Future Lovers 1-2 by Saika Kunieda: A

future1“How close can we get to the rosy, happy ending I dreamt about that night?”

As our story begins, Kento Kumagaya, a twenty-five year old chemistry teacher, has just bungled a proposal to his girlfriend. After she storms off, another patron of the bar tells Kento his mistake: he had made it seem like he was only after “a housekeeper and a baby-making machine.” The two guys spend the evening drinking together and Kento winds up going back with the other man, Akira Kazuki, to his apartment. After some initial resistance to the idea of sleeping with a man, Kento is swept up in Akira’s passion and becomes an enthusiastic participant.

Kento regards the experience as a mistake, but when Akira shows up as a substitute art teacher at the school where Kento works and needs an escort home after his welcome party, it happens again. After losing his parents at a young age, Kento has a strong desire for permanence in his life, and has long cherished the dream of a sweet wife and loving kids. The more time he spends with Akira, though, the more he finds himself drawn to the other man’s guarded exterior and inner loneliness. Akira, meanwhile, has been burned before by having feelings for straight men, and claims to be content with casual relationships. By the end of the first chapter, they’ve decided to give a real relationship a chance, with Kento realizing that he wants Akira more than he wants the dream and Akira finally opening himself up enough to believe that maybe, this time, he might be the one chosen at last.

Many boys’ love stories would end here, and even had Future Lovers done so, it still would’ve been excellent. Instead, subsequent chapters (sharing perspectives between the two leads) follow Kento and Akira throughout three years of their relationship and some of the struggles they encounter. They’ve both had very different experiences in life, Kento’s leading him to make declarations about love that lasts forever and Akira’s, after witnessing the transience of his mother’s multiple marriages, creating in him a lot of cynicism on the topic. Many of their conflicts arise from this difference in outlook, with Akira repeatedly recommending that Kento find a nice woman to marry and Kento repeatedly avowing that he’s not going anywhere.

At first, the repetitiveness of these fights seemed like a flaw until I realized… that’s what happens in any relationship! There are certain topics that, no matter how often you may talk about them, nothing is ultimately resolved. Mere words from Kento aren’t going to convince Akira that he’s not really depriving Kento of his dream, and no argument Akira could raise would make Kento believe that forever isn’t possible. In a way, Future Lovers is more a slice-of-life story about a couple trying to make things work than it is specifically about two men in love.

In addition to the richness of the story and the well-developed characters (Akira is the first boys’ love character to ever remind me of an actual gay person I know), Future Lovers also employs some nice symbolism and humor. One of my favorite examples of the former is the simple comparison between the neat and tidy job one of Kento’s adoring students does reattaching a button to his sleeve and Akira’s sloppy attempt at the same task, representing the two alternative paths that Kento could take in love. Instances of humor are sprinkled throughout, some arising from reactions to Akira’s behavior and outrageous fashion sense, and also include the most awesome dream sequence epilogue ever. Kunieda’s art is well equipped to handle the comedic moments, but loveliness is definitely mustered when needed, especially in Akira’s more vulnerable moments.

Future Lovers has not only everything I want in a boys’ love story; it has everything I want in a story, period. I’ll be first in line to buy anything else by Saika Kunieda that gets published here.

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

Lovers and Souls by Kano Miyamoto: B-

Lovers and Souls is comprised of the 100-page title story, two additional shorter stories relating to it, and two stories about a different couple. “Lovers and Souls” was my favorite of the bunch. It’s the story of Shinomiya, a beautiful art student with a fondness for cash and an ambivalent attitude about what happens to his body, and Matsuoka, an openly gay photographer who offers Shinomiya money in exchange for sex. Finding the experience tolerable, Shinomiya begins selling himself regularly.

I typically don’t like stories involving prostitution, so I was surprised to enjoy “Lovers and Souls” as much as I did. I thought Shinomiya’s pragmatic attitude was interesting, and liked how he began to feel comfortable with Matsuoka, relishing the quiet, affectionate moments and eventually putting an end to the monetary aspect of their relationship. A plot twist made me like this story even more, and I found the subsequent reaction to it surprisingly touching.

Miyamoto’s art isn’t especially pretty or exceptional, but I did like Matsuoka’s looks a lot: he looked Asian, but this wasn’t achieved by any exaggeration of stereotypically Asian features. It was more of a subtle facial structure kind of thing.

The author’s note at the end of the book mentions that the “Lovers and Souls” story will be continued in a book called Rules, which Aurora Publishing doesn’t seem to have licensed yet. I liked this well enough to check it out if they ever do so.

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

FreshMen by Yuuya: C+

In the title story, Takeyuki Saito and Hitoshi Sato are both studying art at the same university. At the entrance ceremony, Saito, who’d been up drinking the night before, momentarily slumps into Sato’s arms, giving the impression that he’s weak and needs looking after. In the weeks that follow, Saito takes advantage of Sato’s kindness to some degree, and eventually realizes that Sato has feelings for him.

“FreshMen” surprised me in a couple of ways. First, take a look at the cover image up there. Which one is the uke? In nearly every other yaoi manga, it’d be the smaller-looking blond. “FreshMen” switches things around by having Saito, the younger and shorter of the pair, be the seme while serious, dark-haired Sato is the uke. Second, Sato really struggles with his homosexuality, expressing the desire to just be “normal” and worrying a lot about exposure. There are some plot points I’m not fond of, but these atypical traits put me in a kindly frame of mind toward “FreshMen.”

The latter half of the volume is made up of three short stories featuring Chomaru and Shiina—characters from Yuuya’s doujinshi—which I don’t like nearly as well. Particularly distasteful is a story called “memory of,” which recounts the story of how, after Chomaru has been living with Shiina rent free for six months, the latter comes home drunk and extorts the former into exchanging sex for rent. This particular episode is a flashback, but the rest of their relationship is also kinda cold and weird.

Speaking of weird, the art also has its strange moments. Each couple has its blond and its brunette and the blonds (Saito and Chomaru) look very much alike. Mouths are also drawn oddly at times, with very red, poofy lips. I amused myself by imagining the characters sneaking sips of Kool-Aid between panels.

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

Red Blinds the Foolish by est em: A-

From the back cover:
Rafita is the young, rising star of the bullfighting world known as “The Red Matador.” He has never feared facing a bull since his first kill at the age of twelve. But when he falls in love with Mauro, a butcher who rends the bulls that Rafita kills, his confidence begins to waver. In the matador’s dreams, Mauro (who, like a bull, is colorblind) is, alternately, the bull he faces in the ring and the butcher who carves up his own skewered corpse. Beautifully observed and drawn by est em, the author of Seduce Me After the Show, with a depth of style and passion, Red Blinds the Foolish depicts a complex relationship, and a cultural form, in a place where the sublime and the savage meet.

Red Blinds the Foolish includes the title story, told in three chapters, and four additional stories, one of which deals with one of the characters from “Red Blinds the Foolish” as a younger man.

The title story is definitely my favorite of the volume. I like the languid mood, the unique setting of Madrid, and the incorporation of some Spanish bullfighting terms. There are some things that transpire between them that I don’t really get, like some things Mauro says to Rafita that apparently drive away his bad dreams and enable him to be a success in the ring again, but on the whole I really like this story. One of the things est em does best is show the guys having intelligent conversations that don’t in any way revolve around romance or their relationship. Like with Seduce Me After the Show, these are grown, professional men with ambitions and skills, and I enjoy when they talk about such things with their lovers.

Three of the remaining short stories are good, but not great. “Corpse of the Round Table” explains the origin of a scar Mauro has as well as how he ended up a butcher. “Baby, Stamp Your Foot” is about a shoemaker who gets aroused when his lovers wear shoes he has made for them. “Tiempos Extra” is about a rabid soccer fan and the stadium security guard who fancies him.

The last story, “Lumiere,” is another that I liked a lot. An old, bedridden man is dictating a story to a younger man. The story is about a choreographer who encounters a phenomenal male dancer, which resonates with the younger man because he, too, is in love with a dancer. Not a lot happens in this story, but it, too, has the languid mood that seems to be what all my favorite est em stories have in common.

Ultimately, I liked Seduce Me After the Show a little more, but this is a very close second.

Ruff Love by Tamaki Kirishima: B-

Taketora is a struggling writer of historical fiction who makes his living working at his uncle’s bar. One day, as he’s coming home from work, feeling down in the dumps about his career, he discovers a young man (with requisite ears and tail) in his backyard who claims to be Shiba, his grandfather’s beloved dog, returned to life as a human in order to repay his former owner’s kindness. Shiba initially mistakes Taketora for his grandfather, but after the misunderstanding is sorted out, vows to serve Taketora instead. Taketora soon grows used to Shiba’s cheerful presence, and before too long realizes he’s fallen in love with the erstwhile pooch.

Ruff Love makes with the creepy almost immediately. With a mature rating and an explicit content label on the cover, one knows what will eventually transpire between the two leads. But with what is the table of contents page decorated? Cute widdle paw prints. A photo of Shiba in his original form only reinforces the idea that THIS IS A DOG. During every explicit scene thereafter, the recollection that THIS IS A DOG is inescapable.

However, if one can get past all of that, the story is actually pretty amusing. The focus is more on Taketora’s suddenly busy life than it is on the sex, and there are a few genuinely funny panels, like those in which Akatsuki (another dog-person who moves in with Taketora and Shiba) entertains himself by playing with a frog. There’s a small amount of angst—Shiba becomes convinced that his presence is causing Taketora’s health to decline—but for the most part, it’s light-hearted fun.

Verdict: Definitely creepy, and yet still better than The 9 Lives.

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

Love for Dessert by Hana Aoi: C+

Published under Aurora’s LuvLuv imprint, Love for Dessert is a compilation of six stories, each of which culminates in a steamy situation. The stories range widely in terms of quality, though nearly all start out decently enough. Some even try to incorporate plot elements other than sex, like parental relationship problems or learning not to change oneself just to suit a guy. The problem usually occurs in the transition to a physical relationship; in some of the stories, it’s just completely out of the blue.

For example, in the story called “Bubblegum Princess,” the heroine has chopped off one of her ponytails after a jealous rival got vengeful with some gum. The hero, himself a stylist, has given her a haircut to even things out. On one page, the heroine is admiring her new ’do, and seven panels later, they’re suddenly going at it! Something similar happens in the title story, too, prompting the protagonist there to actually wonder, “How did this happen?”

More affecting are the stories where the love scenes actually grow out of what has happened between the couple. My favorite story in the volume, “Puppy Chow,” is about a college student who breaks up with her quirky boyfriend because he always asks her what she wants instead of taking the lead. After a brief reunion with a controlling ex, she realizes the good thing she had, and returns to the considerate guy. When they later sleep together, it’s sweet and also meaningful because she’s chosen a healthy relationship.

I’m not one for smut for its own sake, so several of these stories were simply too shallow for me. Several did offer more depth, however, so this collection isn’t wholly without merit.

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

Seduce Me After the Show by est em: A

From the back cover:
A stylish, tempestuous dance of anguish and passion. Seduce Me After the Show contains seven short stories which take place within the artistic worlds of dance, painting, and music. Overall themes focus on the dichotomy of hope and despair as well as the relationship between pleasure and longing. In the title story, devastated by the death of his world famous dancer mother, Theo Gallardo abandons his own dancing career to become an actor and co-stars in a film with popular Hollywood idol Darren Fergus. What should have been a joking kiss shared between them takes a sudden turn when Darren asks, “So what now?” Theo answers, “That depends on the script.” As lustful passions boil over, will Theo be able to regain the fire that he once possessed and return to the dancing world?

The back of this book is doing a lot of my (self-appointed) job for me! Though, to be honest, I probably never would’ve written about the “dichotomy of hope and despair” anyway.

Right up until I read the last story, I thought my favorite tale would end up being the two-parter starring Theo and Darren (details above). It’s wonderfully told, with an ending I adore even as I wish there were more to read about these two. The final story has a similar feel and tells the story of a man returning to Kyoto after a long absence. He’s come back to attend a festival and, while there, asks about an old friend of his. Gradually, the details of their parting are revealed and, I swear, the final page makes me sniffly.

I really like the art—the use of screentone and backgrounds is minimal, resulting in a largely black and white style. Some of the character designs are quite original, too. Theo looks more like Severus Snape than he does a typical manga character. One of the couples includes a guy in his fifties, and when’s the last time you saw that happen in this genre? Lastly, I appreciate that est em takes the “artistically suggestive” route with the pair of love scenes; depicting things in exacting detail would detract from the emotional element.

Usually, I don’t notice things like paper or print quality, but the production values from Deux (the yaoi imprint of Aurora Publishing, a fairly new player on the American manga scene) are good enough to attract my notice. The translated dialogue seems natural and though I had trouble a couple of times working out exactly what Theo meant, I think that’s just a facet of his character. There was one fairly glaring grammatical error, though. “You’re work has really matured.” Nails on a chalkboard, that one.

My only real complaint is the surfeit of ambiguity. There are times when it isn’t easy to determine which character spoke a line, whether two characters actually slept together, or how one really feels about the other. I’m sure all of this is intentional, but to quote Davy Keith from Anne of Green Gables (‘cos where better to do that than in a yaoi review?), “I want to know!”

Seduce Me After the Show is a character-driven collection featuring grown-up men dealing with their feelings for each other. There’s no blushing or glomping here, and though the stories may be short, they’re also original, thoughtful, and memorable. If you buy one yaoi title this year, buy this one. There’s another book by est em due in December, though, so maybe make it two.

A slightly different version of this review was also published at Manga Recon.