Thursday, May 26, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: PRETTY MEN FIGHTING DIRTY

Sakira is an up-and-coming BL mangaka who got a boost overseas when DMP made a quartet of her works the focus of a Kickstarter campaign.  I contributed and was originally hoping to have the books in time to cover them for this month.  Alas, the release got delayed, but in the mean time I can check out a digital-only title of hers.

PRETTY MEN FIGHTING DIRTY (Otokomae Dorowars!), by Sakira.  First published in 2012 and first published in North America in 2013.


In this collection of stories, a mountain-dwelling potter learns to connect to both his art and his desires through the administrations of a rich eccentric on the run.  When the eccentric's brother tries to follow in his footsteps, he goes a little too native and requires a lot of up close and personal rehabilitation.  Finally, we follow the story of a man who finds himself the 'stepmother' to two very difficult young men who want to prove that they are just as dominant as their father.


Pretty Men Fighting Dirty is a collection that could more accurately be titled Buff Guys Acting Weirdly.  There's an energy to each story that I can appreciate, but they also tend to come with a lot of moments that leave me baffled, if not feeling worse.

The titular story is the first one, and right off the bat it sets a weird tone.  Both Handa (the potter) and Kozue (the rich eccentric) are pleasant enough people.  Their story is lighthearted, even silly at times.  There's even a nice, cyclical quality to the notion of Kozue helping Handa find his artistic inspiration and in return Handa giving Kozue a way to escape the stress of his responsibilities.  The problem is that the moment things start getting raunchy, she tends to run off the rails.  Sometimes it's merely by puncturing the mood.  For example, a tender moment between the two swiftly becomes Kozue wildly ravishing Handa in the middle of a goddamn pond.  Other times she does something downright silly, like Kozue helping Handa find his inspiration by giving him a handjob with clay.  Moments like this took me right out of the work and it was hard for me to get back in afterwards, and that was even before the follow-up chapter about Kozue's brother regaining his memories through a blowjob.

Where this collection truly lost me was sadly during it's longest narrative, "A Loving Household."    It's all about Hikaru, a young femme gay man who not only manages to find love with a buff middle-aged divorcee named Tetsuji, but then has to learn how to be a mother figure to Tetsuji's two moody teenage sons.   It's a premise with potential for a lot of sweetness, right?  Well, any sweetness goes straight out the door when Hikaru meets Tetsuji in part by being kidnapped by a mad gay gigolo.  This is then compounded by the fact that father and sons make up by bonding over their mutual desire to molest their new 'mother' and they all become one big quasi-incestuous family. If the tonal whiplash in these stories were any more extreme, my neck would have snapped like celery.  A better writer might be able to put off the combination of lightheartedness and crazy hentai logic, but Sakira is simply not at that level.

Even the shortest stories suffer from this.  For every "Cosplay Bride," where a couple of friends-with-benefits comfort each other with sex after the end of an engagement, there's an "Unseen Love" where a pervy uncle manipulates his clueless teenage nephew into sex, or a "Let's Go To the Proctology Clinic!" where a man falls for his doctor during his treatment for hemorrhoids.  I certainly was never bored while reading this, but her choice of kinks and hard shifts into smut kept me from truly enjoying it.


I could totally get behind an artstyle like Sakira's.  She's part of a subgenre that's been dubbed 'gachi muchi.'  Literally that means 'muscley-chubby,' but in practice it means that most, if not all of the characters are well-toned, if not outright buff.  I am perfectly OK with this becoming a trend.  You can't really draw muscle-bound guys without having some working knowledge of how they look and move on a human body, so you don't get a lot of the horror-show anatomy that's become so common in BL.  It also makes all these guys look like actual MEN and not perfect anime-friendly bishonen, which personally makes them far more attractive to me than usual.  She also draws great faces, ones that  are open and lively and surprisingly varied.  She's also not shy about her smut.  She loves to show off the action from all angles, and she draws every wang and spurt in almost graphic detail. would be graphic detail if not for the fact that she flippantly censors them with only a small strip or two of white bars.  This censors about as much as bandage on a boob, but it's more about obeying the letter of the law than the spirit.

It's a good thing that she has so many good qualities going for her because her tendency towards indulgence is easily her biggest sin.  Once she gets to the sex her paneling gets far sloppier.  She's determined to fit as much explicit action into each panel as possible and it all gets a bit chaotic after a while.  It's a shame because otherwise her pages are composed in a lively and engaging way.  Characters rise and stretch out of their panels.  She juxtaposes close-ups in a way that simulates the back-and-forth of a conversation or form a cascade of increasingly tight reactions.  Angles switch with abandon, and she's good enough at perspective that her characters look fine at all of them.  The only thing that really suffers are her backgrounds, but there's so much stuff going on up front that it's hardly missed. 


Pretty Men Fighting Dirty is not a collection for the romantics.  No, it's for the BL fans who want some high-energy, well-drawn, well-muscled, and raunchy smut and are willing to ride out the weird plot twists to get it.

This book is published by Viz under their SuBLime imprint.  It is currently in print as an ebook through SuBLime's website.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: LOVE MACHINE

So do you remember Chobits? Did you ever wonder what a BL version of that might look like, particularly if you took out all the good parts?  Well do I have a manga for you!

LOVE MACHINE (Etowa), by Amayo Tsuge.  First published in 2006 and first published in North America in 2009.


Kokuyo is a cranky, reclusive author whose grueling schedule has often landed him in the hospital.  His friend Saeki tries to help him by giving a 'replicant' named Shiro, an android that will take care of his chores and keep an eye on his health.  Kokuyu initially resents Shiro's presence, but after a while he finds himself caring for Shiro.  Kokuyo finds himself wondering if it's possible to love an artificial being?  Is it possible that Shiro could be capable of returning them as well?


So this is neither the first or the last work to ponder the possibility of falling in love with a robot.  Hell, it's not even the first manga to go there.  So what makes this one any different?  Well, I guess it's distinguished mostly by its ineptitude and its inability or unwillingness to explore the problems with a human/robot romance.

The relationship between Kokuyu and Shiro doesn't so much progress as it does jump from one bullet point to the next.  The two of them are such extremes that it should take some time for Shiro's gentility to wear Kokuyu's grumpiness and win him over.  Tsuge doesn't want to bother with that, though.  All it takes to win Kokuyu over is a simple robot health crisis, and he almost instantly interprets that affection as love.  At least Shiro's change in feelings are explained slightly better, as he interacts with similar androids who have themselves learned to love.  The story also implies that this breaks their brains to the point where they start to lose their memories, but who cares!  It sets enough precedent for him to jump to that conclusion that he must love his master and that they must have sex to demonstrate it.  It's a good thing that he's fully functional and anatomically correct, or else the story wouldn't be able to shove in any sort of sex!  You can't simply jump from plot point to plot point as drastically as Tsuge does here.  Even if the reasoning is bad or weak, you still need some sort of transition or explanation to justify such extreme turns in such extreme (and quite frankly shallow) characters.

This is bad enough, but there's also all sorts of problems with a relationship between a human and an android that she doesn't even bother to bring up, much less address.  Say what you will about works like Chobits or Absolute Boyfriend, but they do at least address some of the issues that come with such a relationship.  They suggest that substituting an artificial lover for one of flesh and blood is not entirely healthy, that those who do so may have to make some serious sacrifices, and the question of just how much these feelings are due to programming and how much is due to some sort of free will.  They might not always stick with those ideas, but they consider them long enough to stick with the reader.  Then there's Love Machine, which doesn't even let such things cross its mind for a moment.  Nope, Kokuyu loves Shiro and Shiro loves him and that's enough for everyone!  What's really strange is that Tsuge does kind of address it in the second half.  There she focuses on Seiki and his own support android.  He's far more friendly, so with him it's not so much about the robot reforming the man so much as it is about him coming to regard his android like a sentient being.  His falling in love is handled with more sensitivity and more gravity than the previous one.  It should also be noted that when his bosses suggest turning these androids into sexbots, he's horrified at the notion.  At least he he knows exploitation when he sees it.  Honestly, I wondered why this guy wasn't the protagonist.

The whole thing is finished off with a tossed-off story about a teenage vampire and his boyfriend, and the only thing I took away from that was that the boyfriend was so horny and dumb that he's perfectly willing to risk anemia just so he can bang his wee little boyfriend on the school roof.  It's a rather silly and underwhelming end to a book that mostly frustrated me.  Love Machine has a premise that's ripe for thoughtful drama, but it chooses instead to ignore that all just so it can jerkily follow a very basic romantic trajectory. 


Tsuge's not much better at sequential art than she is at storytelling.  Her characters are flatly drawn and her faces are not only almost always the same, but very stiff and occasionally just plain weird-looking.  I'd complain that Shiro and all his fellow androids look the same, but as androids made in the same line this actually makes some sense.  She's clearly got a preference for pairing up her older semes with ukes that look so tiny and boy-like that it becomes kind of creepy.  Even the high school vampire one suffers from this.  Her panels and pages don't look bad, but the backgrounds are just as flat as the characters themselves and the panels lack any sort of real imagination or beauty to them.  It's just a mundane looking book with a few odd and awkward spots here and there.


Love Machine has a good premise that's utterly wasted on this mangaka.  She doesn't have the writing chops to give the story the sort of depth it needs and her artwork lacks both the skill and the charm it would take to overcome her poor writing. 

This book was published by Aurora Publishing.  It is currently out of print.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


It's kind of surprising that we don't see more BL about politicians.  It's the perfect excuse for well-dressed men behaving badly behind the scenes.  Maybe Japanese politicians don't deal with as many sex scandals as ours do?  Anyway, today's review shows how well the two can mesh.

THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET DIPLOMACY (Koushi Kakka no Himitsu Gaikou), by Youka Nitta.  First published in 2006 and first published in North America in 2008.


Thanks to his family connections, young Tomohiro Shiraishi finds himself working with Koushi Yoshinaga, a well-regarded minister of foreign affairs.  He catches Yoshinaga hitting on another man while out on the town, but in return for his silence Yoshinaga manipulates Shiraishi into sleeping with him.  It seems that Yoshinaga lives for thrills, be it the thrill of tense negotiations or the thrill of seduction, and he often finds ways to combine them both for his gain.  It's a quality that Shiraishi finds irresistible, and he finds himself torn between his desire to one-up Yoshinaga and his desire for the man himself.


Youka Nitta is a big name in BL, but she's also got a tendency to undermine the seriousness of her premises through ridiculous levels of melodrama.  Thank goodness that she restrained herself this time because it means that The Prime Minister's Secret Diplomacy works as both a dark romance and as a story about one man's cunning rise through the political ranks.

A lot of BL relationships are messed up in unintentional ways thanks to their strict adherence to the seme/uke dynamic.  That's not the case here with Shiraishi and Koushi.  Their relationship is purposefully messed up!  Koushi treats Shiraishi like he treats everyone else: as pawns for him to manipulate to his advantage.  Even those closest to him are still held at a distance and at any moment he's prepared to pit them against others for gain or to dump them as he sees fit.  He's an emotional sadist but he's so goddamn clever and nuanced about  it that like Shiraishi we can't help but admire it from afar.  It helps that Shiraishi isn't just another victim of his wiles. 

Sure, he starts out as very prim and proper and he's thoroughly shocked at Koushi's behavior.  After his seduction, he feels guilt as his admiration of Koushi's political maneuvering runs up against his guilt for his growing desire and his betrayal of his sister (who also happens to be Koushi's fiancée).  Slowly but surely, he surrenders to his darker impulses and becomes a manipulator in his own right just so that he can remain at Koushi's side.  These are not the romantic figures that so many BL works present but instead two deeply flawed but fascinating men who use sex as just another tool in their own personal power struggle.  There will never be a happy ending for them both, but the tension (sexual and otherwise) is so glorious to behold that you never truly want it to end.

This tension is interwoven into their public lives, and in comparison to them the actual political drama is quite dry.  It's not like Koushi is negotiating any sort of major accord, but instead is engaged in juggling the happiness of other, mostly Western nations with Japan's need for a strong front on the international stage.  This is done mostly through extended conversations where every word choice and turn of conversation can carry great meaning, and it's only implied that Koushi also uses his body to keep select figures sweet.  Nitta's clearly done her research here and she captures both the polite formality and the subtle machinations of politics.  That being said, it doesn't smoulder with the same sort of tension found in Koushi and Shiraishi's personal conversations, and those seeking straight-up smut will likely come away disappointed in this book.  That's fine by me, as Nitta uses the few instances of sex here very well.  They are not mere fanservice but instead serve as actual plot points, the punctuation to the dramatic high points of the relationship.  Every instance has some degree of fallout afterwards that impacts the plot.  Nitta knew that anything else would simply be gratuitous and would otherwise ruin what is both a well-written political drama and a compelling tale of two men corrupted by their own needs.


Nitta has always been one of the best artists in BL, and that skill is put to full use here.  I've always liked her character designs.  They strike the right balance between masculine handsomeness and the sort of stylized beauty that BL so often demands.  She's also got a wonderful grasp on both body language and expression.  Their bodies look and move in a way that shows that Nitta knows how a man's body works and their faces perfect match the emotion of every scene.  She's very restrained when it comes to sensuality here.  It's not just that most of the sex scenes don't go on for very long, but it's also in how she mostly avoids showing genitalia and instead focuses on their hands, their faces, and the banter between Koushi and Shiraishi throughout. 

That wouldn't mean much if she didn't know how to present it all, but the presentation and pages here are top-notch.  Nitta's backgrounds are lavish and lovingly rendered, allowing the reader to soak in the elegance of the high-class setting.  She shows them off often in her panels, but she's also very good at using visual angles or a well-timed close-up for dramatic effect or how to cut back and forth between points in a conversation without merely turning it into a parade of talking heads.  Even her composition is smooth, as the panels flow in a way that suggests an expression slowly shifting or switches to dramatic wedges during a revelation or shift in power.  Even the color artwork, here shown off on the covers both inside and out, shows off both her confident skill and her fondness for rich color choices.  It's a beautiful looking book from beginning to end, full of both the skill and nuance such a story deserves.


The Prime Minister's Secret Diplomacy is a masterwork that combines serious drama with a nuanced and complicated cast to craft a compelling story fueled by tension and passion in equal measure.  Best of all, it's supported by brilliant art made by a one of the genre's best and brightest.  It's one of Youka Nitta's best works and one that comes highly recommended.

This book was published by Digital Manga Publishing.  It is currently out of print.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: LEVEL C

A lot of BL manga has to find the right balance between story and smut.  If you ignore the former for the latter, then you can end up with a rather sparse and empty manga like this one.

LEVEL C (Keiraku no Hoiteishiki Level-C), written by Aoi Futaba with art by Kurenai Mitsuba.  First published in 1993 and first published in North America in 2005.


Mizuki is a popular model with a dark past.  His is a lonely life until he meets promiscuous businessman Kazuomi.  Kazuomi promises him a night of ecstacy that he will never forget and Mizuki takes him up on the offer.  What neither of them could have suspect that this one night would turn into a serious relationship.


This might be the slightest manga I've reviewed all month.  That's not to say that the story is bad.  It's just that the story is very basic and truly is little more than a hanger upon which the writer hangs their smut.

The most original thing about it is the opening.  It's not just the fact that it's build around a one-night stand, it's the fact that both Mizuki and Kazuomi treat it like a dare.  It gives their encounter a certain sort of crackle of passion that might overwise be lacking.  It's a shame that Futaba couldn't keep the mood up because the story and cast alike are severely lacking in personality.  Sure, Mizuki gets a brief but concentrated bit of melodrama for his backstory and the both of them have older siblings (a twin in Kazuomi's case) that are said to be important to them both, but that's pretty much all we learn about them.  The backstory never really comes into play in the larger narrative and the siblings play such minor roles that they might as well be strangers, and it leaves you wondering why they bothered with it at all.

He also doesn't waste any time getting these two together in a committed relationship, which is not necessarily a good thing.  In the span of one chapter the two go from strangers to roommates, and by the next one the two confirm their love for one another.  This might be fine if it were suggesting that this was happening over a course of weeks or months, but as-is this shift to commitment is positively whiplash-inducing.  Mizuki might be young and inexperienced enough that I could understand him falling in love so fast, but it makes no sense for a playboy like Kazuomi.  Right from the beginning, we're shown that he prioritizes sex above all things in a relationship.  He's not particularly concerned whether it works out in the long-term or not, but instead is merely content to sponge off his partners for as long as they'll tolerate him.  It's going to take more than sweet words to convince me as the reader that this guy is even capable of loving Mizuki for more than just his body or that he sincerely cares about him and his welfare. 

Of course, Futaba never lingers on this issues for very long.  They truly are little more than a prelude to the sex scenes.  They tend to get dragged out because Mizuki tends to get scared about how fast and far Kazuomi likes to go and voices his protests.  Unfortunately, because this is a BL manga Kazuomi almost always ignores Mizuki's pleas and Mizuki ends up enjoying anyway.  It's framed in a far less violent and dramatic manner than one usually sees in these sorts of books, but it punctures the romantic mood that he's so clearly going for.  At least the publisher chose to change one little fact that would have made everything so much worse.  In the localized version, Mizuki is 18.  In the original, he was 16.  It was a wise choice on their part to do so, but no amount of localization could change the fact that the characters of Level C are too hollow to stand on their own and their relationship progresses far too fast to make sense for these characters.


The artwork is surprisingly attractive for both its age and subject matter.  It's pretty obvious that this was made in the early 1990s, as the character designs have the delicate beauty and poufy hair that was so typical of the era.  Still, there's a simplicity to them that lends them a certain beauty.  This is only emphasized by the way that Mitsuba frames them.  There are some downright elegant panels here, ones where a profile fades into the background dreamily or a passionate embrace is enhanced with the dramatic shading of a twilight evening.  He makes great use of screentones, softly blending them into speech bubbles, emphasizing expressions, or just evoking the fall of light across a wall. 

Even the sensual scenes retain this sense of elegance.  They take on an old-school Cinemax quality thanks to the lighting and Mitsuba's choice to either frame the action in a way that avoid showing any explicit parts or action or just outright censoring any on-screen wangs.  It's rare that we get more than the merest suggestion of the shape, and most of the time it's completely absent.  I know this is not something done later by the publisher as at the time of its release the publisher made a big deal out of how this work was being presented uncut.  He certainly goes out of his way to drag them out visually as much as possible, as each sex scene goes on for well over 20 pages.  Indeed, his paneling tends to prefer large and sparse visuals in general, so it's Mitsuba's art that allows the story to stretch so far on such little material.  In that sense, the two are well-matched.


Level C has simple yet refined artwork that is striking in its own way, but the story is too slight and stretched out to linger in the reader's mind after putting it down.

This series was published by Media Blasters.  This series is complete in Japan with 6 volumes available.  All 6 were published and are currently out of print.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: HIS FAVORITE

If you've been following along with my reviews, you'd probably think that SuBLime was my favorite BL publisher and that I thought that they could do no wrong.  That's not entirely true, though.  They've put out plenty of works that I don't like, such as today's selection.

HIS FAVORITE (Aitsu no Daihonmei), by Suzuki Tanaka.  First published in 2008 and first published in North America in 2012.


Yoshida has always been an awkward, goofy looking sort of guy.  In middle school, he was actually kind of popular in spite of his looks because he stood up for the bullied kids.  Nowadays, he's a social outcast.  Part of that is due to his looks, but the the other part is due to his proximity to Sato the class idol.  Sato is tall and handsome now, but back in the day he was a picked-on fat kid.  Now that the tables have turned and every girl wants to be with him, Sato prefers to hang out with Yoshida and pawn the angry girls onto him.  Why?  It seems that despite how much Sato likes to pick on Yoshida, he actually loves him.  All the attention leaves Yoshida feeling uncomfortable, but soon enough he begins to question the nature of his own feelings for his erstwhile friend.


I know of quite a few people - normal, sensible, BL-loving people - who love this series!  I wish I could join them in their adoration.  It's not terrible by any means; if anything, I rather like the idea of the premise.  It's just that Sato is such a dick!

I should be used to the fact that most semes are going to be douchier than a Massengill warehouse.  It just seems to come with the territory.  It's just that for someone who professes to be Yoshida's friend, Sato sure seems determined to act like an asshole.  He flat-out admits that he's a sadist and he likes seeing Yoshida made uncomfortable.  It doesn't matter whether that's from Sato touching him inappropriately, teasing or from his using Yoshida like a meat shield whenever he needs to shake off some clingy girl.  He demands to know Yoshida's every thought and his dating history despite refusing to disclose very much about his own.  He even tries his hardest to isolate Yoshida from both his other friends and his other classmates. So long as Yoshida is unhappy, he's happy.  These are not the actions of a good boyfriend or a good friend.  These are the actions of a terrible person.  Worse still, it's being played for humor.  I know that this sort of uncomfortable humor is enjoyed by some, but for me it's just awkward.  Had Sato's teasing been more playful in nature, it might have worked, but like this it's just cruel and entirely for his own benefit.

It's a shame that Sato is so awful because Yoshida is such an endearing dork and because I can kind of see the sort of dynamic she's going for here.  There's a bit of a manzai thing going on here with Sato and Yoshida, along with a bit of a childish teasing.  You know, the sort of thing where a boy pulls the pigtails of the girl he likes, but in this case more like a boy groping the boy he likes even when he protests.  I do really like Yoshida, though.  He's got the franticness that tends to come with most ukes, but he is also a generally decent and upstanding guy.  He's got a strong sense of loyalty towards his friends, which explains why he puts up with so much from Sato.  He does try hard to pacify all the angry popular girls, even if Sato tends to ruin it.  He even does his best to support and encourage his equally wonky looking friends, all of whom are just as dorky and unlucky in love as Yoshida.  They in turn support him in what they presume are Yoshida's romantic ventures, being oblivious to the true nature of his situation. It's a shame that a nice guy like him is stuck with a jerk like Sato and that his suffering is played off so lightly because it really hampered what could have been an enjoyable beginning.


Thankfully I have far fewer reservations about the art.  There's a loose-limbed, almost cartoon-like quality that serves as an intriguing contrast to the gangly sharpness of most BL art.  The wackiness of the art is most obvious in the faces of Yoshida and his friends.  Their faces are positively squiggly at times, with big flappy mouths, bugging eyes, and large hatchy blushes that threaten to consume an entire face.  In comparison, the rest of the cast looks more typical of what one usually sees in BL, all handsome and tall.  Still, there's a bit of bow-leggedness to them that helps them fit in with a walking cartoon like Yoshida.  The backgrounds are pretty much absent, but that's OK because it keeps the focus on the characters and on Yoshida's over-the-top reactions.  Overall, it's simpler, lighter, and looser artwork than one usually sees in BL.  It doesn't take itself seriously and that's something I can totally get behind.


His Favorite is far from my favorite, but its broad comedic artstyle was a delight and I am always welcome to more humorous BL.  Next time, let's just make sure that everyone in the story is in on the joke, OK?

This series is published by Viz under their SuBLime imprint.  This series is ongoing in Japan with 9 volumes available.  8 volumes have been published and are currently in print and available as ebooks through SuBLime.

Merry Month of Manga Review: DINING BAR AKIRA

It's rare that I find a BL work that really captures what a real dysfunctional relationship feels like.  Not a broken one, mind you, but simply one where the course of love decided does not run smooth, one that is plagued by real concerns and even self-loathing.  That sort of imperfection can be fascinating if handled well, and here it proves itself to be romantic in its own way.

DINING BAR AKIRA (Kuimonodokoro Akira), by Tomoko Yamashita.  First published in 2007 and first published in North America in 2009.


Akira is a busy manager at a local restaurant, but his comfortably cynical life is thrown upside down when Torihara, a younger part-timer, declares his love for Akira.  The two stumble into a relationship, but it's constantly threatened by Akira's uncertainty about his own sexuality, about Torihara's attraction to him, and what a long-term relationship between a couple of guys even looks like.


"Disaffected" isn't a word I commonly associate with boys' love.  It's a genre that trades in big emotions, romantic gestures, and a take on sexuality that has more in common with Harlequin than with the real world.  Regardless of the actual age of the partners in question, the people that tend to populate them act like teenagers driven only by emotion and hormones.  There's usually not a lot of self-reflection beyond questioning one's sexuality, and even then it's usually quickly overcome in the name of love.  Yet I can't think of a better word for both Dining Bar Akira and the couple within it than 'disaffected.'  It doesn't believe in fantasies of perfect love and tender love scenes.  It believes in confessions that are more like arguments, in sex scenes that go awry, and where a date can be something as simple as baseball in the park.

It has to be said: Akira is a kind of a jerk.  He's got a steady job where he's surrounded by old friends, but he's still a hard-drinking grump with a healthy amount of self-loathing.  He can't understand why a relative youngster like Torihara would want a 30-year-old loser like him.  Even after the two start to hash out a relationship together, Akira keeps pushing and picking at Torihara so that he doesn't have to confront the harsh reality of his own feelings.  Keep in mind, though, that Torihara isn't much better.  He might admire Akira's cynicism as a sort of devil-may-care quality, but it's also a barrier that he really has to push at to make any progress.  A lot of his time with Akira is spent arguing and bantering because Akira refuses to both believe in Torihara's affections and express his own.  That may not sound terribly pleasant, but in its own way I find it more romantic because it is imperfect. 

As an adult I can relate more to the idea of a partner that drives you crazy in both senses of the phrase.  There is a certain natural beauty in watching a couple simply hanging out or joking around a little during sex.  When they fight, there are actual mental barriers to overcome and it's not 100% certain that it will be resolved perfectly, so there are some actual stakes in whether Akira and Torihara's relationship will work out or not.  It is precisely because their relationship is imperfect that I genuinely care for them and want to see them overcome their troubles.  Yamashita makes their troubles real and compelling and it's a great testament to her writing that they are both so flawed and so real.

That same quality extends to the short stories that pad out this collection. Whether it's "Foggy Night," where a high-schooler works out his feelings for his best friend through his substitute teacher/former one-night-stand, or "Riverside Moonlight" where a guy comes to grips with his inexplicable attraction to his portly, ordinary coworker, Yamashita invests them with real emotion, conflict, and even humor.  There's a rawness to the emotion in the former that makes its quiet yet tragic ending all the more impactful.  There's a desperation in the latter that makes the humor all the funnier.  By highlighting the less positive qualities of these stories, she gives them the impact they need to stick in the mind.  Taken all together, it makes for a book that's not always comfortable to read but always fascinating and emotionally complex.


No one would ever mistake Yamashita's art as 'cute.'  Her men look like men instead of stylished bishonen.  They're not even particularly handsome men!  Their hair is too scruffy, their eyes too exhausted, and they tend to default to rather sour expressions.  Of course, that means that I totally love their style.  I've always preferred BL art where the guys actually look like real-world men, and Yamashita does not disappoint.  They may not be classically handsome, but they are wonderfully expressive in both their faces and their body language. 

She's also very discrete when it comes to sex, and since they tend to talk so much during sex she tends to focus more on their faces than their groins.  If there's any fault to them, it's that Akira and Torihana look almost too alike at the beginning.  Their hairstyles are so similar that sometimes I can only tell the two apart by Akira's scruffy little goatee.  I suspect her editor noticed this too, as Torihana gets a much shorter haircut midway through and the distinction becomes much easier.  Backgrounds are pretty plain when they're present at all, and most of the time she leave them blank.  Even her pages are pretty straightforward.  Still, it's an approach that works well for the kind of story she's telling and it's a skillful and nuanced one at that.


Dining Bar Akira is a BL manga that's written more like an Western indie comic.  The focus isn't on big drama or heavily stylized art, but instead on really compelling characters dealing with their own foibles on top of falling in love.  If you're been seeking something more alternative from the genre, this is a good place to start.

This book was published by Netcomics.  It is currently out of print.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: EARTHIAN

Yun Kouga isn't a mangaka who does a lot of straight-up BL, but she's well known for making moody yet uneven shonen-ai.  As this work demonstrates, it seems she's been doing so for decades.

EARTHIAN (Ashian), by Yun Kouga.  First published in 1988 and first published in North America in 2005.


For eons, beings known as angels have watched over humanity and judged them for their accomplishments and their failures.  Amongst those observing humanity are Chihaya and Kagetsuya.  Chihaya believes in the goodness of humanity and is always searching for pluses to report to his superiors.  Kagetsuya is more skeptical of humans and always seems to find the downside to all of Chihaya's findings.  As time goes on, Chihaya's good nature begins to rub off on Kagetsuya and he finds himself drawn to the boy.  It also appears that these two were not paired together by chance, and that there are others observing and judging them as well.


Earthian was Kouga's professional debut and quite frankly it shows.  It's got an intriguing premise, but the quality of the stories is all over the place and she hasn't quite learned how to balance her heavenly morality tales with the politics of the angels.

If this manga wasn't influenced by Please Save My Earth, I would be shocked.  Both feature ancient yet beautiful alien races observing humanity from the moon who are themselves caught up in relationship drama.  It's just that instead of a straight love triangle, here we're dealing with some vaguely gay and mostly unspoken longing between out main pair, even as the threat of judgment from on high looms constantly over head.  On top of that, Kouga adds a ticking clock in the form of the angel's arbitrary quota of 10,000 pluses or minuses.  If they meet the former, humanity gets to live on in peace; if they meet the former, humanity is destroyed.   It's a rather arbitratry rule, which is why it's forgotten fairly often.  Kouga tends to do that a lot in this series, setting up rules only to sidestep them for dramatic convenience.  Black wings mean that an angel is evil!...unless it's sweet little Chihaya.  Humanity is doomed unless it meets the angels' standards!...but it's not a big priority, so take your time with your reports.  Show your wings to humans more than three times and you'll be demoted!...unless someone else shares their chances with you, whatever.  Homosexuality is forbidden amongst the angels!...except that the higher-ups are kind of gay themselves and are all but taking bets on Kagetsuya falling in love with Chihaya.

Maybe the forbidden romance element would be more compelling if Chihaya and Kagetsuya were themselves were more compelling.  Chihaya is little more than an old-school shoujo heroine without the boobs.  He's naïve beyond belief, and because of that he frequently wanders straight into danger without a thought.  Meanwhile, Kagetsuya is the tsun to Chihaya's dere.  He spends half of the series being a grump and extracting Chihaya from his trouble.  Thankfully he lightens up a little as the story goes on and he starts to doubt his anti-human stance, which means that the childish sniping between him and Chihaya decreases greatly.  It's still a very innocent sort or relationship, so don't expect anything more explicit than some longing looks and a lot of inner monologues wondering what these strange feelings might be.  It's so innocent that it barely qualifies as shonen-ai, an artifact of a much more innocent time in that genre's history.

Mind you, it's not all angelic drama, though.  This is also something of an episodic series as the angels find themselves entangled in the tragedies of humanity.  Some of them are (forgive the pun) more down to earth.  The first story in particular, where an idealistic astronaut dies during her mission, is particularly somber considering that Kouga wrote it not two years after the Challenger disaster.  Others are far more sensationalistic, like the priestess who wants revenge on her Triad family for killing her brother or the little esper girl on the run from evil scientists.  Others are simply melodramatic, like the one about the opera singer caught in a love triangle (while performing in Phantom of the Opera, no less!)  Meanwhile it will sometimes take a break to show the reader what's going on with the angels on the moon or the backstory between our leads.  This means that the tone of the story is all over the place.  I can understand Kouga struggling with this in the early chapters - lots of mangaka struggle with this when they start a new series.  The problem is that it keeps happening throughout the volume and that lack of focus leaves the story drifting in a sort of emotional and narrative limbo.  I can only hope that in the later volume she figures out whether she truly wants this to be a melodramatic anthology strung together by the involvement of our leads or whether it's a delicate, slow-paced, and star-crossed romance between them because she simply wasn't skilled enough to pull off both at the same time.


The artwork here is very pretty, if very typical of its time.  That means lots of tall, skinny bishonen with plenty of long flowing hair, giant shoulders, tiny heads, narrow hips, and all of it rendered in the most delicate fashion with flourishes of flowing cloth and feathery wings that wouldn't have looked out of place a decade previous.  Again, the influence of Please Save My Earth is obvious here, all the more so because it's clear that Kouga hadn't found an art style of her own yet.  If you compare this series and, say, Loveless, you see that not only did her art evolve with the times but that she found a style that was her own.  It was one that was more angular yet more confident and distinct than what you see here.  Still, the delicacy and androgyny of the art suits its mood most of the time and it has managed to age gracefully for the most part.

That same delicacy extends to the rest of the panels as well.  Backgrounds are fairly simple and rendered mostly in stark washes of black and white.  Panels tend to be framed rather sparsely and the composition is almost elegant in its simplicity.  Even the color pages tend to be rather delicate, as they are mostly done in soft shades of pink, yellows, blues and greens.  They manage to capture a certain delicate air without looking washed out.  Even the cover is quite pretty with a poses that evokes Art Nouveau on a heavy, textured pearlescent ivory base.  Its story may be flawed, but Earthian's art is rather timeless and hopelessly pretty.


Earthian suffers from wanting to go in too many directions at once, even if it always looks good while doing so.  I'm not quite sure I would call it a classic, but the glimmer of Kouga's early talents combined with the scarcity of translated manga from this decade make this series worth a look.

This series was published by Tokyopop under their Blu imprint.  This series is complete in Japan with 5 volumes available.  All five were published as a collection of four volumes and are currently out of print.

Merry Month of Manga Review: PLEASURE DOME

Being a history geek, I've always had a soft spot for historical BL, even if the ones I've come across so far have been disappointing.  Today's offering takes that disappointment to new heights.

PLEASURE DOME, by Megumu Minami.  First published in 2000 and first published in North America in 2007.


This collection of five stories spans the ages but shares a common theme of powerful men slaking their lusts on vulnerable men, even as they fall in love.  We see a depraved medieval lord get his comeuppance from his right-hand man and a knight held prisoner, a Hindi prince conquering the heart of a British officer, a brothel owner finding salvation in a Japanese Christian martyr, an incestuous love triangle in fin de siècle France, and a Victorian-era master and servant switching places and discovering the depth of their devotion to one another.


I really wanted to give Minami some credit for choosing some unconventional times and places for her setting.  You don't see a lot of stories set in medieval France (much less based on The Song of Roland), colonial-era India, or during the persecution of Christians in 1600s Japan.  She uses some real historical figures and conflicts as the seed for some good premises.  It's too bad that every single one is spoiled by some really terrible writing and her insistence on shoving in as much exploitative and kinky sex as possible.

Minami displays a veritable laundry list of kinks over the course of this volume.  There are sex toys, alcohol enemas, anal insertion of objects like eggs and bells, bondage, aphrodisiacs, orgies, bestiality, and the sort of dom/sub relationship where grown men are turned into virtual sex slaves through near-constant rape.  Even in a genre where rape as romance is the norm, this sort of content is pretty extreme and would likely turn off a lot of regular BL readers.  She makes no attempt to ease the reader into her kinks.  Instead she practically slaps them across the face with them and doesn't stop until the end.   While I personally do not subscribe to these kinks, I don't necessarily object to their presence.  I wouldn't mind seeing more BL explore the kinkier sides of sex.  What I do object to is Minami's fondness for rape. 

Every story finds a way to bring in rape.  Even the last story finds a way to squeeze in a rapey con man in what is otherwise a fairly tame, even romantic take on The Prince and the Pauper.  Otherwise it's nothing but a parade of decadent, evil men in fancy costumes doing their best to break down noble men through kinky sex, presented in a manner that is clearly meant to titillate the reader.  As someone who generally does not like rape in her smut, this to me was far more disgusting than any kink she could have thrown at the reader.  Worse still, she uses this near constant parade of rape as justification for the eventual romances in all but the last story.  Eventually the raped and the rapists find themselves craving one another to the point where they delude themselves into believing it is love.  At least she doesn't try to give these messed-up relationships some sort of happy ending.  Most of the perpetrators end up dead or at the very least in bad circumstances. 

Minami's faults go far beyond her taste in smut, though.  Her writing is simultaneous rushed and disjointed, and more often than not things seem to happen for the sake of convenience than out of some logical progression of events.  She only bothers with a few pages of set-up so she can get her semes raping young men as soon as possible and her characters jump straight from resentment to devotion in the course of a couple of panels.  Hell, actually plot points are simply skipped straight over so she can move on to the next sex scene.  Maybe that's just the fault of the translation, which is blunt and amateurish.  She's clearly not concerned with her settings, the stories within them, or her characters.  They are all little more than set dressing for her rape fantasies or hurdles that she awkwardly leaps over so she can get straight back to said fantasies.  This sort of material is simply wasted upon her.


Minami's art is no better than her writing.  Her characters are stiffly drawn and tend to have the same face regardless of time or setting.  They damn near drown in their long sweeping hair or decadently patterned costumes.  They also have some unusual features like their weirdly Vulcan-like ears or her propensity for drawing huge hands with weirdly huge fingernails.  Not shockingly, the stiffness of her characters only gets more obvious during the sex scenes.  Even when taken out of context, they possess all the raw sensuality of rubbing two scarecrows together. 

They're also heavily censored, which means that all this kinky sex is taking place amongst men with no dicks.  At best, there are vague shadows that suggest a penis; most of the time they simply have none at all.  I don't know whether this is an original feature or something done by the publisher, but it seems strangely contradictory to the purpose of the volume.  Of course, neither the story nor the sex matters when Minami is so terrible at putting them together.  The pages are pure chaos with panels laid over one another at will and perspective is all over the place.  It's just a mess of a book.


Pleasure Dome is pleasurable to no one but its creator.  It's cruel, crudely written, exploitative, and assembled with an indifference that can only come from a lack of talent.  Like history itself, let us learn from this series so that we never have to see it repeated.

This book was published by Media Blasters.  It is currently out of print.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


As much as I love Fumi Yoshinaga, I can frankly acknowledge that her BL works are far more spotty in quality than her non-BL works.  That being said, today's review covers one of the high points of that part of her career.

ICHIGENME...THE FIRST CLASS IS CIVIL LAW (Ichigenme wa Yaruki no Minpo), by Fumi Yoshinaga.  First published in 1998 and first published in North America in 2007.


Tamiya is an upperclassmen at university, but sometimes it feels like he never left high school.  He's stuck in a seminar full of spoiled rich kids who hope to coast through school with a minimal amount of effort.  In the midst of this crowd is Touhou, the class clown who skips class all the time but still manages to charm everyone he meets...that is, everyone but Tamiya.  As the year passes, the two find a way to bond and their relationship starts to deepen into something more.  If Tamiya doesn't stop denying his feelings soon, then the end of their education may split the two up before their relationship can truly begin.


I've always preferred BL that prioritizes story over smut and Ichigenme positively spoils me with the sheer amount of story it has to offer.  It's loaded with plenty of well-written and nuanced characters and it's one of the few BL works that's truly mature instead of being merely mature in rating.

Yoshinaga's choice of setting is particularly intriguing.  There are hundreds of BL titles set in high school, but comparatively fewer ones set in college, much less the Japanese equivalent of law school.  A good part of the story deals with getting the reader up to speed on zemis, the workshop-like classes where learning is based more on discussion than rote memorization.  Such effort is not necessary towards advancing the romance but it does wonders for establishing the context of Tamiya and Touhou's world.  She applies this same level of effort towards the supporting cast.  Many BL works have a myopic focus on their leading couples and the supporting cast exists more as potential plot devices than characters in their own right.  Thus it's quite unusual to see a BL manga with such a large, nuanced, and gender-balanced cast of characters.

As in any good BL manga, we get to see the main relationship evolve bit by bit, as Tamiya's annoyance and Touhou's flip attitude evolves into mutual respect in response to a scandal in Touhou's family.  As roommates we get to see them enjoy casual moments together simply cooking meals or playing what appears to be a Super Famicon.  We even see Tamiya struggle mentally with defining and coming to terms with his sexuality, and these moments are handled with a maturity that has far more impact than any number of dramatic epiphanies. Together they may have a long way to go before becoming a couple, but it's a way that's just as full of late-night conversations as it is with attempted midnight foreplay from Touhou.  That careful approach makes every little step forward all the more satisfying because we truly understand these two as characters in their own right as well as part of a potential couple. 

Ichigenme truly is more than just the story of two law students who end up becoming...well, not quite lovers yet, but something more than mere friends.  Their classmates get just as much personality and backstory as our leads, and their stories are interwoven deftly alongside them. We get to see them chat amongst themselves, gossip about their classmates, talk about their families and their futures, wheedle their way into getting Tamiya's notes, and so much more.  It's little moments like these that give the world of Ichigenme all sorts of depth and color and it really lets the reader immerse themselves into the world of these characters.  It's easily one of Yoshinaga's best written works and one that could easily stand toe to toe with her better-known, non-BL efforts.


It goes without saying at this point that the artwork for Ichigenme is exceptionally good.  It's all rendered in her usual style where lightly drawn, handsome, square-jawed folks express themselves sincerely and with great subtlety.  I've always had a particular fondness for how Yoshinaga draws hair, and I love how she draws Touhou's long, wavy locks.  They are usually drawn pinned up in a way that not only visually communicates Touhou's lackadaisical ways, but it's also just plain attractive and stylish.  The backgrounds are sparse as always, but she always makes the most of it to frame a particular emotion or to enhance a particular atmosphere. 

She also uses a lot of silent montages here, far more than any other work of hers I've read.  Most of these montages are used for Tamiya and Touhou's furtive sexual encounters in the dark, all of which are framed in such a way to be fairly discreet.  Shifts in position are communicated just through a flash of arm or leg and completion indicated with only a tiny spurt.  Yoshinaga isn't interested in showing off the sex here as she is focusing on how it affects the characters and it's the right choice for such a character-driven story.  Art like this is perfectly normal for Fumi Yoshinaga, but if you're not used to it then you're in for a real visual treat here.


Ichigenme isn't just Fumi Yoshinaga's best BL work, it's one of her best works period.  Even the biggest BL skeptic would find it hard to resist getting caught up in such a well-written and attractive manga.  If you've not picked this one up yet, you are truly missing out.

This series is published by Digital Manga Publishing.  This series is complete in Japan with 2 volumes available.  Both volumes were published and are currently out of print.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: PET ON DUTY

Another early and mostly forgotten BL publisher was Boysenberry, the BL spin-off of Broccoli Books.  With works like this to offer, it's easy to see how it was so easily forgotten.

PET ON DUTY (Pet Oshigotochuu), by Nase Yamato.  First published in and first published in North America in 2007.


Mizuki has just lost his job and he's far too independent to go back home for help.  His cousin offers him a solution: Mizuki can secretly stay at his office's dormitory until he can get on his feet.  Soon enough Mizuki becomes the pet of the fourth floor residents, cleaning and cooking for them while they coo over how comforting he is.  There's only one person who doesn't join in: the moody and distant Taro.  Mizuki soon discovers that Taro has a far softer side than he lets on, and he finds himself yearning to become not just the floor's pet, but Taro's in particular.


Pet On Duty is fairly light and inoffensive as a BL work, but it's hindered by paper-thin characters, a weak romance, and a pet metaphor that gets positively pounded into the ground through sheer repetition.

Yamato leans a lot on telling us about her characters instead of showing us how they are.  We are told that Mizuki is proud and independent for his age, even though she conviently forgets this the moment Mizuki moves into the dorm.  It's not like he struggles with being dependent on others or being unable to safely leave the dorm floor.  No, that might have given him something of a character arc to follow.  Instead we're treated to scene after scene of Mizuki struggling to please everyone and passively accepting his situation.  It takes halfway through the book for Mizuki to remember that he can in fact do more than just secretly serve a bunch of businessmen, but by that point he's so smitten with Taro that his need for passive dependence upon others never really goes away. 

We are also told that Taro is meant to be cold and foreboding, forever brooding upon the wrongs of his past.  That sounds perfectly Byronic, but in practice he comes more aloof than anything else.  Even after he supposedly falls for Mizuki, he never seems to warm up very much.  Maybe I'm just biased because he spend a good portion of the book telling Mizuki that pets are meant to be seen and not heard.  The other guys do at least show some appreciation for Mizuki, even if they keep insisting on dehumanizing and patronizing Mizuki by referring to him as their 'kitten.'  With Taro, the patronizing qualities are more obvious and played for romance instead of comedy.  Honestly, I'm not sure which of those is worse.  Oh wait, I know what's worse!  What's worse is when Mizuki finds himself stuck as a waiter in a host club, where the cat simile is made much more literal with some goofy cosplay ears, paws, and bell on a collar.

You'd think that the story would mine the master and pet dynamic for all the kink it could get, but Pet On Duty is surprisingly chaste for BL.  In fact, it's so chaste that it becomes downright passionless, even in the middle of love scenes.  This is not helped by the fact that Yamato pushes the two into a relationship far too fast for anyone to care.  Mizuki and Taro are basically a couple one quarter of the way into the book, so all she can do is keep throwing misunderstandings and interruptions at them until it's time to wrap things up.  That means that in spite of being a couple, these two spend most of the book lingering on problems that could be solved with a few minutes of conversation.  If it weren't for Mizuki's cousin serving as an go-between for the two, I swear that they would have never resolved anything!  The resolution may be a happy one in the end, but it never feels well-earned because Mizuki, Taro, and the relationship between them is so underdeveloped that it fails to kindle the slightest bit of emotion in the reader.  Without that, all you're left with is a bunch of mild fluff and some weird and uncomfortable implications.


At least Pet On Duty can boast some rather attractive art.  The character designs are polished and handsome, even if Yamato is completely guilty of drawing the same face over and over.  It's a shame then that Yamato seemingly does her best to obscure them through some truly messy paneling and composition.  Her pages are practically scattershot in their layout, and she's determined to fill up her panels as much as possible with either giant close-ups or with just a barrage of stuff in-frame.  At least her approach to sex is much more tidy, mostly because she pretty much does everything in her power from drawing anything that would expose a penis.  That means you mostly get a few bits of heavy petting and even then they're over in just a page or two.  It hardly merits the large adult content sticker that was pasted over the cover by the publisher themselves.


Despite the poor writing, handsomely drawn men and questionable cat analogies, Pet On Duty can only a muster a 'meh' out of me at most.  It's gentle, bland, but ultimately forgettable.

This book is currently published by Viz under their SuBLime imprint, and formerly by Broccoli Books and JManga.  The physical volume from Broccoli is out of print, but is currently available as an ebook through SuBLime.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: LOVE STAGE!!

What happens when you take one hacky BL mangaka and pair her up with a boring one?  In today's case, you get something unexpectedly wonderful.

LOVE STAGE!! (Rabu Suteji), written by Eiki Eiki with art by Taishi Zaou.  First published in 2010 and first published in North America in 2015.


Izumi Sena comes from a family of actors, but he has no interest in taking up the family trade.  He has much more interest in becoming a mangaka in spite of his complete lack of artistic skill.  The only exception to this was a commercial he did as a child where he posed as a girl, and this commercial become so beloved that it merited a sequel.  That's where Izumi meets once more with popular actor Ryoma Ichijo.  Ryoma has spent the last decade pining for the cute little girl he met making the original commercial.  How will he handle it when his dream girl turns out to be a cute otaku boy?


The creative duo behind this series should inspire anything but confidence.  Eiki Eiki was something of a big name in BL in the 90s, but she's also kind of notorious for making some really exploitative works.  Even her shoujo works aren't much better.  Meanwhile, Taishi Zaou (a.k.a. Mikiyo Tsuda) is best known for being kind of boring, with her best known solo work being Princess Princess.  How then can these two come together to produce a story that's so very funny and charming?

I think what I like most about Love Stage!! is that while Izumi and Ryoma do fit somewhat broadly into the uke and seme dynamic, they do get to show some character beyond those points.  As the protagonist, Izumi gets the most opportunity to build up his personality between his otaku interests and his interaction with his family and the manager (who might as well be family).  These moments are almost always played for comedy, but it never crosses the line into mean-spiritedness.  As for Ryoma, he's generally quite good-natured and affable for a seme.  His interactions with Izumi are friendly and supportive, even after he learns that his dream girl is a dude.  He only crosses the line once, and even then Eiki Eiki does two things right to diffuse this.  First, she has Ryoma knocked out before things can get too hot and heavy and plays this off as slapstick.  Secondly, she makes Ryoma genuinely sorry for going too far.  A seme with a sense of decency?  How novel!

That broadness and good nature extends into the plot at large, which only makes the proceedings all the more delightful.  I don't know who was more amusing: Izumi's older brother Shogo, who fawns over Izumi when he's not fawning over himself or trying to tease Ryoma, or Rei the long-suffering manager who is always caught between trying to appease Izumi's family and to serve as something of a (rather blunt) father figure to Izumi.  Again, the comedy comes naturally from the characters' personalities and relationships and not at their expense (well...maybe not quite so much for Rei) so the jokes land often and land well.  I actually care about all of these characters and enjoy reading about their exploits instead of waiting and hoping for the next bit of groping.  Love Stage!! is entertaining and well-written in a way that few BL works can aspire to be.  It truly is amazing what a decade or two can do to hone a writer's skills.


I also have to give credit to Zaou for her artwork.  Her style was always somewhat close to Eiki Eiki's stylistically, particularly around the eyes, but she's got a far better grasp on expression, movement, and fashion than the former ever did.  It's hard to believe that from the cover art, which makes Ryoma look way more aggressive than he gets in the book.  The only thing she's a bit shaky on are the noses, as they have a tendency to disappear when not in profile.  She clearly likes to show off those attractive faces and lively expressions by keeping the panels close to them, but that just helps with the jokes and emotional moments more than anything.  She also clearly LOVES drawing the moments where Izumi tries his hands at manga art, and every crude, blocky attempt at drawing Lala Lulu is always a delight.  Finally, I love the few bits of color art we do get, including the cover.  The bright, almost neon colors catch the eye and fit the tone of the story well.  It gives Love Stage!! a style all its one, one that helps it stand out from the rest of SuBLime's books.


Love Stage!! is charming, pretty, and fun in a way that makes it a standout title in modern BL.  It's easy to see why this series was picked up for television and it's absolutely one that BL fans should pick up for themselves.

This series is published by Viz under their SuBLime imprint.  This series is ongoing with 6 volumes available.  5 volumes have been published and all are currently in print. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: PASSION

Of course, for every good or mildly interesting BL book in print, there are easily half a dozen books like today's offering: some boring, forgettable piece of crap with an equally boring and vague title.

PASSION (Netsujou), written by Shinobu Gotoh with art by Shoko Takaku.  First published in 2002 and first published in North America in 2004.


Our story starts out with our leading man, Hikaru, in the middle of some afternoon delight in an empty classroom.  His partner is Shima, his homeroom teacher.  They've been having an affair for some time.  Hikaru struggles with this as he's prone to emotional outbursts in the first place and frequently declares his love to Shima.  Shima is mostly indifferent, content to play things casually until Hikaru graduates.  This leaves Hikaru frustrated to the point where he tries to read into Shima's every word and gesture for signs of affection.  Things only get worse when Shima's ex is hired on as a new teacher, and he's determined to get his man back by any means necessary.




...huh?  What?  I'm sorry, I must have dozed off there for a bit.  I can hardly be blamed, though, when confronted with such a tiresome premise.  The teacher/student angle is nothing new, the dynamic between the leads is horrendously dysfunctional, and the emotional beats are constantly forced.

For the most part Hikaru is no different from any other uke, but he's burdened with a ridiculous amount of desperation.  He loves Shima for no good reason and he's so desperate that he'll try to spin the smallest gesture into proof of affection.  In the hands of a better writer, this could be genuinely tragic.  In Gotoh's hands, though, it just makes Hikaru look pathetic to the point of disgust.  It's also hard to see just what Hikaru sees in Shima in the first place.  Shima's only defining characteristic is an aloof sort of douchiness.  He's clearly toying with Hikaru to fill the time and he hasn't the slightest concern for the boy's feelings.  He also has no concern for professional ethics, which is why he has no issue whatsoever with sleeping with one of his students.  Finally there's Amamiya, and all there is to say about him is that he has a candy shell of joviality concealing a desperate and rapey center.

With characters like these, it was impossible for me to give the slightest damn about the plot.  It's nothing more than Hikaru desperately lashing out for affection and Shima shutting him down, interspersed with the odd bit of sex.  Even with Amamiya's addition, all that promises to add some non-statutory rape.  With something this dull and forced, you can see how this book would bore me so badly, right?


The artwork is no more interesting than the story it illustrates.  Everyone is as generic as you can get in BL.  That means every is long, lanky, flatly drawn, and they all pretty much have the same face.  At least most of them can emote, save for Shima.  Because he is a stereotypical seme, he's determined to retain a look of perpetual boredom.  Even in the middle of sex, he looks like he couldn't care less.  I guess that doesn't say much for Hikaru's skills as a lover.  Even the backgrounds are sparse and flat as can be.  Shoko Takaka either doesn't care about her art or is just that thoroughly bad at it.


This book came out very early in DMP's history, and it's clear that they weren't entirely discerning when it came to translators.  It's kind of awkward to read and there are more than a few typos as well.  It's so notable that it's explicitly mentioned in the series' Wikipedia page. 


Passion couldn't be more misnamed if it tried.  There isn't the slightest bit of it to be found within its pages.  It's not in the story, the cast, or the art.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go back to -



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

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: THREE WOLVES MOUNTAIN

Supernatural-themed BL is not too uncommon, but today's review might be a first.  After all, how often do you read a manga about gay werewolves?

THREE WOLVES MOUNTAIN, by Bohra Naono.  First published in 2003 and first published in North America in 2012.


Kaya Susugi leads a lonely life.  He spends his days running a quiet café and his nights guarding a mountain cemetery from both natural and supernatural threats.  During one of his patrols, he stumbles across a strange man and a large wolf that turn out to be a pair of werewolf brothers.  The younger of the two, Jiro, is drawn to Kaya's cool demeanor and understated kindness.  The two are forced to come to terms with their feelings when elements from Jiro's world and beyond threaten to tear them apart.


Supernatural romances might be a dime a dozen in the world of manga, but this has to be the first time I've seen a BL one delve into the strange and kinky realm of werewolf sex.  What's strange is that the most unappealing part isn't the fact that the story involves screwing wolfboys.  After all, once you've read something like Love Pistols it's going to take quite a lot to top THAT. No, the part of it that doesn't work for me is the way that Naono forces her main couple to get together.

I can kind of see what she was going for here with Kaya and Jiro.  Jiro is meant to be the cheerful, honest ingénue that defrosts the heart of the kind yet tormented ice queen (or should that be ice king?)  The problem is that Naono doesn't give the reader opportunity to understand these two as characters in their own right.  Without that, Jiro's declarations of love don't feel like heartfelt emotion but instead something like Dug from Up declaring that he loves you because you are his master.  It's a literal case of puppy love!  Weirder still, Kaya returns this feeling almost instantly with no build-up whatsoever.  One moment, they're having a conversation, then BAM! Sexy time!  Later chapters only get more shameless with their excuses for sex, be it Jiro going to into heat or him simply wanting to get on top at times.

Since Naono throws these two together so quickly, she has to throw in complications to keep them apart just as fast.  It seems Kaya's got an older brother who has stuck around as a ghost, and this part gets kind of awkward.  In Naono's universe, ghosts stick around solely to mess with the living for their own selfish pleasures and Kaya's brother is no exception to this.  He's not only envious of Kaya's life, but he's also disturbingly touchy-feely with Kaya thanks to the years of sexual abuse at the hands of their uncle.  Still, this forces Kaya to not only come to terms with his past but also to reaffirm his devotion to Jiro.  Now this sounds like a perfectly fine conclusion for the both of them, right?  Well, this happens a third of the way through the volume.  We're not even halfway through the volume and Naono has already blown her narrative wad prematurely.  So what do you do when you're struggling to pad out your gay werewolf story?  Add more werewolves!

Yep, Kaya gets to go meet his kinda-sorta-in-laws when he goes off to meet Jiro's family.  It's fluff for the most part as we see that Jiro comes from a mixed-race family, with a strict human father and a ditzy yet forceful werewolf mother.  Then another evil werewolf comes along to threaten them all, and after a bit of post-injury comfort sex the whole gang comes to live at the café and it becomes one big half-furry family.  At least this arc gives Jiro's older brother Tarou something to do in the story.  He turns out to have an intimate connection to the evil werewolf and it gives Tarou something to do other than offer snark and advice from the sidelines.  Still, it all wraps up in a neat, tidy, and cozy manner.

I went into Three Wolves Mountain expecting something utterly bizzare.  What I got was instead something that was rather forced, badly paced, and too shallow to make its happy ending feel well-earned, and all of it with werewolves.


I've got to be frank: the werewolf designs here are kind of ridiculous.  Jiro's is basically the lupine version of a catgirl and when Tarou isn't in his normal, fully canine form he looks like a guy wearing a wolf mask.  There's an in-plot explanation for this (Jiro and Tarou are only half-lycanthrope), but mostly this is so Naono can dodge the whole bestiality angle.  Still, she could have done something to sell these guys to the reader as werewolves without drawing something so goofy! 

Aside from these two, though, the character designs aren't bad.  They're not great by any means; they tend to be on the awkwardly long and lean side of things and she sometimes struggles with drawing hands and faces.  Still, she does a nice job with the shading and she draws clothes that actually move and drape like actual cloth.  She also does a great job at drawing actual wolves, and the same hatching she uses for shading helps to convey the texture of thick, fluffy fur.  Her grasp on the scenery is much shakier, though.  She seems to be more comfortable relying on screentones than on capturing the mountainous scenery where this is all meant to be set. Naono's not a completely wretched artist, but she needs to work on the basics and she needs to find a way to draw a sexy werewolf without making it look like bad cosplay.


I want to give Three Wolves Mountain some credit for sheer originality in its premise, but once you get beyond the werewolf angle all you have is a pretty mediocre story with some serious relationship and pacing issues along with some mostly ho-hum art.  It's just passable enough to not stink, but no one is going to mistake this one for an overlooked classic.

This book is published by Viz under their SuBLime imprint.  This book is currently in print and available as an e-book through

Merry Month of Manga Review: MR. FLOWER GROOM

I've covered most of the notable BL publishers, but did you know that Yen Press dabbled in the genre at one point?  Well, you do now!

MR. FLOWER GROOM (Hanamuko-san), by Lily Hoshino.  First published in 2005 and first published in North America in 2009.


Souda family tradition dictates that their younger sons must marry other men from the same clan.  Kouichiro is no exception to this, having recently married his childhood friend Ritsu.  Of course, just because they are married doesn't mean that their relationship troubles are entirely over.  Between some cute classmates and a lot of misunderstandings, their newfound marriage will be put to the test!


Reviewing this one is a little tricky considering that it's meant to be a sequel to a book I have yet to read.  Still, it's not hard to get your bearings about Mr. Flower Groom as the premise is the only thing about it that stands out at all.

Our leading couple is horrendously dull.  There's very little to distinguish either Kouichiro or Ritsu as characters other than some vague uke and seme-ish qualities.  That's why Kouichiro is terse and Ritsu is kind of fussy.  If there's one quality they do share, it's a fondness for jealousy.  The two of them get bouts of it thanks to a former classmate (in Ritsu's case) or a close relative (in Kouichiro's case.  Also, ew.)  Of course, that jealously doesn't last for long and it's really only there to serve as an excuse for make-up sex at the end.  Worst of all, it's all handled in the most dull and lifeless way that this final coupling isn't the release after a lot of dramatic build-up but simply just something else that happens. 

That's a big problem because there's nothing else here for them to do.  These characters are simply too young and too boring to have anything else going on in their lives beyond their gimmicky marriage.  That may be the reason why the rest of the volume has to be padded out with unrelated side stories.  If so, that may not be the best strategy because the side stories are more interesting than the main event.  The first of them, "Only You Would Know," is a fairly simple story of an abrasive high school kid named Shinoda getting together with a more popular kid named Koidara after losing his contacts.  It's not terribly original, but Shinoda's harshness gives his dialogue a bit of bite and the two treat their coupling more like a dare than anything else.  It's unusual, but it also means that this chapter has more appeal and smoulder to me than most BL can offer in a single volume.  The second story, "Omamorihito Hanana," is more of a typical star-crossed lovers sort of story, as a pair of teenagers trying to bring blessings upon their clans end up falling in love in the face of rules forbidding such a thing.  It's not quite as good, but it's another place for Hoshino to indulge her love of crossdressing and/or really feminine ukes, as the uke here spends most of his time in a very ceremonial and feminine kimono. 

Maybe Mr. Flower Groom would have been more compelling if I had read its predecessor first.  Maybe I would be more invested in the leads as a couple.  As it is, there's simply nothing here to get invested in.  The cast and story alike are too dull and too rote to inspire any interest and Hoshino's low-key approach to the drama makes it even more boring.  We know Hoshino can do better because we can see it with at least one of the side stories here, so why can't she bring that same sense of verve to the rest of the volume?


I'm always of two minds about Hoshino's art.  On one hand, her character designs are appealing overall.  They have dark, glossy eyes that draw your own eyes to them on the page, and she's got a sort of visual austerity that stands out in a genre used to all sorts of visual excess.  That being said, her characters do tend to be kind of stiffly drawn, and her ukes are drawn in such a feminine manner that she might as well be drawing flat-chested girls.  Ritsu doesn't suffer from this nearly as bad as some of her other works, but it's always been something of an oddity of hers.  Her sparseness also applies to the backgrounds.  While what we do see of the Souta home is nicely rendered, she mostly gets around this with a lot of close-ups.  Even in the art, we don't get much escape from Kouichiro and Ritsu's barely simmered drama, and it only adds to the stifling boredom of their story.


I can't say how Mr. Flower Groom works as a sequel, but as a stand-alone book it's merely a sparsely-drawn snooze.  It's perfectly competent, but it doesn't exactly inspire me to seek out Hoshino's other books.

This book was published by Yen Press.  It is currently out of print.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Merry Month of Manga Review: CROQUIS

Obviously, boys' love deals a lot with homosexuality, but it's very very rare to see any of them even consider the other parts of the LGBTQ spectrum.  Today's review is one of those very very rare expections.

CROQUIS, by Hinako Takanaga.  First published in 2004 and first published in North America in 2010. 


Ever since he was a preteen, Nagi wanted to become a girl.  He thought it was the only way he could become normal.  So, he spends his days modeling at an art school and his nights working at a gay bar so he can someday afford the surgery he needs.  Then he starts getting close to art school student Shinji, and Nagi starts to question if he needs to change his sex to be worthy of love.  Meanwhile, the quiet and reserved Kamota comes to terms over time with his crush on his best friend Tori and Sei tries to find the courage to confess his feelings to his starry-eyed friend Daiki.


You almost never see trans individuals in manga, BL or otherwise.  There are a fair share of transvestites in manga, but even then they are rarely treated as anything more than a joke, as a bunch of hairy buff guys unconvincingly wearing drag.  That's why it's nice to see someone treating a trans kid like a person, even if the trans part doesn't really stick.

That's the big caveat with the main story: Nagi thinks he's trans, but it stems not from a real issue with his gender but as an overreaction to his homosexuality.  He's so paranoid about being outed and mocked that he feels like a sex change is the only way to make his desires socially acceptable.  Still, Takanaga takes his struggle seriously and it's hard to not feel for the poor kid.  She also surrounds Nagi with a lot of transwomen as part of his night job.  They do tend to be rather catty about Nagi's love troubles and none of them are truly distinct enough to be characters in their own right, but again she treats them like people and not like gags.  If anything, they are Nagi's mentors in love, bringing a more jaded and snarky counterpoint to his giddy heights and hysterical lows as well as stressing that becoming a transwoman won't solve all of Nagi's romantic problems.

It's good that we have characters like that because on his own, Nagi's emotions are so extreme that it starts to get exhausting after a while.  Even after he and Shinji become a couple, he freaks out over everything: how androgynous Shinji's painting of him is, why they aren't having sex, Shinji spending all of his money on art supplies, etc.  It's a good thing then that Shinji is so mellow in comparison. He's the one that usually initiating the explanations instead of jumping to conclusions.  He's the one who is able to talk Nagi down from his hysterics and to demonstrate that his affections are true.  He's precisely the sort of chill pill that someone like Nagi needs and in that sense they're a perfect pair.  That being said, I also like that he's also not completely perfect.  It would be all too easy to make Shinji the perfect boyfriend, but instead she makes him a flake when it comes to money and conflicted between his love of rough sex and his desire to not affect Nagi's part-time modeling.  There's some decent characterization here in what is a relatively short amount of space, and it's a credit to Takanaga that she makes it work so well.

It doesn't stop there, though.  The next story, "My First Love" is a very down-to-earth take on one teenage boy's first crush on his outgoing best friend.  It's an unrequited sort of love, but it's not played for melodrama.  Instead, there's a lot of humor, mostly because Kamota's friend Tori is such a gregarious goofball to begin with.  Despite that, she manages to end it on a really great, bittersweet note.  The two meet up again as adults, having drifted apart after high school.  A lot of BL would have this lead to a sudden but mutual confession of love and the two getting together.  Instead, Tori is happily married, the two are able to reconnect as friends, and Kamota is able to give himself a sense of closure to his crush.  It's a very mature take on unrequited love, one that's so good that not even a frankly unnecessary side story from Tori's point of view can completely taint it.

The only story that didn't work for me at all in this collection was "Wish Upon a Star."  In some ways it felt like a retread of the title story, with one boy being simultaneous very repressed yet very emotional and the other being so caught up in their particular interest that they don't always notice something wrong.  Here, though, Sei's reluctance doesn't have any real cause so his inability to just say "I love you" is just frustrating, especially since the story keeps dragging things out.  The resolution is sweet enough, and I like the fact that for once the main couple stops in the middle of the post-confession foreplay and takes that action to a more private place like sensible people. 

Croquis is a pretty solid anthology of BL when taken as a whole.  Takanaga manages to get a lot of character into these short stories and even explores some ideas that I've not seen done elsewhere.  This may be one of the few anthology-style BL manga that I would recommend to others.


While I do like Takanaga's art overall, I do wish she would change things up when it came to her character designs.  She's got a preference for pairing up tiny, boyish, light-haired boys with taller, dark-haired ones, and she tends to recycle designs a lot from one work to another.  As a fan of her works, it's hard for me to look at Nagi or Sei and not see Tatsumi from Challengers or how much Shinji looks like Morinaga from The Tyrant Falls in Love.  Even if you've never read any of her other works, it's not hard to spot that the pairings in this book do all bear a bit of resemblance to one another. 

It's a shame because there are some great things about them as well.  While her faces are pretty conventional for BL art, they're wonderfully expressive and she actually has a grasp on how to draw bodies and decent-looking hands.  On the other hand, I wish she didn't feel the need to always cover up so much of her faces with messy bangs and big, hatchy blush marks.  She's also kind of messy when it comes to her paneling and composition, especially here when there's simply so many inner monologues to fit on the page.  At times it can obscure those good parts and make things feel more frantic than what the story would suggest.  The short story format makes those flaws a little more obvious than normal, but overall it's still a notch above average.


The translation is not bad for the most part.  It can get a little slang-laden in place, but it's not frequent or weird enough to distract the reader from the text.  What I do have a problem with is that in the early chapters there are some random German words in said text that is very distracting.  It's clearly a mistake whenever it happens and it makes me wonder if this wasn't translated by Tokyopop's German branch first or if the same translator was working on both translations.  Since no translator is credited anywhere, it's hard to say for certain.


Croquis is not without its flaws, but Takanaga does a lot more good here than not.  You might come to this work for the sympathetic take on transgendered characters, but it's worth sticking around for the generally good character writing and above-average art.

This book was published by Tokyopop under their Blu imprint.  It is currently out of print.