pretend to be his boyfriend to discourage an unwanted admirer. Over time, the sham relationship develops into a real one.
Sataporn Panichraksapong, CEO of GMMTV, the company that produces 2gether, says they always set out to produce content that has appeal beyond Thailand's borders.
"We want to make a show that can bring happiness and fun to everyone, regardless of nationality, religion, or language," Sataporn says.
Sataporn says GMMTV is aggressively marketing its actors to the international market.
Reflecting real experiences
Siwaj Sawatmaneekul is the director of "Love by Chance."
Thailand is considered tolerant of LGBTQ people, but in reality it lags behind in recognizing legal rights.
Siwaj says he hopes his shows help to drive understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ people. Even in Thailand, which is generally viewed as a haven of tolerance, same-sex marriage remains unrecognized by the government.
Siwaj injects his own experiences into his work. When he was adapting one Thai Boys Love novel for the screen, he added a scene in which the main character comes out to his mother.
"I hope with more people watching Boys Love series, there will be more understanding, openness, and acceptance of LGBTQ people," he says.
Opportunity for tourism
Japan is one of the biggest markets for Thai Boys Love dramas. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Japan, around one million Japanese people have watched some of the series, and around 20,000 are active fans on social media.
The agency is now hoping to capitalize on those figures by organizing trips for Japanese fans to visit some of the series' locations in Thailand. They've set a target of drawing 1,000 Boys Love fans to the country this year. Next year, they're aiming for 5,000.
Chanyuth Sawetsuwan, an official with the tourism agency that helped develop the trips, says the popularity of Thai Boys Love shows could be just the shot-in-the-arm the tourism industry needs after the devastating pandemic years. "Boys Love is one of the attractions that Japanese tourists like, and that could contribute to bringing tourism back to Thailand," he says.
The global success is a welcome boost for the production companies too, of course, and they are rapidly spreading their reach into retail, live events and more.