Sunday, February 28, 2016


Of course, just because a manga deals in some taboo subjects or tropes doesn't necessarily mean that it is automatically terrible.  Every once in a great while you find one that takes a sketchy premise and subverts it into something more intriguing.  Today's review is a very recent example of just such a thing.

THE SECRET SAKURA SHARES (Sakura no Himegoto), by Akira Hagio.  First published in 2011 and first published in North America in 2015.


Aoi Narinomiya is the only heiress to a prestigious and wealthy family, but her comfortable life comes crashing down one day when she finds her grandfather's mansion being packed up.  It seems her grandfather accrued a massive debt, and now Aoi's classmate Kei Katsuragi has come to collect on behalf of his family.  In desperation, Aoi begs Kei to take in her beloved pet dog Sakura.  Kei agrees, but only if he can keep her as a pet as well.  Now Aoi has to come to terms with her new living arrangement, her own family's past, and her changing feelings for Kei.


Is it possible to take a premise as potentially sketchy as "boy keeps girl as literal pet" with a hapless ingénue heroine and a moody love interest and turn it into something heartwarming?  Early on, I would have said "hell no!" but The Secret Sakura Shares manages to do just that through some careful soul-searching and subverting the audience's expectations.

Aoi is not the sort of heroine anyone would ever mistake for a Strong Independent Woman (tm).  She's spent her whole life being pampered and protected.  She has been taught all sorts of refinements, but nothing of how to actually subsist on her own or even to care much about her own welfare.  She should be completely irritating, but Hagio dodges that bullet by showing that her helplessness is not a cute quirk but instead a symptom of her abysmally low self-esteem which itself was a symptom of being abandoned by her mother at a young age.  She's spent her whole life being passed around and treated like an object instead of a person. so it's little wonder that it would give her a complex and leave her as a rather infantilized teen with a desperate need to please others, even at her own expense.  I imagine that fans of Fruits Basket will find Aoi a rather familiar sort of character, even if she's nowhere near as saintly as Tohru Honda could be.  Thus, when Aoi does start to make choices for herself for the first time, it gives these seemingly simple acts far more power than they would normally hold.  Hagio managed to turn the standard shoujo ingénue into something deeper and more complex and it's an impressive trick.

She manages a similar subversion of shoujo tropes with Kei.  Kei affects the air of a distant and disaffected rebel, but this is naught but a mask for Kei's innate decency.  When Kei offers to make Aoi his pet, he means it in the best and most sincere way possible.  He doesn't want to exploit her sexually or demean her, but instead to care for her needs and treat her like a person.  Other rich boys might try to woo Aoi in the hopes of boosting their family fortunes, but only Kei cares about saving her and her grandfather while simultaneously allowing them to retain their dignity.  Even the seemingly rivalry Kei has with his distant businessman father is not all that it seems, and the payoff to that plot thread is one of the few moments that's genuinely amusing (if rather embarrassing for Kei himself).  Much like with Aoi, Hagio turns a very trope-bound character type into something more affecting and subversive.  Together, the two turn what could have been a horror show of a premise into a sweet and surprisingly sincere romance.  The Secret Sakura Shares shows that with some care and some willingness to play with genre conventions, you can make a sketchy premise plausible and genuinely romantic.


I suspect that part of the reason that Hagio's character subversion work so well is that The Secret Sakura Shares looks for the most part like every other shoujo series out there.  The art and characters are all drawn in a cute and competent manner, but their look is also very bland.  Even the animals (especially Aoi's beloved Sakura) drawn in a competent but workman-like manner.  At times they are overshadowed by the paneling, as Hagio likes to break out the screentones and to stagger and layer her panels frequently.  Thankfully, she keeps things sparse enough that all those panels manage to flow from one another in an easy manner, and the ho-hum artwork actually (if likely accidentally) works to the story's advantage.


The Secret Sakura Shares looks like your average shoujo series and has a premise that would raise some eyebrows.  Thankfully it works in execution because Hagio puts forth real effort into using familiar character tropes as a jumping point to explore her leading couple as actual characters.  By doing so, she turns what would be a fairly mundane title into one that shoujo fans should give a look.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is complete in Japan with 2 volumes available.  Both volumes were published in a 2-in-1 omnibus and is currently in print.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Actually, I take back what I said last time.  There IS something that's even weirder and more off-putting than Brother.  It's not quite about bestiality, and it's not quite about furries, but it is one of the most notorious BL releases in English.

LOVE PISTOLS, by Tarako KotobakiFirst published in 2004 and first published in North America in 2007.


Norio was a perfectly average 16-year-old guy until an accident leads him to a near-death experience.  Ever since, Norio is utterly irresistible to just about every guy in the vicinity with no explanation.  Weirder still, at times Norio would swear that they look like animals instead of people.  Things come to a head when surly senior Kunimasa Madarame snatches Norio away to his home.  It turns out that Norio, Madarame and many others like him are the members of 'zoomanity,' humans descended from creatures other than apes.  This gives them heightened senses and the ability to transform into their animal forms, and all of them desire the highest ranking mates to breed with.  Unfortunately for Norio, he's something of a missing link and Madarame is determined to Norio his mate by any means possible.


This may be without a doubt the weirdest yaoi manga I've ever read.  There are some seriously out-there premises in the world of BL, but you'd be hard-pressed to find something weirder than 'teenage catboy gets assaulted by giant hulking animal men for breeding purposes.' I can't fault Kotobaki for originality, but I sure as hell can fault her for cranking up the seme/uke nonsense to 11 and generally making things more annoying, convoluted, and uncomfortable than it ever needed to be.

Norio is your standard uke.  He's loud, frantic, highly emotional, and despite his many protestations he inevitably falls for the seme because the plot demands it.  Mind you, I can't blame Norio for protesting when faced with a seme like Kurimasa.  Like most semes, he's a selfish, possessive, and emotionally constipated bastard who is constantly brusque to everyone around him.  His idea of a romantic introduction is to drag Norio into the bathroom, attempt to rape him in a spare stall, and then jizzing all him to 'mark' Norio as his property.  The story tries to play Kurimasa off as just a tsundere that's heavy on the tsun, but I don't buy it for a red-hot second.  The only reason Kurimasa gets his man in the end (pun not intended) is because of pheromones, and every single encounter between Norio is a skin-crawling exercise in abusive relationships.  The idea of anyone finding this alluring or romantic is disturbing to me.

Oh, before you ask, don't bother asking the story to explain the science of 'zoomanity' in any coherent or sensible manner because what I described above in the summary is about all that we get here.  Oh, there's plenty of info-dumping about the various races of half-animal people and the hierarchy they've created for themselves, but any question as to why or how is thoroughly ignored.  I'm especially concerned about the occasional offhanded comment about Norio bearing the seed of others and similar concepts which hint at something that should never exist outside of bad fanfiction: MPreg.  If you've ever been in a slash-happy fandom, you know precisely what that means and all of the reasons it should be dreaded. 

The only antidote to all of this is the B-plot with Kurimasa's half-brother and his friend Shiro.  Shiro is an ordinary guy who finds himself drawn to the brother and strikes up a rather reluctant friendship with him.  As for the brother, he's got a chip on his broad shoulders from a past relationship gone bad and he starts down the tsundere path when Shiro starts showing up in his wank fantasies.  There's a surprising amount of complicated emotion between these two that makes their plot more compelling than it has any right to be.  Honestly, were it not for the fact that the brother nearly goes into torpor due to his snake nature, it would be easy to just pretend that this is just another high school yaoi story.  It's a shame that the relative amount of restraint and emotion found in that plot couldn't be extended to the rest of the story.  Instead it's as broad and bizarre as it wants to be, and I can't imagine anyone picking up Love Pistols for any reason other than for the trainwreck factor. 


The artwork certainly isn't helping things either.  It's not quite on the scale of something like Junjo Romantica, but it's up there amongst the worst examples of BL artwork I've reviewed.  The biggest problem is with Kotobaki's character designs.  Right away, you'll notice that she clearly prefers her semes to be built like brick outhouses, so that they can all hover and loom over short, willowy Norio.  Unfortunately she draws them like they all suffer from gigantism, with ridiculously thick, blocky torsos, thick gangly arms, and huge spidery hands and feet.  Even their facial features are broad and block with giant lips and lantern jaws, and all of it is as drawn in a flat, broad, and deeply amateurish manner.  I get that semes are typically drawn to look more masculine than their partners, but this is taking the concept straight into the realm of caricature. 

Things don't get any better once they start turning into animals.  We don't get to see any transformations other than Norio and Kurimasa, but what we do see is enough is handled so poorly as to be downright laughable.  The shifts are handled entirely off-panel; one moment Kurimasa is a man, the next he's a man-sized jaguar with the proportions of a NFL running-back.  Norio's transformation takes the cake, though.  Being a hybrid of a cat person and a normal human, his animal form basically looks like a tiny copy of Snarf from Thundercats.  Once I noticed this, it was utterly impossible to take any of the smut scenes the least bit seriously.  How can anyone keep a straight face when faced with scene after scene of a giant trying (and usually failing) to rape Snarf?  It's like something out of the dregs of DeviantArt!  That's honestly the best analogy I can make to Kotobaki's artstyle as a whole.  It's certainly distinct, but it's so weird that again I can't imagine anyone enjoying it beyond the so-bad-its-good factor.


Unless you are actively seeking out bad weird yaoi for some reason, Love Pistols has practically nothing to offer your average BL fan.  The only good part about it was the part that mostly ignored the weird fetish material, and even then it's so thoroughly soaked in cliché and godawful art that I can't see anyone but the most hardened, kink-drenched fujoshi enjoying this one. 

This series is published by Viz under the SuBLime imprint, and formerly by Tokyopop under the Blu imprint.  This series is ongoing in Japan with 8 volumes available.  The 5 physical volumes are out of print, but all 8 are available digitally through SuBLime's website.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


It's hard to find a boys' love manga that stood out enough to work for this month.  After all, we're dealing with a genre where rape is so common that it's a trope.  Thus, it takes a lot more for your given yaoi series to stand out as particularly egregious.  I did manage to find one, though, and it distinguishes itself by crossing one of the last few taboos left in manga: incest.

BROTHER, by Yuzuha Ougi.  First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2005.


Asuka Momoki should have it all: a loving family, a good job, good looks, and an insanely popular and talented stepbrother named Yui.  For Asuka, though, Yui is the biggest problem in his life.  The two grew apart as they grew older, and an awkward encounter between the two has left Asuka impotent ever since.  Things come to a head between the two when they are trapped in an abandoned building and the feelings that the both of them have been repressing are finally unleashed.  These two distant stepsiblings are about to get much, MUCH closer.


Brother doesn't really cover any new ground as far as boys' love go.  Literally the only notable thing about it is that the pairing is incestuous.  It tries to justify itself with a lot of melodramatic nonsense and the usual "they're not REALLY related" clause, but it's not enough to save this series from the trash pile.

If you had to sum up Asuka and Yui's relationship in a word, it would be 'obsessive.'  Yui is driven by his sexual obsession with Asuka, and Asuka in turn obsessed with earning Yui's approval and Yui's own popularity with others.  Things only get more obsessive once the two start screwing, as Asuka's obsession becomes all-consuming and he tries to keep Yui close though near-constant bouts of sex.  I'm used to BL trading in very jealous and obsessive forms of love, but these two take it to extremes even before you factor in the incest angle.  Even after the two become a couple, they have to keep reaffirming their love through pointless trips and highly convoluted excuses to endanger one or both of them.  It's like all the two have in common is sex and their last names.

As noted before, the story shrugs off any criticism of its pairing as these sorts of stories always do: 'they're not related by blood, therefore it's OK!"  That doesn't fly when you consider that these two have been raised together since they were in grade school.  What's really weird is that the story never makes a big deal out of the incest. You would think that a couple this intense would spend a lot of time agonizing melodramatically about the conflict between conventional morality and their desires, but Asuka and Yui hardly even bat an eye at the matter.  All it takes is an awkwardly timed boner and some desperate gropings inside a crumbling cement box to overcome any objections the two might have had.

Like a lot of bad manga, what little we do know about Asuka and Yui is told, not shown.  We're told that Asuka is a great businessman.  We're told that Yui is a great tennis player and super popular.  Ok, I take back that last point if simply because the story make a running gag out of the fact that seemingly EVERY SINGLE GIRL within his vicinity can't help but comment on how dreamy Yui is to them.  That's about as deep as it gets, though.  With these two, it's all surface and no depth.  These two barely register as characters, and because of that any conflict over their family connection or burning passion falls completely flat.  For a story that's meant to be scandalous and melodramatic, Brother is shockingly dull, and that may be its most fatal flaw.


The only thing in Brother that is more offensive than the incest is the artwork.  Practically everything you could get wrong in BL art is here:  orangutan arms, giant spidery hands, narrow horse faces that look like bug-eyed, giant lipped caricatures of bishonen, giraffe necks, and an overall sort of wiriness to them that makes Asuka and Yui absolutely hideous to behold.  It's pretty easy to see where Ougi's true priorties were, as the only part of the boys that is competently drawn is their penises.  We get to take a good, steamy look at them too as the sex scenes are surprisingly uncensored.  She also tends to transition to them at lightning speed.  At any moment, the two can go from yelling fits to boner time, and this is done so frequently that it's almost laughable.  Ougi clearly couldn't be bothered to wrap up most of her plot points like a normal writer, choosing instead to distract her reader with lots of clumsy-drawn, sticky sex scenes.  Hell, she could barely be bothered to draw anything else in her panels.  Brother is simultaneously a very bad and a very boring manga to look at.


Brother is the bottom of the barrel when it comes to BL, and quite frankly that's where it belongs.  It's ugly, creepy, and hasn't the least bit of personality to its bland name.

This book was published by DramaQueen.  This series is complete in Japan with 2 volumes available.  One volume was published and is currently out of print..

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Once again, it's February, which means that it's time for another round of bad romance manga, a celebration of all the ways that love can turn strange and wrong.  We're starting off with a doozy of a work thanks to one of BL's most notable creators.

MILLENNIUM PRIME MINISTER (Seikimatsu Prime Minister), by Eiki Eiki.  First published in 1998 and first published in North America in 2009.


It all started at the local arcade.  Minori only meant to skip class for a bit to play some video games.  She couldn't resist the challenge of some mystery champion beating all the regulars.  She certainly didn't expect that same person to be some weirdo who sweeps her off her feet and promises to meet her.  Minori was more than ready to move on from that bit of weirdness, but then she discover that this same weirdo is Kanata Okazaki, the newly elected 25-year-old Prime Minister of Japan.  Now Kanata has whisked his newfound and deeply reluctant fiancée to his palatial home, and Minori must deal with both Kanata's staff and the changing nature of her feelings for Kanata.


I was mildly curious about this series because of its creator.  Eiki Eiki is something of a big name in the world of BL, but her solo works have something of a reputation for being jealous and rapey.  That is saying something considering how common jealousy-fueled rape is in BL to begin with.  I wondered if shifting to straight up shoujo would force her to restrain herself a little or let her explore something new and different.  Alas, my hope was for naught. 

It's not often that I get truly and thoroughly skeeved out by a single volume of manga, but Millennium Prime Minister managed to achieve just that.  My sympathies were with Minori the entire time.  That's not because she was a well-written character, it's simply because she's gotten herself entangled with an epic creep through no fault of her own.  Their whole relationship is predicated on manipulation and stalking, as Kanata goes so far as to hunt her down after school after their initial encounter.  He not only uses his influence and wealth to dazzle Minori's parents into accepting his proposal, but also uses his friend/professional photojournalist to turn the whole thing into a minor scandal.  Kanata in turn uses this public shaming to force Minori's hand on the matter in front of an entire press room.  It doesn't help that everyone around Minori - her friends, her family, her classmates, Kanata's staff - all willingly forgive his transgressions because Kanata is just soooooo handsome and sooooo amazing and how this is all sooooo romantic!  It's just like Cinderella!  Yes, because nothing is more romantic than forcing a minor to marry a guy nearly a decade older than her.  Truly this is the height of romance and not the actions of a psychopath!

When he isn't actively manipulating Minori or others to get his way, Kanata is frustratingly vague about himself.  How the hell did a 25 year old who only recently entered the Diet manage to become Prime Minister?  Why is Kanata so desperate to get married?  Why did he pick Minori, of all people, to marry?  On the first two matters Kanata (and the story at large) is completely silent, and the last one he only answers with a glib "because I love you."  This empty statement is treated as reason enough for Minori's heart to start racing and set her mind a-whirl, but these and similarly 'romantic' moments between the two are so forced and out of nowhere that it's positively laughable.  Minori has every right to be angry at this jackass who has upended her life based and forced her into a relationship that she's simply too young to make and never desired in the first place.  She has every right to be angry when he keeps trying to force intimacy on her.  Thankfully he never resorts to rape, but he's fond of forcing kisses and is so fond of touching, smelling, and playing with her hair that I start to wonder if it's not Kanata's fetish.  The story tries to play this as a taming of the shrew, but it's more like a demonstration of how to force someone into Stockholm Syndrome.

It's very telling that there's very little to define Minori or Kanata outside of their relationship.  We learn practically nothing about Minori other than she's a bad student with a keen temper.  As for Kanata, there are hints of a tragic backstory, but the most we learn about him is that he's impulsive and very loyal to his friends, to the point where he's appointed them all as his personal staff.  You certainly don't get any sense of Kanata possessing any extraordinary level of charisma or intelligence, no matter how often the story keeps disposable side characters to rant and rave about his amazing political acumen.   Kanata's positive feels far more informed by the author than anything else.  Still, that's far more detail than any of Kanata's friends get.  They are mostly friendly, but they serve more as plot devices than anything else.  The closest we get to an exception is Sai, Kanata's personal secretary.  He spends two-thirds of the story being far more surly and pissy than someone reputed as a supergenius should be.  Then we discover that the cause of his surliness is the fact that he's in love with Kanata too, so in the end he's little more than another plot device on top of being a bone for Eiki Eiki to throw at her BL-loving fandom.

It seems that Millennium Prime Minister is proof that Eiki Eiki approaches straight romance in pretty much the same way that she approaches gay ones.  It's hollow, manipulative, and downright disturbing in places, yet the author presumes that we'll just gloss over the bad or weird parts because of LOVE.  Were this more fleshed-out or more self-aware, it could be a guilty pleasure.  As it stands, though, it's merely just guilty.


Eiki Eiki's artstyle is distinct, but the artwork here is also very much of its time (that time being the late 1990s).  There are lots of prominent cheekbones, mop-like hairdos, and I can't help but feel like these guys mostly look like rejects from Gravitation.  The character designs certainly give away her background in BL, as they bear all the strange bits of anatomy that are so common there.  That means every guy has linebacker shoulders, giraffe-like necks, and giant spidery hands.  That means their fines suits hang off of them like clumsy clothes hangers.  The only thing I do like about the character designs are the cat-like eyes, which is something of a signature for Eiki Eiki.  It lends them an exotic touch but is subtle enough to not be distracting.  Still, that's more effort than she puts into the backgrounds, which mostly consist of grainy screentones.  It also keeps the panels from getting too cluttered.  Ultimately, the artwork gets the job done for the most part but the characters are just a little too gangly and weird for modern tastes and the rest of it doesn't compensate for them.


Millennium Prime Minister is spine-chilling in all the wrong ways.  It's built around hollow characters caught in a terrible, disturbing romance and I couldn't get it away from me soon enough.  This series is best left in the last millennium where it belongs.

This series was published by Digital Manga Publishing.  This series is complete in Japan with 4 volumes available.  All 4 volumes were published and are currently out of print.