Weekly read round-up 5th June

Hey, I do actually do more than just watch anime! I’m trying out a couple of different ideas for regular features, including links to works by other Fans Of A Certain Age, and reviews of queer-friendly works that might have slipped under the radar.

This week, I finished reading volume 1 of ‘Escape Journey’, a BL manga I briefly mentioned in a previous post. It was originally released in Japan in 2015, so it’s not brand spanking new, but it’s a recent addition to the manga shelves in the UK, at least.

I think it’s fair to say that BL and Yaoi have fallen out of favour with a lot of western fans in recent years due to the problematic nature of queer stories that aren’t written by or for queer audiences. The regular romanticisation of rape and dub-con, the persistent use of the ‘bastard boyfriend’ archetype, and the negative outlook on het relationships that these stories are known for don’t exactly send positive messages to LGBTQIA readers. Where my usual manga stockists used to have entire shelves devoted to BL, now I tend to find only the odd one or two books tucked away amongst multiple copies of shounen battle-manga and light-novel adaptations. It’s great that they can be on the same shelves as moe m/w romance, but it’s a rare day that I see more than three titles available in my local Waterstones. The independent comic shops don’t seem to have room for them, their shelves loaded with copies of ‘Bleach’ and ‘One Piece’.

But as this article shows, recent shifts in outlook regarding same-gender relationships in Japan have resulted in BL being seen as less of a niche genre and more acceptable for straight readers, including men. Whether that translates to more acceptable for LGBTQIA readers, I couldn’t say. But I would like to try some regular reviews of contemporary BL stories, to see how much things have changed.

‘Escape Journey’ follows college freshman Naoto, who unexpectedly reunites with his high-school boyfriend Taichi. The two parted on poor terms, with Taichi insisting they’d only ever been fuck-buddies despite Naoto’s romantic feelings.

They try to navigate first simply being around each other after finding they have friends in common, then adjusting to a tentative friendship when Naoto is asked to set Taichi up with a female friend. But of course Naoto’s old feelings resurface and they inevitably fall back into bed, and struggle to figure out what they actually mean to each other.

What really grabbed me about the story was the conviction both men have that they can’t ever be more than lovers – whereas any relationship they might have with women could progress to marriage and family, Naoto laments the fact that he and Taichi can’t make a family no matter how they feel about each other.

For someone who lives in a country where same-sex marriage is legal and fairly common, this was a tough concept to wrap my head around, but it does make the story that little bit more heart-breaking (presumably the kind of ‘obstacle’ that makes BL appealing to straight female readers). It does add an intriguing extra layer to the characters’ struggle to find more of a solid base to their relationship – the idea that their feelings for each other can’t count for much because they can’t ever be seen as a family is heartbreaking, and I can’t imagine what the pressure feels like in a society that is openly lamenting a drastic decrease in birth-rates due to people actually choosing not to marry or have children. But it does give the story a more relatable feeling than older BL where the stigma was simply ‘we can’t be together because we’re both men’. There’s no gay panic here, and no one ever says anything like, ‘we shouldn’t, this is wrong, I’m not like you’.

The character designs are much more richly detailed than th BL I remember from over a decade ago – no yaoi hands here! The pages are also densely packed, with some having five or six panels of dialogue or action, so it makes for a lengthy read (important when you’re paying upwards of £9 a book – no one wants to breeze through an entire book in half an hour!). The flashback scenes are probably my favourites, showing the initial development of Naoto and Taichi’s relationship, and the sweet first tentative steps as they connect over Taichi’s family drama actually made me cry. Be aware, the sex scenes (and there are several) are quite explicit, with some interesting sound effects liberally splattered all over the page, and there is one dub-con scene partway through. It’s probably not a book to read on the bus.

The whole story runs for three volumes, and I think I will most likely track down volume 2 to see how Naoto and Taichi handle an actual relationship – as much as I live for get-together stories, I’m invested enough in these two that I want to know what happens next.

Fandom-wise, I’ve been reading a lot of Reigen/Serizawa fic lately. I included Reigen Arataka from ‘Mob Psycho 100’ in my recent list of favourite designated grown-ups, and it’s refreshing to see so much fan content focused on characters older than 25. The two have an interesting dynamic, with the older character being the one with much less real-world experience, and the younger one being the confident charmer. Although, the pairing does have the extra layer of Reigen’s apparent lack of social life (and presumably lack of relationship history) to make him once again dependent on his ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ approach while showing a pleasing vulnerability and sensitivity.

And They Were Roommates…’ by sofia_estrella is a WIP set after the manga, when Reigen is forced to room with Serizawa after the destruction of his apartment, which does a good job of showing how adults navigate living in close-quarters and work through needing space while enjoying each other’s company.

‘Points of Contact’ by flecksofpoppy is a lovely one-shot about Serizawa becoming aware of certain things he’s missed by being a shut-in for so long, and alternates flashbacks to his time with the Ultimate 5 with his budding relationship with Reigen. ‘Touch-starved’ is a tag I’ll often search for when I’m looking for good reads in a new fandom, and touch-starved Serizawa is usually a must-read for me.

Finally, ‘In Desperation, Hope’ is another WIP I’m currently enjoying, in which Reigen suddenly gains powers that don’t actually belong to him, while something strange is also happening to Serizawa. It starts with an established relationship but does have interesting flashbacks to earlier points in their relationship which add depth to both characters and to the plot.

I’ve also been reading a bit of ‘Sarazanmai’ meta. This far into the season, there’s already a ton of stuff out there, even ignoring the current debates about who it’s okay to like and who you’re apparently a terrible person for liking (and I do ignore them, because it is tiring and I have better things to do). This article focusing primarily on episodes 7 and 8, also has some noteworthy points about Ikuhara’s style as it’s developed from previous works, and has some great insight into how the director has used supplemental material to expand on the already jam-packed episodes.

Would you be interested in reading more contemporary BL manga reviews? Or would you like to see more focus on fan-works that feature older characters? Let me know in the comments – this is still a relatively new blog, after all, so I’m still testing out ideas, and it would be helpful to know what kind of content people want to see.

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