Everybody’s got cultural guilty pleasures, or semi-guilty pleasures: that cartoon series you loved as a kid and can’t stop loving even though you should have outgrown it, the stack of Laurell K. Hamilton novels that you hide behind the sofa when you’ve got company (“guilty pleasures” and Laurell K – was that a subtle joke? – Joe). For me, my prime source of not-quite-respectable cultural experiences is manga, specifically BL manga, also known as yaoi – that is, male/male romance. I don’t even begin to understand why it appeals to me; I just know that it does, and that I’m not alone. In Japan, women like me are called fujoshi – “rotten girls” – and we are legion: there’s even a street in Tokyo named Otome (maiden) Road because it’s so popular with girls and women looking for BL stuff. The genre’s growing in popularity in the West, too, with imprints like June and BLU translating Japanese BL into English, and homegrown BL being published by outfits like Yaoi Press.
So it’s not that I’m ashamed of liking BL, exactly. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, and I know I’m just one of many, many BL fans out there. But I also know that I’m willing to plough through a lot of clichés, bad writing, wafer-thin characterisation and substandard art to get my BL fix. I’m not proud of this, and it’s the main reason why I don’t talk about my BL reading much: I’m conscious that I bring different standards to my BL reading than to everything else I read, so I can’t be sure that some BL book I really enjoy is worth recommending to anyone else.
But for Junjo Romantica, I’ll make an exception. Because Junjo Romantica really is that good.
For starters, it’s got wonderful characters. The main storyline concerns the hot-tempered young student Takahashi Misaki, and his tutor, the imperious and strangely naive Usami Akihiko, an award-winning novelist who writes BL light novels under a pseudonym. Misaki likes to put on a front like he knows everything and is completely on top of his life no matter what happens, but in fact he’s very easily ruffled and feels things deeply, whether his love for the brother who raised him after their parents died, his shock when he discovers that Usami has been in love with his brother for years (and has been using him as a model for characters in his BL novels), his slowly-growing desire to be important to Usami in his own right, or his sympathetic pain when his brother introduces Usami to his fiancée, not realising how long Usami’s been pining for him.
Usami himself displays a disconcerting mixture of brazenness and naivety. As the child of a rich family, he never had occasion to learn about ordinary people’s lives, and he tries to recreate the normal childhood he didn’t have by filling his apartment with teddy bears; meanwhile, he has no qualms about using people he knows as fodder for his erotic fiction, and even using their real names, much to Misaki’s fury.
Still, temper tantrums aside, they find ways to negotiate their differences, and that’s another thing I love about Junjo Romantica: the story doesn’t end with the exchange of “I love you”s, either for Misaki and Usami or for the other two couples featured. Most love stories end as soon as the two lovers are on the same page; Junjo Romantica shows us what happens next, after the blissful consummation. The difficult process of figuring out how to live together and how to keep a relationship going is given at least as much attention as the way the lovers come together in the first place.
But if I say that, I make it sound so serious, when one of the things I love most about Junjo Romantica is how funny it is, and not just because Misaki severely overestimates his ability to keep his cool in Usami’s presence. I’ve reread all the volumes several times, and each time I keep noticing new little gags that passed me by at first – like, for instance, the recurring image of pandas, lurking in the background or in the titles of books, or Usami’s weird preoccupation with eggs. (“You know, eggs sure are nice, aren’t they? They have this… yellow feel to them.”)
The first six volumes of Junjo Romantica are available right now, and the seventh is coming out in September. If BL is your kind of thing, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If it’s not… try dipping your toes in; you might find you like Junjo Romantica anyway.
Katherine Farmar writes regularly on comics and culture from around the world, you can read more on her comics blog Whereof One Can Speak.