Seriously. That was, no contest, one of the best volumes of BL I’ve ever read, and I feel pretty comfortable saying it probably is the best volume of BL currently available in English. But let me backtrack somewhat. (Warning: some non-descriptive spoilers in the fourth paragraph of this review.)
Blue Morning concerns Akihito Kuze, a young noble in pre-WWII Japan, and Tomoyuki Katsuragi, the family butler who has been given far more range within the household and on behalf of the household by Kuze’s father’s will than is typically the case. Initially, Akihito is a mere ten years old when he becomes viscount, his father having passed away, so while the amount of power Katsuragi possesses is unusual, it doesn’t seem wholly out of line. As Akihito creeps closer to coming of age, though, the set-up adds to an already tense relationship between the men – Katsuragi seems to not care much for Akihito beyond his Kuze surname, and Akihito desperately desires his approval even as he feels that the other man hates him. (Reading, I was reminded quite a bit of the relationship between Guido Maffeo and Tonio Treschi in Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven.)
The entire volume is a slow-boil affair, and I would describe it as dense and mature (in the original sense of the word as opposed to its flattened down form which simply indicates that something has sex or a lot of violence in it). While the relationship dynamic between Akihito and Katsuragi is the central matter ultimately, much of the story is taken up by watching Katsuragi maneuver to place the Kuze family in a better position, both within the hierarchy of the nobility as well as within the financial world. Akihito for his part chafes hard against the expectations and old-fashioned snobberies of his upper-class world. And both spend time trying to unravel some related mysteries from different angles, adding to the fairly complicated story. In many ways, this is much more of a political drama than it is a romance so far.
Actually, speaking of romance, if I’m wholly honest, there really isn’t any so far. Akihito comes to long for Kuze, but Kuze remains detached and above it all. This culminates in an uncomfortable sex scene in which the consensuality is, at best, hazy. Its the type of scene I normally find abhorrent in a manga or anime, yet here, well… it was completely in-tone with the rest of the volume. Akihito and Kuze have a messy, complicated relationship, and the ambiguities of their encounter reflect that. It also helps that author Shoko Hidaka portrays the scene in a way that does not invite erotic thrill on the part of the reader; its very matter-of-fact that there’s a power struggle involved, and Akihito’s disgust with himself is made clear. Afterward, both men are also depicted as physically battered by the experience, and Akihito continues to rue his behavior. This isn’t rape or sexual coercion as sexy and positive like we see in so many other BL tales.
I really want to mention the female characters because they are absolutely worth mentioning. As is generally the case with BL, the female characters are few in number, but the two who do have speaking roles within the narrative are fantastic even if their appearances are brief. There’s Kiku, the elderly housekeeper of the Kuze family who has been with the family for multiple generations, and Marquise Kayoko Moriyama, a strong-willed noblewoman. Both women are sharp and demonstrate a keen sense of perception; despite being on opposite ends of the social hierarchy, one gets the feelings that they’d have a strong respect for one another were they to meet on level ground. In a genre where female characters are generally merely interlopers, fools, and shrews, these two are a breath of fresh air.
You’d be hard-pressed to figure out that this is a Viz title if you were simply looking at the physical release itself – the only clue is buried in the copyright information at the back of the volume. The name on the spine is “BL SUBLIME”, Viz’s SuBLime imprint that carries, you guessed it, BL. Its a solid production from Viz, although I did find a typo within the text, which is always hideously disappointing to me. The price-point is a touch high for the product we get ($12.99 yet no physical difference from Viz’s mainline titles that go for $9.99), though.
I sincerely hope that the other titles in SuBLime’s line come even halfway close to being as good as Blue Morning is thus far. I’ve currently got a pile of BL manga waiting for me from Anime Boston, and I worry that I’ve ruined all of them for myself by managing to go with such a clearly superior work before getting to them. We need more stuff like this in the North American manga market – manga that is legitimately mature and demands more from the reader than passive reading. I’m always whining for more manga that’s meant for adults, and in Blue Morning, my prayers have been answered. I can’t recommend this enough, and I would go so far as to say that I recommend it to folks who don’t typically read or enjoy BL. Despite the 18+ label, the sex scene is not explicit, and the story that surrounds it has plenty to sink one’s teeth into. If you aren’t a raging homophobe, I think there’s enough here to demand the interest of even the diehard, adult shounen fan. I really can’t praise it enough. Read this book.