By now I’m sure that every regular Manga Bookshelf reader is aware that I’ve fallen for Loveless, Yun Kouga’s supernatural fantasy series currently running in Ichijinsha’s Comic Zero Sum—a magazine known for action-heavy and often BL-tinged titles for female readers, like 07-Ghost, Saiyuki Reload, and the upcoming reboot of Wild Adapter. It’s notable that both Naked Ape’s Switch and Yun Kouga’s Gestalt moved to Comic Zero Sum after their original runs in Square Enix’s GFantasy, a shounen magazine known for its generous female-aimed fanservice.
Given my well-established fondness for both girl-friendly action series and Yun Kouga, it’s no surprise that I fell for Loveless (if a bit late). Even so, as I make my way through Viz’s new omnibus editions, I can’t help but be startled by the intensity of my own feelings. I threw myself into the latest omnibus just as soon as I’d acquired it—reading not at my usual breakneck speed, but at a deliberate, luxurious pace intended to truly savor each page. I even stopped from time-to-time to scan in pages that felt particularly meaningful, as if to assemble some sort of visual database of my own emotional responses.
The truth is, Yun Kouga’s work (and Loveless in particular) hits so many of my personal storytelling kinks in so many instances, it would be prohibitively time-consuming to catalogue them all. But perhaps more significantly, she manages to address several of my usual turn-offs (and at least one known deal-breaker) in a way that makes them somehow palatable, even to me. As a result, my reaction to Loveless has begun to resemble nothing more than a kind of romantic longing, characterized by ever-wandering thoughts and a persistent love-struck haze. in short, I’m lovesick over Loveless.
Of course, when you’re lovesick over something, the most satisfying thing in the world is to talk, talk, talk about it—generally up to (or even well past) the point at which all your friends wish to throttle you. Fortunately, it’s my job in this column to obsess over what I like, so let’s dig right in!
Yun Kouga’s greatest strength as a storyteller, in my opinion, is her ability to delve deep into her characters’ weakest, messiest personality traits and present them honestly and without apology. As I discussed at length in episode six of My Week in Manga, it’s clear that she not only loves her characters despite their flaws, but often because of them, and since I also tend to find people’s flaws to be as beautiful or even more beautiful than their strengths (both in fiction and in real life), this is an approach that works especially well for me.
Two characters who fit into this discussion particularly well are the series’ main leads—Ritsuka, a 12-year old boy who is thrust into a strange, supernatural underworld after the death of his older brother, Seimei, and art college student Soubi, whom Seimei bequeathed to Ritsuka at the time of his death. In this underground world, Soubi is a “fighter” in a two-person team that fights with the power of words, while Ritsuka (like his older brother before him) is a “sacrifice.” The sacrifice takes all the damage for the team, but this is not a passive role by any means, as the sacrifice directs the entire fight by giving orders to the fighter. Though each fighting team we’ve seen in the series so far handles that relationship a bit differently, it’s generally understood that the sacrifice is in charge.
Ritsuka and Soubi have a particularly complicated relationship, partly because Soubi was Seimei’s fighter first and is still bound to his orders from the past (the full nature of these we do not yet know) and partly because, though Soubi is trained to accept (and actually require) total domination by his sacrifice, Ritsuka is opposed to violence in general, leaving Soubi with a fairly serious conflict to contend with when confronted by dangerous enemies, especially early on. There is also the matter of their age difference, but let’s leave that discussion for a bit later.
Previously in this column, I’ve discussed two particular storytelling/characterization kinks of mine, one of which I referred to as “intimacy porn” (which is of course about emotional intimacy, and not porn at all), and the other as “the human touch”, referring to non-sexual or casual touches that reveal the intimacy in people’s relationships. Yun Kouga manages to ping both of these simultaneously in this scene between Ritsuka and Soubi, in which Soubi confronts Ritsuka regarding the fact of Seimei’s death, which has been challenged by Seimsei’s former colleagues—a group called “Septimal Moon.” Note Soubi’s body language—the way he desperately grasps Ritsuka’s arms—and the way Ritsuka lets him despite his verbal protests, betraying their closeness and their reliance on one another even under stress.
Ritsuka’s inner monologue here is a great example of another of Kouga-sensei’s strong points—her willingness to reveal her characters’ weaknesses and doubts in nearly any situation. It’s not only these things that she focuses on, though. I’m also a big fan of her characters’ discussions regarding the nature of love (or “like” in some instances). Case in point: this scene between fighter Mei and sacrifice Mimuro.
Their relationship is complicated in its own way, as Mei clearly has a crush on much older Mimuro, and even tries to appear more boyish because she believes that he is gay. Also, I am surprised to note that this is now the second manga series I’ve read involving a defensive attack with rubber duckies. Who knew?
Do I need to point out how adorable that is? I hope not. But it’s not even the most significant aspect of this scene for me. I’m struck more strongly by Soubi’s attack and the rare glimpse of his neck, revealing Seimei’s brand carved into it. Have I mentioned that Seimei’s “true name” was “Beloved” while Ritsuka’s is “Loveless”? I think little more needs to be said about how much it sucks to be Ritsuka, though I will actually say more, since it relates to one of the major aspects of the story that normally would be a real obstacle for me.
One of the story’s plot points that has yet to be resolved (at least where I am in the series—please don’t spoil me!) is that Ritsuka has suffered memory loss so great that he essentially became a completely different person at the age of ten, with no memory of the boy he’d been before that. While there are many questions one could ask regarding how this happened (my money’s on Seimei, but we’ll get to that in a moment), the most dire consequence for Ritsuka is that his mother has been unable to get over what she perceives as the “loss” of her son. While she, on some level, knows that Ritsuka is still her child, she has suffered some kind of mental break that has left her convinced that he’s also a stranger. She often abuses Ritsuka when he betrays himself as not “her Ritsuka” and because of this, he’s always injured (something that’s really finally noticed and acted upon by an actual adult with authority in this volume).
Whether deliberately or not, physical abuse of all kinds is often romanticized in manga—especially BL manga and other genres for girls—and for that reason, I’m generally leery of it as a plot point. Yun Kouga, however, manages to portray this abuse and even give us a taste of the mother’s own internal conflict over it, without romanticizing Ritsuka’s suffering or sympathizing with his abuser.
We are witness to his mother’s turmoil and her declining mental condition, but we’re not asked to excuse her or to identify with her own suffering. Instead, the focus is on Ritsuka’s desperate refusal to blame her and his determination to maintain her love, through the eyes of Soubi, who finds it all pretty horrifying.
Of course, Soubi has his own issues, and Kouga doesn’t let him off the hook for them, even here, betraying his secret desire to see Ritsuka cry in the midst of it all.
So, about Seimei… it’s pretty impossible to talk about him without revealing the fact that, in this volume, we find out for sure that he is, indeed, still alive. This discovery has a number of consequences (particularly for Soubi, and surely for Ritsuka, though he hasn’t yet been told). Meanwhile, we’re finding out a lot about the kind of person he really is, and especially how different he appears to be, contrasted with Ritsuka’s memories of him. I can’t help but wonder if Ritsuka’s memory loss has something to do with concealing Seimei’s true personality, but in any case, Ritsuka’s impressions of Seimei as a devoted, affectionate older brother don’t jive at all with anyone else’s—nor with ours as we see him in this volume do things like sending enemies after Ritsuka and trying to convince Ritsuka’s mother to kill him.
Here’s a bit of insight on Seimei from Seimei himself:
Again, Yun Kouga gets right to the heart of the matter, revealing the truth of both his weakness and his ruthlessness in one short bit of dialogue.
Despite the cruelty displayed by his efforts to get his own mother to try to murder his brother and his other behavior in general (aside from his apparent brotherly relationship with Ritsuka back before he staged his death), the most obvious victim of his machinations so far is Soubi, who is devastated to learn that, not only has Seimei been living on without him, but that he’s even gotten himself a new fighter, which really cuts Soubi to the core. Before the scene in which Soubi found out that Seimei was still alive, it seemed like he might have known something about that himself, and that he was lying to Ritsuka about it. But Soubi’s raw reaction to this discovery makes clear that it was a surprise to him, too, and there is really nothing that could have hurt him more.
Though I suspect that there are still many truths—both about Soubi’s relationship with Seimei and Soubi’s past in general that have yet to be revealed (at least in the volumes I’ve read), at this moment, it’s impossible not to feel for Soubi, whose apparently fragile ego is absolutely shattered in this volume.
This new truth affects Soubi so strongly that he goes to beg Ritsuka (who has been bound up and kept prisoner in his home by his increasingly unstable mother) to run away with him. It’s a pathetic and touching scene. What strikes me most strongly about it is the weight of Ritsuka’s realization that usually-flippant Soubi is actually being serious and how hard he struggles to formulate an appropriate response.
And here we arrive at the ‘shippy fanservice that would normally be a deal-breaker for me. Minors in romantic/sexual relationships with adults is a pretty common trope in manga, and particularly in BL manga (which this is not, though I was surprised recently to find it shelved as such when I bought it at Boston’s awesome, manga-friendly comic shop, Comicopia) from which Kouga borrows many of the series’ tropes. Previously, there have been maybe two or three examples of manga that haven’t seriously skeeved me out with this kind of content (notably Alice/Rin in Please Save My Earth and Amu/Ikuto in Shugo Chara!—though in both cases the older characters are high school students and the relationships are very chaste), and I was pretty concerned going into Loveless, given what I’d heard. And though Ritsuka’s relationship with Soubi is currently relatively chaste as well (the most we’ve seen is some kissing), it’s made very, very clear that Soubi’s idea of being “dominated” by his sacrifice/master extends to physical domination as well.
What’s astonishing to me is the way Kouga is able to make this palatable by giving all the power in the relationship to the minor, Ritsuka. Thanks to the universe Kouga has set up here and the way she’s written the fighting teams—Soubi’s character in particular—the adult (Soubi) is actually incapable of taking any action towards Ritsuka that Ritsuka does not explicitly command, which puts all the power in Ritsuka’s hands. Soubi simply can’t make him do anything he doesn’t want to. I was surprised how dramatically this affected my view of their relationship, but then I thought about the reasons why I would consider that kind of relationship to be objectionable in the first place, and it has entirely to do with the sense that an adult in that situation is abusing his/her power over the minor, which is obviously reprehensible.
Kouga has managed to remove that issue from the picture, leaving us with something that is still unsettling but oddly relatable. Soubi’s anguish over Ritsuka’s denying him the total domination he seeks is strangely sympathetic, and not so far removed from unrequited feelings of all kinds—something we’ve all experienced at some point or another. (It seems significant that the only requited love in this series so far has been between the two Zero girls, Kouya and Yamato, who defy their leader and choose to “die” as Zeroes and be reborn in order to stay together, but I am not sure yet exactly how.)
Still, she doesn’t let us off the hook. We find ourselves sympathizing with and caring deeply for both Ritsuka and Soubi, and even rooting for them somehow, on some level, but it’s decidedly… uncomfortable. And Kouga just leaves us like that.
Incidentally, I think it’s notable, too, that Seimei apparently still has his cat ears and tail (which characters in this universe lose along with their virginity), suggesting that he never offered Soubi total domination when he was Soubi’s master, either. So that’s an interesting character note.
Going back to Soubi’s “Beloved” brand for a moment, another thing that struck me particularly in this volume was how completely the fighters submit to their sacrifices’ identities. The way Soubi announces their team when entering a fight, “We are Loveless,” hit me hard in this volume, but not exactly in a bad way. While I admit to being horrified by Beloved’s name etched into Soubi’s neck, there’s also some part of me that is fascinated by and drawn to the idea of a two-person unit so completely bonded that they become a single identity. I’ll admit, also, to being pretty uncomfortable with my own fascination, and again, Kouga just leaves me like that. There are no warm fuzzies to soften the blow.
Later, when Ritsuka wants to ask Soubi to take him to Septimal Moon, Soubi tells him, “Then don’t ask. Order me. Don’t treat me like a human being. I want to be treated like an object.” Ritsuka gives him the order, but I can’t help worrying about where this ultimately goes. So far, Ritsuka has resisted treating Soubi the way he wants to be treated, but he’s a kid with a strong will. How long before that power goes to his head? How long before he becomes like Seimei? Whatever the answers to these questions turn out to be, I bet they’ll be messy—and that’s the way I like ’em.
More than anything, though, I’m just blown away by how compelling Kouga-sensei’s characters are, and how completely they’ve engaged me. I read this volume nearly a week ago, and I’m still thinking about them now. Kouga’s characters lie to each other (and sometimes, themselves), they tell the truth, or often something in between. But whatever they do, they do it with a core of emotional truth that is simply stunning to behold. That’s Yun Kouga—and that’s Loveless.
All images © 2005-2006 Yun Kouga · Original Japanese edition published by ICHIJINSHA, INC., Tokyo. · English translation rights arranged with ICHIJINSHA, INC.