Reviewed by Cait
Published in print by Deux Press (now-defunct)
Short Answer: If you can get past the title, not bad, but you might completely forget you read it five years from now.
From the Back Cover: “This tale of tough love revolves around the bittersweet romances between four tough guys: Yoshino, Sachi, Tamotsu and Sora. Three years ago, after realizing he had feelings for, not his lover Keiko, but her little brother Sachi, Yoshino escaped the city without ever revealing his attraction. When he once again returns, will his love for Sachi remain unrequited or will he finally gather the courage to confess his long concealed desires? As Yoshino and Sachi struggle with their feelings for each other, Tamotsu, Sachi’s childhood friend, continues to struggle with his own unrequited love. However, with the appearance of a younger classmate, Sora, he may finally be able to experience the happiness of mutual love.”
The most notable thing about this title was how forgettable it apparently was to me when I read it five years ago. In fact, when I went to choose the Kano title I would review for 801 Day, I only realized I even owned this book because it was on the Deux part of my bookcase next to Yakuza in Love. I didn’t remember buying it or reading it at all. It made this reviewing experience wholly unique for me.
One of the most interesting things about Shiuko Kano’s early artwork is how similar it was in style to her ultimately less-accomplished sister, Kazuna Uchida. Uchida’s most notable title, I Shall Never Return, also published by Deux, had an anime OVA made for it, and while a more successful title than anything Kano did at the time, Kano’s artwork was already definitely more polished then. BL in the mid-1990s, as evidenced in Uchida and even in earlier volumes of Maki Murakami’s Gravitation, suffered a lot of off-model messiness that Tough Love Baby, published around the same time, lacks. It adds an element of professionalism to Kano’s early work that even nearly 20 years ago she was drawing with such skill so consistently even if her style has evolved over time.
That being said, the least fortunate part of the book is probably its title. In addition to it being awkward and more than a little silly, it’s never well argued within the content of the book why the name was chosen. The mid-90s blasé attitude towards teen smoking is also rather unfortunate. Attitudes about cigarettes, even in Japan, have changed enough since then to make the repeated images just seem out of place and out of time.
As well, Yoshino and Sachi as a couple are sort of bland and indicative of the type of character designs popular then. Yoshino’s hair is particularly distracting, as is the somewhat discomforting fact that his feelings for Sachi began when Sachi was still in middle school. Thankfully he had the wherewithal to leave town when he realized he had feelings for a child. There are still things that just don’t mesh about their strange relationship, though. It’s a little unbelievable that Yoshino would just happen to move in next door to his now-married old girlfriend (husband suspiciously never around) and her live-in younger brother. It’s also a little too convenient that Keiko seems totally okay with what happened between them and even not disturbed at all that her ex might pursue her little brother in earnest now. Yoshino and Sachi’s relationship takes a very standard BL arc from reacquainting themselves to each other after several years apart, to tip-toeing around their romantic feelings for each other, to the silly misunderstandings surrounding their sexual desires for one another.
Through all of this I found that the much more interesting character in the book, and the one detailed much better than the initial pair, is Tamotsu. In fact, the only reason the book even gets an M rating is Tamotsu, which at first is kind of irritating. The early focus of the story is on Yoshino and Sachi’s relationship, so having the only truly gay character, a side character and rival at that, be the only one having a physical relationship with anyone is frustrating. Particularly when those physical relationships, not until the very end of the book, contain no real romantic feelings. It’s really a masterfully played psyche out on Kano’s part to dangle romantic love between Yoshino and Sachi in our faces, then give us sex scenes with Tamotsu and a random stranger, then focus the core of the rest of the story on helping Tamotsu find love (and, more importantly, sex with love).
It’s not to say a (somewhat) realistic portrayal of sexuality is a bad thing, but if Tamotsu were a more shallow character, those sex scenes would have been all the more frustrating and uninteresting. If I wanted to watch men who feel no real emotion for each other have sex, I would rent gay porn. It’s that Tamotsu is searching for love, and being rejected from it as he was, that he turns to desperate lonely meaningless partners to find comfort. It’s the desire to see him find happiness that drives that last third of the book. While the “jilted rival finds his own love” is a well-worn trope in BL today, it is actually kind of refreshing to see such an earnest portrayal of it in an early example from the genre. Sora, while clearly being created for the sole purpose of providing that potential, is perfectly welcome. Also welcome is the fact that even when Sora grows taller than Tamotsu as they age, he still remains, for the most part, the uke. It is a subtle challenge to the traditional seme/uke dynamic, and I appreciate its existence.
I still can’t quite say why this title went completely missing in my internal archives of BL manga. I typically, even if something was boring, tend to at the very least remember the general premise and characters of a book I actually bought, but this one was completely gone. Rereading it was like reading a whole new book. Granted, it doesn’t hold a candle to the other titles from Kano that I’ve read since then, but it isn’t a terrible read and it certainly isn’t any more forgettable than the myriad of other one-shot titles I have consumed in the past decade.