Adult Swim: Picnic At the Beach

>> Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rather than pick out a particular manga, I'm going to talk about the yaoi work of a particular mangaka: Kawai Touko. Why? 'Cause I like 'em. Are they all a lot alike? Yep. Like 'em anyway. Does nearly every pair of characters look almost like the next pair of characters? Yeah.

For the most part, we're not exploring the depths and angst of homosexuality. There are minimal love triangles, or, thank Heaven, stupid plots putting protagonists at risk in stupid ways. No protagonists raping, coercing or torturing each other (unless one wants to count mutual consensual piercing in Bond(z) and the one masochist in Cut).

What they are romances with generally wonderful people, who might have shadows and pain, either in the past or currently, who don't always make the best choices and are therefore both imperfect and charming. In most cases, they were stories about more than sex (which is not always true of yaoi, believe me) even though sex is a common element, about relationships between people, rather than just bodies. But the people interacted and depended on each other, without the powerful male/helpless-uke-in-distress pattern.

They're fun and funny. The art is good (even if everyone has painfully pointy chins) with generally tastefully done sex scenes and expressive faces. The characters are generally loveable, shadows and all, if for no other reason than the earnest way they care about each other. Some are clever, some are talented, some are patient. Some aren't, just like real people, but without the lopsided relationships prevalent in yaoi and romances alike. Because the people and the relationships feel real, complete with misunderstandings, selfishness, self-sacrifice and real affection (not just lust). The books are about making real connections with other people, obstacles notwithstanding, and manage to do so with humor, depth and emotion, but without getting sappy or shallow.

Here's the best news (and I rarely get to say this about yaoi): they are almost all available published in English. (Yes, I own everything on my list - forthcoming - except Overdose and don't regret a sou). The only sad thing is that, sometimes, the translations are not quite as good as what one finds in the scanlations [example: "the end of our road of passion" vs. the infinitely better, "limits of desire"). Also, the stories are all spun out to reasonable lengths (only Bond(z) is strictly one-shots) but not dragged out for dozens of volumes. The longest series is two volumes, an easy evening of reading. So, here's the rundown going alphabetically (using English titles):

Bond(z) - One-shots including (a) two "straight" friends who find themselves experimenting with each other, only to fall unexpectedly into love (b) two friends since childhood who have loved each other, but with one denying his own feelings because of a kindergarten teacher who made him ashamed of his gay affection, (c) a rare Kawai fantasy involving the prince of a rosebush (you had to be there), and (d) a pampered rich boy finding his own freedom with companion from the "regular world."

Cafe Latte Rhapsody - Sweet story about a tiny gay clerk in a bookstore and his romance with his absurdly tall awkward (but so adorable) younger cohort. As close to sappy as Kawai gets, and still so charming I can't hardly stand it. Minimal shadows here.

Cut - I'd say her edgiest work with two high school seniors, each with their own demons, one nearly killed by a psychotic mother, the other convinced he killed his father. Together, they confront their demons, one by abandoning his self-imposed isolation while the other must forgo his self-punishment. This is the only work with overt S and M and incest (step-parent). The latter step-father is not a protagonist.

In The Walnut (2 volumes) - An eccentric scruffy yet unusually photogenic artistic genius and his best friend/lover, a movie cameraman, handle art crises including restorations and forgeries with intelligence and compassion. This is probably the least "romance" set of stories and yet, the genuine warmth between our couple (despite their unique beginning - I actually recommend reading the extras in In the Walnut vol 1 before the rest) make them one of my favorite couples. Charming as Cafe Rhapsody if somewhat less innocent and with the intellectual stimulus of art history tossed in as well.

Just Around the Corner - Two souls collide when their worlds are darkest and find solace in each other: a 26 year old salary man who lost his lover and job at the same time (because he rather foolishly was having an affair with his married boss) stumbles across a "19-year-old" piano prodigy who's piano-playing future was shattered by an accident that cut up his hands. Solace transforms into a "sex friend" relationship that begins to become more and more significant over time until our unemployed salary man takes up his new job as a substitute math teacher and discovers his part time lover is a full-time sixteen year old high school student. I'm not a big fan for the teacher-student pair ups that are very very common in yaoi but, by the time we got there, I was already in love with the characters and Kawai's handling of this tricky scenario was spot on perfect. It's a favorite, I admit.

Loveholic (2 volumes) - a talented but volatile photographer (Nishioka) is only handled effectively by the rich and capable advertising executive, Matsukawa Daisuke, who is, arguably, his biggest fan. Over the first book their growing interdependence, fondness, and interadmiration of one another grows into a romantic relationship (to, perhaps, the photographer's surprise). There's an added extra explaining Daisuke's tattoo and the reason for his patience. In the second volume, the relationship is fleshed out until they reach a point where someone has to give up "everything" for the other - and the other has to accept that. I love this series, really, it's my favorite of the Kawai books and I can't even tell you why, unless it's Nishioka's face after their first kiss:

Our Everlasting (2 volumes) - Another extrovert/shy guy pairing, this one with sexy straight Horyu changing his view of their relationship when his best friend, the timid Shouin, confesses to Horyu when he thinks Horyu is sleeping. Too shy to take the initiative, Horyu must determine he shares the feelings and pursue Shouin, almost to excess, before he can get Shouin to admit his own feelings. Throughout the second volume, other insecurities threaten their relationship, ah, but love wins, as many of us like to think it should. There's an unrelated one-shot in each volume, with the In the Walnut introduction as the extra in volume 2 (with a different translation than that in the In the Walnut book itself).

Overdose - Sweet unassuming guy (Chika) confesses to a womanizing man (Yuuji)who becomes intrigued and sleeps with him out of curiosity, only to find the sex compelling and the companionship of Chika appealling, so much so that he moves in to the home and a relationship with Chika. Chika loves him desperately. Unfortunately, for Chika, relationship notwithstanding, Yuuji sees no reason to forgo his previous profligate ways, throwing them in Chika's face with an insensitivity that drives their mutual friends batty. Finally, Chika has more than he can handle and he leaves the apparently indifferent Yuuji. That leaves Yuuji to reluctantly come to terms with what he really feels and what really wants. Yuuji is arguably the least appealing of Kawai's protagonists.

If you're new to the genre but interested in checking it out , I'd say you couldn't go wrong with Touko Kawai.


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