Welcome to the first edition of BL Bookrack, a new, monthly feature co-written with Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith. Once a month, in place of our weekly Off the Shelf column, we’ll be presenting reviews of a handful of boys’ love titles, both old and new. It is our particular pleasure to launch this feature with a focus on the works of Fumi Yoshinaga as part of Manga Bookshelf’s week-long tribute to one of our favorite mangaka.
In this month’s column, Michelle starts us off with a look at Don’t Say Any More, Darling, deeming it enjoyable, if not quite the best of Yoshinaga’s work. I follow up with two favorites, Ichigenme… The First Class is Civil Law and The Moon and the Sandals. Michelle then wraps things up with a thoughtful take on Solfege.
We hope you’ll enjoy this special Yoshinaga edition of BL Bookrack. We’ll return next week with another Off the Shelf!
Don’t Say Any More, Darling is a collection of five stories by Fumi Yoshinaga—two of them not actually BL—that show glimmers of her future greatness but which are, at least in several cases, pretty durn weird.
The title story is the most straightforward boys’ love offering in the group. Kouhei and Tadashi have been friends since their school days, but the former has gone on to be a successful doctor while the latter is an impoverished lyricist who would probably starve if Kouhei didn’t stop by every once in a while. Kouhei’s parents are after him to meet a prospective bride—there’s a very amusing scene where they harangue him for being a “parasite single”—but when he meets his date, she only reminds him of Tadashi! Like most cheerful BL stories, this one ends with the boys in bed, but Yoshinaga gives this outcome a little twist by depicting Kouhei as comically traumatized by the experience.
“My Eternal Sweetheart” is the first of the weirder stories in the collection. Initially, it appears to be the story of an ailing teenager named Arthur whose immune deficiency syndrome prevents him from going outside and whose brother has built him a maternal android for a caretaker. It takes a turn when Arthur requests a male “sexaroid” to relieve his boredom, and a few other surprising twists follow. While I admire the plot of this story, it does contain an underaged sexaroid and quasi-incest, so things get a little creepy.
The two non-BL stories in the collection both have to do with making and then losing a connection with another person. In “Fairyland,” a bullied boy named Kaoru seems to have successfully wished all of humanity away. This gets rid of his tormentors, but also his family. When Kaoru meets another rare survivor, Ryohei, it seems he’s finally found someone who can understand and forgive his actions. In “One May Day,” a widower finds new love with a restaurant proprietor, only to quickly tire of her subservience and constant apologizing. This one is particularly short and odd.
My very favorite story in the collection is the last one, “The Pianist.” As a younger, haughtier man, Takayuki Date had some moderate success as a pianist and songwriter, but was never able to make it big. At the time, he never lacked for men, but now that he is older he’s having a hard time finding handsome younger guys willing to sleep with him. One day, he’s approached by a friendly college student and must figure out whether the young man is actually interested in him. The whole vibe of this story is wonderful—I really love how Yoshinaga handles the revelation that Date is not really the “debauched fallen genius” he pretends to be but rather simply lacked the talent necessary to achieve lasting success—and feels the most like Yoshinaga’s later works to me.
While Don’t Say Any More, Darling is not the best Yoshinaga manga available, it’s still intriguing and definitely worth a read.
– Review by Michelle Smith.
Kensuke Tamiya is a serious law student who finds himself in a zemi (a small, professor-led seminar) filled entirely with lazy rich kids who have come up through the university’s affiliated schools. It is there he meets Taka-aki Tohdou, the playboy son of a politician who kisses Tamiya at their zemi‘s drunken welcome party.
Later, when Tohdou makes a serious attempt to pursue him, Tamiya protests adamantly that he’s not gay, while secretly suppressing the truth he’s known for years. As Tamiya slowly comes to terms with his sexuality, his classmates struggle with school, scandal, and the often ugly workings of the social hierarchy set up for them by their elders.
Though advertised as a “campus love story,” Ichigenme is really so much more. It is, at once, a thoughtful take on a young man’s struggle with his sexuality, an idiosyncratic romance, a jaded commentary on sexual double-standards applied to female students in Japan, and a fairly scathing look at the Japanese affiliate school system.
One of the most gratifying elements of Yoshinaga’s yaoi works is the fact that she is not afraid to write about characters who identify as gay. With Ichigenme…, she takes that one step further by actually exploring what that means for her protagonist, who, even after admitting that he could never have sex with a woman, is reluctant to accept the truth of it. Tamiya’s anxieties follow him even into the bedroom, where, though he learns to discuss what he’s doing with surprising frankness, he is unable to be open about his feelings.
With Tamiya, Yoshinaga turns two yaoi tropes on their heads–the shy, reluctant uke and the genre’s resistance to the word “gay”– transforming them from myopic clichés into realistic neuroses that actually add dimension to the character. As a result, Tamiya and Tohdou’s relationship is wonderfully awkward and slow to develop, with its sexual and romantic progression never quite in the same place.
This is particularly significant to the series’ second volume, which might otherwise be just a series of increasingly explicit sex scenes. Thankfully, the complexity of both these men and their relationship drives the story all the way through to the end. Though a second couple is introduced halfway through the second volume, presumably to add fresh romantic momentum, this diversion is hardly necessary.
As always, Yoshinaga’s gift for dialogue creates a uniquely intimate feel, bringing life and complexity even to the story’s minor characters, especially Miho Terada, a smart, studious female classmate whose place at the university is called into question after her boyfriend sends a nude photo of her to a magazine. Despite the fact that this is essentially a romance manga, one of its most affecting scenes takes place between Terada and Tamiya, in which he reveals his naiveté regarding her circumstances.
“You’re the victim here, Terada-san … it’s the guy who’s in the wrong,” Tamiya protests, to which she responds, “You’re the only one who would say that, Tamiya-chan. My father said that it was more shameful than being raped. And hearing that felt worse than being raped.”
Though Ichigenme… was released under DMP’s more explicit 801 Media imprint (and rightfully so), its sex scenes are so artful and so essential to the characters’ emotional journey, I’d consider it suitable for any adult reader, male or female, fan or non-fan.
If any of this sounds like over-praise, I promise you it’s not. Ichigenme… is a true favorite, and I recommend it with pleasure.
-Review by MJ
Kobayashi has a massive crush on his history teacher, Mr. Ida, but just as he’s about to confess, he discovers that Mr. Ida is embroiled in a stormy love affair of his own. As Ida pursues a future with his long-time lover, Hashizume, Kobayashi is left to find new love on his own.
When Kobayashi’s good friend and English studies savior, Rikuko, is injured in a traffic accident, she convinces her older brother, Toyo, to replace her as Kobayashi’s English tutor.
Toyo is arrogant and demanding, but working with Kobayashi seems to soften him, and in no time at all, Kobayashi has transferred his crush on Mr. Ida to his new English tutor. But can Toyo return his feelings? And what about Rikuko, who harbors the same feelings for Kobayashi?
Though this was her debut manga, Yoshinaga was already playing around with standard yaoi fantasies (in this case, the teacher/student relationship), working them ’round until they become genuinely true-to-life. As a result, Kobayashi’s crush on his teacher, Mr. Ida, reads as a poignant tale of unrequited first love rather than romantic fantasy.
This relationship rings true throughout the series, especially in a scene late in the first volume, when Kobayashi seeks out his teacher, the only gay adult he knows, to ask for information on gay sex. Ida’s discomfort with the question leaves Kobayashi pretty much to fend for himself, but it’s the reaction from Ida’s lover that makes the whole thing worthwhile.
“You’re clearly the one in the wrong here,” Hashizume says. “Homosexuals are a social minority. There aren’t many with whom we can discuss our problems, either … If he can’t ask you, who else can he ask?”
Another area where Yoshinaga really shines here is in her treatment of Kobayashi’s friend, Rikuko. One of several general complaints that can be made about yaoi as a whole is a lack of female characters in a genre written largely by women, for women. Though it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect female characters in the lead in a genre specifically portraying romance between males, it’s rather depressing to note just how often women and girls are dismissed entirely as people of worth in yaoi manga, occasionally to the point of outright misogyny. Fortunately, Yoshinaga frequently writes women into her yaoi, and she writes them well.
Not only is Rikuko a rich, nuanced character with real hopes and dreams (including a promising future as a doctor, as shown in volume two), but her confession to (and rejection by) Kobayashi is written with a level of subtlety and understanding that speaks honestly to generations of high school girls (past and present) who have had the misfortune to fall in love with their gay best friends.
Images © Fumi Yoshinaga. English translation © Digital Manga Publishing.
The series’ second volume, a series of vignettes designed primarily to accommodate sex scenes, lacks the cohesion and depth of the first. Yet even these scenes are emotionally driven and rooted firmly in the rich character development established during the first volume. Though the first volume can be enjoyed entirely on its own, readers who seek out the second volume will find some real gems scattered within, such as a scene late in the volume regarding Toyo’s plans to come out to his parents.
Simply put, The Moon and the Sandals is utterly charming, recommended for any fan of smart, romantic manga.
– Review by MJ
The important thing to remember about Solfege is that it’s not actually a love story. Instead, it’s the portrait of an unsympathetic music teacher named Kugayama who is a wretched human being but is still capable of bringing something positive into the world by fostering a life-long love of music in his students.
The story begins with Kugayama imparting the basics of music unto Tanaka, a youth who looks like a delinquent but loves singing and dreams of attending a music high school. Kugayama doesn’t have very high hopes for Tanaka’s chances, but is surprised when his student ends up exceeding his expectations. When Tanaka’s mother collapses and ends up spending over a year in the hospital, Kugayama allows the boy to stay with him and pays for Tanaka to study voice with another teacher named Gotoh.
Once Tanaka’s mother recovers, he moves back home, but she promptly begins bringing men home and he turns up at Kugayama’s house again just when his former teacher is drunk and feeling horny. Kugayama proceeds to use his position as the most-admired person in Tanaka’s life to seduce his impressionable young student, and this is where I really started to hate the guy. I wished for Yoshinaga to accurately portray how traumatized a physically mature but emotionally vulnerable kid like Tanaka would be by this experience. Instead, he’s completely okay with the arrangement and the two continue to sleep together. I was disappointed.
I should’ve had faith in Yoshinaga, though, because once Gotoh finds out what’s going on, he takes immediate steps to remove Tanaka from Kugayama’s clutches. While Tanaka heads abroad to study music in Italy—and eventually becomes a success—Kugayama starts up a relationship with a Tanaka lookalike named Jun and, again, gets what’s coming to him for being such a screwed-up jerk. Scandal ensues, and it’s up to a grown-up Tanaka to meet with Kugayama again—as equals this time—and remind him of what it is that he does best.
I did not find Solfege to be in the least little bit romantic—and I’m honestly not sure how anyone could—but I did find it a complex and fascinating character study as well as a refreshing alternative to student-teacher romances that carry no repercussions for persons in a position of authority.
– Review by Michelle Smith