A Letter to Yun Kouga (written with love, respect, and bafflement.)
Way back in 2006, I reviewed the first volume of your new series Loveless:
Seimei, Aoyagi Ritsuka’s older brother, has been murdered. Ritsuka, who has been suffering from amnesia for two years, is left to live with his abusive and disturbed mother who keeps demanding that he return the ‘real’ Ritsuka to her. Loveless, by Yun Kouga, is a twisted tale of loss, awakening desire, and magic. In this alternate version of our own present, children are born with cat’s ears and tails which disappear when they lose their virginity. (Ritsuka’s teacher, Shinonome-sensei, still has her ears and tail, which causes some comment in the school corridors.)
On the first day at his new school, the aloof and prickly Ritsuka is adopted by Yuiko, a sweet but needy latch-key child, tall and well-developed for her age, who constantly refers to herself in the third person. Yuiko may seem a bit of an airhead but she is quick to notice that Ritsuka is skilled at presenting a cheerful front to the teachers. ‘Sorry. I just can’t stand when people worry about me,’ he tells her to which she says, ‘You’re weird. Like you live a double life.’
On leaving school, Ritsuka is met by a good-looking stranger who introduces himself as Soubi – and tells Ritsuka that he was Seimei’s friend. Ritsuka instantly demands that Soubi go with him to ‘make some memories’ and proceeds to take photographs. ‘We have to take pictures or you’ll forget all about me.’ When they are alone together in the park, Soubi begins to behave very strangely and having assured Ritsuka that he won’t do anything to him, kisses him. Now Ritsuka finds himself bound to Soubi in an intense and dangerous world of spell battles against Septimal Moon, the mysterious organisation that killed his brother.
Yun Kouga reveals this perverse and compelling tale through her beautiful and evocative artwork; two colour pages are a bonus, further demonstrating her range as an artist. If any readers feel uncomfortable with the underlying implications of this work, especially the developing relationship between the student Soubi and twelve-year-old Ritsuka, they should first read the fascinating epilogue by adaptor Christine Boylan, ‘Words as Spells in Loveless.’ The first volume leaves the reader desperately eager to unravel the mysteries surrounding Ritsuka; will he and Soubi track down Seimei’s killers? What happened to Ritsuka two years ago? Can Soubi be trusted? Excellent, distinctive artwork conveying a compelling piece of fantasy story-telling: Loveless is manga at its best. Volume 2 is promised in June…
Obviously, I was smitten. Love at first sight! And I continued to follow Loveless faithfully through the anime adaptation as well as the subsequent volumes of the manga. But something has gone wrong. Here we are, ten+ years on, and, Sensei, you’re still – sporadically – producing chapters of Loveless. In the meantime, you’ve done the character designs for two major anime: Gundam Mobile Suit 00 and Un Go. You’re also working on another ongoing shoujo series Blood High School which is now being turned into an anime. Great! I don’t blame you, Sensei, for working on several projects at once; it’s a tough old world out there and mangaka, like other authors, have to seize every opportunity that comes along.
So what’s so compelling about Loveless? The art, for starters. No other mangaka can draw eyes quite as eloquently as you, Kouga-sensei. Your gorgeous colour pages are an added bonus. Storywise, you deliver a dark and disturbing tale that – in those early volumes – resonates with passionate and forbidden feelings. Yet you also have a gift for delightfully quirky yet believable character interactions; for example, any time Natsuo and Youji (the Zero boys) show up, their outrageously unconventional and unpredictable approach to life always enlivens the action. Then there are the spell battles, the intriguing concept of ‘fated partners’ and the mysterious Fighters and their Sacrifices. You’re not afraid to deal with serious issues either: child abuse; obsession; identity. I could – maybe should – devote paragraphs to the shota conundrum: is Soubi’s relationship with Ritsuka inappropriate? Nothing is ever that straightforward in your work; we learn that Soubi was an abused child and, even though he may be an adult in years, Ritsuka is often depicted as the more mature of the two. And even though you tease us with suggestively Boys’ Love situations (and you obviously have fun doing it!) the complex web of feelings that binds Soubi and Ritsuka together can’t be so easily labelled and packaged; you’re too subtle and original a writer to resort to clichés.
But when it comes to the questions that you set up to tantalize us in the first volume, alas, very little has been answered. In fact, everything about the way your manga has (slowly) been evolving suggests a haphazard, scattershot approach. As more plot tendrils are introduced and go merrily shooting off in all kinds of random directions, the strong story at the heart begins to fade and die. Too many new teams of fighters ending in ‘less’ (all with emotional baggage and back-stories) resulting in ‘I could care…less.’
I find myself faced with a fundamental issue about the function of plot, or story, if you will, that crops up time and again in manga. Even though many eminent nineteenth century European novelists like Dickens and Dumas also produced their work as serials, in regular instalments, they usually brought their novels to a satisfying conclusion, and resolved the conflicts and mysteries they had set up to hook their readers in. But the mangaka working for a monthly magazine like Zero Sum can go on indefinitely – or so it seems – with no other impetus than to produce yet another chapter to advance the story, but not to resolve it. For a reader, though, this eventually becomes a turn-off; the everyday interactions between Yuiko, Yayoi, and Ritsuka that once seemed both cute and pertinent (such as the discussion on what they’ll do when they grow up in Chapter 5 of #6) now seem like pointless filler (‘A Guppy’s Observation Log’ in #11.)
Some of the basic questions that you really need to answer are:
- Assuming that the Loveless name will appear somewhere soon on Ritsuka’s body (as it should according to the rules set out in the story) – who is the other Loveless fighter?
- What was Ritsu’s connection with Soubi’s mother? (And if it isn’t relevant, why was it so strongly flagged?)
- What’s going on with Kio and his (twin?) sister?
- Why did Ritsuka lose his memory two years ago? What will happen when/if he gets it back?
- Where is Aoyagi père? And the social services? (Ok, wipe that last question, even if it’s set in the present, it’s an alternative fantasy present…)
- Who is Madam Chiyako? Is she connected with Septimal Moon?
- What is Septimal Moon and why do they hold spell battles?
- And… why does Ritsuka look younger in recent volumes than in the earlier ones? It’s as if, Kouga- sensei, you’ve unconsciously altered the way you portray him; surely he should be showing signs of growing older by now? Does time pass differently in this world of cats’ ears and tails? He also seems to be behaving in a much younger way; the sullen, strong, angry Ritsuka (skilled at concealing his vulnerability) that we met in the earlier volumes is now depicted as a much more passive, dependent child. I wondered if this might be because you wanted to show Ritsuka at a loss when he learns the truth about Seimei… Or is this the ‘old’ Ritsuka who ‘disappeared’ two years earlier? If so, it needs flagging more clearly, so that the reader can reflect on what might have precipitated this change.
I’d love to hope that you will answer these questions – and many more – when you bring Loveless to a conclusion. But I suspect that – as your attentions are diverted elsewhere again – the once urgent need to resolve Ritsuka’s tale has faded. The intensity of those early volumes has just…melted away. This may well be because the anime version created a resolution (of sorts) based on the material you had produced at that time and now you’ve simply moved on and lost interest in working with these characters. (sob)
Is the much-desired commissioning of a TV anime series the kiss of death? The pages of Zero Sum have spawned several anime other than Loveless: 07-Ghost, Karneval, Amatsuki, and now Makai Ouji; Devils and Realist. Smaller in scale than ongoing shounen sagas like Naruto, the makers of these TV series have to devise an ending even when the mangaka is nowhere near reaching a conclusion. I can’t help wondering whether – once the anime series is done – somehow the material doesn’t seem like the mangaka’s ‘own’ work anymore and she/he loses some of the creative impetus to finish it (because someone else has already ‘finished’ it for them.)
Before the handsome new Viz volumes came out (and they are very handsome) I had resigned myself to never seeing a conclusion to Loveless. I had decided to appreciate the plus points and try to forget the minuses. I was ready to admire again the accurate way that you depict children on the verge of adolescence (and their teachers!) capturing the cruelty and the intensity of their interactions. Your damaged adults are just as fascinating: Soubi grimly painting the butterflies he says he hates so much because they’re stupid enough to let themselves be caught and killed. Shinonome-sensei breaking down in tears in class when one of her class answers back, unwittingly using the same words Soubi has used to reject her.
My frustration as a reader stems, I guess, from the fact that there was – is – such potential in Loveless that I can’t bear to see it being frittered away. It could have been so good. But by Volumes 10 and 11, the vital spark seems to have faded and that compelling intensity seems to have been significantly diluted. Such a shame…because Loveless is special to me. Different. Perhaps my suspicions are unfounded. Perhaps you will answer all those questions of mine (and many more.) You would make your readers all over the world so very happy!
Sarah (AnimeUKNews reviewer) www.animeuknews.net
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