Only Serious About You, Vol. 1

I suspect that Kai Asou might have been indulging in little irony when she titled Only Serious About You (Digital Manga Publishing), as her storytelling is extremely conscientious. She fleshes out every beat of the story, which makes it a little slow to start, but it proves to be a very rewarding strategy as the plot moves along.

Oosawa is a single father who works as a cook at a pub. He juggles his demanding job with the needs of his young daughter, Chizu. Yoshioka is a regular customer, a gay guy with a string of exes who can’t quite seem to entirely let go or fully commit. Oosawa finds Yoshioka’s romantic life baffling and his flirting irksome, but Yoshioka steps up when Chizu gets sick. He takes father and daughter into his home, and the visit is prolonged when Oosawa comes down with a fever himself.

There’s a degree of implausibility to the set-up, and I’ve never quite understood the dire import the Japanese seem to place on the common cold. Still, it forces Oosawa and Yoshioka into close proximity, and it allows Asou to explore Yoshioka’s true nature, which is much more generous and sensitive than his behavior in the pub suggested.

There’s also the pesky “suddenly possibly gay” gambit that crops up a lot in this category, but Asou’s meticulous approach helps smooth this over. This volume is much more about Oosawa getting to know Yoshioka as a person than it is about an instantaneous, inexplicable attraction. Both guys are fairly guarded for different reasons, and it’s very sweet to see Oosawa start to want to figure out what makes Yoshioka tick, then build on his understanding of his surprisingly dependable and compassionate new friend.

Readers might also wonder why Asou would place so much trust in a stranger, especially when it comes to the care of his daughter, but Asou makes that fairly easy to set aside. Oosawa is a very dedicated father, and the rendering of the challenges faced by a single parent feels very authentic. Low key as the story generally is, there’s a real sharpness to Asou’s portrayal of how one small thing can throw Oosawa’s life out of whack. It allows the reader to share in both his anxiety when things go wrong and his relief when thing work out.

The art is generically attractive. Asou clearly favors the lanky body type, but it’s easy to distinguish one character from another. (This isn’t always true, not just in yaoi but in just about any type of manga that features a large, primarily male cast.) She does a nice job with body language and day-to-day activities that help ground the work. There are also some funny little visual grace notes that any mangaka should have in her or his toolkit.

Asou gets little moments so right. In the beginning, this feels too scrupulous and mundane. As things progress, and as readers get to know the characters better, these articulated bits of life gain more weight. By the halfway point, I found myself smiling in recognition or indulging in a little wistfulness at how things were progressing. It’s quite a lovely experience – not particularly urgent and certainly not stylized, but definitely immersive in a very gentle way. I’m really looking forward to seeing how things turn out for these characters.



It makes me a little wistful to think that Tesoro is probably the last work by Natsume Ono that Viz will debut, at least for a while. Viz was responsible for introducing English-language readers to Ono’s work, at least in licensed form, and they’ve provided a steady supply since not simple arrived at the beginning of 2010. There’s more House of Five Leaves to come, which is reassuring, but Viz has pretty much run through her catalog of works that ran in Shogakukan’s IKKI or Ohta Shuppan’s Manga Erotics F.

She’s got a number of titles in progress, mostly for Kodansha’s Morning magazines, but Viz has almost never published a Kodansha title. Kodansha itself seems to be reluctant to publish its own seinen works, so the best hope of Ono fans would probably be Vertical. As for the yaoi titles she created under the name BASSO, I have no idea who might publish those, though perhaps Viz’s new boys’-love line might be a possible home.

I can see why Viz saved Tesoro for last. It’s charming, but it benefits from having a larger view of Ono’s body of work. It contains some of her earlier short works for magazines like IKKI and some self-published stories, and I can see it gaining a non-manga audience. It’s very much in an indie-comics vein, especially if we’re talking about recent indie comics where the creators seem to feel freer to indulge in some genial whimsy.

Readers who are familiar with the rather leisurely pace Ono adopts for her longer works might wonder how she manages a smaller number of pages. (Ono herself expresses skepticism about her abilities in this vein, though mangaka rarely sound confident in their author notes.) Given her facility for small, finely articulated moments, she proves to be a natural at short stories. There’s a lot of charming material in Tesoro, and while the tone tends to be genial, there’s a surprising amount of variety on display.

My favorite entry is “Senza titolo 1,” which dips into Ono’s beloved well of grumpy older Italian men. A sophisticated lady helps a doctor friend make his way home on a night when he’s had too much to drink. She learns the source of his distress, and, while he’s helped her in his capacity as a psychologist, she discovers that they share some of the same anxieties. It’s lovely and sad, and it’s probably the most sleekly drawn piece in the collection.

Other charmers here include the third of “Three Short Stories About Bento,” which is spare in its details but very emotionally potent in an understated way. It focuses clearly and compassionately on a parent-child relationship, which is also familiar Ono territory, and she revisits that ground a few times in this collection. In the “Froom family” shorts, she introduces a father who tries to carve out special time for his son that will give the kid a break from his bossy older sisters. I liked the quirky, chatty “Padre” strips about a baker with three demanding children better than “Senza titolo #6,” where we see the kids as somewhat dysfunctional adults.

Speaking of dysfunctional adults, or at least near-adults, the contingent that found not simple a bit too much will probably see its seeds in “Eva’s Memory.” I personally loved not simple, but I can look at “Eva’s Memory” and see justification for the accusations of contrivance and maudlin melodrama. “Senza titolo #5” is flawed in some of the same ways, but it’s on the sweeter side, so it’s easier to take.

On the whole, it’s a wonderful sampler of a lot of Ono’s core sensibilities. There are many characters here who have reason to be sad or discontent trying to focus on their pleasures and blessings. There’s a lot of eating and aimless chatter. And there are a lot of nicely observed moments, especially among messy, loving families. If you like Ono, Tesoro is essential, and if you’re unfamiliar with her work, it’s a good, gentle introduction that gives you a sense of her range.


Princess Knight, Vol. 1

The thing that frequently strikes me about Osamu Tezuka’s comics is how fresh they feel, no matter when they were created. I suspect this is because, while he was as solid and conscientious an entertainer as has probably ever worked in the medium, he was also always pushing to bring new ideas to manga and to infuse new levels of ambition into comics. This isn’t always true, and there are some Tezuka works that feel locked in the time of their birth (Swallowing the Earth, Ayako), but it happens with a frequency that just about any creator of any kind of entertainment would envy.

Princess Knight (Vertical) exhibits that lively timelessness that I associate with Tezuka at his best. I have no idea if he sat down one day and decided that he wanted to take comics for girls in an entirely new direction or if it just happened because he wanted to take all comics in entirely new directions, but the comic exudes that feeling of opportunity and transformation.

It’s hard not to think of the princesses of Walt Disney’s motion pictures, mostly because Tezuka references them so often. Disney was an influence and inspiration to Tezuka, but Tezuka didn’t seem content to merely mimic Disney. Princess Knight seems like the best example of that. While Disney’s princesses were titular, they were never the heroine of their own story, at least with Disney at the rudder. Tezuka’s Sapphire may be pulling plot points out of a Disney grab bag, but she’s nothing like her American sisters.

Before Sapphire is born, a mischievous angel named Tink gives her the heart of a boy shortly before she receives her assigned girl’s heart. Beyond the supernatural complications, her earthly parents are hoping for a son, or rule of the kingdom will pass to a craven moron. The king and queen love their daughter, but archaic tradition forces them to raise her as a boy. Sapphire’s extra heart makes this easier than it might have been otherwise.

She’s great with a sword, and she stands up for what’s right. She’s smart, tough, and good-hearted, though she keenly feels the call of her feminine side. She falls for the prince of a neighboring kingdom, but she can never act on those feelings. And she’s constantly wary of her unscrupulous, ambitious uncle, who would love to expose her and open up the throne for his idiot son.

Things go from difficult to impossible when her charade is exposed. Loss piles upon loss and peril upon peril, and she’s imprisoned and exiled. Fortunately, adversity brings out the best in her, and she takes steps to reclaim her kingdom, not because of any air of entitlement but because it’s right and the best thing for her people. She’s not passive and she doesn’t want a prince to save her; you can’t come close to saying that about any of her Disney princess contemporaries.

That’s not to say her adventures don’t draw on familiar princess tropes. Like Cinderella, she gets to don glamorous disguise to connect with her handsome prince. Like Snow White, she’s targeted by an evil and ambitious witch. Like Ariel, she loses her ability to communicate. Beyond that, there are pirates and assassins, scheming courtiers and incompetent angels, magic and monsters. Sapphire faces more difficulties than the entire coterie of Disney princesses combined, which makes for an insanely lively narrative flow.

Of course, another fascinating aspect of Tezuka’s work was the way his well-intentioned thinking regarding women’s roles was betrayed by execution that wasn’t quite as involved. Sapphire’s agency is entirely connected to her boy’s heart. In moments when she loses that heart, she becomes as passive a victim as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty ever were. And it’s not entirely clear what Tezuka is trying to say in those moments. Is it just another form of peril to keep things moving, or did Tezuka wholeheartedly own those gender roles, even if he regretted them? It also makes me wonder about likely outcomes in the next volume – will a happy ending for Sapphire constitute a satisfying conclusion for me as a reader?

Jarring as those considerations are, they do give the reader an extra layer to ponder. You don’t really need to think about Princess Knight in the context of its time too often, since Tezuka the entertainer is in such fine form here. But the chance to consider Tezuka the figure of his era, no matter how progressive he may have been in relative terms, is always intriguing to me. It’s kind of like how you can ride along with the madly entertaining antics in Dororo (Vertical) only to be occasionally slapped with how genuinely bleak Tezuka’s world view must have been.

Speaking of aspects that could date the work, I have to take issue with the packaging here. Vertical has an admirable history of crafting vibrant covers for classic titles, so why does Princess Knight look like a paperback textbook from the 1970s? The washed-out palette and the minimalist cover design aren’t up to Vertical’s usual standard, and the design does nothing to communicate the excitement contained within. Vintage manga is always a tough sell, so why make the book look so blah? It wouldn’t look out of place in a book stack at a suburban garage sale.

That sounds harsh, but I’ve got a protective bent for this book. I’ve wanted someone to republish it in English for ages, and I think I imagined it being perfect. And it is almost perfect – wonderful characters, a terrific story, and Tezuka’s wonderful illustrative style, packed with action and humor and feeling. Vertical has done a marvelous job making a range of Tezuka’s work available in English, though it generally falls in his seinen vein. That’s great and entirely welcome, but I feel like it’s equally important to showcase Tezuka’s work as an entertainer for a wider, younger audience. Because even those pieces feel fresh and ambitious, just like Princess Knight.


The Drops of God, Vol. 1

I promise to use only one wine metaphor in this review of the first volume of The Drops of God (Vertical): it gets better after it has a chance to breathe. The first few chapters of Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto’s tale of wine aficionados are kind of a slog.

There’s a behavior known as “mansplaining,” and I certainly think there’s a variation of it, “fansplaining.” You’ve all been engaged in conversation with someone who’s passionate about a particular entertainment who proceeds to bury you under unsolicited detail delivered with an unsettling degree of authority. (I’ve been both victim and perpetrator; I have no illusions about that.)

And Drops of God is absolutely fansplaining manga as only a certain type of seinen can be. Even though its protagonist is a novice to the world of wine, he’s surrounded by people who aren’t, and he’s thrust into a situation where he has to join their informed ranks. And the audience must gauge their tolerance for the level of detail they can endure regarding varietals, vineyards, rankings, price, and so on. There’s a lot of that, and the world of wine is often viewed as kind of byzantine and elitist and twee to begin with.

Personally, I can deal with a lot of fictional fansplaining if the characters are engaging. That’s why the first couple of chapters of this volume worried me. The leads came off as fairly flat, cookie-cutter versions of types you can see in literally a hundred different licensed manga: the brash, ignorant hero who happens to be enough of a savant to unsettle his highly trained, elitist rival, especially with the help of a book-smart rookie. Agi and Okimoto almost literally drown them in exposition in the early going, and I was kind of anxious that this eagerly anticipated title would turn into a charmless, didactic experience.

Then, a few chapters in, the creators start to relax a bit. The hero, Shizuku, reveals himself to be kind of an endearing dork. Yes, he’s suspiciously astute in terms of his ability to evaluate wine by taste, even though he tastes it for the first time in this comic, but he’s a pretty funny guy. Trainee sommelier Shinohara doesn’t quite transcend the thanklessness of her role as “girl who knows things but has no real personal stakes,” but I like her well enough.

The ostensible plot is a contest between Shizuku and a snooty wine critic to see who’s worthy of inheriting the legendary wine collection of Shizuku’s late father, a snooty wine critic in his own right. But the series really seems to be more about teaching readers about wine by showing the ways it can influence people’s character. Agi and Okimoto prove themselves to be pretty deft with that sort of thing, and, lectures aside, it’s the sort of thing I really enjoy in a manga.

It’s about hooch, it’s got amiable stars, and you can learn stuff about a subject that may be new to you while occasionally enjoying the comfortable structure of competition manga. I’m in for the duration.


A Bride’s Story, Vol. 2

For those who note that very little happens in Kaoru Mori manga, I must inform you that there is a pitched battle in the second volume of A Bride’s Story (Yen Press). Normally, this would be confined to Mori’s bonus comics and consist of a hyperactive, hilarious difference of opinion with her editor, but it actually happens in the narrative here.

Amir’s relatives try to reclaim the young woman, hoping to offer her in marriage for a more valuable alliance. But Amir is very taken with her young husband, as he is with her. The lesson here is to never underestimate a group of determined villagers with a big pile of bricks. The lesson is also that Mori can really stage an action sequence when she puts her mind to it. In addition to being exciting, these sequences shine with character-driven moments and really give you a sense of Amir’s new community.

Of course, me being me, I’m equally taken with the very long sequence where Amir’s sister-in-law teaches her daughter about embroidery and the family’s traditional designs. What can I say? I’m probably even more partial to scenes where next to nothing happens as I am to ones where lots does.

It’s a little hard to come up with anything new to say about a given volumes of Mori’s manga, because she’s so consistent. Her art is lovely, her attention to detail verges on hypnotic, and her clear fondness for her subject matter is infectious. I just love A Bride’s Story, maybe even as much as I loved Emma (CMX).


Stargazing Dog

I can’t critically address Takashi Murakami’s Stargazing Dog (NBM) without first admitting a bias and then describing some personal circumstances.

I freely recognize that I’m overly sensitive to portrayals of the pet-human relationship in any kind of fiction, and I have a huge number of deal-breaking tropes. For instance, I hate when pets are put at risk to prop up an antagonist and show how very, very evil that person is. I also hate shamelessly manipulative portrayals of the loss of a pet, pushing extremely personal buttons because the storyteller knows that it works.

On the personal front, I’ve lost two dogs this year. In January, our beautiful lady finally succumbed to old age at about 18 years. Over the summer, our boy dog (who will always be our boy dog in spite of the fact that he was about 12 years old) was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which was one of the more awful surprises we’ve experienced. (On the bright side, we’ve also adopted a sweet, hilarious little dachshund-Chihuahua mix who is a constant source of joy.)

So that’s the head space I was in when I picked up this book, which is about a man who loses pretty much everything but his beloved dog. When I say that, no matter how sad this story becomes, I never felt manipulated and that I was always reassured that Murakami was coming from the best, most genuine place in his storytelling, I think I have a certain level of authority in that opinion. If you’re like me in that you’re extremely wary when it comes to sad pet stories, be reassured in the case of Stargazing Dog.

Murakami’s human protagonist isn’t in a great place. He’s lost his job, he has health problems, his daughter is in the thicket of adolescent bitchery, and his wife has decided it’s all too much and is filing for divorce. The last remaining bright spot in his life is the family dog, Happie, brought home during the daughter’s more benign years but eventually becoming the father’s most loyal and constant companion (and vice versa).

That development represents the kind of astute choices Murakami makes in crafting the narrative. He shows the evolution of the relationship between man and dog, establishing it in incremental, unexpected ways that make it more persuasive in the long run. Murakami also shares the dog’s point of view, but he takes a very restrained approach to that, keeping the animal’s thoughts on a basic level that still manages to be extremely moving.

The pair embarks on an ultimately ill-fated journey that I really can’t bring myself to describe, mostly because I don’t want to spoil anything. But Murakami uses the trip and its individual events to reassert the foundational loyalty of the human-dog relationship to the point that, no matter the sorrow they may encounter, the uplift provided by that bond is what the reader ultimately takes away at the end. That’s kind of a magnificent accomplishment. (There’s also a sequel story, “Sunflower,” which goes to some less benevolent places using the main story as a framing device. It’s fine stuff too, but its effectiveness is entirely dependent on its grounding in Stargazing Dog.)

I love Murakami’s style of illustration. It straddles that line between stylized cartooning and very human vulnerability, not unlike Fumiyo Kouno’s Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (Last Gasp). I could have done without some bits of awkward copy editing. That’s always the case, but it’s particularly true with a story that just begs to flow effortlessly because it’s so finely crafted. The presentation is attractive overall, though.

This is an extraordinarily lovely comic. It’s sad in the best kind of ways, using sadness to make an extremely worthwhile point about a fine and enduring kind of relationship. Given where my head is on the nature of that bond, it could have been devastating, but I ultimately found it wonderfully reassuring.


A Zoo in Winter

As gifted and versatile as Jiro Taniguchi is, I do find myself ambivalent about some of his work. I can sometimes find it too cerebral (The Times of Botchan), too burly and stoic (The Ice Wanderer), or even too sentimental (A Distant Neighborhood). I always appreciate his comics, particularly for their flawless draftsmanship, but there can be those nagging reactions to tone that keep me from admiring it without reservation.

A Zoo in Winter, Taniguchi’s latest translated offering from Fanfare/Ponent Mon, ends up being one of his titles that ends up working for me without qualification. It starts out a bit on the stoic side, but it ends up being thoughtfully sentimental in just the right way, at least by my standards.

Taniguchi reveals his early days in the manga industry, working as an assistant to a popular shônen artist. When we first meet him, or at least his avatar, Hamaguchi, he’s working in an unsatisfying job at a textile concern, making deliveries and wondering if he’ll ever get a promised chance at design work. An awkward series of events involving the owner’s daughter leads him from Kyoto to Tokyo, where a high-school friend sets him up with a job in a manga-ka’s studio.

Hamaguchi learns the assistant’s trade on the job, finding the workplace dynamics somewhat trickier than he expected. He’s jealous when a co-worker seems to be on the verge of his professional debut, and he’s quietly alarmed by the news that his superior had his shot at a solo career and went back to supporting someone else’s work. Hamaguchi also hits that wall any cartoonist faces: what kinds of stories does he want to tell?

He also gradually starts taking advantage of life in Tokyo. The studio is sort of a wheel-spoke for the kind of weird, low-grade arty types that congregate in cities. Between Kikuchi, the ne’er-do-well friend of Hamaguchi’s manga-ka boss, and his high-school buddy, Hamaguchi begins to develop something resembling a social life. Those two threads intersect when Kikuchi asks Hamaguchi to hang out with his girlfriend’s sickly sister.

The waif ends up inspiring Hamaguchi merely by expressing an interest in what happens next in one of Hamaguchi’s half-formed stories. His fondness for the girl (and probably the ego boost her admiration provides) prompts Hamaguchi to take his own work more seriously. After a rather clinical starting point, the narrative goes to some shamelessly romantic places, and I’m surprised at how well it works. There are few things quite as clichéd as the sickly inspiring the hale to make the most of their lives, but Taniguchi pulls it off by acknowledging that this is what’s happening but keeping his protagonist sweetly in the dark about what a stereotype he’s executing. It ends up being lovely rather than gooey, though the gooey mien gives it all an extra something. Taniguchi gets to frost his cake and eat it, too.

As a tale of a young artist, A Zoo in Winter is generally understated, which is a blessing. Taniguchi is in his best kind of thoughtful, restrained mode with this material, which results in some very astute observations about the hothouse quality of artists in collaboration. I think that restraint and understatement also give Taniguchi license to tug at the heartstrings a bit more than otherwise might be palatable. It strikes a very nice balance overall, and it’s certainly among my favorites of Taniguchi’s licensed works.


The Book of Human Insects

While Osamu Tezuka’s The Book of Human Insects (Vertical) focuses its bug metaphors primarily on notions of transformation and parasitism, I find myself irresistibly reminded of that old fable by Aesop, “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” You know the one, where the lazy grasshopper assumes that the hard-working ant will care for him when things get tough, and the ant shows its conservative credentials by just letting the grasshopper die, because the ant has his, and that’s what counts.

With customary perversity, Tezuka turns the old morality play on its head. The grasshopper does benefit from the ant’s labors, because the grasshopper steals the ant’s stash and, if she feels it necessary, kills the ant for good measure. Preach on that, Aesop.

Tezuka follows dazzling celebrity Toshiko Tomura, who’s achieved remarkable and varied success. Though only in her twenties, she’s an acclaimed actress, gifted designer, and award-winning novelist. That she’s achieved this by seducing and metaphorically leaching the life blood of her mentors is of no moral consequence to Toshiko who, not unlike Aesop’s ant, got hers, which is all that matters to her.

Like Yuki from Tezuka’s MW (also Vertical), Toshiko is a quick and creative thinker. She’s not the sadist Yuki is, and she doesn’t have a grand plan beyond staving off boredom and getting what she wants. She also has a self-destructive streak, at least to the extent that she gets a gleam in her eye whenever her plans hit a roadblock. Part of the fun for Toshiko is reacting on the fly to remove unexpected obstacles. She doesn’t have Yuki’s emotional gravitas or his unapologetic perversity, but she has the same Energizer Bunny quality that helped make him such a fascinating protagonist.

And, yes, Toshiko is a protagonist, in that it’s her story and that Tezuka demands that the reader be invested in the outcome of her schemes. You don’t necessarily need to root for her, though I found myself doing so more than made me entirely comfortable, but you do need to care about what she does next and how it works out for her. The fact that she’s a clever and powerful woman at the center of a Tezuka noir tale helps enormously. Works from this category tend to push women to the side in terms of agency; they’re either doormats or harpies. Toshiko may be amoral, but she owns her choices and doesn’t shrink from adversity.

This is right in my Tezuka center of gravity. It’s a compelling story with a moral, though satirical core, taking the flaws of a generation to almost ridiculous extremes and crafting a thriller from that starting point. It’s great looking, possessed of a sexy energy that Tezuka’s adult works don’t always achieve with this level of confidence. And it’s got an indelible central figure, surrounded by an interesting cadre of marks and foes.

And it’s got one of my favorite recurring visual motifs, Toshiko in repose. When her stunts pay off, she takes a moment to just breathe and smirk, looking like a grasshopper on a sunny rock. You can almost see the ant’s leg sticking out of the corner of her mouth.


Cardcaptor Sakura, Vol. 2

As it was with the first two-volume collection of CLAMP’s Cardcaptor Sakura (Dark Horse), so it is with the second: pretty much pure delight. I may not be the biggest CLAMP fan in the world, but I love this series.

Our titular heroine continues to collect the powerful, magical Clow Cards that give her control of various elements and let her… well… collect more Clow Cards. She protects her friends, wins over dubious rivals, generally enjoys everything about her life, and wages an unstoppable charm offensive in the process. Sakura is a terrific, terrific heroine. I love that CLAMP can portray her as being inexperienced without seeming stupid or clumsy, and that they can portray her as being instinctive and resourceful without eliminating any element of risk.

The already engaging supporting cast is enhanced even more by additional focus on Kaho Mizuki, a knockout of a substitute teacher who has a history with Sakura’s brother and a lot of secrets that may or may not relate to Sakura’s mission. In my experience, CLAMP tends to enjoy portraying enigmatic moments and behaviors without necessarily making them pay off later. (I’m a patient reader, but enigmas are annoying if they don’t ultimately mean something.) Mizuki is a wonderful example of that kind of mystery reaching satisfying closure while being a lot of fun along the way. I hope she comes back, if only for the pleasure of seeing her accurately assess the relationship dynamics of the other characters but being too polite to spoil things for them.

I’m ceaselessly amused and even a little moved by the romantic geometry in evidence. Boys crush on boys. Girls crush on girls. Boys and girls commiserate over their shared crush on the same boy. There’s a school festival, an event that rarely distinguishes itself, but CLAMP even manages to liven up that old saw with emotionally urgent peril and cross-dressing.

There’s just nothing to dislike about this book. It’s got great characters, a fun plot, art that’s just the right kind of cute, and tons of energy and good will. I may never forgive CLAMP for not finishing Legal Drug or for the song lyrics and angel dredge in Clover, but they will always be in the win column thanks to Cardcaptor Sakura.


Ichigenme, Vols. 1 and 2

Ichigenme: The First Class Is Civil Law (801 Media) wasn’t the first yaoi work by Fumi Yoshinaga that I read, but it’s my favorite, and it has all of the qualities I use to define what I classify as the best of that category.

It’s about law-school students, and, by that, I don’t mean that it features characters who are identified as law-school students. In some romance stories, regardless of the sexual orientation of the protagonists, their professions are identified as a matter of course. For all careers matter to the narrative, they could just as well be identified as working in weaponized genetics or unicorn husbandry. But Yoshinaga has her characters spend a lot of time in the classroom, and she’s given a lot of thought to the culture of a law school.

Hard-working, average-income Tamiya and lazy, elite Tohdou are in the same seminar. It’s a notoriously easy course, so it’s generally populated with the entitled spawn of politicians, business magnates, and celebrities. They’re the kind of people who are just vamping until their inevitable success, because they know it’s ensured, relatively speaking. Tamiya’s success is equally assured, but that’s because he’s brilliant and he works hard. His classmates view him as a kind of charming oddity, and you can tell he bristles at their condescension as much as their stupidity.

So the series is also about class distinctions, which isn’t unfamiliar territory for Yoshinaga. It was the crux of conflict in Gerard and Jacques (Blu), and caste inequities inform virtually every page of Ôoku: The Inner Chambers (Viz). The injustices of the smug and privileged don’t sour the good times, though, and Yoshinaga doesn’t sermonize. The elites are basically a benign but useless subspecies that’s good for a laugh, though their systemized superiority can certainly be damaging. Class differences in romantic fiction aren’t uncommon, but they can be as cosmetic as careers. Yoshinaga goes deeper, and she earns laughs in the process.

So that’s two things that Ichigenme is actually about aside from a romantic relationship, and they bring me to another good-yaoi differential in evidence: there’s a female character of consequence in the series. Terada is as good a student as Tamiya, and her pedigree is about equal to his. Tereda gives Tamiya a partner in eye-rolling, and she lets Yoshinaga work in some stinging examples of sexist double standards that successful women have to endure. Tereda is a more driven, polished version of Haruka and Tammy in Antique Bakery (Digital Manga), and her scenes have sly, satirical power. That she vanishes after the first volume isn’t really a problem; that’s another pattern of Yoshinaga yaoi, and it’s better than no representation at all of the other 50-plus percent of the population.

It’s starting to sound like Ichigenme is seinen slice-of-life, so I should hasten to mention that the core relationship between Tamiya and Tohdou is urgent and persuasive, and it’s barely formulaic at all. Okay, so Tamiya has never thought of himself as gay, and Tohdou’s attentions surprise him. That’s one of the most common starting points there is. But Tamiya actually goes through an evolution instead of a spontaneous conversion. It takes more than one drunken kiss for Tamiya’s whole life to change, and it’s quite charming to see Tohdou’s combination of patience and determination in wooing his overly serious classmate. (One of his techniques is cooking for Tamiya, another always-welcome feature of Yoshinaga’s manga.)

Even though Tohdou is refreshingly secure in his sexual orientation, he’s got his own insecurities and issues. Tamiya isn’t the only one moving toward maturity and understanding. Yoshinaga is very careful with the emotional progression of both of her protagonists; it’s not a matter of one catching up to the other. And their milestones feel like actual milestones rather than foregone conclusions.

The last distinguishing factor if this title is that it’s very, very sexy. The erotic moments she portrays aren’t pristine; they can be awkward and ridiculous and still erotic at the same time. Yes, Tamiya and Tohdou are very attractive, but they don’t reach the point of magical beings, and their sex scenes have a kind of credibility that make them even more urgent and effective. (This is much more evident in the second volume. Lots and lots of sex in the second volume is another thing you grow accustomed to with Yoshinaga yaoi.)

So, that’s my list of the things I love about Ichigenme. It has credible, mature characters with rounded lives. It takes sexual identity seriously. It’s funny. It’s sexy. It’s pretty much everything I hope for when I pick up yaoi.

(This review is part of the Fumi Yoshinaga Manga Moveable Feast.)