Welcome to the July installment of BL Bookrack! This month, Melinda and Michelle take a look at three offerings from Digital Manga Publishing’s Juné imprint, including two from mangaka Kazuma Kodaka—the debut volume of Border and volume three of the Kizuna deluxe editions—as well as the first volume of Akira Honma’s Rabbit Man, Tiger Man. Michelle also checks out Shushushu Sakurai’s JUNK! from DramaQueen.
Border, Vol. 1 | By Kazuma Kodaka | Published by Juné | Rated Mature (18+) | Buy at Akadot – Yamato heads a private detective agency staffed by handsome men who will stop at nothing for their clients, even if it means consistently usurping the police. They’ll also stop at nothing to get into bed with Yamato, some in a platonic way, some not so much. Yamato is a playboy who will sleep with nearly any guy once, but he’s haunted by the memory of someone he lost. Also, Yamato was once some kind of secret agent, when he wasn’t taking care of a group of boys he grew up with back at the orphanage.
If that intro sounds disjointed, it’s for a reason. There’s a lot going on in Border, and it doesn’t all mesh as well as one might hope. Is it a smart, sexy story about gay male detectives? Is it a character-driven exploration of love and loss? Is it a heartwarming tale of self-made families and brotherly love? Yes and no, for though this volume tries very hard to be all three of these things at some point or another, ultimately it fails to succeed fully at any of them.
That’s not to say that Border isn’t worthwhile. Rather, it feels like a work-in-progress, still feeling around for its place. Yamato is an intriguing and well-developed character, and his history and dynamic with his coworkers is by far the most compelling aspect of the series, and though it is frustrating that we get so little of it in this volume, that bodes well for the series continuing forward. Even the story’s mild case of everyone-is-gay (or at least gay for Yamato) doesn’t feel like a problem here, with Yamato’s detective agency basically functioning as a group of close friends in need of an excuse to spend all their time together in order to ignore most of the rest of the world. Kodaka’s artwork, too, is a highlight, expressive and carefully skirting the line between pretty and too pretty.
The only potential deal-breaker here is Kodaka’s treatment of her female characters. The series begins with a case involving women who are basically being raped in the name of porn. Women in refrigerators is never a great way to begin a story, and Kodaka takes things one step further by making the villain in that case a (jealous) woman as well. Hopefully this is not an indicator of things to come.
-Review by Melinda Beasi
JUNK! | By Shushushu Sakurai | Published by DramaQueen | Rated Mature (18+) | Buy from DramaQueen – “Junk,” as the opening pages tell us, refers to ambiguous DNA whose purpose is as yet undiscovered. It’s also the name of our inscrutable and rugged protagonist, a “free agent” who has been contacted by the mysterious X, who threatens to blow up an upcoming international symposium unless Junk agrees to lead him to a heretical religious leader called Nagil.
Junk agrees to work with X, and when his employers betray him by crashing the rendez-vous and attempting to take X—actually a wanted criminal named Cross—into custody, Junk whisks him away to a safe house, where things quickly turn sexual between them. After bonding (again, quickly) over similar pasts as subjects of genetic experimentation, Cross and Junk work together to take out Nagil.
This is quite a lot of plot for a BL one-shot, and Sakurai scores points for sheer ambition. Ultimately, though, JUNK! reads a lot like one of those Harlequin manga adaptations, where many plot details are skimmed over and everything happens so fast that it’s hard to really buy into any of it. Cross doesn’t have much expression or personality, so when he abruptly decides that he wants Junk, readers have no idea why. Love declarations are likewise sudden, and the fact that they happen while one of the characters is dangling over the edge of a cavern doesn’t really help with the believability.
Insubstantial and a bit cheesy, yes, and rather too detailed in certain areas for my personal preference, but JUNK! really isn’t a bad read. If you’re interested, do check it out—DramaQueen could certainly use the revenue!
-Review by Michelle Smith
Kizuna Deluxe Edition, Vol. 3 | By Kazuma Kodaka | Published by Juné | Rated Mature (18+) | Buy at Akadot – I am so glad I continued beyond that first, uneven volume of Kizuna, because it improved so drastically that I now eagerly anticipate each new, double-sized release.
What makes Kizuna so special is that it is a shining example of BL that is more than just a romance. There can be no doubt that long-time couple Kei Enjouji—illegitimate son of a yakuza who wants nothing to do with his father or his organization—and Ranmaru Samejima—a former kendo champ injured during an attempt on Kei’s life—are seriously in love, but there is also quite a lot of genuine suspense as yakuza drama keeps intruding upon their life together.
In this volume, Kei has been captured and badly beaten by yakuza with a grudge against his family, and a desperately worried Ranmaru teams up with Kei’s half-brother, Kai, to find him. The situation is milked for every bit of possible melodrama, but in the best possible way, culminating in a tense standoff between Ranmaru—who shows that his kendo prowess is still very much intact—and the guilty party. Once Kei has been taken to a hospital, the tone shifts to something more light-hearted, with a frankly adorable marriage proposal.
Aside from the storytelling, another thing that sets Kizuna apart is the way it’s drawn. It’s not particularly pretty, and features simple page layouts with multiple small panels. Although characters occasionally comment on Ranmaru’s loveliness, he is certainly no willowy bishounen, and other character designs include massive and stern Masa, Kai’s protector and unrequited/not really unrequited love interest, and Jack, a middle-aged, beak-nosed, hairy-chested assassin.
Kizuna is clearly a classic for a reason. If you’re a BL fan, I’d go so far as to call this required reading.
-Review by Michelle Smith
Rabbit Man, Tiger Man, Vol. 1 | By Akira Honma | Published by Juné | Rated YA (16+) | Buy at Akadot – Young surgeon Uzuki gets more than he bargains for when he chooses to treat the gunshot wound of a gangster in the street. The yakuza, up-and-coming boss Nonami, delirious from blood loss, remembers little detail about the incident afterwards, but has developed a case of Florence Nightingale syndrome regarding his rescuer, whom he believes to have been female. What happens when he finds out the truth?
On one hand, the first volume of Rabbit Man, Tiger Man feels like a collection of some of the genre’s most tired clichés. A brilliant, manly, totally heterosexual hunk accidentally falls for a timid, pretty, totally heterosexual little guy, who of course is quickly smitten back, to the point that he basically manipulates the hunk into ravishing him (only semi-consensually, at least on the surface) so that he doesn’t have to admit that he’s turned on. Pretty much everything I dislike most about typical seme/uke tropes is featured prominently in this manga, which should be enough to send me running far, far away as quickly as possible.
On the other hand, this manga isn’t quite the sum of its clichés. Even within their rigidly defined roles, both Uzuki and Nonami display glimmers of actual complexity, especially Uzuki, whose frustration with the treatment he receives as a young resident suggests that his job may be more that simply a shallow plot device. Unfortunately, like so many BL tankobon, a full quarter of the volume is given over to an unrelated secondary story (in this case featuring both rape and the vilification of its female characters—not exactly a winning combo for this reviewer), leaving its title tale sadly underdeveloped.
Can this series overcome its tired beginnings? We’ll have to wait for the next volume to find out.
-Review by Melinda Beasi
Review copies provided by the publisher.
Disclosure: Melinda Beasi is currently under contract with Digital Manga Publishing’s Digital Manga Guild, as necessitated for her ongoing report Inside the DMG. Any compensation earned by Melinda in her role as an editor with the DMG will be donated to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.