Starting With a Kiss volumes 1 & 2 by Youka Nitta

Reviewed by Cait
Published in print by SuBLime

Short Answer: Delicious Mess

From the website: “Tohru, the son of a yakuza boss, is sent into exile on a deserted island for his own protection during a gang feud. Fiery and impetuous, he isn’t thrilled to be sidelined when he’d rather be in the fight, and is even less thrilled that Mutsumi, son of the gang’s second in command, is going with him. The serious, studious Mutsumi is Tohru’s opposite in every way, and it doesn’t take long before the sparks between them begin to fly!

“As Tohru and Mutsumi continue their secret affair, Tohru realizes the more they sleep together the more he gives in to the pleasure. And not wanting his lover to play the field, Mutsumi goes out of his way to keep Tohru satisfied. Unfortunately for these two, the very last person they’d want finding out about their secret relationship does. Enraged that Mutsumi would dare lay a hand on his precious charge, Domoto kidnaps Mutsumi with bloody retribution in mind!”

On its surface, this is a pretty standard Yakuza BL title. The naive uke does a lot of male posturing but is overpowered by the romantic desires of the cunning seme. Forces within the organization over succession conspire to both rip the two men apart and thrust them together. Youka Nitta’s artwork is the same as ever. Her designs are always full of silky-haired, hard-bodied young men, fighting for sexual dominance with each other in a bid to show one another just how equal they should really be. Ultimately, as all her stories show, they will find that equality in shared romantic affection, but for now, they’ve still got too much to prove.

The bigger issue here is in trying to discern what exactly is going on and which characters know what pieces of the puzzle. In that sense, this is far and away one of the most complex Yakuza BL series I have yet read. From a reading of the first two volumes, there are many as yet unanswered questions. Does Asato know that Tohru and Mutsumi are in a sexual relationship? How much of Shinya’s plan is Itsuki really in on? Does Mutsumi know about his father’s tragic past? It is unclear if these questions are cleverly designed plot build-ups or if they will ultimately prove to be loose-ends.

It also isn’t ever made clear whether Tohru and Mutsumi ever met before the beginning of the story. They certainly knew of one another’s existence and for some reason, while both their fathers raised them to be “clean” outside the organization, and they are of about the same age, they never seem to have gone to school together or spent any particular amount of time with one another before being thrust into the conveniently constructed BL premise of “alone on an island” together. This may very well be one of those yet unexplored aspects of Shinya’s ultimate goals for both men, but for now it is a strange and confusing mess of unanswered questions.

The biggest problem with Tohru is that for everyone’s observations about how he is more clever than he seems and smarter than anyone gives him credit for, he’s still completely naive. He’s certainly not stupid, but he is easily fooled by the machinations of his father, manipulated by Mutsumi and misled by Asato. That no one ever bothered to teach Tohru how to fight when he was a child is ridiculous. A child’s relative size would not indicate how large or small they would become as an adult, and if Mutsumi was sent to train in martial arts from childhood it makes no sense that Tohru would not have been as well.

For Tohru, being with Mutsumi means being treated like a woman. He does not see Mutsumi’s attraction to him as equality. He sees himself as an object of sexual desire and a tool of his father’s interest in bringing Mutsumi into the organization, and while he is willing to use his allure to his advantage, it frustrates him completely. What being treated like a woman means to Tohru is the total failure of him as a potential leader and heir to his organization. It is frustrating for the reader as well, to see someone struggle so hard against the author’s insistence that he can never be a strong man.

Mutsumi is a flawed and contradictory character as well. He falls stupidly in love almost overnight with someone who doesn’t seem to give much of a fuck about him at all. The sexual attraction being there early makes far more sense than the idea that Mutsumi falls completely for Tohru over something as dumb as Tohru’s attempt to spare Mutsumi’s feelings by pretending there is danger when he knows very well that there is none. It is clear in that scene that Tohru really just wanted an excuse to get away from Mutsumi, not do him some sort of favor. It is also a bit too convenient for Itsuki to dismiss his son’s complete turnaround in his career goals, after he got a chance to fuck his dad’s boss’ son, as just that his son was looking for an excuse to join the family business. Mutsumi, for all his intelligence, just isn’t that deep.

He acts detached and willing to accept the restrictions of his pursuit of Tohru’s affection, but it’s clearly a poorly concealed act. The moment Asato appears all his composure and cold comments about how he doesn’t care if he has to share Tohru with other men go right out the window. He is the simplest of possessive, persistent semes. He wants Tohru, he wants him all to himself and he wants Tohru to want it as well. Any suggestion by the author that his interests or feelings are any more complex or mature than this are insulting. Again, he’s just not that deep.

All of this is, of course, completely forgiven because Nitta is not shy about drawing sex scenes. These guys jump in the sack almost immediately, and while struggling for dominance in their relationship, they scarcely take their hands off one another whenever they are alone. Neither man seems to have been in a homosexual relationship before this, but they are not reticent about sating their desires in the least. Even Tohru, who feels like he is being treated like a woman by Mutsumi, accepts his physical desires easily and completely. Their love-making spirals into ever more desperate scenes of explicit passion. Readers will not be disappointed. Even I, for all my complaints, can overlook them in the face of the sheer volume of sexual content. Different positions, different states of undress. Even if Tohru is drawn a little more feminine than my tastes, that he can make so many interesting expressions (and sounds) is a welcome distraction from the mess going on around him.

I don’t see too many people objecting to this series. Even the nature of the initial sexual coercion by Mutsumi of Tohru isn’t particularly non-consensual by BL standards. For those looking for the graphic side of BL, this is a safe bet. For those waiting in baited anticipation of the re-release of Embracing Love, this will be a good appetizer. The only problem now is as this is an ongoing series in Japan, it could be another year or more before we see volume 3 in print in English.

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Sleepless Nights by Sachi Murakami

Reviewed by Cait
Published in print by Juné

Short Answer: Typical Fare

From the back cover: “Sure, Miyabi may work in a neighborhood where men like to cruise. That doesn’t automatically mean he’s into guys, too! But what happens when a chance encounter with a beautiful stranger turns his world upside-down? Will Miyabi have the courage to make up his mind about what (or who) he truly desires?

Sleepless Nights creates plenty of delicious tension that’s made for tossing and turning! Should unexpected roommates find a way to keep their relationship strictly platonic? Or will they succumb to sweet pressure and explode in a fit of passion?”

As long as you don’t poke at the premise too hard, this story can remain fairly palatable. There is your typical BL “struggling with emotions,” but not too much struggling, and really, there are moments where you question why there is any at all. Miyabi plays the “straight” card constantly in the front half of the book, but it always seems more born of an interest in distancing himself from a one-night stand than as an actual argument against why he would want to be with Nakatani. There is even a moment where he admits Nakatani is exactly the type of guy he would “make an exception for,” and there is an attempt to defend this in the story with an observation of the other guys in their all-boys high school that are also mysteriously attracted to his cuteness.

Only two named characters in the book are self-identified as “gay,” and only one, Nakatani, is actually wholly homosexual, which in the 2010s is starting to get annoying in these stories. Shinoi, who claims to be gay and in love with his upperclassman Kouno, isn’t attracted to any other guys. He even tries to look at gay porn, in an incident used to create tension between the main couple, and is unable to become aroused. Kouno himself, while never actually coming out, and whose motivations are never really fully explained in the extra side story at the end, is only second to Miyabi as the worst offender here. At least Kouno, who has been the victim of sexual assault by friends in the past, accepts his feelings for Shinoi, even if he can’t express them. Though, I have to question how convenient it is that his past traumas are so easily forgotten, even if Shinoi is making quite a show of proving to his new roommate that he is not a threat.

Nakatani is the most genuine character in the story, but his interest in finding sex before love is intentionally shamed down by Miyabi, and really as an extension of the author’s intent. Nakatani even rationally explains how incredibly difficult it is for gays to find someone fitting both one’s physical and emotional needs. Of course, this is all conveniently resolved because he gets to be roommates with the first guy he finds attractive and succeeds in having a sexual encounter with. Miyabi is meant to be the whole package, so casual hookups, which are presented as a negative thing, are not necessary, paving the way for a clean romantic pairing in the end. You know, after taking most of the book to ramp up the tension between them in ever more silly ways. Two teenage boys who are clearly attracted to each other and, yes, have already casually slept with one another, should really not find it all that difficult to come together. That’s really the most unbelievable part of the story.

I would have liked to see more of Shinoi and Kouno in the book, especially to establish why Kouno, who had access to empty dorm rooms all along and could have had Shinoi sleep in one of them at night, instead let his potential romantic interest sleep in the hallway for an undisclosed number of nights in a row. It was certainly not to protect himself from the shame of being thought to be pursued romantically by his roommate. For all his complaints, he doesn’t seem too concerned with what his schoolmates think of his relationship with Shinoi.

The art is clean, but it is sometimes difficult to discern characters of similar hair color from one another when they are not in the same panel together. It is occasionally necessary to determine who is who from context. The book’s 18+ rating is hardly deserved. There is only one somewhat graphic sex scene, and almost nothing is shown, only really established with words. In the end it is meant more to be romantic than sexy, which is fine, unless the rating led you to buy the book thinking you would get more.

Ultimately, Sleepless Nights is a cute, forgettable read. If you need an extra book to add to an online order for free shipping, this isn’t a bad choice. There isn’t anything particularly offensive in it, unless you are completely sick of the “I’m only gay for this one guy” trope. It tells its story fairly well in one volume with few loose ends.

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Cherry Blossom Reviewer Blog Posts VI

Cait on Spoiler Unfriendly

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Castle Mango volume 1 by Narise Konohara and Muku Ogura

Reviewed by Cait
Published in print by Juné

Short Answer: Good

From the website: “Yorozu lives at Castle Mango, a “love hotel” where couples pay for a few hours to themselves. But his quiet life is violated when Togame arrives to shoot an adult film! Soon Yorozu’s being “mistaken” for an actor, having his pants suddenly removed and watching his little brother get hit on. Togame eventually agrees to stay away from Yorozu’s brother, but there’s a catch – and it’s not something Yorozu’s going to like!”

Yorozu Shirosaki is the worst kind of homophobe. He’s the kind of homophobe that doesn’t want to be seen as a homophobe, so instead of expressing concern to his mother that a man he suspects of being a child predator is interested in her other son, he shuts his mouth and devises a ridiculous scheme to protect said brother by whoring himself out. Every moment he spends in his fake relationship with Togame is tinged with internal monologue about how disgusted he is by kissing or hand-holding or the awful potential gesture of being presented with flowers. This is surely building up to his revelation in volume two of developed romantic feelings for Togame, but to be perfectly honest, he doesn’t deserve any kind of happiness after the terrible lies he tells in this volume or for the horribleness of his assumption that because a man is attracted to other men he is automatically attracted to boys. The explanation given to try to forgive this over-protectiveness of his brother rings hollow at best. It’s far more likely that the assumed lie of jealousy over Togame’s interest in Satoru is a lot truer than he wants to believe. His taciturn personality always made his more outgoing little brother favored in the eyes of others, and he doesn’t like seeing it when people who are cold to him are instead warm to Satoru.

Togame is seriously a great guy. Putting aside the curtness in his outward personality, the combination of his forthrightness and his sense of duty is endearing. That he has an as yet not fully explained tragic backstory is telling of his unwillingness to get close to anyone, though his attraction, emotionally and physically, to Yorozu is near-heartbreaking to witness throughout the volume. I was left with the strong desire to see him get his happy ending, to find salvation in the love of another human being, but watching Yorozu basically make a mockery of his earnest feelings was infuriating.

It is, however, a testament to Konohara’s writing and Ogura’s drawing that I can have such strong, almost polarizing, feelings for two fictional people. I’m gripped with both the uncontrollable desire to know what happens next, and the gut-clenching fear that Togame’s heart is about to get ripped out of his chest at the ultimate revelation of all of Yorozu’s lies and the sinking in of betrayal. Konohara does volatile emotions well and when this shit invariably hits its fan in the future, it is going to hit it hard. She does not shy away from the painful, but nor does she shy away from forgiveness. I’ll be looking forward to volume two.

My one big complaint about the localization is that someone didn’t catch the mistake on the cover, where Konohara and Ogura’s names are switched, before this went to initial print. It is correct on the website (though not on the image above).

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Long Out of Print: Shy Intentions by Syouko Takaku

This is the first in what will be a review series of older print BL titles, not easily found for purchase.

Reviewed by Cait
Published in print by Juné

Short Answer: Passable

From the website: “Sweet, serious Yoshiyuki is a middle-school art teacher who tends to keep to himself. In fact, it’s almost like he’s scared to connect with anyone around him…including his adoring students. But when Yoshiyuki catches the eye of a saavy furniture designer named Kaoru, he quickly undergoes a transformation of both his mixed-up mind and his young body. Will Yoshiyuki finally lift his downcast eyes and see that the world is filled with incredible beauty, or will he retreat into the safety of his old, familiar ways?”

For those who have been reading BL published in English since the mid-2000s, Syouko Takaku will be familiar as the artist who illustrated Shinobu Gotoh’s Passion novel and its four volume manga series (though her name was for some reason romanized differently for this release). This title, too, was published later in that era, probably in an attempt to capitalize on the success of that earlier work. Released just before DMI cut back on production costs by losing dust jackets and moving printing to Canada, it has a classic BL manga feel. Being able to remove the dust jacket and see different artwork on the book itself is a lost pleasure in the consumption of titles in the genre, especially now that even the volumes have shrunk down to traditional tankoban size (or in the saddest turn, gone completely digital). Holding the book in my hands was a wholly nostalgic feeling and probably the most pleasant part of my reading experience, not that I thought the story was terrible.

My issues with this title are two-fold: its main characters. Kaoru is presented as a perfect person, who although having past regrets immediately learned from them and is now a better man for them. His faults are only explored in a brief flashback of him missing his sister’s death because of his attention to his studies. Nothing about him in the present day suggest he is anything other than a perfectly well-rounded individual whose purpose in the story is to “fix” Yoshiyuki. Yoshiyuki, on the other hand, seems to suffer a sentimental dysfunction, whereby he cannot properly comprehend aesthetic beauty, even though, ironically, he is an art teacher. This leads him to behave oddly disaffected and cold to everyone, even his family.

There is no real explanation for why he is this way. His family is not abusive. Even though his father died twenty years earlier, his sisters and mother never treated him poorly, and he never seemed to have wanted for anything. He’s just… off. In other stories, a character like this would have some dark, traumatic past or experience that caused him to become this way. Even the most trivial-seeming incident could be suggested as the culprit, but here, there is nothing. I’m not saying someone needs a “reason” to be like this, but to me simply being “different” is not a “dysfunction” in itself. Yoshiyuki is a grown man with a job and a family that cares for him, but he doesn’t grasp basic human interaction well and needs someone like Kaoru to “fix” him. I object to both the notion that Kaoru is boringly perfect and that Yoshiyuki’s inability to perceive beauty in the world can only be rectified in their relationship. I suppose expecting such a personal revelation to come naturally as a product of human experience is a tall order for something that is “just BL,” but sometimes the romantic glossing-over of meaningful character development gets tiring.

In a scene early in the book, Kaoru quickly lets go of Yoshiyuki’s hand, claiming that it was for Yoshiyuki’s benefit not to be seen holding hands with a man. In probably my favorite moment in the story, Yoshiyuki challenges the assumption that he wouldn’t handle negative attention well: everything about his character even up to this early point suggests otherwise. However, the book immediately disappoints me again when Yoshiyuki begins to explain that he believed Kaoru would be the one with the problem with such attention, but instead of exploring this aspect of Kaoru’s character, it is dropped in favor of an awkward exchange about the beauty of a small rock. It then proceeds with a scene depicting Yoshiyuki’s newfound subconscious understanding of that beauty when he compliments the work of one of his students. He simply immediately, after having known Kaoru for only a short time and confessing never well-established homosexual feelings, comes to a sudden realization about the meaning of beauty. Whether we are supposed to believe this is due to a romantic notion such as “love” is left unresolved, but maybe it’s my cynical side hashing out that complaint.

The love scenes, particularly the first one, are frankly a distraction. As romantic or desperate as their first time is, the dark specter of family tragedy hanging over the scene prevents it from being particularly interesting. I found myself skimming over it to get to the afterwards, which was far more emotionally effective. Later scenes are cute, and occasionally comical, but as a whole, they don’t hold the impact that I look for, particularly with how chaste they really are.

The love story between these men is quaint if nothing else. It’s a nice rainy-day read, but completely forgettable. I did like that the majority of the story is actually a flashback told by Yoshiyuki several years later. Meeting the “current” Yoshiyuki bookends the story of the “old” Yoshiyuki and helps contrast his change in character. The art is clean and simple, not oversaturated with tone or backgrounds. If you liked Takaku’s art in Passion, it looks even better here. The book features a cameo by Hasumi and Ryuichi, characters from an earlier work of Takaku’s, From Yesterday. If you aren’t familiar with it, don’t worry, you aren’t missing anything. While this title is out of print, it is still available new from several retail outlets, as I purchased it just this month myself.

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Only Serious About You volumes 1 & 2 by Asou Kai

Reviewed by Cait
Published in print by Juné

Short Answer: Decent

From the website: “Busy chef Nao has to balance his ultra-hectic restaurant schedule with the demands of being a single parent for his sweet daughter, Chizu. So when flirtatious customer Yoshi offers to lend a helping hand in an emergency, it’s awfully hard to turn him down! But will Yoshi’s simple favor turn into an offer that Nao couldn’t possibly refuse?”

I really like these characters. I’ve just found that in stories I prefer characters I can like as people, over characters I am expected to love to hate. Oosawa and Yoshioka are good people. They are flawed, perhaps, but still genuinely likable. Their backstories are filled out, and their growth over the course of the story is natural and positive. Naoki Oosawa slowly opens himself up to others after having closed himself off after the failure of his marriage and being left to care for his daughter alone. A failure, in no small part, due to his not managing his career and family well enough. He begins the story over-compensating for this failure by trying to take everything on himself and being overwhelmed. Ultimately he is forced to concede to Yoshioka’s persistence to offer aid in the form of a place to stay. Of course, as a gay man, Yoshioka (or, “Yoshi” as Naoki’s adorable, and well behaved, daughter comes to refer to him) has ulterior motives, but as the story progresses, those motives prove more innocent than first expected. Yoshi is simply lonely. Not just in his big home all by himself, but emotionally because of his subconscious insistence on keeping people at arms length. In coming together as human beings they find an emotional connection friends might search for over years and never discover. I came away from this reading experience happy that they could find one another and heal their emotional wounds.

The story, however, is flawed. There is really only so far one can go with BL tropes and an expectation of the suspension of disbelief. As fans of the genre, we are expected to simply accept Naoki and Yoshi’s developing relationship as romantic, but the first 3/4 of the book only shows that romantic affection coming from Yoshi. There is plenty of platonic affection coming from Naoki, but only after a mid-volume 2 averted “crisis” does he relent to a romantic relationship, which then develops immediately into a physical one. Naoki, unlike most of his counterparts in other BL stories in which a straight man succumbs to the charms of a gay suitor, does not agonize over his feelings. In fact, he doesn’t have any time at all to develop them clearly. The plot takes place over the course of a week. We are expected to believe that casual acquantances put into a one time, several day long situation of living together develop their feelings so strongly in such a short time, one of them changing his identified sexuality and the other giving up on casual relationships entirely, that they decide to make a go as a couple permanently. Naoki in particular becomes far too easily and quickly comfortable with a gay lifestyle that he barely bats an eye at the inherent strangeness of such a change.

I do love how naturally homosexuality is depicted in the story, though. Naoki and the people around him don’t have any particular disdain for Yoshioka or his long string of boyfriends. Their general issue is with the way Yoshioka is unable to retain stable monogamous relationships with them, interspersed with comedic fretting over Naoki’s “safety” living with a notorious flirt. Likewise, when Naoki innocently asks Yoshioka if there is something in his past that “made” him gay, I didn’t immediately become uncomfortable. Ignoring what is clearly a cultural difference in the general understanding of the origins of homosexuality in people, Naoki doesn’t necessarily ask because he thinks people become gay out of childhood trauma. He asks because there is clearly something in Yoshioka’s past that made him the guarded and outwardly frivolous person he is as an adult and he wonders if that same thing had an effect on his presented sexuality. This may not read directly from the text, but its undertones are nonetheless there.

The art is clean and the character designs are to my tastes: not too bulky and not too waifish. Probably the only complaint I have with her art is the color covers, which depict Naoki a little younger than he appears anywhere else in the comic. This is an artist who has drawn manga before, and knows how to draw it well. She is not well published in English as of yet, but I’m hoping to see more of what she has to offer in the future.

As for whether I would recommend this two volume series to anyone, I probably would. It is a nice, light read best suited as a palate cleanser between more serious fare.

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Cherry Blossom Reviewer Blog Posts V

Cait on The Semantics of Style

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Cherry Blossom Reviewer Blog Posts IV


Cait on The Five Follies of Fandom

Once a week any posts created on CBR Reviewer Blogs will be aggregated here.

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Cherry Blossom Reviewer Blog Posts III

Kris on Licence Announcements

aoi_aka on:

La-di-da! Anime for Summer 2012

Yaoi Con 2012 Survey: My Answers

My AniDb

Once a week any posts created on CBLR Reviewer Blogs will be aggregated here.

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Jmanga Closing

Jmanga, an online subscription service of 39 Japanese publishers’ works in English that opened in 2010, ended its buying program March 13 and will shut down completely on May 30. Subscribers with remaining points will be refunded via Amazon gift certificate. Subscribers will not be able to download the content to which they purchased access.

Whether this will be good news for the remaining online subscription services, who might be able to pick up Jmanga’s customers, or bad news if this closing indicates that no one wants to read content exclusively online, remains to be seen. But it’s always a shame when another manga publisher goes under, especially one that carries Cherry Blossom’s beloved BL content.

If you have any inside info as to what happened with Jmanga, we’d love to hear about it. Speculation is welcome as well. ^_^

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