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.