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.