A review by Robert Tilendis
Even though boys’ love (known also as yaoi and BL) is a subgenre of shoujo manga, manga for girls, there are a few artists who regularly incorporate action/adventure into their stories. Makoto Tateno is one of the most popular, and her stories are as much about the action as about the — well, the action.
Her earliest, and still one of the most popular of her series, is Yellow, which started as a four-volume story and is now being continued as a series of shorter works, Yellow 2. The central characters, Taki and Goh, are what they call “snatchers” — they snatch goods for whoever will pay their price. The goods are usually drugs, and their employers are usually the police, but never directly. They get their assignments through Tsunuga, the owner of the café downstairs from the apartment they share. Taki is straight, while Goh is unashamedly gay. (This is a device that Tateno uses quite a bit, which in itself is something of a departure: the usual scenario in BL manga is that the boys are not gay, but they fall in love anyway.) The series is necessarily somewhat episodic, but there is an overarching story line, which, as might be expected, is Goh’s pursuit of Taki. It all starts to come to a head in Volume 3, in which Taki’s own past comes back to haunt him — literally: he was raised by a pair of assassins, one of whom fell in love with him, and they are back in town on assignment.
This was one of my earlier experiences with BL manga, and probably one reason I continued with the genre: it’s very well done, with a good combination of elements all working together to build an effective and absorbing narrative. She also builds puzzles into the stories — clues that the characters must use to deal with whatever conundrum they’re facing at the moment. It’s fun watching them put the pieces together.
Visually, Tateno’s style is what I’ve taken to calling “high shoujo” — characters are willowy and androgynous, practically an archetype of the bishounen (beautiful boy) aesthetic, and while layouts are not as intuitive as those of some other artists, they flow nicely without ever falling into a “frame follows frame” rigidity. One downside: Tateno relies heavily on character templates. If you’re coming to her as a new reader, it’s sometimes hard to tell which character is which — differences in rendering are very subtle.
Hero Heel, in three volumes, does a twist on the idea of “action/adventure” — it’s not a thriller itself, but focuses on actors starring in a Japanese superhero TV series. Minami is cast as the lead in a new TV series, Trans-Dimensional Warriors Airguard. He’s not real enthusiastic about the role — he’s young enough, and arrogant enough, to think his talents deserve a better showcase — but he can use the work. He’s flummoxed to learn that one of the other leads, Sawada (who, of course, plays the villain), is openly gay. It doesn’t help at all that Sawada seems to despise him, and actually laughs at him during their press conference announcing the new show — as Sawada says, “Saying you’d do your best, when it was clear from your face you couldn’t care less.” As might be imagined, Minami finds himself more and more intrigued by Sawada, particularly as he begins to realize that Sawada is a gifted actor. Things get kind of sketchy when Sawada’s ex is cast as Minami’s brother in a summer special.
One thing that marks another liberty Tateno has taken with the usual storyline in Hero Heel is that Sawada really is a heel — he is not a particularly likeable guy. There’s some very interesting psychology at work here, in both protagonists, that adds a new dimension to the story.
I’m breaking chronological order here, but I have a good reason: the next series, Steal Moon, is actually a spin-off from the earlier Blue Sheep Reverie, which Tateno had dropped after one volume, but has now picked up again. At any rate, in Steal Moon, Tateno has moved into an alternate future science-fiction universe that is about a dystopian as it gets.
Nozomi is a street-fighter who so far is unbeaten. He rashly vows that he will become the servant of anyone who can defeat him. Of course, he loses his next bout to a stranger known only as Coyote, badly enough that he’s beaten unconscious and wakes up in a strange room, naked in bed: he’s been sold to a peep site, “Digital Angels,” where he is under 24-hour surveillance for anyone who wants to look — and can pay the fee — run by a man who calls himself “Hermes.” It turns out there are other factors at play here (as is usually the case with Tateno’s stories): Hermes and Coyote are actually working against a major computer complex on the moon that, they say, has the whole Earth under surveillance. Nozomi and two of the other denizens of the peep site are the only ones who can gain access to the computers on Earth that can tap into the moon-based complex. Two gimmes on this one: Nozomi and Coyote fall in love (somewhat too rapidly, for my taste), and no one is being completely upfront about anything.
Kai and Lahti Bara, the two main characters in Blue Sheep Reverie, make appearances in Steal Moon. Blue Sheep Reverie itself is a much larger story. Kai and Maria had been lovers until she was brutally murdered. But Kai remembers seeing the same ring that Maria wore on Lahti’s finger on television during a news broadcast. So he goes in search of Lahti, who, as it turns out, is one of the “Four Kings” of Sarte, an organization, to put the nicest gloss on it, that rules the city of Akatsuki — at least, the parts not ruled by its rival gang, Mynah. Kai applies for a job as Lahti’s bodyguard by attacking Lahti. It turns out the Lahti is known as “Steel Lahti,” the strongest man in the city, the most targeted, and the one with the most kills. Nevertheless, Lahti is impressed enough to take Kai into training, and when Kai saves his life, he begins training him himself. He also wants Kai by his side 24/7. (Lahti is the gay character in this one.) Kai, dead set on finding Maria’s murderer, figures it’s small sacrifice if he can find out the truth.
This is just the initial set-up. It’s sort of nice that Tateno has given herself room to develop the series — it’s presently at five volumes, with at least one more in the offing. One thing that comes across here is Tateno’s ability to create multi-layered, complex stories, replete with hidden actors and unspoken motivations. Another aspect of her writing is that the romance, rough-edged as it might be, is integrated into the adventure story almost seamlessly. Blue Sheep Reverie is in many ways the darkest of her series so far, but she’s combined the elements masterfully into an absorbing story. (In fact, I sat down with Volume 1 to refresh my memory on this one and wound up re-reading the entire series to date.) Visually, it’s become somewhat freer than earlier works, with good use of layered images and a loose visual flow that still never loses focus. And she does great fight scenes.
Tateno has done other BL manga outside the action/adventure framework (in fact, she’s quite prolific, and quite popular — her books are available in French and German as well as English and Japanese), but I haven’t found those I’ve read to be as successful. If you’re looking for something besides a schoolboy romance, you might check these out.
Volume 1, Digital Manga Publishing, 2005, ISBN: 978-1569709528, US $12.95
Volume 2, Juné (DMP), 2005, ISBN: 978-1569709511, US $12.95
Volume 3, Juné (DMP), 2006, ISBN: 978-1569709153, US $12.95
Volume 4, Juné (DMP), 2006, ISBN: 978-1569708958, US $12.95
Volume 1, Juné (DMP), 2005, ISBN: 978-1569708705, US $12.95
Volume 2, Juné (DMP), 2008m ISBN: 978-1569708361, US $12.95
Volume 3, Juné (DMP), 2008, ISBN: 978-1569707289, US $12.95
Volume 1, Juné (DMP), 2008, ISBN: 978-1569705704, US $12.95
Volume 2, Juné (DMP), 2009, ISBN: 978-1569701010, US $12.95
Blue Sheep Reverie:
Volume 1, Juné (DMP), 2008, ISBN: 978-1569706060, US $12.95
Volume 2, Juné (DMP), 2009, ISBN: 978-1569701218, US $12.95
Volume 3, Juné (DMP), 2011, ISBN: 978-1569701966, US $12.95
Volume 4, Juné (DMP), 2011, ISBN: 978-1569702123, US $12.95
Volume 5, Juné (DMP), 2012, ISBN: 978-1569702550, US $12.95