Caste Heaven | Ogawa Chise

The obvious comparison is Motoni Modoru’s Rika the Breeder series, right down to the system of Kings, Queens, and Jacks. ‘Course, since only Motoni Modoru can be Motoni Modoru, Caste Heaven is far less twisted and sick and has sex scenes that are probably designed for you to feel sexy about them, instead of disgusted and morbidly intrigued. You know the drill: at a high school where social status is determined by finding the right playing card during a “caste game,” an array of characters find their fortunes reverse and reverse again as they negotiate the difficult lines between power and friendship. We start with Azusa, a former King who loses his rank and slips all the way to Joker, the class fool, but in typical Ogawa fashion, there are enough beta couples to fill their own series.

Just like Rika the Breeder, Ogawa’s high school is a parody of a parody, with social classes like “preps,” “nerds,” and “goths,” and the assumption of a role is complete – you lose your personality, your friends, and your position with each shift. Just like Rika the Breeder, the social pressure needed to sustain this kind of situation is assumed, and not explicit. But unlike Rika, the stakes always seem personal, never mythic. I’ve joked before that Rika is a shounen manga dressed up in bl manga clothes: it stars a plucky newcomer with a dead brother who may secretly be the ultimate big bad, only the superpower is sex and the damsel in distress is a dude they all call “mama” (Loveless follows this same formula, only softened for shounen-ai purposes, which is why Loveless got licensed and Rika the Breeder got canceled by Motoni Modoru herself). Caste Heaven is strictly bl. Karino’s motives for monopolizing Asuza are obvious and straightforward; Asuza has a backstory with his mom that explains him, for better or worse. Compared to the labyrinthe snarl of psychological trauma in Rika, Caste Heaven is a soap opera, just with a lot of violent rape.

Ogawa Chise has a thing for badly codependent relationships, with a “weaker” character hiding the fact that he’s manipulating his “stronger” companion into remaining with him for better or worse – and it’s always worse. Ogawa makes an argument in the latest chapters that this kind of manipulation is, in some ways, just a way to “protect” a love that would otherwise be crushed, but just like the caste game itself, Ogawa’s fondness for unhealthy possessive relationships is like the air itself to this story, and every twist is designed to dirty up an otherwise pure feeling. Unlike, say, Harada, who despite her deviance makes it quite clear when a relationship is trash and when it’s actually healthier than the characters’ other options, it’s hard to tell if Ogawa thinks these relationships are complete trash or secretly worth saving and that the creepy unhealthy dynamics that plague every single pairing is because of something entirely out of the characters’ control – the caste game, representing ruthless adult society and the expectations thereof.

In fact, it’s hard to tell what Ogawa is doing, period. I like the intersection of the Kuze-Atsumu couple with the trainwreck of Karino-Asuza circa chapter 8, because it shows two characters trying, and failing, to free themselves from the game, but chapter 9 went back to Ogawa’s thesis that the game gives a kind of freedom to the characters that society denies them. If that was true, then what about characters like Asuza and Atsumu, who are brutalized by the caste game but would be left alone by society at large? What about Yatori from chapter 10.5, who would fuck up Yukari with or without the help of the caste game? If only Ogawa would focus enough on seeing these storylines through instead of jumping to the next beta couple, we could get some answers, but that’s what happens when you have Shimizu Yuki syndrome.

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Yondaime Ooyamato Tatsuyuki | Scarlet Beriko

All hail Scarlet Beriko, who will surely save us all. In between this and Jackass!, I’m ready to crown her as the challenger to the bl manga throne (I wonder who holds it now? A thought for another time!). Tatsuyuki, wayward fourth head of his yakuza group, is shipped off to Fukuoka, where he meets Nozomi, a young man he once saved as a child, and Rogi, an old, old acquaintance of his father’s. What starts off as a very well-rendered sex romp dives very quickly by the end of chapter two into a much more serious story that twists the three mains into a complicated web woven by their pasts.

At one point midway throught he story, Nozomi, desperate to get Tatsuyuki to hear him out, asks, “How am I supposed to tie the person I love to me? I have no idea.” Weirdly enough, this becomes the through-line of the entire story. Nozomi’s father tries to tie Nozomi to him after the death of his mother by making Nozomi into someone else. Tatsuyuki doesn’t realize he’s tying Nozomi to him when he extends his hand as a child, but now it’s a tie he can’t throw away. Nozomi tries to tie Tatsuyuki to him by becoming the ideal partner: can cook, fight, love, cry when Tatsuyuki can’t. Rogi tries to tie Tatsuyuki’s father to him by manipulation and dirty dealings, but in the end his only tie is through Tatsuyuki, for better or worse. Happily, it’s Tatsuyuki and Nozomi’s tie that survives the series, not because of love at first sight, necessarily, but because both of them fight and sacrifice for it, even when they are powerless. There’s a subplot about the weight of responsibility that connects here: Tatsuyuki has hundreds of ties to his group, which turns out to encompass Rogi, Nozomi, and his father, and his emotional maturing in the story allows him to bear the weight of their sacrifices for him because he finally understands what it feels like to sacrifice himself. “Put your weight on me,” as he says in chapter 7, “I will carry all of it.”

Beriko’s artwork is a joy to behold. The sex scenes, obviously, are a standout — graphic without being extreme and rendered with a loving hand to detail and facial expressions. But the rest of it is amazing too: a character silently walking into the sea in chapter 4, an elaborate dinner and seduction sequence in chapter 6 that involves an unnerving blowjob at the table, the beach scenes of chapter 8. This manga feels like a weird mix of Zakk’s Canis, down to the art, but I also see echoes of Kamatani Yuuki’s rather singular Shimanami Tasogare and Kyuugou.

Sayonara, Heron | ymz

Two high school friends become sex friends, semi-permanent roommates, and then, maybe, lovers. Mostly an investigation into the boundaries we draw between ourselves and others in our life, and how much we need to negotiate those boundaries when we strive for intimacy or a deeper relationship (cue Kate Bush — “Hello, I know that you’re unhappy / I bring you love and deeper understanding”). The main characters don’t fall into a traditional romance even at the end, when they reach an understanding about their feelings, and there’s a wonderful scene where one of the characters confesses that the phrase “I love you” is too much for him, because he really doesn’t understand what it means yet. Realistic, slow, and not much happens except for the central conflict (which is resolved, primarily, off-screen), but sweeter because of that, because you’re truly cheerleading for the success of the relationship even after you turn the last page. The art does a lot to draw you into the lived-in world of the main characters who look and act like real people, which is no small feat when it comes to bl manga. ymz feels like a number of up-and-coming bl mangaka (a little Kumoto Haruko, a little gusari a.k.a. Kizu Natsuki, and a lot Shoowa) and I hope we get a lot more of them in the future.

Koi ga Bokura wo Yurusu Hani | Motoni Modoru

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When I first read this manga as a wee-child, this seemed the height of emotional and sexual mannerpunk, but upon rereading, Motoni Modoru’s characters reveal themselves to be, well, Motoni Modoru characters. Jeanne of Aestheticism.com once wrote an insightful look into the kind of modern melodrama that Koi ga Yurusu Hani represents, but suffice to say, the crux of the plot revolves around the way the main characters Yamazaki and Fujio have twisted themselves into knots trying to justify their feelings for each other in spite of and because of their reluctance to sleep with each other. When their girlfriends (Reiko and Miku respectively) finally goad them into a sexual relationship, the thing comes to a head, in part because the characters keep arguing over whose feelings have been “raped” the most. Fujio and Yamazaki are less fully realized human beings than walking examples of overwrought ~feelings~. I have never once been able to follow Fujio’s chain of thought, and it took meeting Imagase from Cornered Mouse before I was able to properly appreciate Yamazaki.

Miku and Reiko fare slightly better as real human beings, though it’s telling that because we see more of Miku, she also engages in the same emotional gymnastics that Fujio and Yamazaki do, whereas Reiko comes off as more “real” simply because we never have to scratch her cool, uncaring exterior. Equally telling is what happens to Katsumi, Miku’s boyfriend on the side, who is introduced as an anchor but then rapidly becomes a deus ex machina for Motoni. He spends most of the latter chapters shouting at various characters and thus explaining the story to the reader, and without Katsumi, I have a feeling most of the last arc of the manga would be inexplicable.

So, in the end, Koi ga Yurusu is more Tori Maia than Miyamoto Kano. A better comparison might be Nitta Youka’s When a Man Loves a Man series, though directly comparing the two, I think, shows off Nitta’s more even-handed, subtle approach to her characters. It’s a fascinating enough melodrama, if you’re into that kind of thing. If you’re asking me, my final verdict is that all the characters would be too exhausting to be friends with in real life, the kind of people you’d always be texting, “for the love of god, go home, you’re drunk.”

The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese & The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice | Mizushiro Setona

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Businessman Kyouichi is married, but that doesn’t stop him from getting into multiple affairs. His wife Chikako, by chance, hires Kyouichi’s college kouhai Imagase as a private investigator to uncover evidence of these affairs. Things seem like it’s all over for Kyouichi, except Imagase throws down an uncomfortable request: he’ll keep Kyouichi’s affairs from Chikako, as long as Kyouichi gives Imagase free reign over Kyouichi’s body.

Mizushiro has created two very different, and to be honest, not admirable, characters in Kyouichi and Imagase. Kyouichi is flighty, selfish, prone to get swept off his feet, indecisive in his worst moments, and sometimes just entirely emotionally not there. Imagase is clingy, and obsessive, and stalkerish, and downright negative. But at his best, Kyouichi is a sensitive lover, a man who wants to do good and right by the people who love him, and by the end of the series he is someone who has come to accept his faults and work hard to achieve happiness for the people around him. And at his best, Imagase is dedicated, and loyal to the teeth, and willing to wait, even forever, for Kyouichi to make the decisions he needs to make. And to watch them manage the difficulty that is their love, from the opening problems with Kyouichi’s wife Chikako to the final third player in Tamaki, and all of Kyouichi and Imagase’s ex-lovers in between, is a masterpiece of emotional drama.

There are deep underlying psychological problems with both Kyouichi and Imagase’s ability to connect with other people. They’re really different problems, and they collide, head on, in one breathtaking scene in the chapter “Owl” in the second volume where, silently, Mizushiro moves the panels from Kyouichi’s face, to Imagase’s tears, to the signs of their domestic life together: clean dishes, an ashtray, a potted plant, a bed. In plenty of conversations–where Imagase declares sex to be merely a stopgap solution to Kyouichi and Imagase’s communication problems, when Kyouichi asks his exgirlfriend what he should do if Imagase ever leaves him, in a truly heartbreaking sequence when Kyouichi and Imagase go to the beach together for the last time– Mizushiro manages to show you that sometimes love is about relationships that go horrible wrong, relationships that can’t go happily ever after into old age and beyond death. Like creating a blanket out of the spaces between threads, Kyouichi and Imagase are fashioning a relationship out of their inability to have a lasting relationship with each other, Kyouichi by adapting what he knows about pleasing women to Imagase’s image, and Imagase by learning to trust enough to sometimes let go. It can be really frustrating, and there were moments in The Carp on the Chopping Block, especially, where I wanted to reach into my computer and throttle both Imagase and Kyouichi and then drown them in Tokyo Bay. But that frustration and anger is also part of the beauty of The Cornered Mouse series, and in the end, there is no one better for Kyouichi than Imagase, and vica versa.

The supporting female characters, Natsuki (Kyouichi’s ex girlfriend) and Tamaki (Kyouichi’s coworker), are also painted with a deft and sympathetic hand. Chikako and one of Kyouichi’s earlier affairs smack a little too hard of bl manga’s general disregard for women characters, but Natsuki, in the end, is strong and realistic and as much a victim of circumstance as any of the other characters, and Tamaki will break your heart. The writing too, both in dialogue and inner monologue, is fantastic here. I never once felt I was meandering or wasting time in one of Kyouichi’s private monologues. But better than all of this are the moments of silence and unspoken feeling Mizushiro has planted throughout the story. Imagase, especially, comes through stronger in these moments, so that his moments of vulnerability are poignant in a way that, if shown through speech, his personality would never allow them to be.

True, the general plot of the story (Kyouichi gets attracted to a woman, Imagase gets jealous, they break up) seems to be repeated over and over again in this story. Kyouichi seems determined to believe that homosexuality is impossible and no homosexual men could be happy with each other. The story drags on for a bit, and I’m not entirely sure I buy into Kyouichi’s final denouement as a character.

But no work is perfect, and in the end, I think it’s outweighed by the complexity of The Cornered Mouse series that will keep you coming back for more. There are no bad guys and no good guys in this story. Everyone is in the wrong, and everyone was wronged, and everyone is just someone desperately trying to find their own little slice of happiness, no matter how selfish that might be. For Kyouichi and Imagase, their slice of happiness never comes to them in quite the way they planned. It’s beaten up, and bitter, and riddled with loopholes, and even still, after all they go through together, unstable and uncertain. I love, too, that Mizushiro doesn’t treat them like teenagers in love. They have their own concerns– their career, their ages, society, whether or not they still have the heart to carry themselves through a relationship fraught with arguments and suspicion and tears. But I want to believe they manage to hold onto that happiness, even after the last page of the comic is turned. And I’m sure that after reading it, you will want to believe that too.

Ima Made Kore Kara | Hayakawa Nojiko

Ima Made Kore Kara is a collection of original doujinshi that loosely connects Hayakawa’s Endou-kun series with one of her other works, Kurayami ni Strobe, only it focuses on a whole web of entirely new characters. And when I say web, I mean it. It’s confusing enough that Hayakawa made her own relationship chart to help us keep track:

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You don’t have to read Endou-kun or Kurayami to understand Ima Made, especially since the main characters of either series barely show up in Ima Made (though I’m always up for people reading more Hayakawa). The arguable center of Ima Made, Kosuga, was briefly mentioned in a snatch of dialogue in Kurayami, but it isn’t until Ima Made that he actually appears. He turns out to be middle school friends with the barber model Kanzaki from Endou-kun, and their relationship to each other and their third childhood friend, Kurata, is that perfect blend of “eros in the stoic” and pure platonic affection and unspoken, not fully unrequited love that I feel like I’m coarsening it just by putting it into words. Kanzaki never talks about his feelings, but in the first oneshot (“Road, Lead, Road”), Kosuga makes a call to Kanzaki that leaves Kanzaki flustered and blushing in front of a suspicious Tsuda. Kanzaki’s friend Ikarashi suspects in the second oneshot (“Cut or Kill”) that Kosuga is less than honest about his own feelings towards Kanzaki, but the whats or whys of this dynamic are something Hayakawa deftly leaves to your imagination.

Meanwhile, Kurata, you learn, likes Kanzaki – but not like that, just in the sense of two craftsmen who take their hobbies seriously, Kosuga assures Ikarashi. The narrative never tells you as much, but it’s clear that something happened to Kosuga in middle school and cleaved him away from his friends, turned him from a serious person to the Prince Charming playboy of the school he is now. Kurata tells him, “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you with short hair,” so does that mean he was on a sports team? Hayakawa draws him in the fourth oneshot (“8/32”) suspended in two halves, one with short hair and holding a baseball bat and the other in dreads and holding onto a violin, so does that mean he quit music?

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Whatever it was, you can see that it eats at Kosuga, who finds himself in “Road, Lead, Road” dazzled by the multitude of after school clubs he encounters as he goes to pick up Kurata. “I’m not like Kurata and Kanzaki,” Kosuga tells Ikarashi, but why, you wonder? Despite the lightness and peaceful tone of Ima Made as a whole, you feel little spikes of unease: shadowy figures in Kosuga’s memory calling someone a fag (maybe how Kosuga and Kurata met, bullying Kanzaki?), someone faceless kicking a shoe in the air, middle school Kosuga in Kurata’s mind holding onto a baseball bat in one hand and someone’s limp arm in the other. There are unspoken multitudes in this trio, in Kanzaki’s implied crush on Kosuga, Kosuga’s inability to either see or answer Kanzaki’s feelings, Kurata’s appreciation of Kanzaki as a fellow artist and Kosuga as an objet d’ art, and it’s all speechlessly, beautifully conveyed in a single page of “Cut or Kill”: Kurata in the top panel gazing as if into the distance but clearly staring at Kanzaki and Kosuga, Kanzaki cutting hair with his eyes cast down, Kosuga who has let his hair down and closed his eyes.

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Ikarashi and his charge/childhood friend Sasaoka were newly created for Ima Made, and they get their own little bizarre love triangle. Ikarashi has a crush on his teacher Noriko, who only sees him as a student, and he chases after her with a earnest doggedness, while Sasaoka knows he wants to stay with Ikarashi forever, but doesn’t know how or why. Everyone, including Sasaoka, treats Ikarashi like a father figure, and Ikarashi’s closeness to Sasaoka makes him blind to what his relationship with Sasaoka could become. And Ikarashi isn’t a stupid person, usually; after all, he’s the one that realizes Kosuga is using Sasaoka as an excuse to see Kanzaki in “Cut or Kill.” You get the sense that he’s actually the one who has been taking Sasaoka for granted, and not the other way around. It’s Ikarashi who doesn’t realize they can’t be childhood friends forever. Sasaoka is willing to take the next step into something new and more permanent, but Ikarashi isn’t even thinking of the future, unless it’s a future where Noriko-sensei treats him like a man.

“8/32” ends with the most overtly romantic scene of Ima Made, but I love it more for the way Hayakawa threads a leitmotif of leaving/staying behind/being left behind into Ikarashi and Sasaoka. Their first scene in “8/32” is of Sasaoka rushing ahead of Ikarashi to explore the empty school, but when Ikarashi finally catches up, he immediately leaves Sasaoka behind for Noriko. “I’m not doing this anymore,” he says, “You can go home without me when you’re done.” The throwing away is literal; just seconds ago, Ikarashi had been gripping Sasaoka’s hand (not romantically, but holding it all the same), and the final panel of that scene is of Sasaoka’s outstretched hand and Ikarashi slipping away into right edge of the page. Still, Sasaoka refuses to be left or to be the one leaving, and he waits at the lockers for Ikarashi. “Settle for me,” he tells Ikarashi, and then rushes off, leaving Ikarashi to “figure it out for yourself.” The Kosuga/Kanzaki/Kurata triangle is the mirage of a mansion once built on a solid foundations and then left to rot, but Sasaoka and Ikarashi’s story is more genre-savvy, the inked blueprints of a house that will exist, just not right now. Ikarashi, we know, because we read bl manga, isn’t going to get Noriko. He’ll settle for Sasaoka eventually. Until then, they’re going to keep chasing each other, leaving each other behind, catching up and meeting in the middle. One day, that middle will be a life they share together.

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There’s not much to say about the other two “couples” (Takahashi and Saitou who are on the basketball team, and Yamada also from the basketball team who has to bug his smarter classmate Yamamoto for help on exams), except that fans of Endou-kun or Kurayami ni Strobe would enjoy the relationship dynamics. Mostly their subplots remind me of a scene in this wonderful pivix KuroBasu doujinshi, “A Common Love Story,” where a character muses that other people’s lives only look like smooth sailing from the outside because you can’t see the truth. Kanzaki looks like a carefree character in Endou-kun, and seems perfect to even Ikarashi, who complains during “Cut or Kill” that he’s the kind of person everyone would want to hitch their daughters to, but maybe the truth is that he yentas the Endou and Tsuda relationship in part because his and Kosuga’s is so fragile. To Ikarashi, who wants a girl he can’t have and feels like he can’t have a happily ever after forever with Sasaoka, Kosuga and his girlfriend Oomiya look like the perfect couple who will announce any day they’ll get engaged. Yet it’s Ikarashi and Sasaoka who look like a couple to Yamato and Takashi. And Hayakawa’s characters don’t want other people to know their feelings; they want them to remain buried with them forever. Unearthing feelings only forces the characters to realize they’re stalling. It’s only by miracle – or getting promoted to the lead character of a real story – that confessions actually get you anywhere.

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All this babbling to say, Hayakawa’s stories, despite being simple, reward close, repeat reading, so that you see the way all the layers of her art and writing operate in the background, and that’s never been more obvious than in this collection. I love the stories in Ima Made for their interstitial quality, the sense that we’re intruding on a life that has always existed without us and will continue to exist even if Hayakawa isn’t showing it to us. After all, that’s what “ima made, kore kara” means: until now, from now on, the ephemeral ‘now’ that keeps moving into the past and moving away from us into the future. August 31, 2012, was a Friday, and it’s fitting that the last one shot, written in August 2012, was called “8/32.” You get the sense that this whole collection is an impossible weekend afternoon that could only exist in our imagination, a moment where everything stops and you catch your breath and take stock of the world around you. Hayakawa calls this work “Boy’s life and love,” and that might be the most perfect summation.

[This post is a repost.]

Dokonimo Nai Kuni | Kusama Sakae

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Two (or three) longer stories and one true oneshot to close out the volume. The first is probably Kusama Sakae at her atmospheric best (c.f. Carnivorous Animal’s Table Manners), about two soldiers learning to cope with the effects of the war ending. A two-parter about isolation and reintegrating into society, it lets the perfect amount of introspection remain unspoken, and the effect is heady, humid, and affecting. More disturbing if you compare it to the real life story of Hirou Onoda, but the privilege of fiction is that you can take and leave what you like of history.

And then, the “Between 1 and 2″/ “Between 0 and 1” stories. “Between 1 and 2” is a classic “bl chara doesn’t understand that childhood friend is a dude, not a lady” story, and skims lightly across the hinted-at dark sea of, essentially, childhood sexual trauma. Kusame doesn’t do much with the implied sexual predator in the story, and so the effect is simply froth (well-executed froth, but still froth). As for “Between 0 and 1,” though, the rape is explicit, textual, and disturbing, made worse by the fact that the characters don’t really address it. It’s a little like “Eien wa Arimasuka?“, that Ono x Tachibana dj for Antique Bakery that Yoshinaga drew herself, the one that breaks open their sexual tension, only Kusame doesn’t make the characters sit down and talk to each other afterwards like Yoshinaga does. Instead, both of them get lost in their own heads and then they yell at each other and then they start a relationship that mostly consists of goading each other on.

I don’t mean to be disapproving, and I think Kusame’s liner notes at the end show what she’s trying to do (the characters are a mended lid to each other’s broken pot). It’s thematically consistent with the first story and the last oneshot — to wit, a broken thing becomes stronger and more beautiful when it is mended with love. Whether or not you buy it depends on how you feel about the use of rape in stories. I wouldn’t say that Kusame is condoning the rape, but it’s certainly not treated with the weight I would think it deserved.

Overall, though, this collection is worth it for the first historical oneshot.

Sora no Seibun | Momokuri Mikan

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An odd debut by the mangaka who would later go on to do Strawberry 100% (?!) and whose most recent story, Gunjou ni Siren, is basically a more mature, better illustrated retread of this. But, without getting sidetracked, Sora no Seibun is I’ll/CKBC meets Kimi no Mukougawa.

Okamoto, a junior high basketball prodigy, ends up at a high school with a weak basketball team, but still manages to inspire his classmate — the tinier, completely amateur, but naturally gifted, Koizumi (one suspects Saint Kuroko Tetsuya watches over him). In typical bl fashion, basketball and a latent attraction forges a strong bond between them, but it’s shredded to pieces when Koizumi is chosen over Okamoto to be on the provincial tournament team. Added to the mix is Okamoto’s “distant relative” Yumi, who is something in between a sex friend and a girlfriend to Okamoto, and is hiding her own wounds (which, I might add, Okamoto is helping her lick).

There’s nothing revolutionary about the development of the story, which really is equal helpings of the basketball drama in I’ll and the rather rudimentary and tired machinations of Yumi + “we can’t be together/but you’re the only one for me/let’s sacrifice our emotions stupidly for the sake of drama” that you’d find in Kimi no Mukougawa. What saves it from the slush pile is an inspired ending that predates The Carp on the Chopping Block…, only with two characters walking together slowly in the summer instead of in the snow. Okamoto tries to let Koizumi down gently, but Koizumi parries with a loaded metaphor, comparing his feelings for Okamoto to Okamoto’s feelings for basketball. Though the last scene ends, abruptly, with none of the characters actually together, you can almost smell the sweat, hear the cicadas, and feel the hot sun as Okamoto and Koizumi reach an understanding somewhere in the middle of love and friendship. It’s very real, and oddly human. Can’t say I’d necessarily recommend it, but there’s something psychologically interesting hidden in the banality, and at the very least, I look forward to the rest of Gunjou ni Siren.

Orutana | Furutsuji Kikka

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In both style and writing, incredibly similar to Shoowa’s Non Tea Room, which is also about a love triangle where all participants are hiding more than they are revealing (and where some of the participants are in a band!). Here, Miki’s childhood friend Keisuke introduces Miki to his current crush: a kouhai named Chiba. Miki, who has had a crush on Keisuke for a while, sublimates his feelings into seducing Chiba. What he doesn’t expect is for Chiba to 1) fall hard for Miki and 2) to decipher Miki’s real feelings about Keisuke. All the characters end up finding themselves torn between selfishness and their better selves: Miki wants to make things work with Chiba (who he sees as the epitome of everything he’ll never be — earnest and cute and a good kid) but can’t seem to really commit, Chiba lets his doubts about Miki’s feelings (which are well-founded!) inspire him to put Miki and Keisuke’s friendship in danger, and Keisuke doesn’t know how to prioritze his crush on Chiba and his friendship with Miki.

There’s a woodness to the placement and body language in the art, but in some areas the construction really shines. Chapter 2 is a particular stand-out: the bookends of “you sure are loved,” the speech bubbles of Chiba and Miki as they talk about first names, the thread that goes from Miki’s monologue to Keisuke’s childhood memories.

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Despite Furutsuji’s lack of titles to her name, there’s a deftness to the characterization and writing. Keisuke feels straight despite his crush on Chiba, and he plays “straight, devoted friend” to Miki in a way that makes their friendship real, fleshed out with concrete, unique details that many other manga forget to add. Miki is the more experienced of the three, and starts off the story with a wicked streak, but he has a vulnerability that draw you to him like it must have drawn Keisuke. It’s not that he’s helpless, but you can tell when he’s going to make a bad decision or let a bad decision be made on him. And Chiba toes the line of victim and victimizing. I don’t buy the other readers’ comments that sympathize with Chiba, who was, it’s true, used by Miki in the beginning. Miki puts in a good faith effort to make right by Chiba’s feelings. It’s Chiba who uses Miki in the end, and I think his exit from the story is both poignant and fitting. He’s not villanized, but Furutsuji doesn’t want to vindicate him either.

In the end, it’s a story that feels really modern and young, but not immature. The resolution is kind to everyone, even Chiba, who has friends that will pull him out of his heartbreak, just as Keisuke is there for Miki’s heartbreaks. A solid read all around.

Messiah no Sentaku | Harada

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The end to Harada’s Messiah series (Messiah no Yakubi and Messiah no Kyojitsu) brings back the the nameless Messiah’s friend in an unexpected role: as the person behind the rape in the first one-shot. Turns out Friend was the one who hired Seme. Which brings up ALL SORTS of questions, like how did Friend and Seme meet, and how did Friend realize that Seme had the Skills (TM) to resist Messiah’s mouth, and most importantly, what the actual fuck?!

I don’t find the ending, where Messiah has to choose between an obsessive, boundary-ignoring, bullying rapist and a manipulative, monopolizing, and pathetic rape-conspiracist, to be funny or sweet, and honestly neither does Harada, who throws in a peanut-gallery who calls both choices “trash” and a strange “it’s all just a story!” implication to the final page, making Messiah and Seme metafictional characters to boot. Friend’s long rambling speech where he reveals his plans for Messiah’s sexual submission is disturbing in an over-the-top parodic way, especially when he misunderstands Messiah’s ability to see only him as a person apart from his penis as some sort of longcon hater joke by Messiah.

And that’s really Harada’s wheelhouse — sexy, dubious consent-y romps with not very nice characters. Still, something here smacks of victimization: Messiah feels too much like a victim who has spent all their life being sexually abused and thus can only respond with inappropriate sexuality, and when he’s caught between two abusers, he doesn’t make the obvious, self-empowered choice to leave. Instead, he feels like he’s forced to go along with one of them just because they like him (or, maybe, because he knows neither one of them would leave him alone even if he said no). Here’s hoping that Seme’s inability to understand “no means no” is mostly motivated by Friend’s money and disappears with the closing pages of this oneshot. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though. At least the sex is hot.