Whatever happened to shonen-ai? Once upon a time we used to get manga like FAKE and Gravitation, series that hinted at gay romance, but were focused first and foremost on telling a story. With the flood of yaoi titles we got in the 2000s, it seemed like the concept had been all but lost...at least, until fairly recently.
NO. 6, based on the light novel series by Atsuko Asano & drawn by Hinoki Kino. First published in 2011, and first published in North America in 2013.
No. 6 is a bustling, futuristic city where crime, illness, and unhappiness are all but unknown. Amongst its residents is 12 year old Shion, who is on the fast track to a glorious academic career until the fateful night he left his bedroom windows open during a storm. That allowed Rat, a strange and heavily injured boy, to enter, and Shion sees to his wounds before Rat leaves. Rat is a fugitive, though, and this single act of compassion ruins Shion's life. Four years later, his family has been forced into the slums while Shion now must work as a maintenance to help his mother get by. He stumbles upon a bizarre and deadly secret at his job. Now Shion is the fugitive, and Rat has returned to show him the truth about No. 6.
If you've been keeping up with YA fiction these days, then the premise of No. 6 is probably going to feel kind of familiar to you. You've got a dystopian community where the haves and have-nots are separated, where all sorts of future tech is present and possible, and where a single Chosen One rises up against their overlords and leads the way to a better future, usually with a love interest at their side. Just because the concept may not be all that original doesn't mean that it isn't any good. No. 6 manages to make those well-worn ideas feel relatively fresh while delivering a bit of subtle fujoshi fanservice.
In all fairness, Shion and Rat make a good couple. While their personalities are a bit lightly sketched out so far, their skills and knowledge complement one another. Even their story arcs complement one another, as Shion's selfless act comes full circle when Rat comes back to help him years later. Yeah, it's more than a little convenient, but it's satisfying nonetheless. There are certainly things about them that I wish they would change. For example, Shion is so ridiculous happy-go-lucky that not even being forced out of his home and school and everything he knows isn't enough to phase him, and he's also shockingly oblivious to the fact that his childhood friend Sufa is desperately trying to hit on him. Then there's Rat, who must be forced at every turn to vaguely explain even the slightest thing, and it feels less like a character quirk and more like a plot gimmick that allows the author to stretch things out as long as possible. At least he's well-read for being such a stubborn kid. He even manages to slip in a quote from MacBeth that's not overused and is relevant to his and Shion's situation.
I was a little surprised to learn that this was based on a light novel series. It's true that knowing this makes the parallels to current YA trends a little more obvious, but No. 6 has been adapted well from the page. You don't see the sort of obvious infodumps that so many bad light novel-to-manga feature. No one stops the story dead in its tracks to explain the rules of the world or their epic backstory, a fact for which I am very thankful. As for this future world, it honestly doesn't seem all that bad. Yeah, it's built upon a foundation of lies, totalitarianism, and exploitation of the masses, but not even the 'bad' side of town seems all that bad for what is meant to be a run-down slum. After all, Shion and his mom adapted incredibly fast to their lot and she even managed to set up a nice bakery. They don't even do that much to keep the two worlds seperate, as Shion and Sufa are able to maintain their friendship even after he's been banished to the slums. It's only near the end of the volume that the true horror of Shion's world comes into focus as Shion discovers that their oppression comes with a side of biomedical experimentation. It's a neat twist, but it's not enough to completely overcome the mildness of this dystopia.
I don't want to come down too harshly on this series. The story might be kind of derivative, but it's all put together in a way that flows smoothly and gives it a good foundation upon which to build some deeper characterization and world building. It's not perfect, but the first volume of No. 6 is off to a promising start.
Kino's art is much like the story in the sense that it's pleasant and well-crafted, but isn't necessarily all that remarkable or distinct. His character designs are pleasant enough to look at, and I will say that he does a good job at aging up Shion and Rat from 12 to 16. A lot of manga artists struggle to convey age; at most, they tend to add a few crows' feet and call it a day. Here, the differences are just enough to visually convey the passage of time, but the changes aren't so radical that the two become two completely different-looking people. The backgrounds are all nicely rendered and there's a clear difference between the sleek, vaguely futuristic places of No. 6 and the darker, shabbier, and more organic forms of the slums. It's just not shown off very much until the very end, when the scenery opens up into a grand vista. If there's one thing that Kino does excel at, it's fujoshi fanservice. There's never any sort of explicit action, but Kino does love to take every and all opportunity to have Rat pin Shion against the nearest flat surface as he yells or threatens Shion in a suggestive manner, a move that's only enhanced by the noticeable size difference between the two boys. It's an understated touch in what is otherwise a nicely drawn but otherwise unremarkable book.
No. 6 won't revolutionize the world, but its story of two boys fighting back against a cruel world makes for a neat and mildly slashy bit of science fiction.
This series is published by Kodansha Comics. This series is complete in Japan in 9 volumes. All 9 have been published and all are currently in print.