He Stole All Hearts Away: Sad, Beautiful Boys in Asian Pop Culture


I’ve been writing about a specific type of masculinity in a series here on The Unpublishables called Tough Guys, Gangsters, and Delinquents in Asian Pop Culture, and it’s been fun exploring the various archetypes of tough guys.

One of the things that kept cropping up in the films, shows, and manga that I looked through was the trope of the sad, beautiful boy. I thought about doing a post on Inuyasha to discuss this trope, but then it’s more interesting to see how it plays out in pop culture in general instead of a specific piece of art.

First, I want to make it clear that the sad, beautiful boy is not the same as the innocent, beautiful boy–the innocent archetype has no darkness, only love and kindness and comfort. The sad, beautiful boy (let’s call him SBB for short), on the other hand, can be a tough and even violent person. He may be sad and he may be beautiful, but he is not passive, and can often have a slight edge of danger.

Inuyasha (of the manga and anime that bears his name) is a great example of the SBB. Inuyasha is a half-demon who is capable of extreme violence, has a short temper, and is kind of a jerk. At the same time, he’s beautiful (I know he’s a drawing but come on, let’s be honest here) and he hides in himself a broken heart and deep loneliness. He’s an orphan who deeply misses his mother, never had a chance to know his father, is distrusted by both demons and humans, and was betrayed by the woman he loved. How’s that for the ultimate SBB backstory?

The SBB can fend for himself and may even be feared by other men for his fighting prowess or toughness. But more than anything, he needs to be loved by someone who can take away his loneliness and sadness.

My theory is that the reason so many people love the SBB is that they can imagine themselves as a savior who pulls the SBB out of his melancholy. By being the only person who can understand and bring joy to the SBB, they become special despite being ordinary in every other way. It’s like specialness by proxy.

I also suspect that the element of danger that the SBB has makes him even more attractive than just a regular beautiful boy. Because of how he’s been wounded, the SBB will do bad things, as can be seen in G-Dragon’s “Crooked” video where, after suffering a heartbreak, the SBB that G-Dragon plays goes on a rampage throughout London.


Kris Wu is another popstar who makes use of the “SBB who needs love but may actually hurt you” trope. This is what he sings in “November Rain”:

I’m a savage, I’m a savage, I’m a savage (ay)
I’m a sad boy, I’m a sad boy and you know why
I’m a bad guy, no good guy, I crossed the line

That is probably the SBB anthem.


I find it really fascinating that the SBB’s self-destructiveness is so magnetic for so many people. A wise friend of mine said that it’s because self-destruction and sadness signal vulnerability, which triggers our protective instincts, which can then lead to infatuation or even love. I suppose it’s also really true that humans don’t want happiness, we want pain along with pleasure.

The SBB trope has been around for hundreds of years–Chinese history alone has scores of stories of beautiful men–and although Western culture seems very uncomfortable with the idea that beauty can co-exist with masculinity. I’m not really sure why masculinity has to be seen as rough, dirty, and stinky, but you could make a case that this has to do with Western sexism, which posits that anything beautiful must be feminine, thus inferior.

What’s also fascinating to me is seeing the ascendance of Asian pop music (represented by beautiful boys) in the West. I don’t think it’s a leap to say that beautiful boys are the most acceptable types of Asian men because of racism, which historically portrayed Asian men in North America as feminine. But because of the narrow-mindedness of Western masculinity, people don’t seem to realize that SBBs have a very masculine allure that is complemented by their pulchritude.

It kind of makes you feel sorry for people locked in toxic masculinity beliefs. Past pop music, they may not even really get to fully enjoy works with SBB protagonists like Inuyasha and even Bleach–although it did jump the shark after the Arrancar arc (I said it!).

I want to end here by saying that I don’t necessarily think that the SBB is some kind of ideal boy/man because neither sadness nor beauty precludes someone from acting like an asshole. Also, as I admittedly don’t have that much experience with them in real life, I don’t know how annoying they can get (although I can guess).

But they are certainly amazing to look at, and I accept your thanks for these pictures.

Sota Fukushi, who played Ichigo in the live-action Bleach, an SBB if I ever saw one


Leave a Reply