manhattan love story
Manhattan Love Story, by Momoko Tenzen
March 2009, Digital Manga Publishing

god of dogs
God of Dogs, by Satoru Ishihara
September 2008, Digital Manga Publishing

romantic illusions
Romantic Illusions, by Reiichi Hiiro
September 2008, Digital Manga Publishing

love knot
Love Knot, by Hiroko Ishimaru
February 2009, Digital Manga Publishing

I don’t necessarily want to write about manga I dislike. This isn’t my naturally sunny disposition rearing its ugly head; I just don’t want to spend any more time with it than necessary. I read it, I failed to enjoy it, and the last thing I want to do is think about it for another thirty minutes. I’ve been on an unlucky streak, though, and decided I should share the pain – I mean, discuss what makes these yaoi titles the varying shades of bad that they are.

That reminds me of one of my favorite Edgar Allen Poe stories, “Berenice”:

“Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform. Overreaching the wide horizon as the rainbow, its hues are as various as the hues of that arch – as distinct too, yet as intimately blended. Overreaching the wide horizon as the rainbow! How is it that from beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness? – from the covenant of peace, a simile of sorrow? But as, in ethics, evil is a consequence of good, so, in fact, out of joy is sorrow born. Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of today, or the agonies which are, have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been.

So true, yes? “Berenice” kicks ass, by the way, because the protagonist (whose name is Egaeus, for heaven’s sake) disinters his lost love to remove her teeth. She might not have been dead when she was buried, either, but of course that’s a given.

I am obviously not holding any of these poor books up to the standard of “Berenice,” because in that context, most things come off pretty badly. The thing is, every time I pick up a yaoi manga, I’m hoping to fall in love. I’m hoping something will work for me and leave me with a happy, stupid-looking smile on my face. And I’m really pretty easy, too. I’m usually happy enough if the art is pretty, even if the story isn’t great. Conversely, if the story is nice, but the art isn’t ideal, that’s still OK. And even if the art and the story are both a bust, sometimes the mangaka will hit one of my kinks, and that’s enough for me, too. So a title really needs to succeed on only one of three levels for me to feel like I got something out of it.

Sadly, despite my low standards, I am still disappointed more often than not. Manhattan Love Story, for instance, just pissed me off. I’ve read worse, but that’s the only positive thing I’m prepared to say about it. Well, that, and I like the cover design. That’s what suckered me into this mess in the first place. Too bad I ordered in from Amazon and couldn’t turn it over to see the illustration on the back.

manhattan love story

That would have sobered me right up. I intensely dislike gay stories in which one of the pretty boys looks and acts like a girl. The whole point of reading romance stories about men is that they’re about men. In the first story, the main character, Diamond, is having a discreet affair with his boss, Rock. I kid you not. Diamond and Rock. That could probably be funny, under other circumstances, but trust me when I tell you that these are not them. Diamond is a tiny, timid, uncertain little florist with ridiculous amounts of hair. Rock is a hugely successful captain of industry who appears regularly in magazines and, for reasons that are unclear to me, his important business ventures include the little flower shop where Diamond works. I could overlook all of this, I think, if a) there were anything to the story, and b) if Diamond didn’t look and act like a big bundle of annoying feminine stereotypes. He’s flushed, he’s flustered, he has some bizarre physical condition that causes him to become very ill if he works too hard. To which I roll my eyes and mutter profanity. Perhaps his condition is caused by the strain of growing all that hair.

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There are a couple of other stories in this book, and poofy-haired, overly feminine uke syndrome does turn up again. (Uke = bottom; in yaoi, the bottom is often drawn smaller than the top, or seme.) In one particularly creepy instance, the syndrome manifests in the form of an angelic little cherub, who is named Raphael, for Christ’s sake, and also has too much hair and is drawn to look about 7 but is said to be 13 or so (I don’t remember, and I refuse to look it up).

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Raphael sees his teacher having sex with one of his fellow students, and later, the teacher confesses his love for Raphael. To clarify, this is presented as cause for celebration rather than a call to the Department of Children and Family Services. This kind of thing is not unheard of in yaoi, but it’s a couple of bridges too far for me. There are other problems, too, but I’ve had enough. No mas. Let us never speak of this manga again.

God of Dogs is a disaster, but not a fluffy, weepy, eighth-grade-idea-of-romance disaster. A completely different kind of cock-up, as it were. I blame the cover for this one, too, but not just the cover. The description, which promised brutal Chinese mafia action and a mysterious stranger, pushed some buttons for me. Nice art, favored kink – as the big man said, two out of three? Ain’t bad. I thought I couldn’t loose.

The art is in fact pretty good. That isn’t always a given – the cover art is not necessarily representative of what’s inside the book. In this case, there’s no subtlety to the lines, and the faces look overly Neanderthal (I realize they’re supposed to be gangsters, but geez). But overall, it’s fine. I can appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the pretty boys, tough as they are. And as a bonus, there’s a body dissolving in lye or something in a bathtub, which is always a pleasant surprise.

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You’re sensing a “but” in here somewhere, aren’t you? To paraphrase a personal hero of mine, “Everybody I know has a big but. What’s yours?” (That’s from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. It’s a classic.) Well, yes. The manga looks pretty good, and it’s about gangsters, BUT it doesn’t make any damned sense. There is sort of a plot, and yes, you can pick out some of the salient points thereof, but my brow was furrowed in the WTF position pretty much the whole time I read this book. Maybe I was trying to think too much about the details, but God of Dogs felt like a three-hour movie cut down to 90 minutes, and like maybe they went too deep and excised a certain amount of connective tissue along with extraneous dog reaction shots.

The back cover says:

“The notoriously vicious Chinese Mafia has lost its next rightful heir… to sudden suicide! Now, the esteemed “God of Dogs” Tsai family must race against the ticking clock and hunt down the child of the deceased eldest son in order to preserve their ancient, sacred legacy. Meanwhile, the mysterious Archer has been convicted of killing his father and is on his way to jail. What will fate reveal for the powerful Tsai clan’s criminal dynasty AND this strange young man?”

Your guess is as good as mine.

Next! Romantic Illusions is a cheerful screwball comedy-ish title that explores the humorous and, yes, romantic possibilities inherent in multiple personality disorder. How could you go wrong with that? Right? Yu, the main personality, is a mild-mannered florist. (There were florists in the first book, too. What’s the deal with all the florists?) His other two personalities are a rockin’ tattooed playboy and a brilliant young lawyer (who has brown hair, when the other two are blond, which is a pretty impressive trick, when you think about it). (The less dominant personality is drawn shorter in some panels, as well, which I also found disconcerting.) Yu created the other two personalities so someone would love him, and yes, Hiiro does, er, touch on the possibilities for, um, physical humor inherent in this situation. Not very well, but at least she reaches for it. (Ahem.)

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Ultimately, each of the personalities ends up with a boyfriend of his own, one of them another person with multiple personality disorder. That should be pretty good – funny, sweet, kinky, perhaps slightly disturbing, but potentially in a good way – but it isn’t. It just kind of falls short. How is that even possible? I don’t know.

Which leads us nicely into Love Knot, which is made of meh. The art doesn’t thrill me, but it isn’t bad enough to actively annoy me, either. The story sounded like a good bet – Keigo, a detective by day/assassin by night (and I do love me an undercover assassin), takes in overly effeminate, on-the-run psychic Emiya and discovers that Emiya had been held against his will as part of a secret government project. Keigo falls in love with Emiya and vows to protect him always. Complications ensue, but they wind up in a happily-ever-after situation that includes Keigo discovering that Emiya’s long-lost mother is dead, yes, but always loved him. Aw.

There’s a little bit of heat between Keigo and Emiya, so I was moderately happy with that. And there’s a hint of darkness due to the assassin and repressive secret government project angles, but it isn’t played out, so no payoff there. I put the book down and said, “Well. That was deeply mediocre.” In retrospect, it was probably sub-mediocre.

I blame myself, really. It’s not like I didn’t have adequate warning. Upon reflection, I remember that Momoko Tenzen also wrote Paradise on the Hill. Oh, yeah. I didn’t like that, either. Satoru Ishihara wrote Dost Thou Know? and Hiroko Ishimaru wrote Total Surrender. Nope, didn’t like those, either. Too bad I can’t reliably access my vast database of disappointing manga. It all blurs together. (I wasn’t familiar with Reiichi Hiiro, so I’m giving myself a pass on that one.) I have to admit that I’m a bit worried about what I’m going to read next. Because this has just been disheartening. Still and all, you have to get right back up on the horse that threw you, right? Take the huge, towering stack of unread manga by the horns and all that. Or maybe I should reread a classic, just to restore my faith in manporn.

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