Anne Ishii is not your typical literary translator or editor. Growing up as an Asian American in an Asian–American community, she was heavily influenced by her heritage and sought to maintain that connection through language. Her education consisted of French throughout college, then Japanese literature in grad school. After brief stints at a Japanese translating start–up and in venture consulting and advertising upon graduation, Ishii eventually found her calling in translating and editing gay erotic manga and founded Massive, a creative agency for feminist and queer art, comics, and fashion with business partner Graham Kolbeins in 2013. Now, as executive director of the Asian Arts Initiative, "a multi–disciplinary and community-based arts center in Philadelphia" founded in 1993, she works in hosting exhibitions, performances, and art projects throughout local communities.
While Ishii is known for her multiple translations of gay erotica, she is most famous for her work on "Passion of Gengoroh Tagame", a compilation of ten English editions of manga artist Gengoroh Tagame's short stories. A world–renowned writer in gay comics who specializes in gay pornography and BDSM, Tagame's work had previously long been relegated to the American underground, where fans have shared foreign language editions of his work. Containing works ranging from the late 1990s to 2012, with the latest piece being an original story written by Tagame as his first endeavor to write directly for an English reader, the translations of "Passion of Gengoroh Tagame" opened the doors for American audiences to access the works of one of the most internationally well known gay manga writers.
Ishii notes that she first delved into gay erotica due to her "fascination with the male–on–male gaze", particularly in the context of patriarchal Japan, and felt that "it became a natural extension to just start translating and working on it." Compared to other queer relationships, Ishii found gay erotica to be particularly arresting due to its transferring of the male gaze, which has historically been directed on women, onto other men. "I kept having this question in my head of we all know what the male gaze looks like upon the woman, and you know, the ways that we look at the women's body, and how it gets allegorized in literature and talked about to death. But there's so little understanding of the male body and representations of it, and even less understanding of that representation when it when it comes to Asia."
It wasn't until Ishii delved into gay porn that she uncovered an abundance of examples of male–on–male gaze and a medium wherein the male body was placed front and center. Her interest in gay erotica was further piqued upon discovering the level of craftsmanship in artists, such as Tagame's, work. She notes, "I was completely blown away by how good it was ... it's really astonishing to me how beautiful the artwork is, considering that in the grand scheme of media, porn is usually looked upon as a very low form of art. It's barely considered art ... it was like levels of art that deserved to be hung in museums, but existing in magazines that you can only find in adult shops." When it comes to discovering personal passion as a college student, Ishii recommends "... to definitely travel in your early years as much as possible. Because that's basically how I also came across gay erotica. These aren't things that come across your table when you stay at home, these are things that you discover when you start exploring the world."
Within the niche of gay erotica manga itself, Ishii also works to promote non–mainstream forms of male–on–male erotica. Massive, an accessory and apparel brand Ishii co–founded in 2013, places particular emphasis on body positivity and the inclusion of male figures who do not configure into traditional standards of male beauty. "There's this way of looking at the body and especially the male body, where we can take the stereotypes of masculinity and sort of explode them ... one of our iconic designs is the 'Best Couple', the two huge guys facing off each other." "Best Couple" features an ideal pair of "gachimuchi", or "muscle–chubby" hunks—they are corpulent, buff, and just like the brand's namesake, massive—but no less attractive for it. Ishii continues, "the incentive was to show that there's a place for fat Asians and big Asians. That's important for me because there are so many non–standard Asian bodies and for whatever reason the rest of the world thinks that Asians can't have bodies like that."
Ishii's path, beyond being eccentric in the eyes of mainstream industries, has also been somewhat criticized by members of the gay community. Being a queer Japanese woman herself, she has been questioned in the past for not being a member of the community she represents, particularly in regards to whether or not she has the right to have ownership over her work when her own experiences are not representative of her audience. Ultimately, Ishii notes that her own tolerance for the appropriation of gay art for mainstream audiences is quite high. Despite criticism, though, Ishii has undoubtedly made leaps and bounds in introducing gay erotica and art beyond the limits of its traditional audience.