This is an exploration of how Kouga’s inks and composition show character and mood in the first volume of Loveless.  The art style shifts with point of view and interactions, building into a powerful visual language.

I have mixed feelings about Loveless. It’s a hot mess in a lot of ways. The story contains horrible child abuse of various kinds, including some that is institutionalized and some that is family, various reprehensible relationships, some seriously broken people, a couple of sociopaths, BDSM themes (both consensual and not), dubious portayals of motives of people who ought to be villains but might not be, amnesia, innapropriate information about sexuality, and some of the most heartbreaking and beautiful characters I’ve ever read.

All this in a cat boy story about preteens.  Oh, manga.

In the world of Loveless, everyone has cat ears and cat tails. They lose them when they have sex, consensual or not, so you can tell the virgins by their ears.

Ritsuka, the main character, has lost his memory of the last two years under some kind of trauma involving his older brother’s murder. He’s entering a new school, after some mysterious and upsetting thing happened at his last school. We meet him on the first day at his new school.

Despite his young age and his helpless position in society, Kouga portrays Ritsuka as wise and thoughtful, if full of self-hatred.  She introduces Ritsuka with clear, simple inks.  Against the chaos of a new school, Ritsuka is stark and straightforward, heavier lines in his outline and smoothly positioned in the frame:

Ristuka hates lies.  He’s very grounded in the world and he’s painfully present.  His portrayal in the inks changes when he feels different emotions, as we’ll see, and when other people view him.  But overall, he is portrayed with smooth, dark, clear inks and a classic, unobtrusive style as a default.

The next major character is Soubi, who belonged to Ritsuka’s older brother and who was given to Ritsuka in his will.  Soubi is a ‘fighter’, one half of a mystical pair that make up a name.  Soubi is a difficult character–much older than Ritsuka, just as broken, and very troubled.  Here is his introduction:

As you can see, Soubi’s body is elongated, warped, somewhat strange, but beautiful in an abstract way.  He wears bandages around his throat.  He’s literally one of the walking wounded.  As the story progresses, we find out that Soubi has been stretched, molded, broken into being something specific.  There is a constant tension in the story between what other people want to make Soubi into and what Soubi tries to be.  See Soubi’s hair at the top?  It’s waving and a bit wild, and smoothes down in the second panel.  Keep an eye on the hair.

Here’s another scene with Ristuka, this one with his therapist.  Here we see Ritsuka has bandages on his face and hands–he is visually tied back to Soubi by their mutual wounds.  Ritsuka has been hurt by his mother, who beats him.  Like the first picture of him, in this page Ritsuka is firmly in the frame, situated in the environment, and drawn with smooth, straightforward inks.

Compare that to this picture of Soubi:

Soubi is completely disconnected from any environment, and his hair is beautiful chaos, spreading out in tendrils.  This is where Soubi begins to drag Ritsuka into the fantasy world of fighters.  It’s a world where Soubi is very competent (as a fighter) but especially broken emotionally.  His hair tends to be portrayed in ways that are otherworldy and wild, and he sometimes becomes more distorted.  The jagged shapes in the panels below help portray confusion.  Soubi is drawn very lightly, without the weighted lines that Ristuka has above.

One of the most painful, but most effective and beautiful, parts of this manga is the visual portrayal of the characters effects on one another.  Above is Ritsuka, practically shattered by tones and ink, shaking, thinking about how he feels when Soubi says he loves him.  Ristuka in the lower left panels is now tiny but even more heavily inked than before–he’s becoming more real.  The lines of strain are still there on his chibi-like figure, but he’s very grounded in the space, the door is present, the hallway, his friend Yuko, he’s real.

But Loveless is not a meet Ritsuka and become happy love fest.  (Ahahaha, yeah, no.)  Here’s another portrayal of Ritsuka, this time from Yuko’s friend (who has a crush on Yuko):

See how we’re on his eye glasses and stripey hair, that clues us into the viewpoint, and then we focus on Ritsuka, who….suddenly has stripey rockstar hair.  Isn’t that hilarious?  I love it.  And Yuiko’s buddy Yayoi is so put out and jealous.  I love it.  Kouga doesn’t just use this style-change technique with Yayoi (so far he’s a pretty minor character).  Let’s look at Soubi’s best friend, Kio.

Unlike Soubi, Ritsuka, and practically everyone else in the whole manga, Kio is fairly healthy.  He claims to be a bit of a pervert, but he’s mostly practical, warm, upbeat, and happy.  His art depiction is light, joyful, playful.  He’s an art student and he favors stylish clothes and earrings, but he often gives Soubi sensible advice and he’s something of a voice of reason in the manga.  Caring, thoughtful, and kind.

The panel is very grounded, with some of the same dark-line in the body lines that grounds Ritsuka, but it’s also airy and open, with fluffy lines creating a lot of movement around him.

Like other characters above, when he interacts with Soubi, Soubi reacts, and the art changes.

These two pages are a discussion between Soubi and Kio, where Kio shows off his earrings, tries to talk sense into Soubi, and Soubi reacts.  You can see that Soubi’s hair is reflects a more Kio look as the panels progress.  Here, Soubi has the standard Soubi hair.

Here, at the very last panel, Soubi’s hair has a perky fluff to it.

While Soubi is getting ideas, Ritsuka’s mother, who abuses Ritsuka and is crazy, has a very dark, black and white view of the world:

In the top panel, Ritsuka doesn’t even have a face.  Her view is black over everything–nothingness and horrible blankness.  It’s a viewpoint that Kouga returns to in later volumes as well, and is both effective and at times difficult to read.

I’m going to end with a page that sums up what I think is the visual language that Kouga is building.  Soubi and Ritsuka have just talked, and Ritsuka has pierced Soubi’s ear with Kio’s earring gun to mark him.  It’s a link they now have, Ritsuka and Soubi against the world.  (I told you the manga was problematic.)  For Soubi, it is a move from a dark and ugly existence towards one that is cleaner.  This last page shows that theme.  We get a shot of their tie, the earring, and Soubi’s hair.  Unlike earlier times, Soubi isn’t distorted; his ear is realistic and lovely, his hand not pulled out of shape.  The hair strands echo the smooth, soft movement the story has taken–it’s calmer, too.  The page shifts from Soubi’s hair to the rain, washing down from the sky, very natural and supposedly dark, to the next panel, which shows a new day, clean and bright, with spring greenery and bird song.

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