Eat or Be Eaten by Jinko Fuyuno and Yamimaru Enjin: B-

Masaki Ashizawa is employed by a management consulting firm and is renowned for rehabilitating struggling restaurants and persuading his clients to his way of thinking. His current project involves finding the perfect chef for a new French restaurant being secretly opened by Chef Yanaginuma, a big name in the business, and when Ashizawa tastes the cooking of Chef Tsubaki, he knows he’s found his man. Unfortunately, when he first mentions the proposal to Chef Tsubaki, he manages to insult the man and must resort to rather drastic measures—volunteering to work as a waiter in Tsubaki’s restaurant for a month—to learn what makes the restaurant a success and simultaneously show that he can be trusted. Gradually, Ashizawa’s attempt to secure Tsubaki as a business partner becomes a quest to better know and understand the man, culminating in Ashizawa’s realization that he wants more than a purely professional relationship.

There are several major things to like about Eat or Be Eaten. For one thing, it has an actual plot and takes the time to educate the reader on various facts about French cuisine. For another, the scenes where Ashizawa is learning the tasks that need doing around the restaurant—like tablecloth wrangling, for example—are a lot of fun. The biggest factor in its favor for me, however, is the age of the protagonists. Both Ashizawa and Tsubaki are grown men in their thirties with professional goals and Tsubaki, at least, is openly gay. Though Ashizawa sometimes acts like a self-proclaimed high school girl as his feelings for Tsubaki manifest—there’s a lot of clutching at his palpitating heart—the fact that the protagonists in a yaoi novel are preoccupied with something besides their romance is a refreshing change.

Of course, it has its flaws, too. Like most light novels, the language is simplistic and features some cheesy lines. Here’s my favorite:

Bright red blood dripped from Tsubaki’s hand. It looked like his heart was crying.

Ashizawa’s characterization is inconsistent; he’s initially described as being “flinty,” but that would be the last word I’d choose for someone who gets flustered as often as he does. The explicit scenes are also a bit odd, as Fuyuno uses the adjective “disgusting” a number of times to describe those excessively slobbery kisses that seem prevalent in this genre. Not that I disagree, but it’s an unexpected word choice. Lastly, the first sexual encounter between Ashizawa and Tsubaki is possibly nonconsensual; it’s one of those times when “no” seems to mean “yes”; given our access to Ashizawa’s thoughts at the time, it seems he’s merely ashamed of his own desires.

There are also some issues with the production of the physical book itself. On many pages, the margins seem to be off, resulting in excess blank space near the spine of the book and text that comes perilously close to being cut off by the edge of the page. Also, while I was doing nothing more than simply holding the book open a pair of pages popped free from the binding.

Ultimately, Eat or Be Eaten is fun fluff. To indulge in a bit of culinary metaphor, think of it as the literary equivalent of meringue.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

S 4: Afterglow by Saki Aida and Chiharu Nara: B-

Masaki Shiiba was a detective investigating the manufacture of illegal firearms and Keigo Munechika was his “S,” an informant who played a key role in Shiiba’s information gathering. At some point in the past, the two began a romantic relationship, but a powerful yakuza boss with a grudge against Munechika wants to see him suffer and so hires a hitman who’ll receive one million yen every time he shoots Munechika.

As the fourth volume begins, Munechika lies hospitalized and Shiiba has turned in his resignation and bought an illegal gun with the intention of killing the man responsible—Takanari Godou—who also might’ve had something to do with the death of Shiiba’s sister eight years earlier. Shiiba gets as far as confronting Godou at gunpoint, but the other man manages to exploit his weaknesses in such a way that he agrees to do Godou’s bidding in exchange for the hit against Munechika being called off.

Let me be clear on one thing: I am not comparing S to great works of literature. As far as yaoi novels go, however, it seems to be better than most. True, the writing is facile, with a blatant disregard for the admonition “show, don’t tell,” but at least the story is trying to be about something more than sex. In fact, there’s only one sex scene in the whole book and it’s between two men who genuinely love each other. Despite Godou’s attempts to humiliate Shiiba while the latter is in his clutches, no nonconsensual scenes result. That alone is worthy of praise.

The basic plot is “the good guys versus Godou,” and I had no trouble getting into it, though the finer details never really coalesced for me. Nearly all of the characters are conflicted in some way, especially Shiiba, whose ruminating upon past events fills in the blanks pretty well. Throughout, I could easily visualize the action, so it felt a lot like reading a novelization of a story originally told in manga format.

There are some problems, though. After much is made of Shiiba needing to stay at Godou’s house in order to protect Munechika, there are no consequences when he leaves. When Shiiba is reunited with Munechika, who has some powerful connections himself, Munechika’s people simply say, “Oh yes, we know about the hitman,” and that’s that. It’s all very anticlimactic. Also, two characters, including the main villain, have similar angsty backgrounds that involve a mother’s inappropriate love for either her son or her son’s half-brother and her subsequent early demise. I’m not sure what the author was trying to say there.

DMP’s packaging is a mixed bag. A color illustration is included, which I appreciate—Chiharu Nara’s art is quite nice and depicts both Shiba and Munechika as mature, masculine men—but there are many grammatical errors in the text. Most of these are things that should’ve been easily caught, like “the wings itself aren’t blue,” while others, like “He took the bouquet from the employee’s hands, who looked conflicted,” conjure up amusing mental images of unusually expressive appendages.

If you’re looking for a yaoi novel with an emphasis on plot, then S might suit you to a T.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya by Nagaru Tanigawa: B-

Even if you haven’t consumed it in any format, any otaku worthy of the name has at least heard of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The anime has been released by Bandai Entertainment, Yen Press is putting out the manga, but now, courtesy of Little, Brown and Company (also part of the Hachette Book Group along with Yen Press) we finally have the story in its original light novel form. Because I generally tend to like the first incarnation of a tale more than its adaptations, it was the light novel that most appealed to me.

The story is told from the retrospective point of view of a teenage boy known only as Kyon. As a kid, Kyon dreamed of fighting aliens—preferably as a sidekick rather than someone who had to actually engage in combat—and encountering a mysterious transfer student with extraordinary powers. He eventually grew out of such ideas, but he discovers that not everyone his age has done the same when, on the first day of high school, his classmate Haruhi Suzumiya uses her class introduction to instruct all aliens, time travelers, and espers to seek her out.

Haruhi spurns contact with normal humans, but Kyon’s able to get through to her by talking about the topics that actually interest her. He seals his own fate when he suggests to Haruhi, despondent over not finding any clubs that deal with her interests, that she create a club of her own. He’s instantly drafted as the first member of the “SOS Brigade” and caught up in Haruhi’s obsession to seek out and observe mysterious happenings.

As the story progresses, the other members of the club confess to Kyon that they actually are an alien, a time traveler, and an esper and provide proof to back up their claims (ultimately fulfilling Kyon’s childhood dreams). They’ve each come to study Haruhi, for she unknowingly has the ability to make her wishes reality, and the current world exists as it does because of her. Kyon’s job is to make sure she stays satisfied with this world and doesn’t seek to recreate it. One thing I never realized before reading the novel is that the melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is actually a dangerous thing. The title doesn’t refer simply to her dissatisfaction with the mundane, but to the destruction that begins to occur when she grows despondent.

There are some elements of the writing and the story that work for me—like some snicker-worthy bits and the creative backstories for the other club members—but likewise there are things that bug me. For example, the prose is liberally sprinkled with cheesy similes that compare smiles to sunflowers in a grassy field, exhalations to fluttering butterflies, et cetera. I’m not sure if that’s Tanigawa’s idea of good writing or if it’s supposed to be Kyon’s view of same.

Too, I’m quite bothered by Haruhi’s treatment of Mikuru Asahina. Haruhi nabs Mikuru because she believes that every story features a moe character, so having Mikuru around will increase the chances of something interesting happening. She forces Mikuru to dress in skimpy costumes and is continually groping her and photographing her in provocative poses. This element of the story shows several characters in their worst light: Haruhi as bossy and thoughtless, Mikuru as weepy and simpering, and Kyon as a creepy horndog who finds Mikuru’s distressed reactions appealing and saves a folder of her risqué photos for his “private viewing pleasure.”

The actual sci-fi plot of the story is fairly intriguing and the book is a quick and easy read. Unfortunately, because it is a light novel, it never gets as dark or as deep as I personally would’ve liked. Still, because Haruhi is capable of shaping the world to her liking, there are a lot of places the story could go from here.

The back cover blurb notes that Tanigawa is currently working on the tenth installment in the series.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Desire: Dangerous Feelings by Maki Kazumi and Yukine Honami: C+

The boys’ love manga Desire, published by DMP in 2004, was one of the first titles I read in that genre and remains one of my favorites. The story’s original creators team up once again for Desire: Dangerous Feelings, a novelization of the manga’s events that also includes some new material continuing where the original left off.

Timid high school student Toru Maiki has secretly loved his popular friend Ryoji for a long time. One day at lunch, Ryoji unexpectedly and shamelessly tells Toru, “When I look at you, I get turned on.” Toru, paranoid about his feelings being discovered, reacts angrily. Later, however, when Ryoji insists they sleep together so he can see what it’s like, Toru goes along with it with the hope that doing so will get thoughts of Ryoji out of his system. This, of course, does not happen, and as the boys continue their purely physical relationship, Toru suffers a great deal of heartache from sleeping with someone he loves who does not feel the same way about him.

Because I am familiar with the original story, it’s hard to know how well the text-only version would work for someone who can’t bring Yukine Honami’s expressive artwork to mind to accompany the action (the sporadic illustrations don’t add much). The language used is very simple and, though the smattering of new details is welcome, some poignancy is lost in this format. In the manga, we’re able to see Toru’s face as he struggles with his thoughts and feelings. In the novelization, those same moments are presented in an almost clinical fashion. Here’s an example:

Toru felt like he was going to have a breakdown just thinking about it. He thought if every day would be this stressful then he would die.

The novel also fares poorly in regards to Desire’s one serious flaw: non-consensual scenes. Ryoji basically forces Toru to have sex with him a couple of times and though Toru eventually relents, I doubt that Ryoji would’ve stopped even if he hadn’t. Though unpleasant in any format, these scenes are worse to read in the novel because it’s more clear how much discomfort and pain Toru is experiencing.

At this point, it may seem like the novel is at a complete disadvantage to the manga, but it has an ace up its sleeve: a second half comprised entirely of new material. It’s not much of an ace, though, as the continuation of Toru and Ryoji’s story relies heavily on misunderstandings and each boy doubting the other’s feelings for its plot. It also seems like all they ever do is have sex. They don’t hang out outside of school or go on dates or anything. They just boff, and when they aren’t boffing, they’re talking about boffing.

Ultimately, I must conclude that the novelization doesn’t add much to the original story. Completists might appreciate knowing what happened next, but really, it’s nothing to get excited about.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.