Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: LOVE MACHINE

So do you remember Chobits? Did you ever wonder what a BL version of that might look like, particularly if you took out all the good parts?  Well do I have a manga for you!

LOVE MACHINE (Etowa), by Amayo Tsuge.  First published in 2006 and first published in North America in 2009.



PLOT:

Kokuyo is a cranky, reclusive author whose grueling schedule has often landed him in the hospital.  His friend Saeki tries to help him by giving a 'replicant' named Shiro, an android that will take care of his chores and keep an eye on his health.  Kokuyu initially resents Shiro's presence, but after a while he finds himself caring for Shiro.  Kokuyo finds himself wondering if it's possible to love an artificial being?  Is it possible that Shiro could be capable of returning them as well?

STORY:

So this is neither the first or the last work to ponder the possibility of falling in love with a robot.  Hell, it's not even the first manga to go there.  So what makes this one any different?  Well, I guess it's distinguished mostly by its ineptitude and its inability or unwillingness to explore the problems with a human/robot romance.

The relationship between Kokuyu and Shiro doesn't so much progress as it does jump from one bullet point to the next.  The two of them are such extremes that it should take some time for Shiro's gentility to wear Kokuyu's grumpiness and win him over.  Tsuge doesn't want to bother with that, though.  All it takes to win Kokuyu over is a simple robot health crisis, and he almost instantly interprets that affection as love.  At least Shiro's change in feelings are explained slightly better, as he interacts with similar androids who have themselves learned to love.  The story also implies that this breaks their brains to the point where they start to lose their memories, but who cares!  It sets enough precedent for him to jump to that conclusion that he must love his master and that they must have sex to demonstrate it.  It's a good thing that he's fully functional and anatomically correct, or else the story wouldn't be able to shove in any sort of sex!  You can't simply jump from plot point to plot point as drastically as Tsuge does here.  Even if the reasoning is bad or weak, you still need some sort of transition or explanation to justify such extreme turns in such extreme (and quite frankly shallow) characters.

This is bad enough, but there's also all sorts of problems with a relationship between a human and an android that she doesn't even bother to bring up, much less address.  Say what you will about works like Chobits or Absolute Boyfriend, but they do at least address some of the issues that come with such a relationship.  They suggest that substituting an artificial lover for one of flesh and blood is not entirely healthy, that those who do so may have to make some serious sacrifices, and the question of just how much these feelings are due to programming and how much is due to some sort of free will.  They might not always stick with those ideas, but they consider them long enough to stick with the reader.  Then there's Love Machine, which doesn't even let such things cross its mind for a moment.  Nope, Kokuyu loves Shiro and Shiro loves him and that's enough for everyone!  What's really strange is that Tsuge does kind of address it in the second half.  There she focuses on Seiki and his own support android.  He's far more friendly, so with him it's not so much about the robot reforming the man so much as it is about him coming to regard his android like a sentient being.  His falling in love is handled with more sensitivity and more gravity than the previous one.  It should also be noted that when his bosses suggest turning these androids into sexbots, he's horrified at the notion.  At least he he knows exploitation when he sees it.  Honestly, I wondered why this guy wasn't the protagonist.

The whole thing is finished off with a tossed-off story about a teenage vampire and his boyfriend, and the only thing I took away from that was that the boyfriend was so horny and dumb that he's perfectly willing to risk anemia just so he can bang his wee little boyfriend on the school roof.  It's a rather silly and underwhelming end to a book that mostly frustrated me.  Love Machine has a premise that's ripe for thoughtful drama, but it chooses instead to ignore that all just so it can jerkily follow a very basic romantic trajectory. 

ART:

Tsuge's not much better at sequential art than she is at storytelling.  Her characters are flatly drawn and her faces are not only almost always the same, but very stiff and occasionally just plain weird-looking.  I'd complain that Shiro and all his fellow androids look the same, but as androids made in the same line this actually makes some sense.  She's clearly got a preference for pairing up her older semes with ukes that look so tiny and boy-like that it becomes kind of creepy.  Even the high school vampire one suffers from this.  Her panels and pages don't look bad, but the backgrounds are just as flat as the characters themselves and the panels lack any sort of real imagination or beauty to them.  It's just a mundane looking book with a few odd and awkward spots here and there.

RATING:

Love Machine has a good premise that's utterly wasted on this mangaka.  She doesn't have the writing chops to give the story the sort of depth it needs and her artwork lacks both the skill and the charm it would take to overcome her poor writing. 

This book was published by Aurora Publishing.  It is currently out of print.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET DIPLOMACY

It's kind of surprising that we don't see more BL about politicians.  It's the perfect excuse for well-dressed men behaving badly behind the scenes.  Maybe Japanese politicians don't deal with as many sex scandals as ours do?  Anyway, today's review shows how well the two can mesh.

THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET DIPLOMACY (Koushi Kakka no Himitsu Gaikou), by Youka Nitta.  First published in 2006 and first published in North America in 2008.



PLOT:

Thanks to his family connections, young Tomohiro Shiraishi finds himself working with Koushi Yoshinaga, a well-regarded minister of foreign affairs.  He catches Yoshinaga hitting on another man while out on the town, but in return for his silence Yoshinaga manipulates Shiraishi into sleeping with him.  It seems that Yoshinaga lives for thrills, be it the thrill of tense negotiations or the thrill of seduction, and he often finds ways to combine them both for his gain.  It's a quality that Shiraishi finds irresistible, and he finds himself torn between his desire to one-up Yoshinaga and his desire for the man himself.

STORY:

Youka Nitta is a big name in BL, but she's also got a tendency to undermine the seriousness of her premises through ridiculous levels of melodrama.  Thank goodness that she restrained herself this time because it means that The Prime Minister's Secret Diplomacy works as both a dark romance and as a story about one man's cunning rise through the political ranks.

A lot of BL relationships are messed up in unintentional ways thanks to their strict adherence to the seme/uke dynamic.  That's not the case here with Shiraishi and Koushi.  Their relationship is purposefully messed up!  Koushi treats Shiraishi like he treats everyone else: as pawns for him to manipulate to his advantage.  Even those closest to him are still held at a distance and at any moment he's prepared to pit them against others for gain or to dump them as he sees fit.  He's an emotional sadist but he's so goddamn clever and nuanced about  it that like Shiraishi we can't help but admire it from afar.  It helps that Shiraishi isn't just another victim of his wiles. 

Sure, he starts out as very prim and proper and he's thoroughly shocked at Koushi's behavior.  After his seduction, he feels guilt as his admiration of Koushi's political maneuvering runs up against his guilt for his growing desire and his betrayal of his sister (who also happens to be Koushi's fiancée).  Slowly but surely, he surrenders to his darker impulses and becomes a manipulator in his own right just so that he can remain at Koushi's side.  These are not the romantic figures that so many BL works present but instead two deeply flawed but fascinating men who use sex as just another tool in their own personal power struggle.  There will never be a happy ending for them both, but the tension (sexual and otherwise) is so glorious to behold that you never truly want it to end.

This tension is interwoven into their public lives, and in comparison to them the actual political drama is quite dry.  It's not like Koushi is negotiating any sort of major accord, but instead is engaged in juggling the happiness of other, mostly Western nations with Japan's need for a strong front on the international stage.  This is done mostly through extended conversations where every word choice and turn of conversation can carry great meaning, and it's only implied that Koushi also uses his body to keep select figures sweet.  Nitta's clearly done her research here and she captures both the polite formality and the subtle machinations of politics.  That being said, it doesn't smoulder with the same sort of tension found in Koushi and Shiraishi's personal conversations, and those seeking straight-up smut will likely come away disappointed in this book.  That's fine by me, as Nitta uses the few instances of sex here very well.  They are not mere fanservice but instead serve as actual plot points, the punctuation to the dramatic high points of the relationship.  Every instance has some degree of fallout afterwards that impacts the plot.  Nitta knew that anything else would simply be gratuitous and would otherwise ruin what is both a well-written political drama and a compelling tale of two men corrupted by their own needs.

ART:

Nitta has always been one of the best artists in BL, and that skill is put to full use here.  I've always liked her character designs.  They strike the right balance between masculine handsomeness and the sort of stylized beauty that BL so often demands.  She's also got a wonderful grasp on both body language and expression.  Their bodies look and move in a way that shows that Nitta knows how a man's body works and their faces perfect match the emotion of every scene.  She's very restrained when it comes to sensuality here.  It's not just that most of the sex scenes don't go on for very long, but it's also in how she mostly avoids showing genitalia and instead focuses on their hands, their faces, and the banter between Koushi and Shiraishi throughout. 

That wouldn't mean much if she didn't know how to present it all, but the presentation and pages here are top-notch.  Nitta's backgrounds are lavish and lovingly rendered, allowing the reader to soak in the elegance of the high-class setting.  She shows them off often in her panels, but she's also very good at using visual angles or a well-timed close-up for dramatic effect or how to cut back and forth between points in a conversation without merely turning it into a parade of talking heads.  Even her composition is smooth, as the panels flow in a way that suggests an expression slowly shifting or switches to dramatic wedges during a revelation or shift in power.  Even the color artwork, here shown off on the covers both inside and out, shows off both her confident skill and her fondness for rich color choices.  It's a beautiful looking book from beginning to end, full of both the skill and nuance such a story deserves.

RATING:

The Prime Minister's Secret Diplomacy is a masterwork that combines serious drama with a nuanced and complicated cast to craft a compelling story fueled by tension and passion in equal measure.  Best of all, it's supported by brilliant art made by a one of the genre's best and brightest.  It's one of Youka Nitta's best works and one that comes highly recommended.

This book was published by Digital Manga Publishing.  It is currently out of print.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: LEVEL C

A lot of BL manga has to find the right balance between story and smut.  If you ignore the former for the latter, then you can end up with a rather sparse and empty manga like this one.

LEVEL C (Keiraku no Hoiteishiki Level-C), written by Aoi Futaba with art by Kurenai Mitsuba.  First published in 1993 and first published in North America in 2005.



PLOT:

Mizuki is a popular model with a dark past.  His is a lonely life until he meets promiscuous businessman Kazuomi.  Kazuomi promises him a night of ecstacy that he will never forget and Mizuki takes him up on the offer.  What neither of them could have suspect that this one night would turn into a serious relationship.

STORY:

This might be the slightest manga I've reviewed all month.  That's not to say that the story is bad.  It's just that the story is very basic and truly is little more than a hanger upon which the writer hangs their smut.

The most original thing about it is the opening.  It's not just the fact that it's build around a one-night stand, it's the fact that both Mizuki and Kazuomi treat it like a dare.  It gives their encounter a certain sort of crackle of passion that might overwise be lacking.  It's a shame that Futaba couldn't keep the mood up because the story and cast alike are severely lacking in personality.  Sure, Mizuki gets a brief but concentrated bit of melodrama for his backstory and the both of them have older siblings (a twin in Kazuomi's case) that are said to be important to them both, but that's pretty much all we learn about them.  The backstory never really comes into play in the larger narrative and the siblings play such minor roles that they might as well be strangers, and it leaves you wondering why they bothered with it at all.

He also doesn't waste any time getting these two together in a committed relationship, which is not necessarily a good thing.  In the span of one chapter the two go from strangers to roommates, and by the next one the two confirm their love for one another.  This might be fine if it were suggesting that this was happening over a course of weeks or months, but as-is this shift to commitment is positively whiplash-inducing.  Mizuki might be young and inexperienced enough that I could understand him falling in love so fast, but it makes no sense for a playboy like Kazuomi.  Right from the beginning, we're shown that he prioritizes sex above all things in a relationship.  He's not particularly concerned whether it works out in the long-term or not, but instead is merely content to sponge off his partners for as long as they'll tolerate him.  It's going to take more than sweet words to convince me as the reader that this guy is even capable of loving Mizuki for more than just his body or that he sincerely cares about him and his welfare. 

Of course, Futaba never lingers on this issues for very long.  They truly are little more than a prelude to the sex scenes.  They tend to get dragged out because Mizuki tends to get scared about how fast and far Kazuomi likes to go and voices his protests.  Unfortunately, because this is a BL manga Kazuomi almost always ignores Mizuki's pleas and Mizuki ends up enjoying anyway.  It's framed in a far less violent and dramatic manner than one usually sees in these sorts of books, but it punctures the romantic mood that he's so clearly going for.  At least the publisher chose to change one little fact that would have made everything so much worse.  In the localized version, Mizuki is 18.  In the original, he was 16.  It was a wise choice on their part to do so, but no amount of localization could change the fact that the characters of Level C are too hollow to stand on their own and their relationship progresses far too fast to make sense for these characters.

ART:

The artwork is surprisingly attractive for both its age and subject matter.  It's pretty obvious that this was made in the early 1990s, as the character designs have the delicate beauty and poufy hair that was so typical of the era.  Still, there's a simplicity to them that lends them a certain beauty.  This is only emphasized by the way that Mitsuba frames them.  There are some downright elegant panels here, ones where a profile fades into the background dreamily or a passionate embrace is enhanced with the dramatic shading of a twilight evening.  He makes great use of screentones, softly blending them into speech bubbles, emphasizing expressions, or just evoking the fall of light across a wall. 

Even the sensual scenes retain this sense of elegance.  They take on an old-school Cinemax quality thanks to the lighting and Mitsuba's choice to either frame the action in a way that avoid showing any explicit parts or action or just outright censoring any on-screen wangs.  It's rare that we get more than the merest suggestion of the shape, and most of the time it's completely absent.  I know this is not something done later by the publisher as at the time of its release the publisher made a big deal out of how this work was being presented uncut.  He certainly goes out of his way to drag them out visually as much as possible, as each sex scene goes on for well over 20 pages.  Indeed, his paneling tends to prefer large and sparse visuals in general, so it's Mitsuba's art that allows the story to stretch so far on such little material.  In that sense, the two are well-matched.

RATING:

Level C has simple yet refined artwork that is striking in its own way, but the story is too slight and stretched out to linger in the reader's mind after putting it down.

This series was published by Media Blasters.  This series is complete in Japan with 6 volumes available.  All 6 were published and are currently out of print.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: HIS FAVORITE

If you've been following along with my reviews, you'd probably think that SuBLime was my favorite BL publisher and that I thought that they could do no wrong.  That's not entirely true, though.  They've put out plenty of works that I don't like, such as today's selection.

HIS FAVORITE (Aitsu no Daihonmei), by Suzuki Tanaka.  First published in 2008 and first published in North America in 2012.



PLOT:

Yoshida has always been an awkward, goofy looking sort of guy.  In middle school, he was actually kind of popular in spite of his looks because he stood up for the bullied kids.  Nowadays, he's a social outcast.  Part of that is due to his looks, but the the other part is due to his proximity to Sato the class idol.  Sato is tall and handsome now, but back in the day he was a picked-on fat kid.  Now that the tables have turned and every girl wants to be with him, Sato prefers to hang out with Yoshida and pawn the angry girls onto him.  Why?  It seems that despite how much Sato likes to pick on Yoshida, he actually loves him.  All the attention leaves Yoshida feeling uncomfortable, but soon enough he begins to question the nature of his own feelings for his erstwhile friend.

STORY:

I know of quite a few people - normal, sensible, BL-loving people - who love this series!  I wish I could join them in their adoration.  It's not terrible by any means; if anything, I rather like the idea of the premise.  It's just that Sato is such a dick!

I should be used to the fact that most semes are going to be douchier than a Massengill warehouse.  It just seems to come with the territory.  It's just that for someone who professes to be Yoshida's friend, Sato sure seems determined to act like an asshole.  He flat-out admits that he's a sadist and he likes seeing Yoshida made uncomfortable.  It doesn't matter whether that's from Sato touching him inappropriately, teasing or from his using Yoshida like a meat shield whenever he needs to shake off some clingy girl.  He demands to know Yoshida's every thought and his dating history despite refusing to disclose very much about his own.  He even tries his hardest to isolate Yoshida from both his other friends and his other classmates. So long as Yoshida is unhappy, he's happy.  These are not the actions of a good boyfriend or a good friend.  These are the actions of a terrible person.  Worse still, it's being played for humor.  I know that this sort of uncomfortable humor is enjoyed by some, but for me it's just awkward.  Had Sato's teasing been more playful in nature, it might have worked, but like this it's just cruel and entirely for his own benefit.

It's a shame that Sato is so awful because Yoshida is such an endearing dork and because I can kind of see the sort of dynamic she's going for here.  There's a bit of a manzai thing going on here with Sato and Yoshida, along with a bit of a childish teasing.  You know, the sort of thing where a boy pulls the pigtails of the girl he likes, but in this case more like a boy groping the boy he likes even when he protests.  I do really like Yoshida, though.  He's got the franticness that tends to come with most ukes, but he is also a generally decent and upstanding guy.  He's got a strong sense of loyalty towards his friends, which explains why he puts up with so much from Sato.  He does try hard to pacify all the angry popular girls, even if Sato tends to ruin it.  He even does his best to support and encourage his equally wonky looking friends, all of whom are just as dorky and unlucky in love as Yoshida.  They in turn support him in what they presume are Yoshida's romantic ventures, being oblivious to the true nature of his situation. It's a shame that a nice guy like him is stuck with a jerk like Sato and that his suffering is played off so lightly because it really hampered what could have been an enjoyable beginning.

ART:

Thankfully I have far fewer reservations about the art.  There's a loose-limbed, almost cartoon-like quality that serves as an intriguing contrast to the gangly sharpness of most BL art.  The wackiness of the art is most obvious in the faces of Yoshida and his friends.  Their faces are positively squiggly at times, with big flappy mouths, bugging eyes, and large hatchy blushes that threaten to consume an entire face.  In comparison, the rest of the cast looks more typical of what one usually sees in BL, all handsome and tall.  Still, there's a bit of bow-leggedness to them that helps them fit in with a walking cartoon like Yoshida.  The backgrounds are pretty much absent, but that's OK because it keeps the focus on the characters and on Yoshida's over-the-top reactions.  Overall, it's simpler, lighter, and looser artwork than one usually sees in BL.  It doesn't take itself seriously and that's something I can totally get behind.

RATING:

His Favorite is far from my favorite, but its broad comedic artstyle was a delight and I am always welcome to more humorous BL.  Next time, let's just make sure that everyone in the story is in on the joke, OK?

This series is published by Viz under their SuBLime imprint.  This series is ongoing in Japan with 9 volumes available.  8 volumes have been published and are currently in print and available as ebooks through SuBLime.

Merry Month of Manga Review: DINING BAR AKIRA

It's rare that I find a BL work that really captures what a real dysfunctional relationship feels like.  Not a broken one, mind you, but simply one where the course of love decided does not run smooth, one that is plagued by real concerns and even self-loathing.  That sort of imperfection can be fascinating if handled well, and here it proves itself to be romantic in its own way.

DINING BAR AKIRA (Kuimonodokoro Akira), by Tomoko Yamashita.  First published in 2007 and first published in North America in 2009.



PLOT:

Akira is a busy manager at a local restaurant, but his comfortably cynical life is thrown upside down when Torihara, a younger part-timer, declares his love for Akira.  The two stumble into a relationship, but it's constantly threatened by Akira's uncertainty about his own sexuality, about Torihara's attraction to him, and what a long-term relationship between a couple of guys even looks like.

STORY:

"Disaffected" isn't a word I commonly associate with boys' love.  It's a genre that trades in big emotions, romantic gestures, and a take on sexuality that has more in common with Harlequin than with the real world.  Regardless of the actual age of the partners in question, the people that tend to populate them act like teenagers driven only by emotion and hormones.  There's usually not a lot of self-reflection beyond questioning one's sexuality, and even then it's usually quickly overcome in the name of love.  Yet I can't think of a better word for both Dining Bar Akira and the couple within it than 'disaffected.'  It doesn't believe in fantasies of perfect love and tender love scenes.  It believes in confessions that are more like arguments, in sex scenes that go awry, and where a date can be something as simple as baseball in the park.

It has to be said: Akira is a kind of a jerk.  He's got a steady job where he's surrounded by old friends, but he's still a hard-drinking grump with a healthy amount of self-loathing.  He can't understand why a relative youngster like Torihara would want a 30-year-old loser like him.  Even after the two start to hash out a relationship together, Akira keeps pushing and picking at Torihara so that he doesn't have to confront the harsh reality of his own feelings.  Keep in mind, though, that Torihara isn't much better.  He might admire Akira's cynicism as a sort of devil-may-care quality, but it's also a barrier that he really has to push at to make any progress.  A lot of his time with Akira is spent arguing and bantering because Akira refuses to both believe in Torihara's affections and express his own.  That may not sound terribly pleasant, but in its own way I find it more romantic because it is imperfect. 

As an adult I can relate more to the idea of a partner that drives you crazy in both senses of the phrase.  There is a certain natural beauty in watching a couple simply hanging out or joking around a little during sex.  When they fight, there are actual mental barriers to overcome and it's not 100% certain that it will be resolved perfectly, so there are some actual stakes in whether Akira and Torihara's relationship will work out or not.  It is precisely because their relationship is imperfect that I genuinely care for them and want to see them overcome their troubles.  Yamashita makes their troubles real and compelling and it's a great testament to her writing that they are both so flawed and so real.

That same quality extends to the short stories that pad out this collection. Whether it's "Foggy Night," where a high-schooler works out his feelings for his best friend through his substitute teacher/former one-night-stand, or "Riverside Moonlight" where a guy comes to grips with his inexplicable attraction to his portly, ordinary coworker, Yamashita invests them with real emotion, conflict, and even humor.  There's a rawness to the emotion in the former that makes its quiet yet tragic ending all the more impactful.  There's a desperation in the latter that makes the humor all the funnier.  By highlighting the less positive qualities of these stories, she gives them the impact they need to stick in the mind.  Taken all together, it makes for a book that's not always comfortable to read but always fascinating and emotionally complex.

ART:

No one would ever mistake Yamashita's art as 'cute.'  Her men look like men instead of stylished bishonen.  They're not even particularly handsome men!  Their hair is too scruffy, their eyes too exhausted, and they tend to default to rather sour expressions.  Of course, that means that I totally love their style.  I've always preferred BL art where the guys actually look like real-world men, and Yamashita does not disappoint.  They may not be classically handsome, but they are wonderfully expressive in both their faces and their body language. 

She's also very discrete when it comes to sex, and since they tend to talk so much during sex she tends to focus more on their faces than their groins.  If there's any fault to them, it's that Akira and Torihana look almost too alike at the beginning.  Their hairstyles are so similar that sometimes I can only tell the two apart by Akira's scruffy little goatee.  I suspect her editor noticed this too, as Torihana gets a much shorter haircut midway through and the distinction becomes much easier.  Backgrounds are pretty plain when they're present at all, and most of the time she leave them blank.  Even her pages are pretty straightforward.  Still, it's an approach that works well for the kind of story she's telling and it's a skillful and nuanced one at that.

RATING:

Dining Bar Akira is a BL manga that's written more like an Western indie comic.  The focus isn't on big drama or heavily stylized art, but instead on really compelling characters dealing with their own foibles on top of falling in love.  If you're been seeking something more alternative from the genre, this is a good place to start.

This book was published by Netcomics.  It is currently out of print.