Wow! What can I say about this? You think your love life sucks, that your former significant other treated you wrong, or that perhaps the person you got secretly involved with was a naughty no go you could not resist. I am telling you, you got NUTHIN' compared to this lot! Seriously, the emotions run full throttle here, and go right towards the danger zone of no man's (or woman's) land.
It starts off innocuously enough. University student Naoyuki is out on a date with his new girlfriend when she talks him into going into a cocktail bar she has heard about. Wishing to please her, he goes in but with misgivings as he doesn't like cocktails all that much after a first experience having a dry martini. In fact, he even tells her he is not a fan of cocktails, but the rude interruption of the bartender in response to his confession draws his attention. That is when he believes a miracle has happened, for it is Okada, his sempai from high school, for whom he had searched for the past few years. Okada, who had been two years senior to him, and his first love, who vanished the day of his graduation, never even showing up at the university he had been accepted into. His only memories were of the firsts he had given Okada: his first kiss, his first time in bed, his first cocktail- the dry martini Okada told him was sweet. And yet, there he was, in a nearby cocktail bar serving cocktails, with nary a word to his friends or the one he had professed to love. A love that had waited for him as promised after the graduation ceremony with a special gift in hand...
So was it a miracle? Was it heck. Okada acts happy to see him,as if the separation of the past four years was a normal expectation and this a mere reunion of causal school acquaintances. Okada's looks have matured, and he is even more good looking than he as then, but his causal demeanour cuts Naoyuki to his core. It does bring one thing into focus, however. He never got over Okada, and desperately wants to repair whatever went wrong between them. Okada is not best pleased when Naoyuki begins to hang about, but that is not the most shocking thing. The previously steadfast Okada has become something of a man-slut, not only having casual throw away sex with his employer, but he uses the bar to pick up one night stands that he conducts in the bar before opening. Naoyuki can't stand to see the state his beloved has gotten himself into, and pursues the matter. Okada is distressed and pushes hard to have Naoyuki leave him alone. The bar owner however, is amused and decides to hire Naoyuki at the bar, to see what happens when things get stirred a bit more. One thing is for certain, no one is going to let Okada run from whatever he was trying to escape from facing before, and with Naoyuki about, martinis are not the only things shaken around the Maria Elena Cocktail Bar.
If that was not enough drama in one small bar, the owner has his own issues. As his younger brother Yoshitomo puts it to Naoyuki, Katsuragi is just playing around with the full knowledge but unwilling consent of his steady lover. If you think that sounds a bit messed up relationship wise, the whys and wherefores will probably shock you even further. Katsuragi's lover's identity is a bit of an open secret that no one other than the younger brother "really" knows. That might seem unavoidable to the employees and patrons of the Maria Elena as the two live together above the bar, but that is not the whole story. It seems the bit on the side may be his way of trying to run away from facing his own issues for brief moments in time, issues Yoshitomo understands far better than his brother thinks that he does. Issues that require costume role play in which the word "brother" is forbidden to be uttered by either party as it disturbs the necessary illusion the one has for coping with their situation and their "difficult" love during its full physical expression.
Yes, there is a side story here with these two characters, and it involves incest between two male siblings, which if you don't happen to read a lot of this genre is probably going to make you want to reach for the brain bleach. It is a VERY common manga theme, especially in the Boy's Love genre, and having encountered it so many times before, I merely found it psychologically interesting, as the side story actually is seen from the younger Yoshitomo's point of view and is a reflection on just how his brother splits his reality to accommodate this sin without losing himself in drowning guilt. No one is coerced here, and they are both (technically) beyond the age of consent, and no offspring can result, so it is not quite as icky as it could be. If it bothers you, it is just a side story and nothing will be otherwise missed from the main storyline if you skip it, though you will miss out on an interesting peek into a psychological profile.
Indeed, Tateno's entire piece is very psychologically driven. The whole story revolves around the emotional reasons Naoyuki takes the physical and mental abuse Okada throws at him constantly as well as the deep seated socially driven reasons for which Okada disappeared four years ago and that now compell him to treat Naoyuki so badly to his face, while mentally and physically abusing himself through sex. His whole reason for lying to Naoyuki and going to great lengths to sleep with so many random men are related to past insecurities that made him flee so long ago, but it is only by facing their inner demons and mastering them that either of them will manage to move forward. But does moving forward mean they will be together? Far from from sweet, this is one drink Naoyuki is determined to make his own, but does it wish to be consumed, and if so so, is it palatable?
There is a little extra included in this volume, unrelated to the main story. It is rather lacking in plot, being a bit of fan service with two young high school lovers meeting up, obsessing over each other's uniform types. They go to separate high schools, so one has a blazer and tie and the other the military style, upturned collared gakuran. Both seem to have a bit of a fetish over the uniform of the other, but the whys soon become rather obvious. It is their graduation day, and so the last day they will see the other in it. A time of endings, and beginnings, as they move forward together in society, but not before celebrating a bit on their own. This being an 18+ title, we get invited along to view their tumble, but after having previously seen some explicit sexual scenes earlier in the manga with a lot more angsty overtones, this is nothing but the olive to the rest of the proverbial martini.
While the angsty main storyline and its associated side story are a bit more full on that one usually gets from mangaka Makoto Tateno, I have to say that her art has not changed at all. Beautiful men with an almost elfin quality to their faces abound, with her mature businessman reeking heavy masculine sex appeal; the guys are pure eye candy. Indeed, her men are prettier than her women, to their shame. Her backgrounds are uncluttered, with her frames serving as stages to offset the character driven action we get plenty of. Her prose is not overly wordy, being straight to the point without being blunt, retaining a lyrical quality that serves as a real credit to Sachiko Sato's translation skills. Along with the soothingly eye pleasing art, it serves to keep this story of societal taboos and learning that love is not just about the happy times from dragging one down. Whether or not you can hold this drink is up to you, but then, I quite like cocktails.
***I'd like to thank Digital Manga Publishing for providing me with this review copy***