It shouldn't be shocking that there are yaoi series that take their inspiration from history as well. We'll be looking at a couple of those this week, starting with this early work from one of my favorite mangaka.
LOVERS IN THE NIGHT (Ai Towa Yoru ni Kizuku Mono), by Fumi Yoshinaga. First published in 1999, and first published in North America in 2007.
Claude is a young man who is drafted into becoming a servant in an aristocratic household in Ancient Regime France. Claude soon demonstrates that he is a servant beyond compare, rising all the way to becoming the master's personal valet. Upon his master's death, Claude's services are transferred to the master's son Antoine. Antoine is youthful, cheeky, spoiled, and gay, and the two soon becomes lovers as well as master and servant, doing their best to survive in a post-Revolution world.
My expectations for this story may have been a bit inflated, considering my fondness for Yoshinaga in general and for her other French Revolution-era yaoi series, the flawed but fascinating Gerard & Jacques. The quality of her other works had me hoping for much of the same with this book, but sadly it seems that Yoshinaga slacked off here. There isn't so much of a linear story arc as there is a lot of interludes, which makes the story as a whole feel choppy. Worse still, the cast only feels half developed, and the story never truly takes advantage of its given time period.
It's not for lack of trying on Yoshinaga's part. There are many intriguing things to explore with Claude, be it his partially Asian background, his rise from common prostitution to high status servant, and his complicated affections for both Antoine and Antoine's father. Sadly, these aren't explored, and Claude remains the same quiet, assured and intelligent man from beginning to end. Antoine is at more of an advantage simply because we literally watch him grow up. We not only see him physically grow up, but we see him transform from a callow spoiled brat to...well, still something of a spoiled brat, but one who can at least acknowledge there is world beyond his own needs and wants. Even Antoine's father gets more development, as we see him as both a kind and gentle man and as a total lech who wastes his family's fortunes. The story never asks us to see him as a saint or a villain, but simply as a complicated man too stuck in his habits to change the faults in himself and his lifestyle.
What's truly strange is how blithely and quickly the story glosses over something like THE FREAKING FRENCH REVOLUTION. Claude and Antoine simply escape to a relative's house in some Germanic territory in the space of a couple of chapters, and afterwards never so much as acknowledge that most of their friends and family are dead and that they can never truly return to life as they knew it. Antoine pines more for good French food and wine than he does for the past, and Claude solves their financial troubles in a throwaway gag involving a fake aphrodisiac. As such, there's never any fear that the two will be split apart or forced to suffer due to poverty. The story also never questions the large age different between our leads. Claude is not only a servant, but a literal father figure to Antoine. In some ways, he's been more of a father to him than Antoine's real father was, and now he is sleeping with the same boy he watched grow up. I can't say I'm fond of such a dynamic, and I can see it being a turn-off to others. It also never really alters the master/servant dynamic between our title characters. While it's clear that Claude is the one directing Antoine's life and not vice versa, the two never quite reach the stage where the two become equals, in spite of all the changes that the Revolution hath wrought. After all, Antoine is still the one who commands Claude to sleep with him, even after all this time. Thus there's always a sort of power imbalance between the two that never quite sat easily with me.
Lovers in the Night is far from the worse yaoi series I've read, but it's disappointing to see a master of the genre create something so half-assed. It glosses over much of the impact of the time and setting, and the character development feels half-assed and occasionally squicky.
At least I didn't suffer the same sort of disappointment with the art. The character designs are typical for her work, with a lot of finely drawn, square-jawed handsome men expressing themselves in a truly beautiful manner. The wardrobes are fairly period-accurate, save for the fact that they are almost minimalist in design. Backgrounds are rare, and this absence is only accentuated by the large, spacious panels. Yoshinaga does use that space to her advantage with framing, shifting her characters to the edges of the panels or fading their face halfway into the white space for effect. The sex scenes themselves strike a nice balance between smuttiness and coyness, and they're inserted in a very organic manner. It never feels like she had to add a sex scene to keep the readers' attentions, which is a point in her favor.
The artwork is as lovely as ever, but the story is lacking in scale and never fully fleshes out its main couple. In comparison to Yoshinaga's other works (BL and otherwise), Lovers in the Night feels like a trifle and I can't recommend it to most outside of hardened BL fans or Yoshinaga completionists.
This book was published by Tokyopop. It is currently out of print.
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