I’ve just been blown away by an amazing story about a Yakuza boss who is one of the most interesting and complex characters I have come across in a long time. Seriously. You know what? I’m even going to say this guy is in the top five, maybe top three, most complicated, fascinating characters I’ve ever read. His name is Yashiro and he is powerful, tough, smart, wryly funny, deeply feeling, cruel, a sexual masochist, elegant, manipulative, kind, brutal, self-centered, generous, harsh…how can one character be all of these things? Rarely am I so impressed by a writer’s characterization as I am by Yoneda Kou’s depiction of Yashiro. I do not say this stuff lightly.
[Please note that I am writing this review based on the first 8 chapters, all that are currently available. I can’t comment on what comes after that because I haven’t read it yet.]
I think Yoneda Kou must be similarly interested in Yashiro because she has written and drawn him for three stories. I stumbled upon her work with the most recent, Saezuru Tori wa Habatakanai (pictured left), a longer work, on-going, currently at a cliffhanger, have I mentioned how much I hate WAITING. Yakuza political maneuverings. Violence (“damn, I got blood on my shoe again”). But mostly this is a character piece on Yashiro, as revealed by his burgeoning relationship (what is it, friendship? lovers? boss/subordinate? it’s not really any of these) with his new, silent, impotent, ex-cop bodyguard, Doumeki.
Both men have terrible pasts. Both have been damaged by what has happened to them. But both are also extremely strong and ask for no pity. The whole thing is just so unlike anything I’ve read or seen before. It’s fascinating.
The art is great, too, spare and cool, like Yashiro. The artist does great facial expressions, terrific body language—so much is conveyed without dialogue here, many panels of characters not speaking. Really, characters like this come around so infrequently.
Oh! Yashiro reminds me a little of Holly Hunter’s portrayal of Grace Hanadarko from the television show “Saving Grace,” another childhood rape-victim turned complicated, powerful, sexually voracious, self-destructive, open-hearted, violent adult. That’s a great show (except for the terrible, terrible last three episodes that were written when they just found out the show had been canceled, do not watch those episodes!! But the rest of the show is some of the best written stuff out there, if you ask me). Streaming on Netflix, go watch.
Anyway. Yaoi, sometimes called Boys Love, is a genre of manga about homosexual relationships between men, but written for women. Technically, Saezuru falls within this category, but from what I’ve read of the genre (which is admittedly, not much), putting it in the same category is sort of like saying Sweet Valley High books are the same as something complicated and painful like, oh, say, Anna Karenina…just because they both have love-relationships at their heart. BL seems to largely focus on idealized romantic stories between guys, lovey dovey sparkle fests, which is fine. But, man, that is not Sazeuru with its realism and psychological depth.
Listen, while I wouldn’t recommend BL as a genre to that all that many people (it’s a very specific taste), I would totally recommend Sazeuru to anyone who wants interesting, complex, complicated, painful, masterfully told stories. In the same way that I would recommend Brokeback Mountain (the film or the terrific short story it’s based on) to anyone who values powerful storytelling. The gay part is sort of secondary to the power of the storytelling itself.
But as I said, Saezuru is ongoing. I came to the end of the available chapters and did this Kahn scream of “NOOOOOO!” that could be heard across the galaxy, and then started hunting Yoneda across the internets like a bloodhound. And, as I also mentioned, she has written two other times about Yashiro. More, more, I want more!
Tadayoedo Shizumazu, Saredo Naki mo Sezu is a one-shot that shows some of Yashiro in high school. Too short! The story, about Yashiro’s first and only love for a fellow (straight) student, Kageyama, feels a little rough to me compared to Sazeuru, like Yoneda was, perhaps, finding her way into this complicated person. But it was interesting to get this glimpse into his past. Well worth a read. Beautiful ending.
On the other hand, if I had started with this, I don’t know if I would have gone further (and what a loss that would have been!). Yashiro’s darkness is on display here without the room (just 40 sparse pages) to get in his more complex kindnesses. I might have been turned off by his extremes, judged him as damaged goods and moved on. I’m glad I read this one after Sazeuru.
Don’t Stay Gold, is another one-shot, taking place a few years after Tadayoedo. Yashiro has joined the Yakuza here but is still quietly in love with Kageyama, who has become a doctor. Yashiro sets up Kageyama (without his knowledge) with another character, Kuga, a wild, beautiful thug, despite Yashiro’s ongoing feelings for the man. Again, an interesting glimpse into his character, but not the storytelling of Sazeuru. Read after.
Okay, having praised Saezuru so highly, here are a couple of warnings.
First, the first dozen pages or so of Sazeuru are really a tag ending for Don’t Say Gold…something I totally didn’t understand when I read them, having not read the other work yet. They made much more sense to me later. I recommend just buzzing by them. The real story starts with Doumeki’s entrance.
Second, it took me the first chapter to get straight who everyone one was and to sort out how to tell who was saying what. It’s worth the effort! I went back and re-read the first chapter after I had gotten it figured out and it made a lot more sense. So if you’re confused at first, hang in there and maybe go back. Clues: Yashiro is generally wearing a vest and has that sly smile. He’s always smoking. Doumeki has that buzz cut and unchanging facial expression.
Finally, there is some explicit sex here. Not porn explicit, but if two guys getting it on with power dynamics is going to offend you, go elsewhere. There are also two (so far) brief flashbacks of rape. Yashiro is completely accepting of his own strange preferences and has zero shame about it, but sex is a big deal to this guy, so it’s a central focus of the story. It’s not really for turn on, the way most BL sex scenes are. It’s all about the character.
For a great essay on yaoi in general and Yoneda Kou in particular, see Pank Literary Magazine’s take on it.
Really great stuff! Highly recommended!