Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Aug 16th 2010
Akihiko Usami, now 28, never had much of a childhood. To compensate, he's turned his room into a toy paradise and carries a security teddy bear with him whenever possible. He can afford to be a little eccentric as a reclusive author of both award-winning contemporary fiction and best-selling boys' love erotica. After the wedding of his best friend Takahiro, Akihiko finds himself looking after the new groom's 18-year old brother, Misaki, an easily flustered and naïve kid, but good at heart. The childish author is heartbroken, having long held one-sided feelings for his old friend, but finds his affections redirected when he realizes Misaki is crying for him when he can't admit how much he's been hurt.
Usami isn't the only one suffering from unrequited love, however, as another old friend of his, literature teacher Hiroki, pines for Akihiko despite knowing the quiet writer only sees him as a friend. His obsession and grief leave him blind, however, to the piqued interests of the new student he's been tutoring, who knows more about him than he realizes.
The world only gets smaller when Hiroki's fellow teacher Miyagi finds himself being stalked by an unabashed admirer: his ex-brother in law Shinobu. Miyagi tries to make it clear to the whippersnapper that he has no interest in men, least of all him, but Shinobu has his reasons for refusing to give up.
Yes, not one, not two, but three couples grapple with their emotions (and, such is yaoi, one another,) in Junjou Romantica, which is actually three separate stories rather than one: Romantica, Egoist, and Terrorist. Each episode focuses on only one of the couples, as the characters' connections are superficial and don't evolve into any crossover relationships. My sincerest apologies for squashing some readers' hopes for a climactic six-way. You know who you are.
As long as I have that specific audience's attention, however, pages upon pages of character analysis and art description won't tell you much about whether this anime adaptation is worth your attention, so I'll cut to the chase. All six boys are incredibly cute in their own ways and all are milked for cutesy humor. They are also all milked for other things, resulting in a pretty strict average of one and a half non-pornographic sex scenes per episode. (The “half” is a sudden makeout or a liaison we only see the start of.) In between these, the show places its tearjerkers well and does its best to make all six leads, and all three relationships, unique and memorable. There is no reason a shonen-ai fan should not pick this up. As yaoi titles go, this is a prime specimen. However...well...
Honestly, what is everyone else supposed to think? Two minutes into the first episode, Misaki breaks into Akihiko's room early in the morning to rage at him for putting his brother into his erotic stories. He is “punished” for waking the master by being thrown down on the bed and…well, you can imagine, I'm sure, but he spends the entire experience trembling, crying, and begging Usami to stop. Everyone but the target audience has already stopped watching, and no level of extensive review will convince them to keep going. Though it's not as explicit or “to the point” in nature, a review of shonen-ai is a mite akin to a review of hentai: a little superfluous and best left to connoisseurs anyway. Thankfully there's a lot to talk about in Junjou Romantica, whether it's needed or not.
The main couple of the story is actually the least worth wasting words on, and this is a serious problem for the show as they take up most of the screen time. Usami is every bit the seme: masculine, possessive, hiding pressures that only the uke can quell, and soft, effeminate and incredibly shrill Misaki fills said role impeccably too. After only a couple occurrences their relationship ceases to be rape-based and it's given room to deepen, but Usami's actions never cease to be excessively dominative, and Misaki, despite the passage of a year or more, never ceases his irrational freakouts when Usami kisses him or he realizes that he's been sleeping with another man…again, for a year. Unless you're just here for the “action,” it's extremely difficult to care about such dead-end, unrealistic and cliché characters. Episode by episode the series tries to give them layers, but it's slathering entirely too much icing on such small cupcakes, and no, all that enforced intercourse isn't endearing either. It's tradition in the genre, sure. That doesn't mean it should ever be condoned, admired, or slobbered over, which is also "tradition." It's rape. It's malicious and traumatizing, not “a first step” toward anything.
This is why it's so refreshing that the other two relationships in the series are 100% consensual and feature considerably more standard-shattering partners. Hiroki and Nowaki's bond begins entirely one-sided but no physical coercion is involved in Hiroki's eventual acceptance of his admirer. They're both less exaggerated characters on the whole and while Hiroki is shorter and easily flustered, he displays more tempermental masculine characteristics while it's Nowaki's sensitivity and calmness that make him the dominant force in the relationship. It's a more mature way of looking at the idea, for sure.
Miyagi and Shinobu's tale can't really be elaborated on without spoilers, but it's safe to say of all the couplings, it comes across the most naturally and twists the most presumptions. That's not to say it's realistic; it's as schmaltzy and contrived as the others, but at least by comparison these characters feel like real people trying to walk the line between their desires and apprehensions, even if the events thrust upon them are silly. The physical side of their relationship is nonexistent because, fancy that, it hasn't developed yet. They aren't here to perform for the paddle-bearers and the closest they get is an awkward and unsettling scene that reveals more depth of character than man-flesh: by far the most impactful scene in the show.
The art does a valiant job of making every scene enjoyable though. (Again, provided you enjoy this sort of thing generally.) Like most boys' love titles, the budget was tiny here and it shows, but while the animation is lacking, the various stills that pass for a cartoon are well-composed and the men, again, in a genre plagued with rough, angular forms, freakish hands, and tiny heads, are pretty appealing. The fellows aren't quite distinctive enough to sit side by side and tell one another apart, but since they're usually only seen in twos, that's not a serious problem. Besides that, the cast of seiyuu is diverse enough to compensate, (featuring Kazuhiko Inoue of Gravitation fame and Takahiro Sakurai playing…contrary to type.) Production-wise, it's more than serviceable, emotions are depicted well, and for the shonen-ai crowd, the “interactions” are plenty scrumptious from hugs n' kisses on up. (Or is that down?) One thing's for sure: this is not a boring series.
Regardless of the novelty (or lack thereof) in each coupling, the rest of the show is just a bad aimless mess. Thanks to the heavy use of flashback and monologue to save on budget, each episode save for the two-parters can be watched as a standalone, each introducing a new conflict that throws the pair into turmoil but has little to do with the conflict before and after it. The quarrel of the day could nearly be drawn from a hat and assigned to any couple and tweaked for character quirks. “You moved away without telling me!” “There's someone else!” “I don't want to admit I'm gay!” Never fear, for all shall be healed with hugs, kisses, and hopefully an exotic place to make love. Like most yaoi accounts, and this is one place Romantica does not attempt to deviate from the norm, all these problems really could have been solved with simple communication...often one honest sentence. It's certainly interesting to have unconventional, tumultuous relationships onscreen, but does every boys' love pairing have to rely on constant deceit, denial, coercion and…statutory rape? It's not that these elements aren't important to portray in non-traditional romances like shonen-ai, but why are they depicted as trifles that just need to be “forgiven” instead of addressed and improved on like a healthy relationship should? Lies, mutual physical or emotional abuse and outright denial of affection are just “normal” and part of who you are? Why does this show go nowhere, preferring to languish in a talespin of bad decisions that are only regretted but never fixed?
It's much the same as the difference between portraying rape honestly and painting rape as a grueling but harmless “gettin' to know you man to man.” Guess which choice yaoi is famous for? In that sense, for all its attempted improvements on convention, and it certainly makes a few, Junjou Romantica is ultimately just another feast for the fanbase with a few noble ideas outside of its garish main pairing. They're good ideas with above-average execution for “girl-porn,” but they're lost in the noise of something not really worthy of attention outside its own world.
Overall (sub) : C
Story : D+
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Attractive character designs, a few laudable deviations from formula, knows what its audience wants and delivers perfectly, considerably less rape
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