You what you almost never see in manga? All-male harems. You'd think that at least some yaoi books would try such a thing, but most of those focus on one-on-one relationships. Those that aren't meant to be explicit tend to be just 'cute guys doing cute things together.' Well, all except THIS one.
KYO KARA MAOH! (Demon King From Today!), based on the light novels written by Tomo Takabayashi & drawn by Temari Matsumoto. First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2008.
Yuri Shibuya only meant to save a classmate from a couple of bullies. He couldn't have anticipated that he would get sucked into another world during a swirlie, much less to find strange men declaring him the reincarnation of the Demon King and the new ruler of their world. Now Yuri has to adapt to his new status along with strange new customs, unexpected connections between his new world and his past, an accidental engagement to a boy, and a duel to the death with his new fiancée.
I remember hearing about this series years ago, back when I would frequent Livejournals dedicated to mocking and criticizing bad fanfiction. It was usually mentioned in the same breath as shows like Weiss Kreutz and Gundam Wing, so I knew coming into this that this manga would be more than a little homoerotic. What I couldn't have anticipated was that the homoeroticism was literally the only notable thing about Kyo Kara Maoh.
The premise will be all too familiar: an ordinary Japanese kid gets sucked into a magical world through unusual means where they discover that they are some sort of savior figure. The rest of the story details how they save the world and usually get a significant other in the process. The only major twist that Kyo Kara Maoh adds is that the protagonist is a boy instead of a girl. They didn't even change the gaggle of bishonen which normally serve as love interests, they just made their pursuit less obvious by framing it as a power struggle between those who support Yuri versus those who oppose him. I still might have been willing to go along with that, had it not been for the utterly clumsy way this writer handles worldbuilding.
I was not surprised to learn that this was based on a light novel, because the story is so hung up on explaining everything that it barely moves forward. The reader is constantly assaulted with monologues from the supporting cast explaining the world and the premise to our audience stand-in Yuri. Oh sure, they could have made the exposition interesting by showing instead of telling since manga is a mostly visual media. They could have even made Yuri a more proactive character by having him do his own research and ask more questions about his new realm, but those would be intelligent choices. No, instead they chose to more or less copy and paste chunks of Takabayashi's prose straight into the characters' mouths. This tactic not only makes for incredibly lazy storytelling, but it's tedious and intellectually insulting that Takabayashi thinks that the reader won't understand anything unless she literally stops the story to explain it to us.
It's not like her concept of a magical fantasy world is all that new and exotic to begin with. The concept of a human boy coming to rule as king over a world full of demons sounds neat, but it's ruin when it turns out that the demons look (and for the most part, act) like normal humans and they even play baseball. OK, in all fairness this is due to the influence of Conrad, one of Yuri's supporters who has the ability to travel between worlds and has been doing so since before Yuri was born. Still, Takabayashi could have done a far better job showing the influences of the human world bleeding into the demon realm without it all leading up to an awkwardly executed character moment between Conrad and Yuri. Baseball and demon kings don't mix well without some concentrated effort on the part of the author, and it's clear that Takabayashi didn't even try.
The only place where she did try was with the homoeroticism, and even then that's not saying much. The problem is I suspect we're meant to titter over the relationships instead of the characters themselves. It certainly would explain why Yuri is utterly bland. Sure, he's meant to be the audience insert character and thus kind of blank and malleable, but aside from a vague sense of nobility we don't really learn anything about him as a person. He doesn't even achieve anything under his own power, as his title is handed to him upon arriving and he wins his duel through the reincarnation equivalent of a deus ex machina. I can't see such a blank slate rising to become leader of a book club, much less the ruler of an entire world.
This same lackadaisical approach to character writing also explains why the rest of the cast is composed of simple archetypes. Conrad is never anything but the gentle father figure, his brother Wolfram is cast as the resident tsundere, and Conrad's friend Gunther becomes nothing more than a walking gay joke with his weepy, flamingly gay attitude. There's even a character to serve as a stand-in for all the fujoshi in the form of Celi, Conrad and Wolfram's mother. The story never lacks for characters, but there's not one bit of personality to be amongst them. It's little wonder then that they're defined more by their orientation than their actions or thoughts.
It's hard to imagine that this story ever could have been part of some fangirl craze, no matter how fleeting, if simply because it's so devoid of character. The premise is derivative and those characters that aren't blank slates are as deep and dimensional as the paper they're printed on. Were it not for its higher than normal levels of ho-yay, I doubt anyone would remember it at all.
After reading this, I was not surprised to learn that aside from doing the artwork for this manga as well as the original light novels, Temari Matsumoto is mostly known for doing yaoi. It shows on every page, and that's not really a good thing. Her character designs are exactly what you expect for a yaoi artist - vaguely handsome, tall to the point of gangliness, chins sharp enough to cut glass, and awkwardly long, spidery hands. I swear some of the character are so awkwardly tall that they have to slouch and crouch to stay in frame, which only makes them look more awkward. Maybe that was simply because the panels tended to be small and cramped in the first place, since the exposition demands that half the panels be taken up with speech bubbles. That leaves Matsumoto little room to visually elaborate on Yuri's new realm, which means that what few backgrounds we get are rather anonymous looking. Not even the size and splendor of a castle seems to come through in her art. She can't even capture what little action there is to be had, as the characters seem to drown in speed lines and big, jagged magical effects. A magical story like this needs equally magical art to bring it to life, and Matsumoto simply doesn't have that level of talent.
Man, anime and manga fangirls must have been really desperate for a bit of ho-yay in the mid 2000s if they felt the need to latch on to a series like this. The story lacks character and subtlety on every level and the art is decidedly average. Maybe it's precisely because of lackluster manga like this that we don't see a lot of all-male harems. Maybe that's for the best.
This series is currently published by Viz, formerly by Tokyopop. This series is complete in Japan with 16 volumes available. Tokyopop released 7 volumes, and all are out of print. Viz has published 6 volumes in e-book form, and all are currently available through Viz.com.
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