It's slightly late due to the fact that I was out of town on a trip, but it's May once again which means that we've reached Year Four of this little review blog. That normally means a full month of random manga reviews, but this year I'm doing something a little different. This time I'll be review a merry month of man-lovin' - that's right, 31 days of reviews of all things boys' love. Let's kick things off then with one of the first BL works to make an impression in the states. No, not Gravitation- the other one.
FAKE, by Sanami Matoh. First published in 1994 and first published in North America in 2003.
Randy "Ryo" McLean is a soft-spoken, dutiful New York cop who is assigned to work with Dee Layter, a hot-head from the vice squad. The two mostly get along, even if Dee can't seem to stop flirting with Ryo. Together, the two start to take on some of the worst criminals and drug lords the city has offer, alongside the bratty street kid Bikky and his pickpocket friend Carol. As their professional partnership grows, Ryo starts to question just how deep his feelings for partner might just run.
So FAKE has a heady reputation to live up to, but has time been kind to it? After all, the manga itself is over 20 years old and it's been over a decade since it first went into print. Gravitation was just as old and looked (and felt) every part of it. Personally, I can't say that FAKE has aged completely gracefully, but it's a hell of a lot more enjoyable than its counterparts thanks to a charming cast and a good sense of humor that builds upon its formulaic premise.
One thing I've always admired about FAKE is how well it balances the buddy cop action and the man-on-man action. A lot of BL works will start with a premises but tend to let it fall to the side so that they can shove in more relationship drama or more sex scenes. FAKE never forgets that it's a cop drama first and foremost and leaves most of the bits where Ryo and Dee flirt for the quieter, lighter bits in-between. It's also more than willing to take its time to let Ryo and Dee take their partnership to its logical extreme. The two never do anything more explicit than a kiss, and that lack of hot-and-heaviness actually helps the story instead of hindering it. That means that the relationship itself becomes the antidote to the cop stuff, something light, breezy, and often quite fun. That's something that BL as a genre often forgets to offer, so fun and breezy is something that I'll happily take anyday.
That's also a good thing because the buddy cop action onto itself is merely mediocre. It's not bad but it's not stirring or original in any sense. Of course, many buddy cops stories aren't coasting on the actual plot, but on the interplay between the leads. In that sense, FAKE is much more successful. Ryo and Dee make a good team both on and off the job. They have personalities that complement one another nicely and there's a good give-and-take between the two that help to even out the more stereotypical seme and uke parts of their personalities. What I like most about them though isn't their romance so much as the impromptu family group that builds up around the two.
It's not unheard of for BL works to use children or younger siblings to bring their leading couples together, but generally they are cute, precocious little darlings that serve more as plot devices than characters in their own right. That's why I'm so glad that Matoh gives Bikky and Carol just as much screen time and development as Ryo and Dee. They have histories and conflicts of their own and exist for something other than the sake of cuteness or a few quick jokes. They remain involved in the main plot by providing assistance or even revealing a few crimes in the making. They even have their own romantic subplot that's separate from the main plot that brings a lot of humor and character in its own right. Maybe I'm just biased because that same subplot features a scene where a teenaged Bikky ends up tasing a bear. That's just awesome any way you slice it. Meanwhile, Ryo and Dee's good cop/bad cop dynamic ends up getting carried over to their own relationships with Bikky and Carol. Ryo ends up becoming the calm and caring father of the group, even going so far as to legally adopt Bikky. Dee is more of a big brother type, teasing and fighting with Bikky as they both put up tough fronts. Put it all together and you get something that more satisfying, funny, and adorable than any wide-eyed moppet.
FAKE didn't just live up to its reputation, it actually managed to exceed my expectations. It's got a great and engaging combination of action, comedy, and BL that's anchored by a core group of four great characters. It's a manga that even those who normally don't seek out BL can enjoy, and it's easy to see why to see why it was well-received both then and now.
Matoh's artstyle is not nearly as timeless as the story. If anything, it's something that takes some getting used to. I speak from experience here - it actually took me two tries to get past the first volume because the artwork initially turned me off from the story at large. It's art that's firmly stuck in the 1990s where all the characters have these big, pointed lantern jaws, large yet weirdly narrow eyes, and bodies that are just a little too angular and stiff to be graceful. It only gets worse when they mad, as these weird heads turn into bizarre cartoony caricatures with squiggly mouths. It's a style that's way more flattering to the male cast members than the female ones. Poor Carol in particular tends to look oddly mannish for someone meant to be a 12 year old girl. Action's also not her strong point, as she tends to obscure a lot of it with speed lines. Even her backgrounds can be a bit odd, as the shoujo-esque explosions of flowers tend to conflict with what is meant to be the gritty streets of NYC. This series might have been a hit back in the day, but I suspect its very dated art keeps the newer fans and the license-rescuing publishers at bay.
FAKE is genuinely good, so long as you can accept Matoh's artstyle for what it is. She makes what could have been a rote buddy cop story into something special thanks to her flair for humor and her main characters. It's the kind of BL work that holds up even today and even now it would still be a great introductory work for anyone curious about BL as a whole.
This series was published by Tokyopop. This series is complete in Japan with 7 volumes available. All 7 volumes were published and are currently out of print.