Where the Boys Are

I was thinking that it might be time for an intervention… for well-intentioned friends to sit me down in a room and not let me leave until I admitted that there just wasn’t any profit in my continued excursions into yaoi and shônen-ai. I know I’m not the target audience, but some small part of me persists in sampling stories that I often find frustrating.

It all goes back to Sanami Matoh’s Fake (Tokyopop), that daftly implausible opposites-attract romance between two New York City detectives. It was my first exposure to the category, and it’s left me searching for another example that I like as much. (Fumi Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery Digital Manga Publishing is a favorite, but it’s more of a genre-bending character study than pure yaoi, or pure anything, for that matter.)

Since they started me down this long and often frustrating road, it seems only appropriate that Tokyopop is currently publishes two books that offer some of the same intriguing appeal of Fake. Neither Yun Kouga’s Loveless nor Satosumi Takaguchi’s Shout Out Loud(Blu) is perfect, but both feature complex characters and better-than-average scenarios.

Loveless shares a lot of qualities with Kouga’s Earthian(Blu). Both feature forbidden love and a vaguely supernatural backdrop, but Loveless is miles more coherent. It’s also a lot more emotionally complex and, as a consequence, more potently dramatic.

It stars Ritsuka, an alienated 12-year-old with troubles at home and school. His brother, Seimei, has died, and it’s left his mother an unstable, abusive wreck. He’s started at a new school, and he isn’t eager to interact with his fellow students or reward their garden-variety curiosity in the new kid.

Things get weird when Seimei’s friend, Soubi, wanders into Ritsuka’s life. He’s unnervingly devoted to Ritsuka, and he reveals secrets about Semei’s life and death. Seimei and Soubi were partners in a bizarre form of mystical dueling. In that dynamic, Soubi did the heavy lifting under Seimei’s command, but Seimei took the hits. Now, Ritsuka has inherited Soubi as partner and protector and has been thrust into the world of magic words and deadly, mysterious enemies.

As weird as the master-servant battle dynamic is on its face, it’s even stranger to Ritsuka. He’s drawn to Soubi, but he’s unnerved by the notion that Soubi’s devotion was predestined or imposed. His need to connect is at war with his reluctance to trust or need another person. Kouga doesn’t shy away from the unsettling elements of the characters’ relationships, but she doesn’t exploit them to manipulative effect, either.

There’s plenty of intensity, but there’s lots of emotional precision, too. Most of it hangs on Ritsuka, a kid with more mystery and tragedy on his plate than any of his peers. Kouga crafts his responses very carefully. He’s alternately guarded and hopeful, withdrawn and childishly open. Toughness and vulnerability are quite believably at war, and Ritsuka’s desire to avenge the murder of his brother raises the stakes.

The sometimes unsettling weirdness of Loveless might have been enough to make me pick up the next volume, but the solid mystery narrative and well-developed protagonists make me eager to find out what happens next.

The charms of Shout Out Loud! rest partly in its willingness to laugh at yaoi tropes. Takaguchi gets the set-up out of the way fairly quickly. That’s good, because it’s fairly ludicrous.

Voice actor Shino meets Nakaya, his teen-aged son, for the first time when Nakaya’s mother conveniently passes away. Hockey player Nakaya isn’t crazy about living with his maternal grandparents, so he looks up his father and unceremoniously moves in with Shino.

Shino takes quickly to fatherhood and ramps up his professional efforts to support his newfound offspring. That means taking whatever voice gigs come his way, including roles in boy-love dramas. Wherever will such a development lead? Well, mostly where you’d expect, but not entirely.

Shino is a little uncomfortable with the material at first, but a more experienced co-star rightly points out that real actors commit fully to their roles, even if they’re a string of boyish uke characters. (And honestly, can it be any more of a stretch than voicing an adorable anime goblin?)

As Shino’s stock rises in the field of boy-love voice acting, he becomes something of a stud magnet as well. Men, whether co-stars or his son’s teacher, seem drawn to him in much the same way audiences respond to his audio ukes. It’s not at all surprising, but it is pretty funny. Shino expected to spend the rest of his life loving Nakaya’s mother from afar or, more recently, mourning her. Now a whole new stripe of romantic possibilities has opened up to him right in line with his new professional direction.

Nakaya isn’t overjoyed with the development, but he doesn’t know Shino well enough to have formed too many expectations. He’s also amusingly protective of his somewhat clueless father and more than a little intrigued by a way of life he hadn’t really considered before.

Takaguchi makes entertaining hay of expected yaoi dynamics, throwing family relationships into the mix for good measure. While the characters might initially appear to fall neatly into category stereotypes, they have an entertaining capacity to surprise you, and they’re all very likeable.

And the book is funny in a quirky way that reminds me of Tomoko Ninomiya’s Nodame Cantabile (Del Rey). Everyone’s a little odd, but odd becomes gently, warmly normal in the process. Yaoi can be fun! Who knew?