MICHELLE: In celebration of the Manga Moveable Feast, we’re devoting this month’s BL Bookrack column to a discussion of Kazuya Minekura’s Wild Adapter. Joining MJand me is our fellow Manga Bookshelf blogger and Wild Adapter enthusiast, David Welsh.
There was a time when I’d visit bookstores several times a week to assess their new manga acquisitions, and I vividly remember spotting early volumes of Wild Adapter lurking on the bottom shelf. It wasn’t until 2009, though, that I was sufficiently swayed by public opinion and actually read them. I’d been borrowing a set from one of MJ’s friends but knew very quickly that this series was something I would have to own for myself. Its vast reread potential was already evident.
What was your first experience with Wild Adapter?
DAVID: I was an early Adapter adopter. I’ve always found Lillian Diaz-Przybyl to be a very reliable source of recommendations, even when she was editing a book and obviously had a heightened personal stake in a given title’s commercial success. She’s a straight shooter, and our tastes often overlap, so I tried the series right out of the gate. Obviously, I’ve had no reason to regret that.
MJ: I was still quite new to manga when my friend Deanna Gauthier reviewed the first volume of Wild Adapter here in this very blog. I had never even heard of the series, but she was a huge fan, and after she had read all six volumes, she put them in the mail and sent them to me.
She had wrapped them in plain brown paper for shipping, and when they arrived, bundled up neatly in a anonymous little brick, my husband jokingly asked if she had sent me a package of cocaine. Later that evening, as I emerged from our back room, having ravenously devoured the first volume and eager to begin the second, I told him that he’d actually been right after all, because Wild Adapter was like crack.
MICHELLE: And then you sent that same package to me and got me addicted. It’s a vicious cycle!
As mentioned in the introduction to the Wild Adapter MMF, the series is composed in such a way so that each volume is self-contained, with the first volume serving as prologue and the fifth later filling in the gaps between volumes one and two. As I stated in the post referenced above, the fifth is my favorite (and remained so on a reread), partially because I love Shouta so much. Do either of you have particular favorite arcs?
DAVID: For me, it’s a dead tie between the first and the fifth. I think the thing that they have in common is that they objectively should not work. The first is all about characters trying to convince the reader that the protagonist is fascinating, which is such a recipe for failure in so many cases, but Minekura’s work is so subtle and assured that I found myself nodding emphatically. The fifth runs the very great risk of lapsing into Cousin Oliver Syndrome, inviting readers to see the leads through fresh, adorable eyes. Of course, Shouta is as complex in his own way as Kubota and Tokito are, so another common land mine is sidestepped. Minekura is amazing.
MJ: I agree with both of you, and probably I have the same answer as David, but I also am fairly fascinated with volume four, which is partly seen through the eyes of a lonely salaryman who snaps after killing a prostitute in a drug-induced rage. That volume uses the Japanese concept of kotodama as its overarching theme, and uses it better than any of the more supernaturally-themed series I have mostly seen it crop up in.
There is a quote at the beginning of the volume that stuck with me for a long time. “In this country, we have something called ‘kodotama.’ The spirit of words,” the salaryman says. ” Whatever you say with intent becomes… real. When I was in elementary school, we had to write essays on what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote, ‘Section Chief.’ My teacher laughed. ‘What a small dream.’ Those words hit the air, and I breathed them in and just as the teacher said… I grew up to be a perfectly small man.” He later tries to harness kotodama himself by repeating over and over again how he’ll get away with his crime and how everything will be fine. It’s kind of heartbreaking to watch, even though he’s not an especially sympathetic character, and it completely shatters the pattern we’d usually see in a supernatural manga by suggesting that the power of kotodama really is just all in our heads. It’s startlingly true to life.
One of the things Minekura does so brilliantly in this series is that she doesn’t just use her side characters as windows into the protagonists’ lives, but also as windows into the lives of her readers and their world, for better or worse, and sometimes that can be just as revealing.
MICHELLE: And sometimes their interactions with Kubota and Tokito actually affect how they relate to the world at large. Going back to Shouta, there’s a scene where he casually mentions to Tokito (unnamed at this point) that his first name might be Minoru. It’s obvious that Shouta thought he was going to be springing a good surprise, and is completely stunned when his comment instead triggers a traumatic memory and sends Tokito into violent freakout mode. The experience stays with him, and later informs his decision not to ask his parents about the arguments he’s been overhearing. “But I don’t ask them anything about it. I can’t. The moment I touch that subject, everything will fall apart.”
One of the things I like about volume five so much is that here are a couple of guys who arguably would be a bad influence on an impressionable kid, but because of the context in which he knows them (Shouta never learns the details of what Kubota does for a living, for example) they end up being a good influence. When Kubota, surprised by Shouta’s insightful observation, “Saying you don’t want to hurt something because it’s precious isn’t fair. Because it’s not an object… it’s a living being with a heart,” tells him that he’ll be a great writer, it brings to mind the kotodama idea all over again. Maybe Shouta will believe it and come to embody it, just because Kubota expressed confidence in him.
DAVID: I think you’re getting at something that’s at the core of the appeal of the series: the protagonists don’t really fall anywhere on the hero/villain continuum. They’re fascinatingly amoral in that they’re extremely focused on their own interests. Pretty much everything else is kind of collateral. It’s incredibly interesting to see these two do what amounts to the right thing and know that the rightness of that action is only a small component of why they chose to do it.
MJ: Your discussion here reminds me of a scene in the fourth volume in which we’re given a glimpse into Kubota’s past and his acquaintance with a woman named Anna who turns to him for consolation after her abusive boyfriend has run off with all her cash. Anna laments the fact that she always falls for “guys like that” and wishes that she could have fallen in love with Kubota (just a young teen at the time) instead. Later, when Kubota has beaten Anna’s ex-boyfriend nearly to death with an iron pipe, he says to her, “See? Aren’t you glad it wasn’t me?”
As a reader, we’re on Kubota’s side. He’s protected his friend from an abusive guy and (from our perspective) avenged her for wrongs done up to that time. But from another perspective, he’s just terrifying, calmly beating a man to a pulp with no real concern for what’s “right” at all, outside of the way things affect him and those he cares about in some way or another. And he’s far more brutal when protecting Tokito, whom he cares about much, much more.
MICHELLE: When Kubota kills in volume one, his mentality can be summed up by the line “It was him or me, and I always choose me.” After he meets Tokito, the jobs he takes may be dirty, but they’re not deadly. This side of him reemerges in volume six when his old boss, Sanada, orders Kubota’s replacement, Osamu, to kidnap Tokito and grill him for information related to Wild Adapter. Kubota’s revenge is swift, sure, and incredibly, incredibly lethal. Osamu realizes that he’s to blame for “baiting the monster,” which ultimately leads to an absolutely haunting page when Tokito and Kubota together take aim at Osamu and fire. They’ll leave you be if you return the favor, but provoke them and they will do anything to protect what they care about.
DAVID: And I think the key phrase there is do. I’m a big fan of talky manga where characters really articulate and examine their feelings, like in so many of Fumi Yoshinaga’s works. But the way that Minekura has these characters express the depth of their feelings for each other in actions is so effective and fascinating. It’s a brilliant execution of the “Show, don’t tell” mentality of storytelling. There’s terrific, astute, consise dialogue in Wild Adapter, but Minekura’s techniques in sharing the emotional truth of her leads is just amazing. It’s an appropriation and subversion of stereotypical masculinity, the whole “You touched my stuff” thing, and it’s been given so much urgency and truth.
MJ: That’s exactly it, isn’t it? That’s how Minekura so successfully creates such intimacy between her characters without ever having to pull them out of character by forcing them to reveal themselves with words they’d never say. In your post about volume three, David, you described the series as containing, ” improbably sexy characters posing through mostly outlandish scenarios, all of which manage to be unexpectedly involving beyond their considerable surface sheen.” And this is really how she manages that. Whatever else is going on–all the crazy plotting and stylized sensuality–it’s always grounded in emotional truth, which allows us to enjoy the cracktastic plot for all the fun that it is without sacrificing any of the stuff we’re really reading for. It’s satisfying on multiple levels.
MICHELLE: And it’s that very intimacy that helps the series to function as boys’ love without containing any scenes of overt sexuality. The art helps, too, of course. My favorite sexy pose is at the very beginning of volume six, where we first see Kubota lying shirtless in bed with Tokito’s discarded glove next to him, and then on another page see a shirtless Tokito holding Kubota’s glasses in his beasty hand. The glasses are such a part of Kubota, that for Tokito to be holding them in so familiar a manner is positively suggestive.
DAVID: Not to derail anything, as everything we’ve just been talking about is entirely true, but I feel like we’re neglecting the fact that the series is frequently, intentionally hilarious. There’s character-driven humor and some extremely clever scene construction.
MJ: I was thinking about that during our introduction, and trying to find good examples to scan in, but I realized that so much of it is hilarious over the course of a really well-crafted scene, it was often difficult to capture in a single page or two. Minekura’s humor is so much more clever than just a series of gags or punchlines.
MICHELLE: She does play with readers’ BL expectations a few times, though, by having Tokito make suggestive sounds while Kubota is beating him in a video game, or having them both play out a seduction scene for the benefit of the guys in a surveillance van outside. One of my favorite amusing things isn’t actually laugh-out-loud funny at all but just really neat, and that’s seeing the characters depicted in the style of the shounen manga Shouta is drawing. I especially loved Kou’s scientist persona.
MJ: Michelle, I’d say that Kou in general is some of what I find most funny in the manga. I absolutely adore his coded conversations with Kubota.
DAVID: Kou is a treat, no doubt. And that surveillance scene is still possibly the funniest scene I’ve ever read in a manga, just slightly ahead of the school festival in Flower of Life and the synchronized swimming in Sgt. Frog. It’s funny because that dialogue is note-perfect BL, right down to the faux-reluctance.
Minekura is an amazing mimic, and not just with BL tropes. Her seinen credentials also seem particularly strong, and I don’t think Wild Adapter would be out of place in something like Big Comic or Ultra Jump, especially with contemporary catering to a fujoshi audience. Frankly, her capacity to render credible, dramatic violence is right up there with the stars of the noir seinen category.
MJ: I absolutely agree, David, and I’ve wondered if there are regular MMF participants who have decided not to try Wild Adapter because they generally don’t like BL. I’m hoping that’s not the case, but I expect it might be. If so, that’s a shame. Not that there’s any guarantee they would like Wild Adapter, of course, but it’s definitely not exclusive to that audience in terms of appeal.
DAVID: I can honestly think of few series with BL elements that would cast as wide a net as Wild Adapter could.
MICHELLE: There’s definitely a lot about Wild Adapter that isn’t typical of the BL genre, and I totally agree that it would not be out of place at all in a seinen magazine. Fujoshi would see what they want to see, but for everyone else, the relationship between Kubota and Tokito could be read as a kind of intense bromance, like the one between Ban and Ginji in the thoroughly seinen GetBackers. In reality, though, the series run in a BL magazine (Chara). I’m wondering what about the series (if anything) does seem like typical BL to you.
DAVID: For me, the thing that’s most BL-ish is the lack of examination of sexual orientation or identity. It’s merely an intense and surprising relationship that happens to be between two men. There are asides where supporting characters wonder whether Kubota is gay or not, or prefers guys to girls, if that’s their reference point, but that’s just one component of the character’s mystique that people around him find puzzling. But Kubota and Tokito are both so enigmatic that a definition of their specific sexual orientation doesn’t really matter, though. For me, it’s one of those rare cases when that kind of real-world consideration wouldn’t make the BL elements any sharper or more interesting or persuasive. Minekura delivers their relationship without delving into specifics.
MJ: I agree with David about this being the most prominent BL element in the series, and I’ll also add that I actually quite appreciate the fact that other characters speculate about their sexual orientation, because it softens this issue for me a bit. Generally I dislike this aspect of BL, but at least Minekura acknowledges that same-sex orientation exists in the world and that people are thinking about these characters in those terms. Actually, along these lines, there’s a scene in one of the uncollected chapters of the series in which Tokito asks Kubota what kind of relationship they have, because somebody has asked him. Kubota’s reply is basically to say that it’s fine to just tell people something casual and vague, at which point he abruptly changes the subject. It’s a pretty interesting little moment, and it does make one wonder if Minekura might have planned to revisit the question later on in the series.
Other than that, I think the next most BL-like aspect would be the vilification of the series’ actual gay characters, Sanada (the yakuza boss who comes on to Kubota in volume one) and Sekiya, the youth leader from a rival group who is overtly feminized (in the Japanese version, he refers to himself with the feminine “atashi”) and frequently insulted by other characters using anti-gay slurs. The fact that both these characters are villains in the story actually reminds me a lot of Banana Fish, in which all the gay characters are rapists or pedophiles. Not that Banana Fish is BL (we’ve discussed that at length in this blog already), but you get my point. I’m not saying that Minekura intends to vilify gays. I don’t think she does. But homophobia is pretty common in BL, in my experience, so it does spring to mind.
MICHELLE: Wild Adapter does seem to have a touch of the everybody-is-gay syndrome that one sees in BL from time to time. Even though this isn’t overtly specified for the leads, you do have Sanada and Sekiya right off the bat, with each of them (in varying degrees) seeming to expect sexual favors from their underlings. So I don’t know that it’s a case of Minekura vilifying gays so much as the villains are just gay, too.
On the other hand, we do see plenty of other characters whose sexual orientations are not known or even part of the story, like Kou, Kasai, and Takizawa. And there’s some hetero boffing going on as well.
DAVID: For me, part of the appeal of the series is that Minekura is so vague about the specifics of the core relationship. It’s not that she’s entirely being a tease, because the emotional architecture is entirely clear, but she clearly has her own idea of what constitutes necessary detail beyond that. She either trusts her readers to come to their own conclusions, or she wants to leave the potential spectrum of those conclusions wide open, and she’s talented enough to get away with it.
MJ: I think you’re right, she does get away with it, and beautifully too. In that way, it’s more successful than Banana Fish and most other manga I’ve read in which the mangaka deliberately keeps the specifics of the main relationship vague. And actually, given the characters’ particular circumstances and personalities, I think it’s entirely possible (maybe even probable) that the specifics are vague on their part, too, which aids the believability of the whole thing.
MICHELLE: I’m conflicted a little on this point, because although I definitely think Minekura has skillfully crafted their relationship, I’m still a fairly literal-minded person, so I simultaneously wish for some kind of confirmation while being glad that Minekura isn’t giving me any. Does that make sense? Until I see proof otherwise, I’m going to assume they aren’t sexing it up. That obviously doesn’t preclude loving each other, of course.
DAVID: Count me among those who assume that they are sexing it up all the time, but I think your point is totally fair. And I’ve certainly enjoyed titles where we know exactly where the potential couple is on their road to intimacy. I’d list Sanami Matoh’s Fake (Tokyopop) as my very favorite from that subcategory. But I do have a weakness for mangaka who are confident and skilled enough to leave things unspoken.
MJ: And just to clarify my position, I’m assuming they probably are, but that it’s none of my business. So I suppose I’m in-between.
MICHELLE: And thus we provide a bit of something for everyone! :)
DAVID: And thus confirm Minekura’s genius.
MICHELLE: Earlier, MJ mentioned that some regular MMF participants might have decided not to try Wild Adapter because they’re not big fans of BL, but another deterrent for some potential readers might be the fact that it remains unfinished (though, I stress, it does not end on a cliffhanger). How much does that impact your enjoyment of the series?
DAVID: It does make me sad that the series is on hiatus, but it doesn’t leave me dissatisfied with the series itself. As you both noted in the introduction to the series, the volumes are largely self-contained, and they can be enjoyed individually. (I can’t really understand how someone could read one volume of Wild Adapter and not want to read all of them, but that might just be me.)
There are so many reasons that readers of translated manga may not see the end of a series — the publisher cuts its losses on a commercially unsuccessful property or goes out of business altogether — that can result in perfectly legitimate complaining, but I always feel reluctant to get up in a mangaka’s business when he or she is facing health issues. I mean, I’d love to read more Wild Adapter, volumes and volumes of it, but I don’t feel any sense of grievance about it. Does that make sense?
MJ: That makes a lot of sense to me, and I feel much the same way about it. Wild Adapter could go on forever, and I’d be thrilled. And yes, I’d very much like to get to the bottom of the W.A. mystery and learn the truth behind Tokito’s past, but the overarching plotline was never really the point. So while I’d read as much of it as Minekura and Tokuma Shoten were prepared to give me, I don’t feel left in a lurch at all. I do wish we would see some official release of the five chapters that have been left hanging. I’d buy that in a second, whether they filled an entire volume or not.
I will admit a bit of utterly unjustified pettiness over the fact that various incarnations of Saiyuki (which I like much, much less) demanded so much of Minekura’s time when she might have been producing more Wild Adapter, but I realize how ridiculous and entitled that sounds. I mean, seriously.
MICHELLE: I’ve only read a tiny bit of Saiyuki (the first three volumes) but I definitely understand your grievance.
And, like you say, the plotline is not really the point. I’m less interested in W.A. and Tokito’s past (though of the two, the latter is far more compelling) than I am in the characters’ reactions to this. There’s a particularly poignant scene in, I believe, volume six where Kubota has engaged Kou to look for Tokito and says something like, “If he’s regained his memory, then you don’t need to tell me where he is.” He also believes there’s a chance that Tokito, like some amnesia patients, might forget everything that happened while he was “ill.” Kubota isn’t hindering Tokito’s quest for answers, but at the same time, he realizes that when Tokito gets them, things may be over for both of them. That is the part of the story I’m most sad we haven’t seen and maybe never will see.
DAVID: And I am becoming leery of series about hot, emotionally disturbed, possibly romantically involved boys who are linked in some way to illicit pharmaceuticals. Between Wild Adapter and CLAMP’s Legal Drug (Tokyopop), I’m wondering if these series ever get finished.
MJ: You do have a point. Sadly.
MICHELLE: I guess the only thing left for us to do at this point is wish Minekura-sensei a full and speedy recovery.
MJ: Well said, Michelle. Thank you, David, for joining us for this special edition of BL Bookrack!
DAVID: It was my pleasure!