One of the things about “failure” when it comes to something like fiction is, that to a pretty significant extent, whether or not something fails is influenced by the taste of the individual. Sure, there are particular standards we set up–ways we believe we can measure skill and craft–but so much of what makes a story work (or not) really comes down to taste, no more, no less.
As a critic, it’s part of my job to evaluate things against the standards set by history, the industry, and my peers, and as a blogger, it’s my job to give readers a reason to care about my conclusions. With so many manga blogs out there, what do I have to offer that’s unique? My background, perhaps, my personality… and a slew of similar items that mainly come around to “taste.” And in a genre like boys’ love, my taste is pretty specific.
Why the long introduction? Before I begin to discuss what makes a BL manga fail for me, I want to be clear that “failure” here means “failure to satisfy my tastes.” I’m specifying this, because I’m going to be making a lot of sweeping points about failures in BL manga, and since this genre lives and breathes on its readers’ private fantasies, I want to be very clear that I’m judging these manga against my own, not passing judgement on anyone else’s.
Part of the impetus behind writing a BL edition of Failure Friday was a visit to my old post My thoughts on yaoi (no, really), written quite a long time ago, when I’d read very little BL manga and had limited vocabulary for discussing what I found problematic. I’ve read quite a bit between then and now, and my tastes have refined themselves accordingly. I’ve also found books that defied my taste, by making me love them regardless of some of their content. So, now that I’ve disclaimed, here we go!
Four common BL failures (and some manga that overcome them):
1. Non-con: Rape fantasy is probably my most common deal-breaker when it comes to BL manga, most likely because it is so common in the genre. Even as a casual BL fan, it’s pretty much impossible to escape. And though it’s obviously a popular fantasy among readers, it’s definitely not mine. While rape as a plot element is something I don’t eschew (witness my love for Akimi Yoshida’s Banana Fish), as a precursor to romance, I find it personally abhorrent and far from romantic.
Successes: Some BL manga (and manhwa) I’ve found worthwhile despite the presence of non-con include U Don’t Know Me (Rakun/NETCOMICS), Gerard & Jacques (Fumi Yoshinaga/BLU), Ludwig II (You Higuri/Juné), and the second volume of The Tyrant Falls in Love (Hinako Takanaga/Juné).
2. Split focus: As evident by the range of works we’ve seen imported to the west, sexual content in BL manga runs the gamut from sweet, chaste romance to outright pornography. Now, any reader of romance knows that a believable relationship takes time to develop, and with so many BL anthologies and one-shots out there, it’s no surprise that many of them are unable to achieve that goal. There’s nothing wrong with plain ol’ porn, after all, and it certainly has its place in any grown-up demographic. Where BL writers frequently fail, however, is with story-killing indecision. One of the complaints I find myself frequently making when I review short BL is that, within a limited number of pages, and without a clear commitment to either story or porn, many manga simply fail at both. Mangaka, please choose! Tell a great story or give us some great porn, but please don’t do either half-heartedly.
Successes: A notable exception to this rule is Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ichigenme… The First Class is Civil Law (801 Media), which in just two short volumes manages to excel at both.
3. Identity white-out: While it’s understood that BL manga has nothing at all to do with queer identity, more and more BL appearing in English is managing to at least address the concept, while keeping its fantasy space intact. Books like Future Lovers (Saika Kunieda/Deux Press) and No Touching At All have proven that you can make your gay characters actually gay without causing a riot amongst female readers. And even among the usual identity-free BL, there’s still a difference between glossing over the characters’ sexuality and actively stamping it out. Even worse, are stories that cross into real homophobia, emphasizing the “shamefulness” of the characters’ sex lives, or trivializing them altogether by making all characters gay at random, like a lusty caricature of an English boys’ school.
Successes: Among series that deftly avoid queer identity, there are some that still manage to project a sense of positivity on the subject, like Eiki Eiki & Taishi Zaou’s Color (DokiDoki) and any book by est em (Deux Press, NETCOMICS).
4. Crack overload: I love cracktastic storytelling as much as anyone (and probably more than most), but when it comes to romance, I nearly always prefer believability over hilarity, if I have to make a choice. Even in a single chapter or one-shot, if the sex isn’t moving the story forward or, at the very least, really hot, it’s difficult for me to be interested. And anything that bothers to take up an entire volume without giving me something real, is pretty much a complete failure. Outrageous antics? Sexual humor? Pretty boys romping around? All of that is pretty much lost on me as a reader, and when I encounter a manga of that kind I mainly wish I could get my twenty minutes back.
Successes: This is probably the toughest kind of story to sell me on, as I’ve discovered very few of its ilk that have managed to woo me. Notable exceptions include Blood Honey (Sakyou Yozukura/BLU) and Deeply Loving a Maniac (You Higashino/801 Media).
It’s been quite a pleasure over the past few years to discover how many BL manga don’t fail for me as a reader, quite a few of which I’ve taken the opportunity to mention above. Whether there’s more BL being released today that suits my tastes, or whether I’ve simply discovered how to find it, I can’t quite say.
So, readers, what makes a BL story fail or succeed for you?
Last month on Failure Friday, I discussed a deeply flawed manga that I love despite its flaws. This month, I’m going to go in the other direction. Though it would be incorrect to state that I “hate” this manga, I find one of its flaws is so distasteful, it ultimately fails to work for me as a reader.
Ugly Duckling’s Love Revolution is the story of Hitomi, an overweight student surrounded by impossibly pretty boys at her elite high school. Even more impossibly, all of the school’s prettiest boys live in the apartment building where Hitomi resides with her brother. Furthermore, they all seem to have an attachment to Hitomi in one way or another, bringing us to the real point of the story: Will Hitomi become romantically involved with one of them, and will she have to lose the weight to do so?
In case you haven’t guessed by now, this manga is based on a dating sim. And though this accounts for the simplicity of its plot, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. I genuinely enjoy romance, even sometimes of the harem variety, so the overall lack of thematic complexity is not in itself a deal-breaker. Even the brother character’s blatant sister complex is not enough to drive me away.
What makes this manga’s simple-minded approach less palatable, is its portrayal of Hitomi, particularly in terms of her relationship to food and to her own body. As any obese person can tell you, there is absolutely nothing simple about a young fat person’s daily life, and as a result, the manga’s approach seriously marginalizes its heroine and any readers who might genuinely identify with her.
Let’s begin just with the artwork. Here are a few things I wrote in my (not uncomplimentary) discussion of volume one:
While the series’ other characters get relatively detailed facial features–shaded eyelids, carefully lined, large eyes, real contour to the nose and cheeks–Hitomi gets two dots for eyes, a comic-strip nose, a Simpsons-quality mouth, and a couple of giant circles on her cheeks. She’s like a permanent chibi. Furthermore, the story’s other overweight character (a boy who supplies her with cookies, natch) is drawn in the same caricatured way. Newsflash, people: Fat girls have faces too.
Even just with the character design, the artist has already made it clear that fat kids aren’t real people. They may be kind and helpful, and others may even like them, but they can’t actually be fully-realized human beings until they’ve adequately slimmed down. Hitomi’s not working so hard so that she can finally get some romantic attention from the hot neighbor boys, no, she’s fighting to earn irises and normal NOSE. And while a more thoughtful artist might indeed use something like this as a metaphor for Hitomi’s actual feelings about herself, a concept like that is clearly well out of Fujinari’s depth.
Now, I mentioned that my discussion of volume one was not uncomplimentary, and that’s true. Even with this major caveat, I thought the series had some good points. As I made my way through volume two, however, my patience began to wane. Here Hitomi endures nasty comments, some pretty grueling exercise (thin people, try climbing a mountain with a 100-200 lb weight wrapped around your torso, and you might have some idea of what it’s like for Hitomi), and some physical symptoms of dieting she didn’t quite expect. And while these are certainly realistic things, there’s absolutely no sense of Hitomi’s real feelings about them.
She gets momentarily angry at the mean, thin girl who treats her like dirt, she feels tired from the exercise, and she worries about her split ends. This is seriously the extent of her emotional range on these issues, which makes one wonder how she even became overweight to begin with. Fat people eat for a reason, and any one of these might do, but nothing seems to have much of an effect on our easy-going heroine, whose only real stumbling block seems to be an occasional, vague longing for her beloved cookies, which is easily dismissed by her newfound sense of duty.
I have to wonder, is there anyone involved with this manga (or the game it was based on) who has struggled with overweight? It seems impossible that there could be. Even taking into account the game’s backstory, yet to be revealed in the manga but uncovered by Brigid Alverson in her review of the series, the entire thing reads like a thin person’s perspective on obesity. The series exists in that stereotypical mindset where physical fitness is as simple as a balanced diet and exercise, and fat people are lazy gluttons who simply lack willpower (and possibly basic intelligence). It’s simplistic, insulting, and just blatantly not true, which begs the question, who is this manga actually for? Surely not fat girls, or at least not real ones.
All this said, it would be reasonable for one to ask why I’ve bothered reading this manga at all. What did I expect from a series based on a dating sim? Why don’t I just walk away?
The truth is, it’s hard to walk away, when this highly flawed story is still the only manga I’ve personally encountered that features an overweight, female romantic lead. And isn’t that just sad?
So, readers… Ugly Duckling’s Love Revolution: failure or not?
When, just a few weeks ago, I brought to Twitter a need for a new feature for my then-empty Fridays, four great ideas were offered up, which I’ve begun rotating throughout the month. Two of these features have already debuted, Follow Friday and I Wish I Wrote That! The third came from the mind of David Welsh–a feature called “Failure Friday,” in which I could discuss bad manga. I rejected the idea at first, mainly on the premise that I love a lot of very flawed manga, at which point David pointed out that this might actually make the column more interesting.
He was right, of course, as David generally is, and when I sought out a failed manga for my very first Failure Friday, I found myself drawn to an early example of “very flawed manga” that I loved quite a lot. Not only does it have a Halloween-appropriate theme, but it was also a special challenge for me as a newbie critic. Though I’d certainly enjoyed manga of varying quality before I read this book, it was one of the first manga I was given to review formally, which put me in the position of having to analyze why I liked it despite its glaring failure. It also forced me to find words to express that, something I’ll take a second stab at today.
The manga is Heaven’s Will by Satoru Takamiya, published in English by Viz Media, a single-volume shojo manga about a girl, Mikuzu, who can see spirits (or oni). Mikuzu’s terrified of men, so it’s fortunate that when she meets our young hero, Seto, he’s all dressed up as a pretty, pretty girl. Besides cross-dressing, Seto eats cake, exorcises spirits, and hangs out with his quiet (but devoted) companion, Kagari, a vampire who can change into a wolf.
If you think this is beginning to sound cracktastic, we’ve barely even begun.
As it turns out, Seto cross-dresses in honor of his younger sister, whose death he feels responsible for–so much so, in fact, that he plans to get a sex change when he’s made enough money, after which he’ll transfer his sister’s spirit into his body, effectively killing himself in order to bring her back to life. Horrified by this revelation, Mikuzu is determined to convince Seto not to end his life, a conviction made even stronger by her own encounter with Seto’s sister (her spirit’s stuck in a fan Seto carries with him everywhere), who begs Mikuzu to save him.
So, here’s the thing. None of the above has anything to do with the failure of this manga. As over-the-top as this story’s premise and characters are, these are the things that Takamiya does well. She’s created an outrageous fantasy, sure, but within that fantasy, there’s believability in her characters and in their relationships with each other. Has anyone ever heard of a vampire who changes into a wolf? I certainly have not. But it doesn’t matter in the slightest, because that detail is so far from the point. Kagari is believable because his feelings and actions are believable, and this applies to everyone in the story.
There’s enough emotional complexity here to fuel a ten-volume series. Unfortunately, that’s where things break down. The concept is ambitious, but its execution falters the moment the story takes a turn that might allow it to effectively play out. Seto coerces Mikuzu into joining his exorcism business, which naturally would lead to a series of supernatural cases, each standing alone as its own story while moving the overarching plot along. It’s an overused construct, but proven to work. Still, Takamiya stumbles almost immediately, with a weak investigation into a haunted piano that offers little-to-no stakes for anyone involved and so easily solved, it’s difficult to imagine that there was any purpose to begin with. And at this point, the manga is abruptly ended.
As a critic, it’s impossible to ignore the artist’s obvious failure. Yet as a reader, I can’t help falling in love. I’ve said before that I tend to give points for ambition, and while that’s definitely the case here, it’s not the only thing drawing me back to this series. It’s Takamiya’s characters who have worked their way into my heart, and even now, I wish I might continue to follow them down their strange, poignant path.
My original review has been reprinted here, and re-reading both that and the book itself, I’m surprised to find that I actually look more kindly upon it now than I did then. Whether this is due to evolving tastes in shojo fantasy or simply an increased sentimentality as I’ve entered my forties is anyone’s guess. What both write-ups reveal to me, however, is a very clear sense of what I value as a reader. While, as a critic, I’m obliged to note things like outrageous melodrama and clumsy plotting, my personal satisfaction is derived from the story’s characterization and emotional content. And if those things are solid, I can forgive nearly anything else.
So, Heaven’s Will: “failure” or not? What do you think, readers?