“ Genre: Graphic Novels / Comics / Author: Kazuma Kodaka / Edition: New title / Paperback / 208 Pages / Book is published 2004-08-25 by Central Park Media,US „
Beautiful young men-check. Martial arts- check. Yakuza- check. Interesting art-check. Put all these together in a manga and you get what? Well, if the mangaka is Kodaka Kazuma, what you get is not a fast paced ride into adventure with guns and seamy deals, but.... a romance. Yup, yup, love is definitely in the air and as this particular writer mainly writes Boy's Love titles, the romance in this series is between martial artists and people with ties to the underworld, and both male. Ties that are not always voluntary, I might add, and it is this fact that helps add extra dimension to what could be a tired cliché in the genre. Indeed, the mangaka has been quoted as having said that she personally knows someone from a yakuza family, and so it is no surprise that the portrayals ring with an authenticity that grabs the reader by the throat and keeps them firmly held until the final page has turned.
Samejima Ranmaru is a prodigy in kendo. His family owns a dojo and so he was raised studying the art from a young age. His speed and agility, plus the fact that he has never lost a match, even at the national levels, earned him the nickname "the White Devil". Dedication to the martial art meant he has spent most of his free time dedicated to it, and being naturally introverted anyway, he has had few friends outside of the sport. This changed one day in junior high when he met Enjouji Kei. It was the first day of starting junior high, and it was an auspicious new beginning indeed. It is fair to say that it was one of those pivotal moments in time where a single event set off a chain reaction that was to send vast ripples outward; causing greater effect than the seeming trivial event that triggered it.
Kei was a child raised in a single parent family. His mother had been a geisha, and all Kei knew was that his mother had become pregnant and left the field to raise him on her own. The two of them were close, and when his mother fell ill with lung trouble, Kei was devastated. During this time, he wandered into his new school's dojo, where he saw what appeared to be an angel swinging a shin. It was love at first sight, and being a very straight forward and extroverted person, he immediately informed the astonished Ranmaru, who was somewhat taken aback. Refusing Kei's romantic feelings, Ranmaru nevertheless was interested enough in Kei's own rusty kendo skills to cultivate a friendship in hopes of getting him to join the school's kendo club. Kei went along with it, just to be near Ranmaru, and so the two grew closer, and closer, though he joined the tea ceremony club instead.
It was a closeness that indeed culminated in their becoming a couple, and years passed. The strength Ranmaru had was shared with Kei when Kei's mother died from her illness. Seeing Kei's deep despair Ran vowed never to abandon his lover. But what's this? Kei's mother has left a letter? Inside are long held secrets, secrets which not only shake what Kei knows about himself, but one that just may shatter his world. For his mother was actually in hiding all this time, as Kei's father is a yakuza boss, and she had not wanted her child raised in that world. But someone else knows, and underworld business comes to visit itself upon Kei in the form of a car speeding down a dark road aiming straight for Kei. Only Ranmaru pushes him out of the way, and so becomes paralyzed. This is the point where the bonds of love are tested, and their story actually begins. This is where we begin to follow these two as they deal with their concept of personal identities and how they relate to one another.
Ranmaru must face that he is no longer "The White Devil." If not, who is he? What can he do? Will he truly never walk again? Has he become a burden? Kei, on the other hand, feels great grief and guilt. He knew nothing about his parentage, yet it came and destroyed the person he loved and his dreams. He wants nothing to do with that world, and feels he must atone to Ranmaru. Already hiding the true nature of their relationship due to conservative Japan's often less than welcoming attitude towards same sex relationships, Kei feels that his affections have nonetheless ruined his beloved. Can they both reach out and show the other their true reflection of self? Can they find their inner selves again? Will the bonds of love break, or will it carry them through? And what about the yakuza? Will they come again, and to what effect?
This is book one of an eleven volume series. The summary I have just given is actually the framework from which the storyline actually moves outward from. This is very much a plot driven story, rich in detail. Kodaka Kazuma has avoided providing an easy quick read, and provided a three dimensional world filled with complex characters. It would have been more usual perhaps to jump straight into the main story and just flashback over succeeding volumes, but then we would have not connected so deeply with characters had she not provided us with the back-story straight off. In this way, we get to actually know these two young men, and follow their personal lives and emotional developments, right up to where the story itself actually begins. Indeed, I became so immersed in their lives that when main story arc began, I was emotionally invested and felt real grief. Of course, having the visuals added to the impact. Seeing an anguished Kei clutching a bloodied and broken Ranmaru on a dark rainy street left quite the gut punch.
Kodaka left no stone unturned in her art panels, intentionally inflicting the small moments as well as the large upon the reader, so that the reader is in essence an eyewitness to this story. From the seemingly trivial to the first time they make love, to the actual moment of vehicular impact and beyond, we see it all. Indeed, her not shying away from showing the sex has led to many Americans referring to this work as "porn with plot". I have to disagree with that assessment, however. Unlike many titles within this genre, the scenes are not there to titillate. It is merely a natural progression of their interpersonal relationship, and so this too, we witness. The scenes are actually done beautifully, and are filled with emotion. It is not over beautified either. From the initial natural awkwardness of the first kiss, and also THAT first time, all is wonderfully conveyed. These are pivotal moments in time, and actually drive the story forward. One cannot become lovers without this, and as this is a romance, being lovers is a must, no?
Speaking of beautified, I must speak up here. The art in this is quite good, but rougher than subsequent volumes. Indeed, we can see changes over the various chapters as well, as Kodaka becomes more adept at drawing (she is self taught) and gets a deeper feel for her characters and how they should look. It is not distracting however, but if you are one who really eyes the art, be aware that it gets better and better, as does the story! It is actually fascinating to see the development of the mangaka's professional works in this way. And no matter how "rough" her characters look, the backgrounds are always well presented, and her placement of speech and thought impeccable. I really hate poorly placed text in graphic panels, but hers were a joy to read. Likewise, the panel layout is clear, without some of the fancier panel layouts that confuse the eye and make me think of those annoying camera angle tricks one sees so often in trendy TV shows.
The current editions available for this manga are those out by Central Park Media's Be Beautiful imprint. CPM, and therefore also Be Beautiful, actually went bankrupt a year ago, so second hand is all you currently are going to get. Sadly, they only got a few editions of vols. 9 and 10 out before going kaput, and I should warn you that due to scarcity, books in this series can go for triple digit figures. HOWEVER.... Another publisher has now acquired the English license and is putting out their own editions. So, if you can wait until the end of the year, June Manga is releasing retranslated, oversized, deluxe omnibus editions. The first of these will of course include this particular volume I am reviewing, and given the high quality of other June Manga I own, I am looking forward to it. They have announced plans to release the entire series, so if you get started reading, you won't be left hanging at the end unlike us previous fans, who had to go scamper for scanlations or Japanese or German language editions to find out how the series ended!
So, well plotted, but due to pictorial scenes of violence and sex, it really earns its 18+ rating. Therefore well worth the read, but keep it on a top shelf away from children.