“Red Blinds the Foolish,” the title piece in est em’s latest collection of short manga published by Deux Press, follows the story of Rafita, an up-and-coming matador in Madrid, and Mauro, a man who works at the meatpacking house that butchers the bulls Rafita kills. Having spotted each other at the bullring, the two fall into a sexual relationship, kept casual at first by Rafita’s travel schedule and proclivity for one-night stands. As their relationship grows and Rafito finds himself missing Mauro more and more, he begins to have nightmares about killing Mauro instead of the bull, leading him to experience fear in the ring for the first time in his life. The story is rich with metaphor involving love and death, and its lazy, sensuous tone lends a dreamlike quality to the men’s time together while heightening the sense of danger both in and out of the ring.
Both characters are complex and emotionally guarded. Yet despite the incidental quality of their relationship, they somehow create a universe of two, existing for each other while remaining unaffected by their day-to-day surroundings and the people who inhabit them. Mauro attends to his work and Rafito to his lovers, all by rote. It is as though they are real only to each other.
There is some insight into this provided for Mauro, at least, in a short chapter following the main story called “Corpse of the Round Table.” In that story, Mauro is introduced as a young man who gives up law school to take the meatpacking job in order to pay off debts left to his family by his father. In the story, he describes playing at bullfighting with his grandfather and confides that he always played the part of the bull. “Playing dead is actually pretty fun,” he says. “Lying perfectly still and waiting for someone to say something to you.” The final panel suggests that it is Rafita he’s been waiting for, to finally wake him from the dead.
The only unfortunate thing about the title story is that it doesn’t last for the entire volume. The later stories are nice, certainly, but with the possible exception of the final short, “Lumiere” (about a young man taking dictation from a bedridden author), none of them offer quite the same depth or potential. After such a wonderfully strong and complex start, it is difficult not to be disappointed when the first story’s characters are abruptly abandoned in favor of new ones. That said, no matter the length of the story, est em is a true gem among yaoi authors, and it would be foolish to look a gift horse in the mouth.
One of the exceptional things about est em’s work is that it is not obviously written for women, which is to say that its storytelling, characterization, character design, and attitudes about homosexuality bear little resemblance to typical boys’ love manga. There are no pretty, androgynous schoolboys or meticulously groomed hosts in an est em manga. Nor will you find a lascivious seme or timid uke playing out heteronormative stereotypes to help young women feel more comfortable with sex.
As in her earlier short story collection, Seduce Me After the Show, the men in Red Blinds the Foolish are stunningly real and absolutely male. Est em portrays real-life adult men in various stages of their lives—working, living, lusting, loving, entering new relationships or discovering new things about existing ones. Unlike most yaoi manga, though relationships are the focus, these stories don’t read as romance for its own sake. These men may sleep together and sometimes even fall in love, but their relationships with each other both in and out of bed are, above all, revealing of who they are and who they will be. The sex is the means rather than the end, and that makes good storytelling.
This time around, Deux has done readers a favor by hiring Matt Thorn to translate and adapt the entire book from the beginning, avoiding the instances of overly sparse, confusing dialogue that plagued some of the stories in Seduce Me After the Show. The book retains est em’s restrained style and her inclination to let the art tell the story, but it is much more consistently coherent. As with Seduce Me After the Show, est em’s art, full of sketchy lines alongside striking black, is reproduced cleanly and with care.
Despite the relative weakness of the later stories in the volume, Red Blinds the Foolish is an extremely thoughtful and engaging read that should appeal easily both to seasoned yaoi fans and to mature readers who simply enjoy good story.
Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at PopCultureShock.