Reviewby Casey Brienza,
Ichigenme... The First Class is Civil Law
Who would have thought that a fourth-rate Teinou University law school could offer its students valuable life lessons in true love? Certainly not the super-studious yet socially retiring Kensuke Tamiya. But when the roguish Taka-aki Tohdou French-kisses him during a drunken night out with his seminar professor and classmates, he soon realizes that he has as much to learn about love between men as he does about criminal case law! In time, Tamiya comes to grip with his desires and Tohdou's forthright affections, and the two remain a devoted couple as they mature and find fulfillment in their respective careers. The story also follows the romantic exploits of Tohdou's younger brother Hiroaki, who finds bliss in the arms of older men—namely the geeky professor Ito-sensei.
Boy's love (BL) has one of the most rigidly and instantly recognizable narrative formulas of any manga genre: 1) Boy meets boy. 2) Boy resists boy's aggressive romantic overtures. (Alternatively or additionally, boy secretly pines for other boy.) 3) Boy learns that his feelings for boy are mutual. 4) Boy lives happily ever after in arms of boy. The best storytellers working in genre fiction are those able to take a narrative formula like the one above and stretch or distort it in novel, creative ways that nonetheless remain recognizable to those familiar with the genre. Fumi Yoshinaga is one of those storytellers, and in Ichigenme… The First Class is Civil Law she shows us why she is both master of the BL genre and plenty capable of so much more.
The first volume of this two-part series is pitched perfectly to the expectations of the pedestrian BL consumer. It takes place in a school catering to the offspring of the powerful and features a burgeoning romantic relationship between two students, the up and coming Tamiya and the rich bad boy Tohdou. Tamiya is a neurotic nerd, conscious of his classmates' inherited privilege and deeply contemptuous of it. Tohdou is a seemingly carefree soul with secret depths who may remind Yoshinaga fans of a long-haired Ono, from Antique Bakery. A wild kiss at a drunken party is an explosively introduces the two men to each other. But while Tohdou fast proves himself to be a libertine who is open about his homosexuality, Tamiya is in every respect his opposite, and although he secretly fantasizes about Tohdou, he is absolutely unwilling to admit that they are anything more than friends. However, when he develops an unreciprocated crush on one of his professors, he Tamiya realizes that he can no longer deny the nature of his attraction to others and falls into Tohdou's arms for a night.
For the rest of the volume, the two men walk the narrow line between friendship and romance. Tamiya is still not quite able to bring himself to admit that he and Tohdou might be lovers, even though Tohdou spends an awful lot of time at his apartment. Things come to a head for the two men when a rumor starts going around that the person responsible for submitting a nude photograph of one of the university's best female students, Miho Terada, to a lad mag was Tohdou. Tamiya is certain that this is a lie, and it eventually comes out that Miho was dating a professor. In the wake of this revelation, the he finally consummates his relationship with Tohdou…but instead of a poignant goodbye, it turns out to be an auspicious beginning when they both end up returning to campus next spring.
The second and final volume of Ichigenme… goes where few BL manga have gone before—following Tamiya and Tohdou brazenly into mature adulthood. Tamiya has become a popular professor at Teinou University, while Tohdou has immersed himself in his startup videogame company. De facto marriage isn't all bliss, however, and Tohdou frets constantly about the lack of sexual activity and the horrific possibility that Tamiya is only keeping him around for his cooking skills. Meanwhile, Tohdou's younger brother Hiroaki is getting plenty of action in the arms of another of the school's professors. Perhaps because his is even more forward than his younger brother, his relationship with Hisao Ito-sensei resolves much more quickly. But in the end, both Tohdou siblings realize that the key to their respective partners' hearts is to say, “I'm in love with you.” The series then winds down with a side story prequel of sorts that shows both Tohdou brothers realizing that coming out of the closet, despite familial approbation, is the real key to happiness and individual fulfillment.
Yoshinaga's artwork may leave manga fans weaned on the dynamic visuals of CLAMP or Akira Toriyama a bit cold, but she uses her minimalist style and occasionally awkward character designs to their best advantage. The manga has a definitive narrative trajectory, but its action is played out in understated exchanges and the emotional unguardedness accompanying intimacy. She has a clear-sighted and compassionate understanding of the human condition. The mangaka shows us the less than fairytale truth about love—that “happily ever after” is always a work in progress that requires ongoing commitment from both partners for as long as the relationship lasts. In final analysis, this manga does something extraordinary; it takes BL fantasy and makes it feel very, very real.
The 801Media editions, while pricey at $15.95 retail, are attractive volumes of the same trim size as the Japanese originals. Both boast reasonably high paper quality, dust jackets, full-color inserts, and a handful of cultural endnotes that discriminating manga fans will undoubtedly appreciate.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : B-
+ A lovely slice-of-life narrative and skillful character development.
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