La Satanica by Momoko Tenzen: B+

lasatanicaWhen Shoji Mashita spots his classmate Motoki Matsushima lovingly caressing his (Mashita’s) desk, he abruptly realizes that Matsuhima has feelings for him. He narrates that he’s okay with this, since he respects Matsushima as a friend, but he can’t resist tormenting him since his reactions are so violent. Eventually, Mashita realizes that he has feelings for Matsushima, too, and they share a pretty intense encounter in the boys’ bathroom until Matsushima suggests they adjourn to his home and Mashita suddenly gets cold feet.

Matsushima tries to figure out what he’s done wrong, and Mashita finally confesses that he’s afraid of the next step. From this point on, the boys become fairly obsessed with doing it. I prefer stories more about love than lust, myself, but the depiction of their awkwardness is well done and one really must appreciate that they take a whole chapter to really, really make sure that it’s what both of them want. “Are you only doing this for my sake? Are you positive about this?” “If I didn’t want to be here, I wouldn’t be.” That alone earns La Satanica major points in my book.

I’ve been impressed by Tenzen’s powers of characterization in her short stories, so it’s no surprise that they’re on even better display in this full-length story. Both characters are very endearing, to the point where it’s almost embarrassing to see them in bed together, and Tenzen’s expressive art makes the heartfelt confessions of their feelings and insecurities that much more sympathetic. The result is a BL manga that manages to be sweet and sexy simultaneously, which is no small feat.

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

Live for Love by Itsuki Sato and Jun Mayama: B+

liveforloveFrom the back cover:
Yasuie runs the Kiryuuin Detective Agency in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Nichome neighborhood. With no clients and no money, it’s a constant struggle just to live and pay the rent. For the past seven years, Yasuie’s assistant and partner Yoshiyuki has been willing to suffer through all the good and bad times with him—even considering Yasuie’s playful advances, which approach sexual harassment—but life has a way of changing things.

Faced with his family’s ultimatum, Yoshiyuki must choose between a penniless future with Yasuie and a more traditional lifestyle. Can Yasuie convince Yoshiyuki to stay with him? Even if Yasuie does confess the true reason he brought Yoshiyuki into the detective business, will it be enough to change his partner’s mind?

Yoshiyuki Nomura had nowhere to belong. Abandoned by his birth parents in a coin locker at a train station, he had no family until he was taken in by the Nomuras at age twelve. He strove to do well in school and earn their approval, but the arrival of a natural-born son made him feel displaced. He went to an excellent college as expected, got a good job as expected, but none of it felt right and none of it lasted. On the same day, he lost his job and his girlfriend but also met his unlikely savior in the form a foolish and impulsive private detective named Yasuie Kiryuuin, who saw the dejected Yoshiyuki sitting on a park bench and couldn’t just leave him there. Instead, he offers Yoshiyuki a job.

It’s been seven years since then, and Yoshiyuki has been kept busy trying to keep Yasu’s business afloat, even though it consists more of fetching and grooming kitties than any real detective work. Yasu is incredibly affectionate towards Yoshiyuki, though always presents his feelings in a playful way that’s easy for Yoshiyuki to dismiss. Yoshiyuki is exasperated and often cranky, but is obviously content enough to have remained in the job for so long. Things seem destined to carry on this way indefinitely until Yoshiyuki receives a phone call from his foster parents out of the blue.

The Nomuras are kind people, and genuinely regret that Yoshiyuki was made to feel unwanted in their home. They want to make it up to him by inviting him back into their home, providing him with a good job, and setting him up with a marriage interview. Yoshiyuki is torn—the prospect of family life is tantalizing. Is this where he’d belong?—but Yasu makes the decision easy by forcing himself on Yoshiyuki when he gets wind of his possible departure. The nonconsensual scene is really awful because these are two characters we already genuinely care about, which makes it much more painful to read than if it had occurred in a series with fewer positive qualities. If there is a bright side, it’s that Yasu is not some sadistic seme who feels no remorse for his actions; he knows it was inexcusable and is consumed by regret.

Yoshiyuki moves back home with his family, but though they are solicitous, he can never fully relax around him. A nice subtle indicator of the distance between them is how his foster parents never fail to append his name with the honorific san; even after caring for him for so many years they’ve never felt close enough to address him on a first name basis. While Yasu flagellates himself at the office, Yoshiyuki helps his little brother with his homework and plays the dutiful son by attending the marriage interview, even though it doesn’t make him happy. “Will I have to accept this feeling of emptiness?,” he wonders at one point.

Although it happens too quickly, the ultimate reconciliation with Yasu is very satisfying, with Yoshiyuki realizing that he’s always being saved by Yasu’s foolishness and has, in reality, needed him all along just as much as Yasu needs him. I also appreciate that Yoshiyuki refuses to accept Yasu’s apology for what happened, making sure the latter knows just how physically battered and emotionally humiliated he was. Lastly, Yoshiyuki’s accidental admittance of his feelings (and his subsequent reaction) is possibly the best I’ve seen in BL manga yet.

While Live for Love certainly has its flaws, the interplay between the well-drawn characters is funny, sweet, and endearing and makes this story recommended despite the inclusion of one very regrettable scene.

Steal Moon 1-2 by Makoto Tateno: C

stealmoon2As in the related series Blue Sheep Reverie, Makoto Tateno has gone beyond the call of BL duty to craft a science fiction plot of some complexity. One hundred years in the past, a computer on the moon called “Isis” was created to protect the president then in office. Now it’s rumored to be spying on the populace and seasoned street fighter Nozomi is recruited to help put it out of commission.

This all sounds fairly tame, but the way in which Nozomi gets involved is pretty bizarre. Boasting about his fighting skills after his latest victory, he declares that if anyone could beat him, he’d “willingly become his servant.” This is the cue for a mysterious guy called Coyote to show up, beat Nozomi, and promptly sell him to an internet peep room site. Because this is BL, Nozomi falls in love with Coyote, even though the latter says things like, “I wish I could’ve kept you imprisoned forever.” How romantic.

The peep show gig doesn’t last long, and Nozomi is eventually drafted into helping take down “Isis.” By the end of the second volume, he has learned more about Coyote so their relationship makes a bit more sense, at least, and some of the power dynamic issues are rectified. Nothing in the world can excuse the creepiness of the two twelve-year-olds in the peep show place with Nozomi, though. They’re fond of crawling all over him and striking sexy poses to drive up their hit counts, but the apex of ick occurs when one kid declares, “I’m gonna grow up real fast so I can service you!”

Um, ew?

Plotwise, Steal Moon is ambitious and occasionally even intriguing, but other elements of the story might incite a strong desire for brain bleach.

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

Blue Sheep Reverie 1-2 by Makoto Tateno: B-

bluesheep2When Kai’s lover, Maria, is murdered, he sets out to find her killer. His one clue is that the ring Maria always wore—a man-made blue jewel resembling the eye of a sheep—is missing, and he thinks he’s found it on the hand of Lahti Bara, a bigwig in Sarte, one of the gangs ruling the gritty city of Akatsuki. To get close to Lahti and check out his ring, Kai makes a bid to be his bodyguard and later consents to be his lover. It turns out that Lahti isn’t Maria’s murderer, but Kai has already grown fascinated by the powerful and enigmatic leader and gets embroiled in a bunch of gang politics involving a rival gang, an elite group within Sarte called the Four Kings, a renegade Sarte member attempting to bring them down, and a power struggle over gang leadership.

While I very heartily applaud any BL series for having as much plot as this one does, I must regretfully admit that I found most of the gang-related action dull and repetitive. Nearly every time something bad happens, the aforementioned renegade is the culprit but never seems to get caught. Kai isn’t a very strong character, either, but I do think his relationship with Lahti is an interesting one. It definitely isn’t love, as Lahti occasionally keeps Kai on door guard duty while he’s bedding other men, but Kai realizes that it’s not love and kindness he craves, but rather the strength to be worthy to stand at Lahti’s side, to be necessary to him.

So, is this good? Well, almost. It’s one of those cases where I like it despite its faults. I actually struggled a lot with whether to give it a B, since Tateno-sensei bothered to create such an intricate plot, but I just couldn’t do it.

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

Ciao Ciao Bambino by Momoko Tenzen: B

ciaociaobambinoI think I must be a Momoko Tenzen fan, because this is the second time I’ve been impressed by her ability to create compelling characters in a short story format (the first being Unsophisticated and Rude). Not only that, she’s able to write stories about romance between middle schoolers and teachers that aren’t completely icky (only mildly icky).

There are five stories in this volume, though the first four focus on the same set of characters: Kaname, a lecturer at a cram school; Yuuta, Kaname’s student, seven years his junior; and Kei and Mako, friends of Yuuta’s who have feelings for each other. What I liked about these stories is that Kaname and Yuuta take several years to get to a point where love is openly discussed, and although Yuuta is still too young (in my opinion) when they finally sleep together, his character is developed enough that it’s clear he’s not being taken advantage of by an adult in position of authority.

The fifth story, “Brand New Wednesday,” is about a tall kid named Kana—and seriously, both he and Yuuta must attend one of the junior highs from Prince of Tennis, because they’re far bigger than any ninth graders I’ve known—who is in love with his home tutor. I found the tutor’s perspective especially poignant here, as he realizes how fragile a love like this can be when the younger person has so much changing left to do in their life.

I admit to feeling a little guilty that I liked these stories as much as I did, given their subject matter, but Tenzen’s approach is not salacious whatsoever. If you can get past the squick factor, these stories do offer some truly touching moments.

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

Itazura Na Kiss 1 by Kaoru Tada: B+

itazura1Kotoko Aihara has loved the brilliant and handsome Naoki Irie from afar ever since she saw him give a speech at their high school entrance ceremony two years ago. Because their school groups students by academic performance, however, the not-so-bright Kotoko has never had the opportunity to actually talk to Naoki. Even though she realizes it’s probably a lost cause, she resolves that she won’t let high school end without letting him know her feelings, and the series opens with her attempt to hand him a love letter, which he coldly refuses.

Kotoko resolves to forget him, but this is made impossible when the Aihara home is destroyed in an earthquake and she and her father must move in with his friend’s family. Of course, this turns out to be the Irie family, and Kotoko is thrust into continued proximity with Naoki while his mother pampers her, his little brother despises her, and all of the parents conspire to unite their families by a marriage between their eldest children. Kotoko and Naoki try to keep their living arrangements a secret from their schoolmates, but the truth eventually comes out, injecting a barrage of rumors and gossip into their academic routine.

While there are some things about Itazura Na Kiss that would be called cliché today—the klutzy underachiever protagonist, the two leads forced to live together—the series gets a pass since it began its serialization in 1991. More than contemporary shoujo, what it really reminds me of is Rumiko Takahashi’s (seinen) romantic comedy Maison Ikkoku, which also takes place over a long period of time as the two leads engage in a courtship dance to the amusement of meddling onlookers. While the antics of these onlookers (especially Kin-chan, a classmate obsessed with the idea of marrying Kotoko) aren’t always funny, they do at least help keep the overall tone light and reinforce the ensemble feel of the story.

Too often in shoujo, when a dense girl manages to win over the male genius of her dreams, it’s because he finds her ineptitude and/or helplessness endearing. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen here. (Well, at least not yet.) Instead, Naoki continues to be cool and superior, critical of Kotoko’s failures but occasionally doling out tidbits of encouragement. When he begins to warm towards her, it’s not in a condescending way, but rather with a sense of wonder at the trouble she has introduced into his life, which, in turn, is causing him to experience unfamiliar mental states like anxiety and uncertainty. It’s clear that he has been coasting without ambition, bored without a challenge, and that Kotoko, whatever her flaws, is livening up his world considerably.

Kotoko, meanwhile, also grows from association with Naoki. With his help, for example, she manages to place in the top 100 for midterm exams despite being grouped in the lowest class academically, thus proving that she isn’t hopelessly stupid. Also, after she blithely declares a desire to attend college, it’s Naoki that causes her to question why she’d want to do that, when studying is such torment for her. Perhaps together they’ll be able to point each other in the direction that’s right for them.

Artistically, Itazura Na Kiss shows its vintage, with delicate lines, terrifically poofy hair for some of the fellows, and some comedic character designs for members of the supporting cast like Kin-chan and his lackeys. I’m hard-pressed to explain how exactly it manages to look older than other shoujo on the market; it just does. DMP’s production is excellent, however, and somehow, despite its page count, the book doesn’t feel excessively bulky.

Overall, I am quite charmed by this first taste of a shoujo classic and can’t wait for volume two!

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

Millennium Prime Minister 2 by Eiki Eiki: C

millenniumprime2The tenor of Millennium Prime Minister is best summed up by a line on the back cover that reads, “A confused love triangle is messing up the politics of Japan!”

High school student Minori Nagashima is living with Japan’s young Prime Minister, Kanata Okazaki, who wants her to be his bride. Everyone’s in a tizzy because Sai, Kanata’s 18-year-old senior aide who happens to be in love with his boss, is missing. A menacing foe of Kanata’s gets wind of Sai’s absence, and after a tense confrontation, Kanata returns home drunk and attempts to force himself on Minori. Rather than be outraged like any reasonable person, Minori realizes that she has fallen in love with Kanata and later pledges to become the family he so desperately craves. He’s only controlling because he’s lonely, you see.

Meanwhile, Sai is staying with a reporter buddy and being the crappiest houseguest imaginable. This includes bursting into whiny tears when the eggs his host prepares are not to his liking. Upon finally returning to the minister’s residence, he overhears Minori’s promise and loses it. Because Kanata is everything to him, Sai plans to stay by his side forever and can’t understand why he’s not sufficient to quell Kanata’s loneliness. Kanata gets a taste of his own medicine when Sai uses force to make his feelings clear.

Eiki Eiki’s art continues to be expressive and the pace of the story ensures a quick read. Unfortunately, the ridiculous elements overshadow these positive qualities. I grant this series some slack because it’s a comedy, but that doesn’t excuse the unconvincing central romance or the characters who act like idiots. I have a smidgen of sympathy for Sai and his plight, but his bratty behavior makes it difficult to truly like him. Similarly, though I don’t hate Millennium Prime Minister, I definitely can’t recommend it.

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

Brilliant Blue 2 by Saemi Yorita: B+

brilliantblue2Brilliant Blue ends as sweetly as it began, offering plenty of humor and warmth along the way. At first, Shouzo continues to fight his attraction for Nanami, resulting in some nice chapters told from Nanami’s perspective in which his confusion over the way Shouzo’s treating him is both adorable and sympathetic.

Eventually, Shouzo can’t resist any longer and takes the relationship to the next level. Unfortunately, after so much internal debate over whether it’s a wise move to make, there’s not much insight into his thoughts when he finally decides to take this step, robbing it of some impact. His haste to make the relationship a sexual one is also a little off-putting; his dissatisfaction with simply spending time together seems at odds with his interactions with Nanami up to this point.

After a positive but rather anticlimactic final chapter, a side story affords us a glimpse of the couple six months on. Shouzo is trying to get used to the residents of his small town knowing about his relationship with Nanami, and is meanwhile dealing with a suspicious-looking apprentice who is also beset by people making assumptions about him based on rumors. It’s a subtle parallel, but a rather nice way to end the story. I might wish more had been made of the stigma of the lead couple’s relationship, but I can’t really fault the series for remaining relentlessly sunny ’til the end.

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

Color by Eiki Eiki and Taishi Zaou: B+

colorFrom the back cover:
When art student Takashiro Tsuda chose to show his painting, Color, in a gallery exhibition, he never dreamed that an uncannily similar painting would hang next to his—with the same title, even. Works of art come from the deepest depths of an artist’s soul, so how can anyone else be expressing themselves so much like Takashiro? Filled with a yearning to find his artistic soulmate, Takashiro goes off to art school in Tokyo and meets classmate Sakae Fujiwara. Soon, Takashiro learns that this is the artist he’s been searching for—the one who created a Color so much like his own—but Sakae is a guy! Can such a profound connection between two people transcend gender and become something more?

Creators Eiki Eiki and Taishi Zaou (otherwise known as Mikiyo Tsuda, creator of the Princess Princess series, among others) collaborated on this BL one-shot and patterned the story somewhat on their own relationship, in which they first admired each other’s work in a doujinshi circle and later became fast friends, though they point out that the romantic aspect is entirely fictional. The two mangaka divided the artistic duties, too, with Eiki designing Sakae and a smattering of supporting characters and Zaou handling Takashiro and his family.

On the surface of it, it doesn’t seem like Color has all that much going for it. The two leads fall in love extremely quickly, and from there are eager to advance their relationship in a physical way. The supporting characters are not very interesting. There’s a leap forward of a couple of years and randomly inserted family drama—one collapsed dad (this is at least the second DokiDoki title I’ve read to feature this plot) and one “the firstborn son eloped and now you are the heir” dad—threatens to tear the couple apart just as they had declared their desire to stay together forever.

And yet, it’s actually pretty good. The way the two boys gravitate towards each other and develop an instant and profound rapport seems perfectly natural, and the feeling of joy and gratitude upon finally finding the person that understands you is palpable. The approach they take towards becoming intimate is cute, too—I love the scene where they’re sitting formally and awkwardly working out how best to kiss for the first time—and about 200% consensual.

Also, though the angst near the end, in which Sakae decides that if reality is going to pull them apart eventually it’s better to just break up now, is kind of annoying, I concede that it’s necessary to bring about a resolution, and an admirably ambiguous one at that. After enjoying a period of halcyon days, the boys have grown up enough to realize that some things just don’t last forever. “When I realized that we’d have to be apart,” thinks Sakae, “I had to admit that we’re separate people after all.”

Ultimately, Color is both sweet and bittersweet, and well worth a read.

Unsophisticated and Rude by Momoko Tenzen: B+

unsophisticatedUnsophisticated and Rude is a collection of five boys’ love tales from Momoko Tenzen. Unlike most compilations in this format, all of the stories are enjoyable and demonstrate an impressive ability to establish unique and compelling characters within a limited number of pages.

The first two stories—“Unsophisticated and Rude” and “Pretender”—are the best, offering additional dramatic complications beyond what’s generally expected with stories of this type. In the title story, Hiroto is surprised when his childhood friend, Satoshi, confesses that he has feelings for a male upperclassman. Hiroto pledges his support, but secretly possesses feelings for the same guy. While he cares for Satoshi and wants things to work out for his friend, he can’t help being jealous and, in the end, makes the difficult choice to seize love while he can. In “Pretender,” Katase has attempted to forestall his friend Manaka’s love confession by going out with a girl, to no avail. He’s very conscious of the stigma surrounding homosexuality, and resists engaging in a relationship, worrying that Manaka “isn’t really like me.”

My one real complaint is that, because of the inherent constraints of a short story, some things are not shown that I’d like to see. Particularly in the title story, readers are left wondering how Hiroto’s decision to choose love over his best friend will affect his life. Then again, perhaps it’s better to leave the undoubtedly painful implosion of their friendship to one’s imagination.

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