Tidbits: Four by Hinako Takanaga

This installment of Tidbits is devoted to the BL stories of Hinako Takanaga! Today I’m focusing on some shorter works, but look for Little Butterfly and Challengers in future columns. A trio of one-shots is up first—A Capable Man, CROQUIS, and Liberty Liberty!—followed by the second volume of You Will Drown in Love. That series is still ongoing in Japan, where the third volume was released in July of last year. All are published in English by BLU Manga.

A Capable Man: C-
Looks are mighty deceiving with this one. Because the cover is bright and cute I expected a sweet one-volume romance, but what I got instead was a collection of short stories featuring unappealing characters.

Things got off to a bad start when, barely a dozen pages into the first story, “I Like Exceptional Guys,” a teenager forces himself onto his childhood friend. It’s a very disturbing scene, complete with a gag for the victim. Ugh. Afterwards, the attacker (Koji) cries and apologies and aw, gee, it’s so hard to be mad at someone who’s assaulted you when they obviously love you so much! Even Koji thinks it’s weird to be forgiven so quickly.

Another problematic story is “Something to Hide,” about a teacher who’s having an affair with his student. The student is about to graduate and wants them to move in together but the teacher has reservations. Is it because he’d be betraying the trust of his student’s parents, which he has worked hard to cultivate? Nope. It’s because he’s embarrassed about his unruly hair.

The collection is rounded out by “How to Satisfy Your Fetish,” about a trainee chef with a voice fetish who gets off on provoking disgusted reactions from his instructor, and “Kleptomaniac,” about a guy who compulsively steals objects that have been used by his crush. The latter is rather dull, but the kinky former could have been fun if I wasn’t already weary of “semi-sickos,” as Takanaga herself describes these characters.

CROQUIS: B
When Nagi Sasahara—a young man who works in drag at a gay bar and is saving up for gender-reassignment surgery—seeks to augment his income by modeling for an art class, he senses something different in the gaze of a student named Shinji Kaji. Ever since the age of ten, Nagi has fallen only for guys, so he’s both accepted his sexuality and become accustomed to rejection. Kaji surprises him by returning his feelings and the two become a couple, though the fact that they make it four months into their relationship without sleeping together causes Nagi to doubt whether Kaji is really okay with the fact that Nagi is male. Frequently comedic and happily short-lived angst ensues.

There are things to like and to dislike about CROQUIS. First off, I love that Nagi has known he was gay since childhood and that the story makes at least a passing reference to the existence of homophobia. I also like that he and Kaji interact essentially as equals, even though Kaji is underdeveloped and Nagi has a tendency to be high-maintenance. Where the story falters, though, is in its depiction of Nagi’s reasons for wanting to undergo surgery. Does he wish to become a woman because he feels like he’s trapped in a body of the wrong gender? Nope. He just thinks that’s the only way he’ll be able to score a boyfriend.

This volume also contains a one-shot about a pair of childhood friends and their conflicting opinions on the value of wishing upon stars and a pair of stories called “On My First Love.” The latter two are actually better than the title story, in my opinion, and tell the bittersweet tale of former classmates who had feelings for each other in the past but never managed to act on them. Now both have moved on with their lives while secretly nursing painful yet precious memories. I’m a sucker for sad stories like these, so it was a treat to discover them after the pleasant but not oustanding title story.

Libery Liberty!: B+
“In a corner of Osaka, one young man lies atop a heap of trash.” That unfortunate fellow is drunken twenty-year-old Itaru Yaichi who, in the course of being discovered by a cameraman on stakeout, breaks an expensive piece of equipment belonging to a local cable TV station and finds himself heavily in debt. The cameraman, Kouki Kuwabara, agrees to let Itaru stay at his place until he can find a job. In the meantime, Itaru helps out at the station and eventually reveals what circumstances led to his present predicament.

At first, Liberty Liberty! seems like it will be cute but utterly insubstantial love story, but the narrative offers many more complexities than I initially expected. For one, before anything romantic transpires between Itaru and Kouki, they first must become friends and do so by talking about their professional goals and setbacks. Kouki was a film student when he learned that nerve damage was impairing the sight in his left eye. He thought he was through but when a friend offered him a job at the TV station, he rediscovered his passion. Similarly, Itaru had a story concept stolen (and improved upon) by an upperclassman, so a crisis of confidence made him go on a leave of absence from school.

Gradually, by working at the station and witnessing Kouki’s example, Itaru takes the first steps towards writing again. He wants to become a person he can be proud of. His feelings for Kouki develop after this point, and his accidental confession results in a pretty amusing scene:

Again, their relationship evolves slowly, largely because Kouki has been alone for such a long time (and nursing some unrequited feelings for his cross-dressing friend, Kurumi) that it takes him a while to accept the possibilities of new love. I love that both characters are vulnerable and hesitant, and that Takanaga took the time to develop the friendship between them first before bringing them to the verge of something more. And “to the verge” it is, because the story ends before the boys have done more than smooch. As a result, Liberty Liberty! perfectly deserves its Young Adult rating and would probably be a hit in a library’s manga collection.

You Will Drown in Love 2: B-
Reiichiro Shudo and Kazushi Jinnai—both employed at a fabric store, where the younger Reiichiro is the boss and Jinnai his subordinate—have been dating for a while but Jinnai is feeling uneasy. He’s unsure whether Reiichiro really loves him or is just being compliant. When Kijima from headquarters arrives to help the store get ready for a trade show, he begins to put the moves on the oblivious Reiichiro, which sends Jinnai into a tizzy.

Even though this is written just about as well as the introduction of an aggressively sexual new love rival can be, it’s still a pretty tired plot device. In Takanaga’s hands, Kijima isn’t as over-the-top as he might otherwise have been, but he’s still more of a catalyst than a character in his own right. Scenes in which Jinnai freaks out become a bit repetitive, but once the twist comes—it’s Jinnai that Kijima is really after—it actually allows for a pretty satisfying ending.

No, the twist is not very dramatically surprising, and no, having competition doesn’t compel Reiichiro to boldly confess his love—that would be quite out of character—but it does prompt him to object to Jinnai getting close to any other man, which Jinnai happily accepts as proof at last of Reiichiro’s affections.

This may have been a somewhat disappointing volume, but I still like these characters and this setting so I’ll be back for volume three, whenever it makes its way over here.

Review copies for CROQUIS and Liberty Liberty! provided by the publisher.

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