Reviewby Casey Brienza, Feb 26th 2009
Lou was just another starving artist trying to eek out a living on the wintry streets. Until, that is, he meets the mysterious but devastatingly handsome Sein, an apparent pianist and composer who commissions Lou to paint his portrait of his “true face.” Lou leaps at the opportunity, even after he realizes Sein is virtually impossible to please. In fact, he is wholly undeterred—even after he learns that Sein is a vampire who casts no reflection! Before long, Lou becomes infatuated with his patron and embroiled the vagaries of his unlife. The vampire, as it turns out, has some unlikely friends and at least one implacable foe, and in order to paint Sein's true face, the young and untried Lou will have to face down them all.
“I've always wanted to do a vampire story…!” writes mangaka Hiroki Kusumoto (Wild Butterfly) enthusiastically. Pardon me while I yawn. Doesn't everybody these days? Unfortunately, vampires had been done to undeath even before Stephanie Meyer wrote Twilight; it's hard to imagine how any writer, never mind one of such middling talents, could wring more than an ounce of originality from the mythology of seductive bloodsuckers.
And sure enough. She doesn't. A typical strategy when writing about vampires is deciding which parts of their legend one wants to be “true.” In some worlds, vampires are not afraid of crosses. In others, they don't automatically transform their victims into new vampires. Such is the case in Vampire's Portrait. But the one thing that is true about the moody, undead musician Sein is that he casts no reflection. For this reason, he commissions a self-portrait from the young artist Lou. This is how the story starts. Quite abruptly, it must be noted—you will find yourself wondering if some introductory pages were mistakenly omitted from the English language edition.
They weren't…and if you are expecting some sort of profundity linking together themes of still life painting and eternal (un)life, you are looking in precisely the wrong place. Actually, the first volume of this ongoing, ostensibly boy's love (BL) manga series is precisely the wrong place to find much of anything you might have wanted or expected. In the first place, those who have come looking for vampire on man action that does not involve fangs in neck will be dismayed to discover that there are no sex scenes, implied or explicit, whatsoever. Do not be deceived by the naughty looking, suggestive cover illustration. The closest the plot ever gets to “love” is the artist mooning over his subject. Yet Lou falls head over heels for Sein so quickly that it feels insincere, and the way that his feelings for the vampire strain the remotest believability renders what comes subsequently virtually irrelevant.
It is, nevertheless, to Kusumoto's credit that “what comes subsequently” proves to be a heck of a lot more supernatural horror/suspense plot than is standard for BL. Among other things, Lou discovers that one of his ancestors shares a history with Sein, and he also learns that he has a proud, possibly sadistic rival for Sein's affections. The final half of the first volume explores a lengthy subplot—rather along the lines of Descendants of Darkness—involving the appearance of Sein's sinister vampire brother and his sinister, but irritatingly incomprehensible, plans for Sein. Apparently, Sein is deliberately failing at vampire-dom, and he is going to need a human to save him from being transformed into a genuine monstrosity. Enter, of course, Lou.
Too bad, really, that it's all so silly it borders on stupid. Kusumoto's primary strength is her artwork. She has been drawing BL for over a decade, and her skill has improved and evolved dramatically over the years. What was, once upon a time, run of the mill manga art has become something unique and instantly recognizable. Although her layouts per se are not unusual on their own terms, her heavy lines and loads of screen tone give the pages a dark, brooding atmosphere and work especially well once the beasties emerge. Despite his long hair, Sein is perhaps a bit too masculine to be “pretty,” but it's hard to dispute the conclusion that he looks awfully good once his humanity gets stripped away!
Needless to say, Vampire's Portrait is not the best BL to be published in English, not by a long shot. In fact, in a slightly different original Japanese publishing context, it would just be another tepid shoujo manga with heavy homoerotic subtext. Still, it's safe to say that Kusumoto will ramp up the fujoshi fanservice in subsequent chapters, so those who prefer mere subtext should not bother with this manga and those who want more might be advised to remain patient. But given the fact that nobody is likely to be particularly pleased with the contents of this volume, suffice it to say that this portrait is awfully short on the details. Those seeking a virtuoso sequential art vision should probably just look elsewhere.
Overall : B-
Story : C+
Art : B+
+ A distinctive style of illustration and significantly more plot than is typical of the genre.
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