You know, it's a little strange to consider how long it took Viz to embrace the yaoi market. Sure, most of it was put out by tiny niche companies, of which only Digital Manga Press survives. Still, Tokyopop was willing to create a yaoi line, and many others from the pre-crash days at least dabbled in it. Still, Viz has had the last laugh with their SuBLime line - they may have had a slow and unspectacular start, but in this last year, they've picked up some good series that have started to get some really good reviews. Today's review is one of the gems of their lineup, and further proof that good yaoi does exist - you just have to be willing to look for it.
BLUE MORNING (Yuutsu no Asa), by Shoko Hidaka. First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2013.
At the turn of the twentieth century in Japan, young Akihito Kuze finds himself thrust into the glittering world of the aristocracy upon the death of his father. Akihito is now the Viscount Kuze, and is expected to grow and behave in a manner befitting both his title and his late father's stern legacy. His father's last words were commanding Akihito to listen to Tomoyuki Katsuragi, the family's highly efficient and highly intelligent butler with many a secret of his own.
As he grows, Akihito grows increasingly frustrated with Katsuragi because he is impossible to please and seems focused solely on advancing Akihito's position and maintaining his wealth. In spite of that, Akihito is hopelessly drawn to Katsuragi. He wants to understand how a man with Katsuragi's brains and breeding could end up in such a position, what history he has with the Kuzes, and above all to please him and get some sort of reaction. Akihito's desperation turns into something more desperate and passionate, and Akihito finds himself willing to do anything to find out more about Katsuragi.
Blue Morning is one of the best yaoi series to be released this year. Hell, it might be one of the best yaoi series I've read in many years. It's a shining example of what a mangaka can accomplish with good character building, good drama, and an interesting setting.
What makes Blue Morning work so well is that the focus isn't on smut, but story. There's barely any sex in this volume, and the only instance comes near the end. Hidaka wisely spends all those pages letting the reader get to know our two leads, to see their relationship build and change over time, and to set up all sorts of intrigues and drama. This sort of period drama is closer to Downton Abbey than it is to Junjo Romantica, and it's a refreshing change of pace. The setting is intriguing in that it shows a historic Japan where the people, the buildings, and social structures are rapidly changing and Westernizing. Honestly, were it not for the names and the odd kimono, you could easily mistake this for a Victorian-era European setting.
So many yaoi mangaka spend little to no time developing the relationship between their leads - they simply throw the two into bed as soon and frequently as possible without necessarily giving the reader any notion of who these two people are or why the reader should care about them having sex or entering into a relationship. This is not the case with Blue Morning. Akihito and Katsuragi may be master and servant, but their relationship goes beyond mere kinky stereotype. To say that their relationship is 'complicated' would be understating things.
Akihito sees Katsuragi as a father figure, standing in for the real father he barely saw or knew. Like any young boy, he's driven to earn his father figure's praise, a feat made all the harder by Katsuragi's high standards and stoic façade. That drive to please him shifts as Akihito grows into manhood and becomes something of an obsession. At first he just wants a reaction - any reaction! - out of the man, but as he starts to piece together Katsuragi's past he also wants to find a way to raise his social status to one more befitting of the man.
As for Katsuragi, he is harder to read, and the story gives us all sorts of hints and teases about both his past and present. He is technically nobility himself, being the younger son of a family close to the Kuzes, and was taken in by them at an early age. It's clear that he looked up to the former viscount, although the exact nature of their relationship is unknown. He also seems to have a rather complicated view of the aristrocracy. One minute he'll be sleeping with members of influential families to ease Akihito's social ascent, the next he looks down upon those who waste their wealth and status on frivolity and leisure. He's always pushing Akihito towards success and perfection, but the bigger question is whether this is for Akihito or himself.
Theirs is not a romantic relationship, and I don't think Hidaka wants us to see it that way, at least not at this stage. Theirs is a relationship founded on obsessions and secrets, and their coupling is not so much the culmination of a romance as it is the tension Akihito perceives between the two building to the point of desperation, and takes their relationship to the next inevitable (and nonconsensual) phase. It's just all so dark, complicated, and psychologically messy, and because we've spent so much time getting to know these two (as much as the story will allow) you WANT to see how this relationship will turn out, and you WANT to find out the truth about Katsuragi along with Akihito. This just goes to show what a good mangaka can do when she's committed to writing a genuinely good story with complex characters, instead of simply using the story as padding between sex scenes.
Blue Morning also stands out in that the artwork is above-average for this genre, the best I've seen since of the works of Fumi Yoshinaga. While Hidaka's character designs are handsome, they're also well-rooted in reality. The proportions are normal, the faces well-detailed and subtle, and she even manages to expertly handle foreshortening them in cases of extremely high or low-angled panels that show up relatively frequently. She puts care into the wardrobes and backgrounds, even if they are not exquisitely detailed. Admittedly, there aren't a lot of big vistas - this is story with a lot of talking, and thus a lot of talking head close-ups. Still, it's high quality work and the understated elegance of the art fits the story beautifully
There's only a single color page in the front.
Blue Morning is a fascinating little period piece that I would recommend even to those who are usually wary of yaoi. Shoko Hidaka was not someone I was aware of before, but if the rest of her work is like this, then I eagerly await more of it.
This series is published by Viz. This story is complete in 3 volumes, and all are currently in print.
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