If you read last week’s ‘Why I Watched..Fruits Basket’ and came back expecting to see another deeply personal post about an anime that changed my life…I’m sorry. That’s not happening today. Mostly because last night’s ‘Sarazanmai’ finale has turned my brain to mush. But this series isn’t intended to be always about big life-changing stories. Sometimes I just want to write about why I like a thing.
Regular readers will know by now that I am something of a seiyuu fan and will often pick a show to watch simply because of the cast. That’s how it started with ‘Love Stage’. I’d watched the first and second seasons of ‘Free!’ and loved it, particularly Rei and Nagisa. Ryuugazaki Rei was someone I could project on to – he reminded me so much of my teenage self (except I was never a buff athlete) and I loved seeing him brought out of his shell and opening himself up to new experiences and friendships. More importantly, I absolutely loved Hirakawa Daisuke’s performance as Rei – there’s a richness to his voice that makes him a delight to listen to and easily recognisable, and whenever I see him in seiyuu event videos, he’s always smiley and pleasant and so nice to everyone.
So when I heard about a BL show that had both Rei and Nagisa’s voice actors, I was determined to see it. I was slightly disappointed that they weren’t playing opposite each other, but I would happily listen to Hirarin read the phone book so I soon got over it.
Now, as I’ve said before, I am well aware of how problematic BL has been as a genre. When I say ‘problematic’, I’m talking specifically about the use of tropes which misrepresent queer men, and how BL stories use negative aspects of relationships for entertainment value – things like dub-con and rape, bastard boyfriends, cross-dressing treated as a joke, or implying that m/m relationships are focused on sex first (and only certain types of sex) with affection coming second, or sometimes missing entirely.
‘Love Stage’ uses a lot of those tropes, and I fully understand that it’s not for everyone. But hear me out, because I think it’s a story that shouldn’t be entirely written off as typical fujoshi fodder.
If you’re not familiar with the story, let me give you a recap. Ryoma is an actor, and has been since childhood. One of his first acting gigs is in a commercial for a bridal magazine, during which he’s supposed to act opposite a young girl as guests at a wedding. But the girl can’t make the shoot, so the woman playing the bride has her son Izumi step in – Izumi is small and cute and passes easily for a girl even without a dress on. Ryoma is smitten by Izumi, and even when he’s an adult he still remembers this girl who caught his eye. Ten years later the magazine runs a reunion commercial, planning to have the grown-up Ryoma marry the girl from the original commercial. So, you guessed it, Izumi is forced to cross-dress again. But Izumi, who at 18 is a massive nerd rather than the suave actor or musician his parents had hoped he’d be (his whole family are famous entertainers), is massively unhappy about the gig, especially when Ryoma turns up professing his love.
Ryoma finds out that Izumi is a guy, and is very confused – he still finds Izumi attractive. After coming to terms with his feelings, he decides he still wants to court Izumi, and in typical BL fashion, tries to force himself on Izumi. Thankfully, he manages to stop himself partway through, realising he’s wrong, and leaves, deciding to court Izumi properly by getting to know him and proving himself a worthy person.
The anime ends with them deciding to pursue a relationship (and there’s an OVA about them figuring out sex stuff), but the seven-volume manga takes the story much further, with the predictable threat to the relationship from a third guy, and a lot of campy melodrama (Ryoma gets amnesia and forgets that he loves Izumi, and Izumi has to deal with an obsessed stalker).
It would be easy to dismiss ‘Love Stage’ as typically problematic BL, because it does use some of those tropes. Ryoma is initially attracted to Izumi because he looks like a girl. He tries to force himself on Izumi. Izumi is assaulted by another guy because he looks feminine. And practically all of the sex, while censored, is penetrative sex with Ryoma topping.
But the story does actually make the effort to explore the impact of those tropes on the characters.
When Ryoma forces himself on Izumi, Izumi doesn’t give in and accept because it feels good; instead, he’s legitimately traumatised. He shuts himself in his room for three whole days, leaving his family distraught, and he’s wary of Ryoma afterwards. Ryoma stops forcing Izumi to accept his feelings and instead tries to be a good friend, supporting Izumi in his aspirations and spending time getting to know him. When they do eventually sleep together for the first time (full penetrative sex, because apparently that’s all that gay guys do), Izumi admits that it hurts and wasn’t much fun for him, and the two of them put time and effort into researching how to make it good next time. They’re also wonderfully affectionate with each other, and there are scenes of them discussing their feelings, both good and bad, and acknowledging that while they can’t get married, they do want to live together as a couple. Izumi even complains that he doesn’t always like being the bottom when they sleep together and wants to try topping, and even though Ryoma’s not that into it, he figures what matters most is that Izumi enjoys it and it’s about expressing their love rather than just getting off together.
Both protagonists are fun to watch, and are honestly just a couple of lovable dorks. Izumi is desperate to be a mangaka but his drawing skills are awful; still, he works hard at it and genuinely enjoys his otaku interests. Ryoma is too in love to see that Izumi isn’t that talented, but seeing him support Izumi in his endeavours really is endearing.
They also have opportunities to work together, as Izumi gives in to his family’s pressure to try acting and lands a role in a big TV drama. Of course, Izumi turns out to be a stellar actor, but afterwards he still insists that he wants to follow his dream of being a mangaka, so Ryoma supports him in this by literally showing up at Izumi’s apprenticeship and working alongside him. They’re a couple who enjoy each other’s company rather than just wanting to fall into bed with each other, and they don’t shy away from being affectionate and showing their love.
There’s also a fun sub-plot involving Izumi’s older brother Shogo and Rei, who manages the family’s publicity office. They’re already a couple at the start of the manga – there’s a light-novel, ‘Backstage’, which tells their story (it’s not currently available in English, although you can find translations online if you look hard enough) – and although their relationship dynamic is very different to Izumi and Ryoma’s, they’re still fun to read about.
While I wouldn’t exactly call ‘Love Stage’ a shining example of queer representation in manga, I do applaud it for taking some of those obnoxious BL tropes and exploring how they would actually affect a relationship. But mostly, it’s a fun, fluffy love-story with some silly melodrama and a happy ending. I’d definitely recommend the manga, too, since it develops the story further and, at only seven volumes, isn’t going to break the bank if you decide to collect the set.
Give the differing views on LGBTQIA people in Japan, I think it will be some time before we see stories about queer characters written by openly queer people being picked up for publication, and until then, I think it’s okay to enjoy some of the stories we already have. It’s possible to enjoy a thing and be aware of its problems and limitations, and at least ‘Love Stage’ does try to be honest about the actual impact of some of those unfortunate BL tropes.
It’s not for everyone, but then what is? If you want to try a BL series that is at least vaguely self-aware and makes the effort to show the impact of ignorance about m/m relationships, then you can’t really go wrong with ‘Love Stage’.
What do you think? Is ‘Love Stage’ worth watching? Tell me in the comments!