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On the first day of middle school, Enjouji Kei was smitten by the sight of a beautiful youth standing beneath amidst cherry blossoms blowing about in a light wind. This was Samejima Ranmaru, who despite his slight build and beautiful face, is well admired and feared for his unparalleled skill in kendo. Raised at his family's kendo dojo along with his sister after losing his parents, Ranmaru is his grandfather's pride and joy. From a very young age, his life has been dedicated to nothing but kendo, but that is about to change. Kei is openly smitten and makes quite open advances. To make matters worse, during a kendo lesson in P.E. Class, he nearly bests Ranmaru despite having no obvious previous training. Thus, Ranmaru too begins to pursue Kei, as he is the only person Ranmaru has ever encountered that he could consider a potential rival. Their feelings deepen with each encounter, finally culminating in a kiss. The time comes when Kei bests Ran, and Ran knows he has met his match, and the two become lovers.
Kizuna means bond, and the two discover just how deep theirs truly is when Kei loses his mother in high school. A former geisha, she has suffered from lung disease for years, and Kei's ambition has been to finish school and protect and support his single mother. Feeling helpless as he could do nothing for her, he is all to aware that he truly knew nothing: his mother Hotaru has left him a letter telling him that she had been the mistress of a yakuza, Sagano Takeshi, the head of the Kansai Shouryuukai in Osaka, and that he is this man's son. Seeing his lover break down, Ran vows he will protect Kei, and will never allow him to be hurt again. All too soon his words come frighteningly true, as a car hurtles towards Kei in the rainy darkness, driven by a hit-man hired to kill the eldest son of Sagano's in order to throw the group into disarray in the midst of a yakuza power struggle. Ranmaru is left crippled, unable to ever hold a sword again, and facing the possibility of never being able to even walk. Will the bonds of love hold as the two move forward into their now uncertain future?
And just who is the freshman at their university? Sagano Kai seems to be obsessed with Ranmaru, and openly challenges Kei for him. An old family photograph in a closet holds the answer to the mystery of the actual identity of the boy with a familiar last name, but just what it has to do with Ran and Kei in particular is still a mystery. As Kei goes head to head with his hotheaded rival, and Ran attempts to reconcile the two, it becomes obvious that Kai holds a deep, selfish passion for Ranmaru. Just how far he is willing to go to get what he thinks he wants is something that even Kei is unaware of until pushed to the brink. But this is the least of Kai's emotional troubles, as bodyguard Masanori comes to find him and take him back home to Osaka. Masanori, with whom Kei has a long term famlial relationship with, as his older "brother" in the yakuza hierarchy. Masanori, whom Kei has loved from childhood with forthright childish affections. Masanori, whose relationship with Kei is complicated not only due to age and status, but because of an emotional scar left upon Kei by a rejected bedfellow of Masanori's and unwittingly deepened by Masanori himself in reaction.
Kizuna first appeared in the early 1990s, and as a series is complete at 11 volumes. The now defunct North American publisher Be Beautiful licensed the series and put out 8 of the volumes, but these were not without controversy, particularly with the very first volume. Be Beautiful's handling of the project included complete scene edits, with the most infamous being a complete removal of a childhood kiss Kei gives Masanori It is an innocent kiss upon the lips, as 7 year old Kei is thrilled his "older brother" has come to his school's Parent's Day, and the kiss is his innocent show of affection as he explains to Masa, "I saw on TV that you kiss someone you love." Other edits included complete line changes, ostensibly to not upset retailers and Western readers, though as it turned out, the readers were by and large upset when the changes were discovered. Roll on to Sept 2010, and we have it newly re-licensed for English release, this time with the rights purchased by Digital Manga. Released under the June imprint for wider distribution, June elected to do an omnibus release. Another words, the June volume 1 edition is actually the original volumes 1 and 2 of the manga under one cover.
For their release, June went back to the original Japanese source material, and created their own translations. The translation flows smoothly, and the only censorship visible appears to be that also present in the Japanese original: some blurring of the penises in the first few chapters for whatever reasons that the mangaka or original publisher Biblos (now Libre) had at that time. The innocent first kiss given Masanori by the child Kei is left entirely intact and is shown in all its adorable poignancy. I was really happy to see the sweetly flowing translation and unmarred artwork, as Kodaka's slice of life tale is one that rises above the mainstream of BL, giving a glimpse of two young men deeply comfortable with their passion for each other and secure in their sexuality, and featuring a second couple with a tumultuous past and attendant confused inner feelings about how to deal with their attraction. It is a nice set of contrasts, and the way the two couple's lives intertwine actually forms the underpinnings for events that shape the other's destinies.
The art is in itself very unique. Kodaka's characters are lovely to look at, but do not conform to any one "style" standard. If her men are beautiful, it is not in the great androgynous manner so common in shoujo and many a BL story. If her men are rugged and manly, it is not quite within the norm for seinen genre males either. Instead of shackling herself to a single style, the mangaka has instead opted to for a more realistic approach, giving her characters faces that one might encounter on the street and free of extreme caricature though somewhat softened in detail. Her characters all have strong personalties and their bodies are equally well defined. Forget the pretty faced, whiny uke: Ranmaru is a strong willed, gentle fellow with a body made lean and well muscled from years of kendo. During scenes depicting the couple making love, it is well apparent that it is two very male persons enjoying each other, with broad backs, leanly muscled yet hairless arms and legs on full display. The scenes are filled with an intense animalistic passion that fairly has the testosterone roiling from the page, She also doesn't opt for another common convention in the genre: the rounded eyes with double eyelids that often cause readers to proclaim that the characters are westernised. One look and there is no mistake: this is set in Japan, with characters whose looks clearly define their racial ancestries. This adds a further element of realism entirely befitting a slice of life tale such as this.
Yes, slice of life. For as we read, we first encounter the couple in their well established relationship. What follows is a set of flashbacks detailing how they met, how they got to where they are now with each other, and how their lives progress forward while introducing us to the secondary set of characters, and proving the same service for them. It is not therefore a great romance wherein the getting together is the focus. Rather, it is just as the title suggests, that is, it is all about the bonds between each other and how they deepen and grow. At times gentle in pace, other times filled with frenetic action, still other times tinged with humour, we are treated to the moments in time that have deep meaning for each one of them regardless of how seemingly trivial it would appear to an outsider. Despite often traumatic events, they are not placed for a contrived sense of overly angsty high drama but simply are the tragedies of every day life dealing occasionally life altering heavy blows. It is beautifully moving, and well over a decade since it first saw print, it deservedly now stands as a classic in the genre. June's overall treatment has been respectful of that, and I'd have to say any BL fan would be remiss to not add this edition to their collection.
I'd like to thank Digital Manga for providing with my advance review copy.