Crimson Snow by Hori Tomoki

I reviewed Crimson Snow, a BL short story collection from BLU Manga, for this month’s BL Bookrack column. Despite the yakuza connection, the three-part title story is quiet and compelling and well worth the price of admission all on its own.

You can find that review here.

You & Me, Etc. by Kyugo: A-

What a pleasant surprise! The stories collected in You & Me, Etc. are all very strong, and my only real complaint is that they’re over too quickly!

You can find my review here, as part of Manga Bookshelf’s monthly BL Bookrack column.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

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.

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.

Let’s Get Visual: Duds

MICHELLE: After a few months of this column, I feel like I’m better able to think critically about the artistic aspect of manga. I expected to be able to better appreciate good art when I see it, but hadn’t anticipated that I’d also more readily notice flaws. This month, MJ (of Manga Bookshelf) and I turn our attention to problematic pages or, as I like to call them, “duds.” (Click on images to enlarge.)

Fairy Tail, Volume 10, Page 84 (Del Rey)

MJ: Wow. I’m… a little bit stymied by that image.

MICHELLE: It is a doozy, isn’t it? Actually, that page was the inspiration for this whole column. There I was, innocently reading volume ten of Fairy Tail, then I turned the page and was brutally accosted by that monstrosity!

So, as is probably pretty obvious, the speaker is unhinged. Mangaka Hiro Mashima has opted to depict this by freezing the guy in the act of making a weird face and forcing readers to read two huge bubbles full of ranting speech before we can proceed to the final (and uninteresting) panel on the bottom of the page. Now, maybe this is a tactic to make us feel as trapped as the girl does, having to sit there and listen to this lunatic ramble on, but it doesn’t do a good job at conveying his insanity. The page feels flat and lifeless; a better choice would have been to inject more movement into the scene, break up the speech, and maybe allow the guy the opportunity to change expressions throughout his tirade.

MJ: I honestly feel accosted by the page. Its primary image is loud, but not particularly expressive in any other way than that, and the text feels overwhelming to the point where I can’t really even bring myself to try to read it all. Not only that, the page is so top-heavy, I find it difficult to even look at. That bottom image is completely wasted there, not that it’s much of a waste.

MICHELLE: Yeah, it’s weird how an amount of text that would be perfectly reasonable to read in a prose novel suddenly looks so daunting in a speech bubble, but it really does. And you’re absolutely right that it’s loud without being expressive. Everything about this page is just so glaringly bad that I knew we had to build a column around lousy art so that I’d have an excuse to talk about it with someone!

MJ: Well, feel free to talk as much as you like, because I’ve rarely seen something so pointlessly hideous. And though I hate to think that I’m reacting purely out of aesthetics, I can’t deny that it offends me greatly on that level.

MICHELLE: I think that’s pretty much the only basis on which you can be expected to react, since you haven’t read the manga in question. For me, it completely yanked me out of the story, which I find inexcusable.

And though I appreciate the offer to further vent my spleen, perhaps we should proceed on to your dud of choice.

Baseball Heaven, pages 133-134 (approx.) (BLU Manga)

MJ: Okay, then. My “dud” comes from Ellie Mamahara’s Baseball Heaven, a BL manga I expressed no great love for in our BL Bookrack column a couple of months ago. I assume I don’t need to describe what’s happening in the scene, and chances are I don’t need to tell anyone what’s wrong with it, either, but of course that’s why we’re here.

I look at this scene, and there’s simply no passion in it. None at all. Here we have a guy, supposedly in an altered state of mind, making the moves on his teammate who has rebuffed him in the past, and not only do we not get any real sense of how either of them are feeling (we wouldn’t even know the one was drunk if it wasn’t for indications in the word balloons and flushed cheeks), but there’s absolutely no sexual tension between them conveyed through the artwork. And while I can appreciate that perhaps we’re meant to believe that athletes might be stiff and awkward with each other, surely the drunk guy, at least, would have a little heat in his body language here.

The artist goes through the motions, placing them physically near each other and indicating that the one is, perhaps, touching the other’s behind, but there is just no real feeling between them at all. Even when their faces are so close together, Mamahara is unable to provide any magnetic reaction between them. I should feel that they *want* to touch each other. It should feel painful for them not to. Instead, it leaves me completely cold.

MICHELLE: I definitely see what you mean! Personally, I keep staring at that first panel on the second page. They look so stiff and awkward. It’s not that I expect the position of a character’s legs to help drive the emotional content of a scene, but when they’re as oddly placed as the blond guy’s are, it feels unnatural and, by extension, makes everything else going on in the scene feel the same way.

MJ: I think I’d go so far as to say that in a scene like *this* one, I kind of *do* expect the position of a character’s legs to help drive the emotional content of the scene. It’s just as I was saying before, there should be a sense that the characters want desperately to touch each other (this includes legs) even if they might be scared to do so. I should see that in the legs and every other part of the body, at least in the drunk guy who is initiating the contact in the first place. It’s a seduction scene with no actual seduction going on.

Also, I feel like the panels are getting in the way of us viewing the scene, which is a weird and uncomfortable feeling. And unlike in last month’s selection where this was done to elicit response from the reader, here it just feels like clumsiness on the part of the artist. She provides these little glimpses of their faces and legs in the smaller panels, but since there is no tension in those panels, they don’t add anything to the scene. They just steal space from the main action, such as it is.

Wow, I’m really ranting now, aren’t I? Please stop me.

MICHELLE: You’re quite right, but I shall stop you as requested by introducing my second dud!

Moon Boy, Volume 9, Page 3 (Yen Press)

MICHELLE: Initially, it was the affronted rooster in the lower left that caught my eye and made me pause to really take in the complete and utter randomness of this page.

You’ve got a young person of indeterminate gender, swaddled in coat and boots, flushed and exhaling a gust of wintry air, possibly due to the exertion of just having decapitated a nearby snowman. This person is surrounded by such seasonal items as a piece of pie, a cookie, a beehive (with fake bees), an inverted dog bowl, and a pair of barnyard pals.

This was enough to have me snickering, but closer inspection reveals several problems in proportion and perspective. For one, take a look at that snowman’s nose. I’m pretty sure that is supposed to be the traditional carrot, but the artist was unable to draw it from a head-on perspective so instead it looks like a giant almond. Secondly, check out the boots. The right foot is clearly much larger than the left, and I don’t think it’s just an issue of angle—the detail on the top of each foot is different! Finally, actually wearing the mitten dangling by the person’s right hand on said hand would cause the heart pattern to appear on the palm side rather the back of the hand, where such designs typically go.

This is just sloppy and, above all, weird. What do these items have to do with each other? I also found it odd that one of the designs in the border is actually a musical symbol called a mordent. The mordent belongs to a class of musical embellishments called “ornaments,” which could carry a Christmassy connotation, except that I don’t credit this artist with that much cleverness.

MJ: I’ll admit I’m not too picky about things like perspective and such, but I am somehow disturbed by the way his fingers are digging into the poor snowman’s head. What did that poor (decapitated) snowman ever do to anyone? It’s as though he’s digging right into its scalp. Which looks oddly fleshy. And now I’m feeling shuddery.

MICHELLE: I don’t think I would have noticed the perspective problems if not for the chicken, to be honest, but spotting it here did spur me to notice other problems in the rest of the volume, notably a few deformed thumbs and some confusing action scenes that I wrote about in my review of the volume. I wasn’t sure what to make of the hands, honestly. If it’s that cold, why aren’t you wearing your mittens, kid?

MJ: If he put on his mittens, he wouldn’t be able to grab that piece of pie when it comes down. 😉

MICHELLE: Well, pie is important…

And that’s it for us this month. Do you have some duds of your own you’d like to share? We’d love to hear about them!

Scarlet by Hiro Madarame: B+

When I reviewed Madarame’s Cute Devil, I mentioned that I wanted to see what she’d achieve with more likable characters. Well, Scarlet provides the answer. The title story is somewhat disturbing, but that makes it interesting, and I really liked the tale of a one night stand between two coworkers.

You can find my full review in the latest BL Bookrack column at Manga Bookshelf.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Cute Devil by Hiro Madarame: C

Girly-looking Fuuta Naruse has many male devotees at school, but the only guy he has eyes for is Tohru Akiyoshi, the aloof class president who has not joined his throng of admirers. Fuuta exerts all his wiles in a confession to Akiyoshi, but when that doesn’t work, he sheds the cute persona and declares, “I’ll just have to take you by force.”

And so it goes. Akiyoshi is frequently violated and humiliated by Fuuta, but can’t confide in anyone about it, because nobody would believe him. Occasionally, he attempts to grow a spine and at one point tells Fuuta, “What you’re doing is a downright crime…” but, of course, he goes all doki doki at the next opportunity, and eventually begins fantasizing about their encounters. In the end, after Fuuta experiences an unprecedented growth spurt over summer break, he does one nice thing for Akiyoshi and now we’re supposed to believe he’s an okay guy.

Ordinarily, I’d give a book like this a lower grade, but Madarame’s art is seriously cute sometimes and provides a much-needed element of levity. I’d love to see what she could achieve with a better concept featuring more likable characters. In fact, I’d love to see Hisashi, Fuuta’s hulking and adorably dim-witted bodyguard, star in a vehicle of his own. He was easily the best thing about this one.

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

Love Hurts: Aishiatteru Futari by Suzuki Tanaka: A-

lovehurtsFrom the creator of Menkui! comes this collection of intriguing (and chaste!) boys’ love stories.

“The Fate of a Crime Fighter’s Love” features childhood friends Seigo and Touma, who hail from a village where everyone has super powers. Some seek to do evil with their abilities, while others work to stop them. This story has a fairly comedic tone, but the characters are likeable and their relationship evolves into love pretty organically. “Kanako’s Story” is actually not BL at all, but fits in with the others because it’s all about a boy’s feelings of love for his “stupid and weird… but cute” childhood friend and classmate, Kana. She’s been telling him her whole life that she converses with an alien, but he’d only nodded politely until it turns out that it was all true.

While the sci-fi tales are both enjoyable, the real standouts are the first two stories, “Unforgivable” and “Two in Love.” In the former, Koji has just discovered the corpse of his lover. While he’s still in shock, a guy named Kohaku arrives and, after talking to him and a mysterious stranger, Koji ends up declaring that he’s the killer. In “Two in Love,” we follow Kohaku and his lover, Kimihara, who share a violent relationship. On top of this, Kimihara is pestered by a psychotic student where he teaches who likes to confess her misdeeds to him. This time, she admits to killing a person. The link between these two stories is very interesting and my one real complaint about Love Hurts is that there’s no follow-through here.

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by how good and unique these stories are. Definitely recommended.

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

The Loudest Whisper: Uwasa no Futari 1 by Temari Matsumoto: D

loudestwhisper-125The Loudest Whisper tells the wholly unremarkable tale of school friends Aoyama and Akabane as they experiment with acting like a couple (since rumors at school pair them up anyway). There’s nothing distinctive about the characters or the plot, resulting in a shallow and unsatisfying read.

Only 67 pages of this volume are devoted to the main series; the other two-thirds is occupied by unrelated short stories, which are all either bland, ridiculous, or icky. The only one that starts out semi-promisingly—“Cure for the Common Crush,” involving a business man who makes regular nightly stops at a pharmacy—derails into inanity when he accidentally receives aphrodisiacs instead of cold medicine.

The real problem with The Loudest Whisper, though, is the ick factor. In two linked stories, “First Stroll” and “First Help,” there are some story elements that I find disturbing, including an apparently significant age difference between the lead characters. Even “Cure for the Common Crush,” which contains a line that implies the pharmacist uke may actually be older than the seme, exagerrates his diminutive frame to such an extent as to invite misinterpretation.

Let’s recap all the adjectives used to describe this book: unremarkable, shallow, unsatisfying, bland, ridiculous, icky, inane, and disturbing. Need I say more?

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

You Will Drown in Love by Hinako Takanaga: B+

Part companion volume to You Will Fall in Love and part sequel, You Will Drown in Love gives Reiichiro’s perspective of events as he reconnects with his long-lost best friend, Haru, and learns of Haru’s relationship with his younger brother, Tsukasa. After Haru rejects his confession of love, Reiichiro talks it over with his employee, Jinnai, who’s been giving him advice on a variety of topics ever since Reiichiro came on board as the manager of the fabric store where they both work. When Jinnai tells Reiichiro he loves him, both men must overcome some of their own bad habits if they’re going to be able to make a relationship work.

You Will Drown in Love is the kind of sequel that enriches rather than cheapens the original. Although Jinnai does not appear at all in You Will Fall in Love, by dovetailing the two storylines together, his friendship with Reiichiro is allowed to grow while the events of the first book play out and develop into love when Reiichiro’s involvement in the tale of Haru and Tsukasa comes to a close. As a result, he didn’t feel like an afterthought, but rather as someone whose opinions informed Reiichiro’s actions in the earlier work.

Like the first story, this is one of the more romantic boys’ love stories I’ve read, free from outside obstacles to the relationship or angst that makes no sense. The problems Reiichiro and Jinnai face arise because of their natures—Reiichiro is both naïve and sensitive while Jinnai uses humor as a defense—and are far more difficult to conquer than a mere lusty rival. My one real complaint is that Reiichiro’s naïveté is overdone to the point of unbelievability—what grown man would utter a sentence like, “Guys don’t normally kiss each other, right?” I do, however, adore his final line of the volume, which I will not spoil.

With its emphasis on communication and trust, this boys’ love romance is a cut above the rest.

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

You Will Fall in Love by Hinako Takanaga: B+

In high school, Haru Mochizuki was very good at archery and regularly made it to the finals of high-profile tournaments, though he never managed to win. In his senior year, unrequited love for his friend and rival Reiichiro put him so off balance that his archery skills began to decline and he quit before they could deteriorate any further. Now, four years later, he finds himself serving as a substitute teacher at a private high school with a strong archery program and is cajoled into serving as assistant advisor.

There he meets Tsukasa Shudo, younger brother of Reiichiro, who immediately declares that he has loved Haru for years. When Haru, who’s still in love with Reiichiro, attempts to convince the talented student that his archery will suffer if he dwells on a “wicked” love like this, Tsukasa claims that he doesn’t regard his love for Haru as either depraved or a weakness and that he will prove it by winning the inter-high tournament. When Reiichiro suddenly shows up at the tournament, Haru must re-examine his feelings for both brothers.

With the exception of Reiichiro, I found the characters to be pretty well developed for a single-volume work. I also really like that they act their ages. Haru, in his early twenties, comes across as more mature but still not quite sure of himself while 17-year-old Tsukasa’s immaturity constantly dictates his actions. I hesitate to use the term “immaturity,” actually, because that conjures up notions of brattiness. It’s more that he’s earnest, impulsive, and sometimes given to dramatic gestures. Unfortunately, this also results in a couple of occasions where he forces himself on Haru, though it’s only kisses that he’s after.

The tone of the story is serious throughout, full of finely tuned angst that never goes overboard. I particularly love Tsukasa’s reaction when he overhears Reiichiro confessing his love to Haru, since it rings true for a teenager with a perfect-seeming older brother to flee to his room and cry, bitterly complaining, “He has everything!” I’m also keen on boys’ love stories that don’t ignore the stigma of homosexuality, although it’s not a major plot point.

Takanaga employs an innovative page layout, full of overlapping panels of various sizes and shapes. On a few occasions I had trouble figuring out the order in which I was supposed to read something, but it wasn’t a major issue. There are quite a lot of pages, though, that are very, very grey because so much tone is used. I found myself yearning for some white space. The art itself is expressive and perfect for a tale where emotions are at the forefront. Too, I appreciate the discernible family resemblance between Tsukasa and Reiichiro.

There’s a lot to like in You Will Fall in Love. The characters are endearing and their genuine love for each other is so apparent that I actually found this to be quite romantic, which is a rare reaction for me. I’ll definitely be reading the sequel, You Will Drown in Love, when BLU releases it in April.

Review originally published at Manga Recon.