Of course, just because we're talking about bad romances doesn't mean that they all have to be bad STRAIGHT romances. Yaoi has plenty of unfortunate examples, but how many can be said to feature multiple examples within a single story line or to be as well-known as today's subject?
JUNJO ROMANTICA: PURE-HEARTED ROMANCE (Junjo Romanchika), by Shungiku Nakamura. First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2006.
Misaki is determined to get into university, but his grades stink. His older brother/guardian knows someone who can help, though - Usami Akihiko, a renowned novelist and old friend. Misaki soon discovers that Usami writes more than literary fiction. He also apparently writes BL novels featuring himself and Misaki's brother by name. When Misaki confronts Usami about the matter, Usami responds by forcing himself upon the boy. Misaki is freaked out by Usami's actions and his own confusion on the matter, but he finds himself moved when he learns just how deep Usami's feelings for his brother go.
At that same university, Hiroki Kamijo is a frustrated college student. He's in love with Usami, but knows full well that his feelings are unrequired, no matter how many blindfold-assisted trysts they have. While brooding, he meets up with Nowaki Kosama, a mellow young man who is working himself through multiple part-time jobs to get himself through college. He ends up falling for Hiroki at first sight, but Hiroki remains in denial, despite the fact that he takes a greater than normal interest in Nowaki's welfare.
I've lamented many times before about how yaoi's low standards for entry tends to result in a lot of works that are dull and sometimes outright awful, but few of them can compare to Junjo Romantica in length, popularity, and sheer awfulness. I'm convinced at this point that the title is meant to be ironic because everything about the cast and the writing is anything BUT pure-hearted. Instead it's a giant interwoven mess of oddness, abusiveness, and hackeneyed writing.
Junjo Romantica is built not around one love story, but three of them (although the third is not featured in this first volume). Most of the volume is focused on the Romantica plotline with Misaki and Usami, and they are by and large the worst couple of the lot. These two are nothing but every lazy seme and uke cliché you've ever seen cranked to 11, and the result is both eye-rollingly predictable and skin-crawlingly awful. Misaki is painfully naïve, rude, homophobic and overreactive even before Usami assaults him. He's also massively in denial, refusing Usami's physical contact or the suggestion that he might be gay despite having living with Usami, taking care of him, and sleeping with him on a regular basis. Of course, I can't blame him for being angry or in denial on the matter, because lord knows I would do the same to deny any connection to a manipulative, flakey creep like Usami. He lost me the moment that he decided the best response to accusations of being an indiscriminate rapist was to RAPE HIS ACCUSER. He then follows this up by essentially entrapping Misaki by isolating him from his peers, make the kid take care of him, molest him on a regular basis in spite of his frequent, noisy protests, and guilt him into staying with him by paying for Misaki's schooling and playing up his oh-so-tragic past.
Nakamura wants the reader to be SO SAD about poor Usami, and her attempts at redeeming him are laughably amateurish. She has Misaki literally explain Usami's backstory to him for the sake of the audience, and she harps constantly about how Usami never had a proper childhood or just how much Usami loves Misaki's brother, despite knowing his feelings will never be requited. This might be terribly tragic if not for the fact that the former is there just so she can justify Usami's inability to take care of himself and his creepy toy collection and the latter is resolved in such a shallow, sudden manner that any impact it might have had is instantly lost, and the story forgets about it almost immediately. Nakamura will simply have to forgive me if I don't start breaking out the violins for Usami because his actions are not those of a man desperately in love. They are the actions of an obsessive, abusive asshole, and only the most deluded fujoshi could view it as anything otherwise.
Hiroki and Nowaki's storyline, Junjo Egotist, is generally regarded as the "best" of the three storylines, the one that comes off as the least creepy and exploitative of the lot. While I'll concede that it is less awful and rapey than the previous one, it's still pretty damn far from endearing. Hiroki is the most overreactive tsundere that ever tsuned, while Nowaki is so innocent and his backstory so mawkish that it feels like he was dragged out of some obscure Horatio Alger novel. He's literally a poor orphan who has had to support himself his whole life, one who is too determined and proud to take assistance but instead will slave his way through both work and school to get by. It makes even less sense that he would be so taken with Hiroki, a selfish, paranoid asshole who does nothing but moon over Usami and yell at Nowaki for being an idiot. Of course, he's hardly a saint himself, backstory be damned. Nowaki's idea of an introduction is to literally sneak into Hiroki's apartment to care for him, and his idea of flirtation is to passive-aggressively insert himself into Hiroki's life until Hiroki is forced to confess his feelings. It's a more subtle form of manipulation, and that combined with Hiroki's dickishness turned me off to this couple as well. Maybe it's for the best that I didn't find out what the third storyline is like. If these two are any indication, it couldn't possibly be good.
There are a lot of things to hate about both of these storylines, but the worst quality that they both share is the fact that neither relationship ever makes any sort of progress. No matter how many times someone might confess their feelings, makes a move, or even has sex, in the next chapter everything comes back to the reluctant parties freaking out about how they're TOTALLY NOT GAY, guaranteeing that everything remains at an awful status quo. It's a strategy that works for Nakamura, as she's used this to stretch out this wretched collection of romance over multiple volumes, but it also means that as awful as this story is, it's guaranteed to never get any better.
As awful as Nakamura's writing may be, her artwork is even worse. It's so bad that it is literally a joke. Well, more accurately, it is literally a meme. Some of you out there may be familiar with the "Yaoi Hands" meme, where people post examples of the most egregiously exaggerated and off-model examples of yaoi art. What series spawned that meme? Why, none other than Junjo Romantica itself, and from the beginning it's not hard to see how it happened.
Every page is a fresh new disaster to behold. The characters are flat and angular, made up of haystack hairstyles, hatch lines, and bizarrely enormous eyes on gaunt, contortionist bodies. Proportions are all over the place, so at any point any character may have giant spidery hands, giant feet, stilt-like legs, or orangutan arms and it can literally change from panel to panel. I'm honestly glad that what few sex scenes can be found in this volume are mostly obscured with dark screentones, because I shudder to think what those would look like unaltered. She can't even manage to draw limbs that look human, so what kind of abstract horror would she try to pass off as a penis?
Her page composition is just as bad as the character art. Panels are put together almost at random, and only dialogue indicates which panels follow one another. Screentones are used and abused with abandon, and what few unobscured backgrounds we do get are as crudely rendered as everything else. Even the few bits of color artwork can't improve on things. This series is just a constant eyesore from cover to cover, and I'm appalled that something so visually lacking could seriously get published.
This series was published by Tokyopop, under their Blu imprint. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 18 volumes currently available. 12 volumes were published, and all are out of print.
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