Reviewby Casey Brienza, Apr 12th 2009
GN 1-3 (Complete Series)
Kotori Karasawa is an ordinary boy surrounded by beauties on all sides. Fortunately, it does not bother him in the least because he is “menkui,” a superficial soul with a noted weakness for a pretty face. And he is weakest of all for his schoolmate Kaname Akaiwa, who cuts a distant, noble figure but appears only to be interested in Kotori's elder brother Kujaku. As it turns out, however, appearances are deceiving, especially to those inclined to be overly swayed by them, and as far as Akaiwa is concerned, Kotori is the most adorable boy in the world. Getting him as a boyfriend, though, is another story entirely, and meddling siblings, fractious classmates, a Heian ghost, and an alien or two are all too pleased to get in the way.
The title of this three volume boy's love (BL) manga Menkui!, which means “shallow” or “a sucker for a pretty face,” is supposed to refer to the defining character flaw of the manga's protagonist Kotori. But in actuality, Kotori is much too ordinary and too unmemorable a hero or lover to be the embodiment of an untranslated Japanese word of this sort. Better—or should I say worse?—to say that Suzuki Tanaka's first multi-part series itself is “menkui,” a manga of appalling stunted scope and pinched ambitions.
The burgeoning relationship between Kotori and Akaiwa has got to be one of the more epic exercises in frustration available in English translated BL manga—both for the couple themselves and the soon to be disappointed reader. The subplots stumble half-heartedly through every “Why doesn't he say he loves me?” and “How come he's so friendly with them but not with me?” plotline in the BL cliché playbook, and when even those wear too thin Tanaka switches gears abruptly to improbable science fiction/fantasy setups. The one that dominates volume two involves a lonely, Heian period ghost trapped in the school's bathroom mirror who wants Kotori to join him on “the other side” forever—and, yes, it is just as dumb as it sounds. Perhaps even more so. Volume three concludes this tale of misfired romance with body-switching across parallel universes. Really…and no, don't ask.
Even the comparatively realistic side stories involving supporting characters such as Kotori and Akaiwa's siblings and classmates are appallingly weak in both structure and character development. In fact, the suggestion of various brother complexes throughout are more steamy than indirect implications of sexual activity. (No, this series is not remotely pornographic. More's the pity; debasement may have, in this case, actually improved matters somewhat.)
Approximately two thirds of a volume over the course of the entire series is actually composed of stories unrelated to the main Menkui! storyline. In the first volume alone there are three: They look like alternate universe Yoroiden Samurai Troopers, Cyber Formula, and Slam Dunk doujinshi respectively…and that is, promise, all that needs to be said about them. Only the second volume is entirely Menkui! all the time…and not for the better. The third volume reverts back to form and is fully half comprised of two bonus short stories, and they are as dark and oppressive as the main storyline is bright and lightweight, dystopian science fiction to the comic fantasy whimsy of the “Menkui!” chapters. The first of these is about schoolyard hierarchies gone very, very wrong, but it aims high and misfires terribly.
The second, on the other hand, titled “Muddy Stream,” is a frightening, affective tale of claustrophobia, domestic violence, and the failure to free oneself. A boy living in a walled off city whose father beats him bloody meets a violent but independent older boy who is determined to escape to the outside. When the time comes and they approach the proverbial city gates, the abused boy finds himself unable to take that first step into freedom. Needless to say, its quality is so above and beyond anything that has appeared in the previous chapters of the three volumes that, were it not for the recognizable art style, you would think that the mangaka was a different person altogether. If this is what she can do, it truly is a shame that it takes her this long to show off her writing chops. “Muddy Stream” is almost worth the $9.99 cover price all by itself; everything else that came before, by comparison, represents abject creative failure.
Tanaka's artwork is perhaps her greatest asset when her storytelling capabilities are—as they often are—refusing to come to her rescue. She has a clean yet distinctively bold, confident style that has won her numerous fujoshi devotees. In some ways, it looks rather anime-like or perhaps Shounen Sunday-esque. She might have been a slice of life shounen mangaka in another life. Indeed, one wonders if she might not be wasting her time in BL. But for better or for worse, Tanaka continues to publish new BL, more in the style of Menkui! than not, with popular Japanese periodicals to this day.
Anyway, this series is, at best, only for BL completists who think they might find themselves satisfied with chapters of buildup culminating in…a tender kiss between the two principal characters. Maybe cute kisses and weird, random fantastical digressions are good, but most are liable to find them unlikely to satisfy for long. Menkui! is one series of books you ought to feel safe in judging by their unremarkable covers—and never looking back.
Overall : C
Story : C-
Art : B+
+ Clean, attractive artwork and one great short story at the end of the third volume.
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