Digital Manga’s Passion

In the rare moments when I find myself at a loss for some specifically flawed comic to pick apart, I can always fall back on the classic medium-wide failings. An old standard gripe is over the dearth of interesting, complex portrayals of gay and lesbian characters, rounded out with some subsidiary griping about the drab handful gay and lesbian characters of any stripe and the segment of fandom who find them so inexplicably threatening.

You’d think I’d find the ascendance of yaoi manga in the western market would be cause for celebration. The combination of two of my favorite things – Japanese comics and guys totally doing it – sounds like it would be the comics equivalent of peanut butter and chocolate. In reality, it’s more like bubble tea: lots of people love it, but the appeal escapes me.

Of course, I’m not really part of the target audience for yaoi. Though the genre trades in sexy, same-sex romance, the manga aren’t created for a gay male audience. That’s a strange notion for me to absorb, but yaoi has always been intended to appeal primarily to women. Digital Manga Publishing’s dedicated yaoi site, yaoi-manga.com, bills itself as “The Girls Only Sanctuary.”

And that’s fine. One of manga’s most admirable qualities is its ability to reach readers who aren’t generally served by mainstream western publishers. There are plenty of manga categories that don’t engage me. But a genre of same-sex love stories that doesn’t much care if it appeals to a gay audience will always strike me as odd.

My latest dip in the yaoi pool was Digital Manga’s Passion, written by Shinobu Gotoh and drawn by Shoko Takaku. Its two volumes promise “taboo upon taboo” and wonder, “Could there even be a more apt example of forbidden love?”

The opening sequence features high-school student Hikaru forcing himself on Shima, a delicately handsome teacher at his school. Rather than calling the police, Shima takes an unusual punitive approach: he suggests Hikaru atone for the assault by pretending to be Shima’s lover until graduation.

It’s a little difficult to accept a romance that starts with coercive sex, and physical or emotional duress seems to be a fairly common element in much of the yaoi I’ve tried. Even Sanami Matoh’s wonderful Fake (Tokyopop) has more than its share of unsettling you-know-you-want-it moments. If Shima was a woman, you have to wonder how the plot mechanics would come across.

Since Hikaru is desperately infatuated with his victim and eager to make amends for his violent act, it’s hard to view a feigned relationship as particularly effective punishment. The only angst for Hikaru comes from the fact that the role-playing has a set end date. And there’s nothing quite as romantic as a young man calling his lover “Sir.” (Okay, that works in a very different context, but we aren’t talking about Gengoroh Tagame here.)

Complications arise in the form of Shima’s fellow teacher and ex-lover Amamiya, a serial monogamist who finds his feelings for Shima resurfacing. (Amamiya tries to force himself on Shima, too.) It’s difficult to see why Hikaru and Amamiya are moved to such irrational depths of feeling for Shima; his emotional unavailability is his most distinguishing trait, though he’s undeniably pretty.

Oddly enough, complications don’t arise from the teacher-student relationship at the story’s center. Hikaru and Shima keep their role-play relationship discreet, and nobody who knows about it cares much about any inappropriate connotations of the dynamic. If anything, the forbidden romance creates another positive for Hikaru. Shima rewards academic achievement with dates, and Hikaru becomes more studious so he can spend more time with Shima.

Since Shima is such a cold fish, he doesn’t generate much chemistry with either of his suitors. They want him because there wouldn’t be a story if they didn’t. Since Shima tightly controls his contact with Hikaru, there isn’t much story anyway. There’s a lot of pining going on with a bit of sex thrown in.

The most engaging character is also the most incidental. School nurse Morikawa brings much-needed life to the proceedings. As Amamiya’s confidante, she’s sexy, playful, and blunt, a clear-eyed, benevolent meddler. She’s a nice break from all the smoldering, and I sure missed her when she wasn’t around.

For a manga called Passion, there isn’t very much on display. It’s more about control and emotional distance. That could serve to make the occasional breakthrough of raw feelings more effective, but the interpersonal dynamics are so vague and strange that it’s hard to get invested. There isn’t much of a feel for why the points of the love triangle are so besotted.

When I know something isn’t specifically intended for my enjoyment, I wonder if I’m able to evaluate it fairly. When it makes unsatisfying use of content that I think is sorely lacking in entertainment in general and comics in particular, I wonder if I’m just being cranky. But I’m pretty sure that Passion just doesn’t hold together very well.

That said, I have to admire Digital Manga’s grab for this particular piece of the manga pie. As I’ve noted in the past, I’m a sucker for intelligent, targeted manga marketing and sensible attention to niche audiences. On that front, Digital Manga has succeeded admirably. (They’ve even launched a sideline of yaoi-themed body washes.)

I just wish I liked the genre more, though I do have high hopes for Digital Manga’s upcoming Antique Bakery. Maybe the addition of pastry chefs to yaoi will be the window I need. Japanese comics about guys who bake and totally do it? Now that sounds like something that could inspire passion.