The second historical yaoi series of the week is also by another prolific BL mangaka who made a inspired choice for a historical figure to lead her gay smut story. Now if only she had the chops to make that same figure fit comfortably into the gay romance element.
LUDWIG II (Ruhtovi II Sei), by You Higuri. First published in 1996, and first published in North America in 2009.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria reigned at a time when political tensions were threatening many of the old monarchies of central Europe. Ludwig couldn't care less about it, though. He has no interest in acting like a proper ruler or finding a wife. He's far too busy losing himself in daydreams about Siegfried and other mythological heroes. The only people who can connect to him are his lovely cousin Elizabeth, Empress of Austro-Hungary, and his handsome footman Hornig, and his relationship with Hornig threatens to consume Ludwig completely. Is what he feels for Hornig truly love, though, or simply just another form of madness?
I really want to give Higuri some credit for not only creating a historical yaoi series, but even going so far as to pick a person with a dramatic life story and who was very likely gay in real life. It's too bad that she makes him out to be a total dickweed and then expect the reader to feel terribly sorry for him.
Oh, good old "Mad" Ludwig of Bavaria. Most people know him for his fondness for ornate castles, being one of Richard Wagner's biggest fans, and for being nuttier than a squirrel's breakfast. As a ruler he was kind of hopeless from the start. He never made any effort to defend his land from Prussia and willingly allowed his kingdom to be enfolded into the newly united Germany. As a man, his life was full of short-lived and tumultuous relationships, culminating in a diagnosis of insanity and his mysterious death. That's more than enough material for any decent manga writer, regardless of genre, to craft a great story. Higuri did more than her fair share of research on Ludwig, and it shows all over the volume. Many of the significant events of his early years are represented here and she takes fairly little artistic license with them. Even Hornig is based on a real man, a stableboy in Ludwig's household who was one of his many lovers. The only problem is that she tries to make the real Ludwig's life fit inside the standard mold of yaoi romance, turning what was in reality a short-lived fling into some sort of true love, and it never works for a moment.
Ludwig spends most of his time on page being dreamy and angsty in equal measures, but the moment Hornig enters the scene he transforms into the stereotypical seme with alarming speed. We're never given any sort of explanation as to why Ludwig has put so much importance in Hornig. He's certainly a kind enough man, but Hornig doesn't show himself to be terribly bright, insightful, or remarkable in any way. Hornig serves little purpose to Ludwig beyond being Ludwig's pet, there to be cosseted or saved as the story demands. It's telling that Ludwig has more romantic chemistry with his cousin Elizabeth than he does with Hornig. This romance is also in defiance of the real history of Ludwig II. Ludwig is believed to have had many male lovers in his time, and the story could have used that fact explore the idea of Ludwig seeking his Romantic ideal in man after man, each of them falling short of his fantasies. It would have tied the two sides we see of him together in a more orderly manner, giving each more dramatic resonance, instead of having them contrast so starkly.
My biggest issue with Higuri's take on Ludwig is that she wants us to feel SO SORRY for him, but her version of Ludwig is too unlikeable to elicit sympathy. Like Elizabeth in the intro, we're meant to view him as this tragic romantic figure, chasing the ideals of beauty and heroism in an attempt to escape a harsh reality. The truth is that the Ludwig here doesn't come off like a tragic victim of circumstance but more of a willful, obsessive asshole. He can (and does) snap out of his obsession at will and is shown to be perfectly aware of the demands of his position and world events. This Ludwig isn't a madman, but instead a selfish man-child who wants to play pretend for the rest of his life and paints himself as a martyr whenever he's forced to do otherwise. Worse still, everyone around him goes out of their way to forgive his transgressions. Elizabeth sees him as a best friend and ideal. Hornig sees him as a good and protective man. Even Ludwig's fiancée, who nurtures a schoolgirl crush on Ludwig, ends up forgiving him for cheating on her with Hornig because she's happy that he's so deeply in love. Higuri ultimately treats Ludwig II with the reverence of a schoolgirl in love, whitewashing all his faults and complications, and this treatment mostly makes me nauseous.
Her choice in subject may have been inspired, but Higuri goes too far in making the life of Ludwig II into some romantic ideal. She turns a real and complicated man into a dickish asshole and turns a casual fling into a shallow, stereotypical romance, all while painting the whole affair as a maudlin tragedy.
Higuri could be considered a better-than-average BL artist. While her character designs take a lot from shoujo conventions, she can make emote decently and they do bear some resemblance to their historical counterparts. She's also less focused on the smut than most, and the few sex scenes that are present are brief and non-explicit. The backgrounds come and go, although the better examples are clearly traced from reference. It's not at Kaoru Mori levels of historical accuracy, but I will take whatever effort and quality I can get in this genre.
There's a long and rather cute omake about Higuri visiting Austria for research, along with an afterward and a bibliography.
Higuri's inspired choice in subject is undermined by turning him into an irredeemable asshole even as she declares him to be a tragic hero. It's better looking and better informed than the average yaoi series, but that doesn't necessarily make it a good one.
This series was published by Digital Manga Press. This series is complete in 3 volumes, and all are currently out of print.
You can purchase manga like this and much more through RightStuf.com!
There are only a few days left to contribute to the Carolina Manga Library's Indiegogo campaign! They have over $1700, but they still need funds to put towards a permanent trailer, and at $2000 they will make a video showing off their collection. Help them meet their next goal before it ends on Sunday!
Speaking of good causes, also consider contributing to the Patreon for Jonathan Kaharl, a fellow writer and site editor over at Infinite Rainy Day. Supporting him will help support IRD (and possibly myself and the other writers, if it does well enough). He's a great writer well worth supporting, so donate today!