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This book is actually a collection of three stories, which run to two or more chapters. The title of the book is derived from the name of the first story. The stories are stand alone and do not link together in any way, sharing neither a common universe nor thematic topic other than all belonging in the Boy's Love genre.
In the first story, we first meet Shinobu Miura and Eiichi Tashiro at university where they are friends. Having different majors and interests, at first glance one would think they only socialise together due to having made friends in common and living next door to each other. At least, that is what people who know them think, but the truth is somewhat different, as Shinobu and Eiichi share a physical attraction to each other that gets indulged in on a regular basis. Shinobu wants more than a casual, hidden relationship, but Eiichi is reluctant to come out of the closet. Things come to a head when Shinobu gets an offer to work under a top photographer in the US. Accepting it means he will drop out of university to go straight into his chosen field. It is a golden opportunity, but what of him and Eiichi? Does Eiichi truly love him, and if so, will a long distance relationship work?
The ins and outs of accepting one's sexuality and balancing it with what one perceives to be society's expectations is explored here through a series of episodes in the life of Shinobu and Eiichi as they move from school days to the world of working adults with responsibilities. Along with their growing maturity comes changes in how they view and deal with their emotions for one another. It is a gently paced slice of life story, filled with situations brimming with emotion and understated melodrama. The episodic nature of the chapters causes a feeling of disconnection reflected within the relationship of the two characters, but given that this is a central issue in any long distance relationship, it works well as device. The piece has a certain charm and feel good element to it, coming to a satisfying conclusion that leaves the reader feeling warm and reassured, wishing them a long and happy union.
Secret is an entirely different matter. You know this is not going to be a piece of sweet romance when the opening lines about being crazy dance across the page. High school student Takayuki Kitamura is suffering from a sense of alienation. On the surface, he is a bright kid with good looks and decent grades who gets along well with his peers. But Taka has unresolved issues that have gone unnoticed until the day they rose up in front of Taka and he realised he was not the normal guy everyone else thinks he is. His mother is a workaholic with a raging sexual appetite. Having seduced a rather young teen-aged boy , she married him and had his child (Taka). Indeed, father Masaki presents a thorny issue. Only now approaching 30, he still looks far younger than his age. And when Taka was a small child he was left to do the child raising, forging more of a companion role than a fatherly one due to his relative youth. Taka takes after his mother in more than looks, and finds that his inability to see Masaki as his father is having unexpected consequences, while Masaki and mother Aiko remain oblivious to the status quo, happily living in their fantasy world of two lovers and their child. It all comes to a violent head one day, but will what happens come to a resolution or will it all get swept under the carpet to maintain their happy illusion?
The subject matter is admittedly disturbing, and truth be told, this is a story that I had to read through twice. The first time through, I understood the actual chain of events, and the second chapter with its childhood flashbacks really helped demonstrate the seeds that were sown that led to such bittersweet fruit. The second read through, I caught the subtext as to what actually was happening and its actual eventual outcome that is hinted at. This proved even more disturbing than the first read through, and I could not help but wonder if the seemingly cheerful and innocent Masaki was actually as unaware as he had appeared, or simply hoping the issue would go away while being in self denial about his own inner emotions. Aiko is the unifying factor between the two men, and her personality, looks and passion are not only what has had Masaki smitten with her all these years, but what leaves him somewhat lonely when she is not there to shine upon him. Taka is like a Mini Me version of Aiko, and I have no doubt that the acts of withdrawal by Masaki with its accompanying loss of appetite and weight loss are symptoms of his own realisation of this. It is very much a psychological piece, filled with nuances deceptively layered into scenes that at first seem of little consequence or in for pure titillating shock value. This would be an error in judgement however, as it is an interesting peek into the human psyche though it did leave me cold.
The next story is not so much a story as it is sketch. It is a nice piece that with its lightweight nature provides the perfect antidote to the feelings left by Secret. Classmates Sonoda and Kashiwa have classroom duty, dealing with the attendance book and other small clerical details. We don't know which is which, only getting their names from the duty roster up on the board, but we do see that one is slighter than the other, and that the taller, more masculine of the two wears a pair of glasses (from which the piece gets its title of Glasses). Glasses won't meet his classmates eyes and it bother him, so he decides to snatch the glasses off of his face and play around. Putting the glasses upon his own face, he is staggered by ow strong they are and literally falls back. Being so near sighted means that Glasses cannot see unless quite close up, and with his helping grab his stumbling friend, seems to provide the excuse his emotions have been looking for. Will this pair of glasses bring the feelings of these two boys into focus, or will a the blurred lines turn into nothing but chaos?
This is the only story that doesn't contain sexual explicitness, and it doesn't need to. The feelings that play out are natural and perfectly encapsulated as is without a further need of extraneous fan service added as an element. This is one thing I really liked about this work as a whole; mangaka Aoi Kujyou 's restraint in not making use of the unnecessary is refreshing. The content is only explicit where it drives the story forward in some way and has great relevance, unlike many titles in the genre which all too often throw in scenes merely to heighten the melodrama into one great hand wringing, overwrought and ultimately unsatisfying mess. Going for content over style, Kujyou chooses his ingredients carefully, and so this story of gentle mutual discovery is left beautifully, gently intact as a snapshot of the innocence of first love and its beginnings. Yes, his, as unusally for the genre this is indeed a male mangaka, giving a fresh pair of eyes on the genre than the norm.
The final story is actually a sequel to Glasses. Step by Step shows the continuing discovery of love between Kashiwa and Sonoda. This time, though, we come to realise that Sonoda is Glasses and Kashiwa his slighter friend. Things have moved on from that first initial kiss, but not much. It is obvious Sonoda is serious about Kashiwa, and indeed, Kashiwa comes by every day to visit Sonoda at his flat where he lives alone. He finds himself listening for the approaching footsteps of his beloved upon the steps, but beyond deep kisses, is unsure just how far to take things, as Kashiwa had until recently ahd a girlfriend and he doesn't wish to frighten him off. Insecurities are doubled when he sees Kashiwa with his ex, then tripled when he hears the familiar footsteps approach, then turn around to leave before coming to the door. Sometimes love must be pursued, but does Kashiwa want Sonoda to catch him? Is he walking away from just the apartment that day for no particular reason, or is he walking away from Sonoda? Love is often filled with insecurities, but can our young men face them?
Altogether this volume is not a bad collection of stories, though the second tale does send a jarring note into the overall sunshiny feel of the book. Each of the vignettes bar that one felt complete in themselves. Secret's ending was a bit too open, and felt like it needed expanding, perhaps int its own full length book. Glasses and Step by Step ended satisfactorily, but left me wishing there was more as I would have liked to have gotten to follow their story further in the same way we did with the couple in Duetto. These quibbles aside, it is a satisfying read, without sudden attacks of the fantastic or with gratuitous violence and sex (though there is a bit of both as and only when required by the plot-lines) and the art is pleasant on the eye. Also of note is that is available both as a paperback as well as a Kindle edition, which can not only be read on a Kindle e-reader, but as well as on the I phone, Blackberry and the PC with the free Kindle application from Amazon installed.
****I'd like to thank Digital Manga Publishing for providing me with a review copy****