I've encountered a lot of yaoi short story anthologies during my time here, but they never really impressed me. So often they truly are just random grab-bags of story scraps, too short to make any impact or do anything interesting. Today's selection is one of the very rare exceptions to that trend, and a very welcome one at that.
WARNING! WHISPERS OF LOVE (Koi no Mimi Yori Chuiho), by Puku Okayama. First published in 2010, and first published in North America in 2011.
This whimsical collection of boys' love stories cover revolves around three couples: two boys caught in a cat-and-mouse game centered on ear cleaning, a short-term sublease that turns two roommates into a warm and cozy couple, and the love between a teenage boy, his boyfriend, and his boyfriend's rambunctious little corgi.
"Whimsical" is not a word I would commonly use for a BL collection, no more often than I would sincerely use the word "funny." Yet those are the two most apt words to describe Warning! Whispers of Love. It comes off less like a traditional collection of BL stories and more like a collection of slightly slashy shonen slice-of-life stories, and each one is full of charm.
The tone is set straight away with the titular story, where incoming freshman Hajime has to avoid the overly attentive attentions of his sempai Nagisa, whose seemingly perfect appearance belies his obsession with ear cleaning. This is something that will come off as rather strange to most American readers, where at most ear cleaning is something done on a whim with a Q-tip. In Japan it can be a more formalized act, complete with special tools, and it's an action that's meant to be both caring and intimate, someone one can only do with their loved ones and family. Not surprisingly, this leads to a lot of suggestive jokes, but that's about as raunchy as this story ever gets. More time is spent watching these two chase each other around school like cartoon characters than there is spent on their budding and awkward romance. It helps that the comedy is well-executed, as Okayama has a great sense of comic timing. She knows when to let things get silly, when to hold on a reaction for maximum laughs, how to keep the jokes fresh, and when to reign things in to allow for a bit of emotion. She also keeps the story structure loose and fast, which is why it plays out more like a slice-of-life story than anything else.
The two stories in the middle aren't quite as strong or as funny as the ones that bookend the collection, but both are enjoyable in their own right. The first, "My Room," features Shino the musician and his accidental roommate Sato, whose gratitude to Shino for getting a place to stay turns to devotion as he learns more about the man. Shino in turn has to come to terms with his own feelings and relationship with Sato. The second, "Beyond the Lens," concerns childhood friends Hiro and Ryu. They were separated during junior high, and when they meet up again in high school they discover that their feelings for one another go beyond mere friendship. Here Okuyama isn't going for laughs but instead for warm and fuzzy feelings. Both of these stories aren't as lively or as focused as some of the others, but are still satisfying and sweet in their own right.
It all ends on a strong note with "Tomorrow, Dog Day, Sunny & Clear." It's the story of Yochi and his boyfriend Keiichi, and more specifically with Keiichi trying to compete with Yochi's pet corgi Dog for Yochi's attention. Yes, the corgi is named Dog and that's both bizarre and lazy, but I'm a sucker for corgis and watching poor Keiichi grapple with this dense yet adorable dog never gets old. If anything, Dog tends to steal the show with his Frisbee chasing and his trick of 'kissing' (read: headbutting) Keiichi. Of course, that may be because the boys' relationship is so low-key. Their relationship doesn't change in any way shape or form, and they're only vaguely established as a couple in the first place. Still, this story was great fun to read and I was even a little disappointed that it was so short.
Warning! Whispers of Love is a funny little marvel of an anthology. Okuyama is great with both comedy and romance, and gets a lot of both out of some otherwise ordinary premises. The beginnings and endings tend to be a bit vague, but the stories onto themselves are so engaging that they could go on forever and never get dull. In a genre that's so full of drama and self-serious smut, this book serves as a sweet and endearing palate cleanser.
Okuyama's art style is highly unusual for BL. Her art isn't as heavily stylized and shoujo-fied as most yaoi artists tend to be. If anything, her artistic sensibilities are closer to that of Hideyuki Azuma (Azumanga Daioh, Yotsuba) or Masakazu Ishiguro (Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru) than your standard BL artist. Her characters are delicately rendered, but they're rounded, clean and simple in design. They're also terribly cute in a casual, boyish way, and I kind of adore how she draws Dog with this realistic corgi body and a face that verges on an emoji. This is a fairly chatty collection of stories, so instead of backgrounds she tends to make do with a bit of screentone or some super-deformed reaction going on in the background. I feel like her art style would be more engaging to a general audience then a lot of BL art tends to be and it fits the tone of her stories beautifully.
I had picked this up during the last RightStuf holiday sale mostly because it was cheap, but in doing so I discovered a true diamond in the rough. This collection features some of the most entertaining BL I've read in a long time thanks to its unconventional art style and great sense of humor. Don't wait for the next holiday sale to pick this one up.
This book was published by Digital Manga Publishing. It is currently in print.