ZE 4 by Yuki Shimizu: C+

It’s maintenance time for the kami who serve the kotodama users of the Mitou family, which provides an opportunity to introduce some members of the extended family.

Volume three dealt primarily with the couple of Genma and Himi, an arc that carries over into the first few chapters of this volume. Himi, who had once been the kami of Genma’s father, protects his new master from an attack and “dies” as a result of his injuries. Genma is frantic to have him resurrected, but has trouble adjusting to the new Himi, who has the appearance of the original but none of his memories. I’d have more sympathy for Genma if he hadn’t been such a creep to Himi in the previous volume, but at least this is better than what follows.

After Himi’s maintenance is complete we meet a pair of extremely obnoxious twins and the kami they share. This whole episode—intended to be comedy, one assumes—is jarring because it doesn’t mesh at all with what’s just come before.

I seriously think the twins appear only because Shimizu wanted to draw a threesome, which is an example of ZE’s main problem. I’ve lost count of the characters who’ve appeared in this series so far, and it seems like mangaka Yuki Shimizu is focusing on variety rather than fleshing out any of the characters who’ve been present from the start. The guy who goes crazy for ice cream is still just the guy who goes crazy for ice cream, and nobody else seems poised to grow, either.

There were hints in earlier volumes of a larger story, and maybe those threads will be picked up again in the future, but I’m certainly not holding my breath.

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

ZE 3 by Yuki Shimizu: C+

From the back cover:
When a kotodama-sama dies, his or her kami-sama—a healer made of living paper—typically chooses to die as well, returning to a blank state as “hakushi.” But when Himi’s master passes away, a deep sense of obligation forces him to choose another path. Instead, Himi becomes kami-sama for his master’s estranged son, Genma.

Genma is everything Himi’s former kotodama-sama was not—rough, arrogant, brutish—and furthermore, Genma enjoys using Himi for his own selfish pleasure. Is this more torment than Himi can endure? Or will he come to realize that different people show their true feelings in different ways?

Yuki Shimizu delves deeper into the Mitou family in this latest volume of her hit series!

ZE‘s focus on the members of a family full of magic users and their same-sex attendants allows mangaka Yuki Shimizu to change gears and feature other couples as she sees fit. While the opening volumes were more about the residents of a particular house, volume three branches out to the extended family with the tale of Himi, a kami, and Genma, the new master he receives after his old one dies. I can see the appeal of such a setup, as it allows Shimizu to present a variety of relationship types, but must admit that Himi and Genma’s tale does not thrill me.

There are certain moments between them that are quite nice. The revelation that Genma, the son of Himi’s original master, felt a combination of desire for and envy of Himi since his adolescence provides depth for a character who otherwise comes across as sadistic, and the cliffhanger on the final pages is both well paced and very well drawn. The majority of the time, though, their relationship consists of Genma demanding that his every sexual need be met and refusing to heed Himi’s protests. At least one scene could be construed as rape. This isn’t necessarily portrayed as being a romantic thing—Himi’s reactions are sometimes quite awful—but I get the feeling we’re supposed to feel like Genma has redeemed himself by the end, after a coworker vouches for his kindliness and he begins to actually confirm that Himi consents to what’s going on.

It’s really quite disturbing and I feel kind of bad that I’m not giving the volume a lower score as a result, but I continue to enjoy Shimizu’s intriguing world building and her expressive art. Volume four is more of Himi and Genma’s story, and I hope I’ll like it better now that they seem to have established a little more equality in their relationship. We shall see.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

On Bended Knee by Ruri Fujikawa: B-

onbended-125On Bended Knee is a collection of short stories featuring professional adults (pediatricians, chefs, professors, et cetera) linked together by, as the back cover points out, the common theme of learning to accept one’s true feelings for another. Although too brief to achieve greatness, each story is a pleasant enough read and all are free from the nonconsensual scenes that plague other boys’ love titles.

The drawback of having a common theme is that the stories can get repetitive after a while. There are five tales in On Bended Knee and three of them follow pretty much the same pattern:

1.One member of a couple is a bit too demonstrative.
2.The more reserved member sets some boundaries like “don’t touch me at work” or “don’t try to ravish me in my sleep.”
3.The other party respects said boundaries and keeps his distance.
4.The reserved fellow begins to miss the other guy.
5.Reconciliation and a tacked-on sex scene (featuring many amusing sound effects) ensue.

Despite its flaws, On Bended Knee is pretty good. It’s not the most amazing thing around, to be sure, but you could definitely do worse.

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

ZE 1-2 by Yuki Shimizu: B-

When Raizou’s beloved grandmother dies, he leaves the country home where they had lived and moves to the city, where he enrolls in culinary school and takes a job as a live-in housekeeper at a mansion. There, he meets the members of the Mitou family, who wield the word-based power of kotodama, and their kami-sama, human-like creations made from paper who heal the wounds caused by using kotodama. We are told that relationships between kami-sama and their masters must be homosexual and that healing requires contact with a mucous membrane of some sort. This results in all sorts of lusty shenanigans, as one might expect.

Among those living in the house is Kon, a kami-sama without a master, since the Mitou for whom he was originally created died before they could meet. Typically, a kami-sama in such a situation would be destroyed, but Waki, Kon’s maker, keeps him around and uses him to heal paying “guests” (read: pimps him out). Kon doesn’t object, though, since he doesn’t see any purpose to his existence other than being useful. When big, kind-hearted Raizou arrives, he is immediately captivated by Kon and, as he is further exposed to Kon’s sorrow and detachment, falls in love with him.

There are some things ZE does very well, but guiding readers gently into its complicated world isn’t among them. Seven characters are introduced in the first chapter alone, and two more follow by the end of the first volume. That’s a lot of names to try to remember! Many of these characters are one-note, like Kotoha Mitou, who is happy and likes sweets, or Benio, the kami who cosplays and flashes her boobs a lot. The focus is primarily on the relationships, but there are also some hints of things to come, like a trunk of which Waki is fiercely protective and some mysterious spectral attacks that come out of nowhere. This is definitely more plot that I’m accustomed to in a boys’ love series, and I credit it with being both intriguing and ambitious, but also found it to be pretty confusing at times.

The best thing about the series is the relationship between its lead characters. Raizou has nothing but good memories of living with his grandmother, which ground him in a healthy place and provide a contrast to the world Kon has known thus far. To help relieve Kon of his feeling of uselessness, he pledges to become his kotodamashi, an arrangement that’s accepted by the rest of the family. True, Raizou doesn’t possess a magical power of words, but the warm and loving things he says reach Kon anyway and effect a change within him. The intimate scenes between the two of them, filled with eagerness and awkwardness in equal measure, are absolutely fantastic; Yuki Shimizu could give lessons on how to make such moments entirely about the characters and not merely “insert tab A into slot B.”

Shimizu’s artistic style may not be distinctive, but it is at least clean and attractive. Despite the surfeit of characters, I never had any trouble telling them apart. There are a couple of things about the way sexy moments are drawn that amuse me, like inordinately slobbery kisses and the ridiculously huge cone of light representing Raizou’s manly bits, but I positively adore the cover to the second volume. If you look at most boys’ love covers, the two leads are usually clutching each other passionately. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another that looks so genuinely loving.

While ZE has its flaws, I ultimately found it to be enjoyable and thought it improved in the second volume. Shimizu is well known for crafting long series of quality (her Love Mode, published by BLU, clocks in at eleven volumes), so I look forward to seeing where the story goes from here.

ZE is published in English by Digital Manga Publishing; they’ve released two volumes so far. In Japan, seven volumes have been released so far. The series is still ongoing.

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