I can't believe it's taken me this long into the month to get around to a book from Aurora Press. Back at the height of last decade's manga boom, they were one of the most prolific BL publishers around. Sadly they too were victims of the economic downturn, but not without leaving books like today's selection.
NOODLE SHOP AFFAIR (Himitsu na Kankei), by CJ Michalski. First published in 2002 and first published in North America in 2009.
Ukyo is the heir to a powerful Yakuza clan, but a chance encounter left him utterly smitten with an adorable ramen shop employee named Kakeru. Just as he's prepared to declare his love, Ukyo discovers that Kakeru has Yakuza trouble of his own. Kakeru has no love for the Yakuza as they split up his family, hurt his father, and are threatening to close the shop over a massive debt. Ukyo is prepared to do anything to help Kakeru whether it's posing as a poor employee or taking on a bit of a secret identity to dole out some well-earned mob justice.
I've got to hand it to Michalski here. There are plenty of Yakuza-themed BL works out there, but this might be the only one I've encountered that you could genuinely call light-hearted. There are a lot of dramatic elements at play here, but she juggles them so nicely that they don't spoil the pleasantness of the romance.
Ukyo and Kakeru are not terribly spectacular as characters. Kakeru is little more than a pleasant boy, and apparently his looks and generic good demenor is more than enough to make Ukyo's heart go pitter-pat (and his nose drip with blood). I will say this much for Ukyo: he may be the seme here, but he's got a lot more humility and emotion than one usually associates with that role. He's not aloof - if anything, he tends to wear his emotion on his sleeves. That means he's the one who is usually blushing and generally overreacting to Kakeru's perceived attractiveness, even as he both tries to play it cool and keep his secret identity a secret. He's not too proud as a character to serve as the butt of the joke sometimes, and this goes a long way towards making Ukyo a surprisingly endearing protagonist.
That's good because the plot itself is kind of thin. The premise starts off fine, if a bit farcical, but the tragedy in Kakeru's backstory isn't given enough time or importance to give them the impact they need to be properly tragic. It's clear that the ending was rushed as stuff tends to just happen suddenly in the second half with little explanation. It's also clear that Michalski was determined to make this a neat and tidy happy ending, logic be damned. It suits the bright mood of the work overall, but it doesn't feel entirely earned. Still, I can forgive it to a degree because it's so light and happy that it's hard to get too mad at it. After all, I'm used to Yakuza-based BL being as grim and gritty as the genre will allow, as well as needlessly melodramatic. There's plenty of room for one that dares to be more of a traditional romantic comedy.
Normally with BL artists they can either draw great looking characters overall or they can't draw a guy to save their lives. Here I get the feeling that Michalski has much more of a fondness for drawing semes than ukes. Ukyo and his fellow Yakuza bruisers are rather gangly, but they also have these solid, square-jawed faces that are wonderfully expressive at times. Ukyo benefits most from this, as it adds to his adorable little freak-outs. In comparison, Kakeru is flat and generic looking for an uke, and he's drawn so young-looking that it makes Ukyo look like a pedophile.
Maybe that's the reason that there is pretty much nothing explicit to be found in the book, despite what the cover might warn. Kakeru gets a few threats of rape, but mercifully that is never followed through with. It's so tame that Ukyo and Kakeru only kiss a couple of times. Those wanting some proper smut might be disappointed, but any explicit action would have spoiled the pleasant mood that Michalski worked so hard to cultivate, so I'm more than willing to let it pass. The pages are fairly full and the backgrounds rather indifferent, but the panels flow well from one to the next. Overall I was pleased with the art, as Michalski brings enough charm and skill to the page to make up for the more conventional elements.
If you're like me and have been craving some genuinely cheerful BL, then Noodle Shop Affair just might help curb that hunger. It's not quite good enough to satisfy it entirely, but it's still a welcome repast from what is otherwise a lot of heavy, overbearing material.
This book was published by Aurora Press and is currently out of print.