Ai no Kusabi
by Justin Sevakis,
It seems yaoi manga is everywhere these days. It's hard to imagine a convention dealer's room without a few stacks of hardcore doujinshi, squealing fangirls, and of course, those ubiquitous "yaoi paddles."
Yaoi anime, however, isn't quite as prevalent. The stuff just isn't as popular in Japan as some would like to believe, and with such a small audience there's not much point in making animated versions. Sure, there's been a few homoerotic TV series recently, but outside of those and an occasional trickle of (usually very cheaply made) OAVs, there's not much there. Genre fangirls, desperate for their animated man-on-man action, seem to flock around and celebrate whatever they can get their hands on.
The appeal of yaoi to hormone-drenched young women is a subject that's long fascinated me, but I have to admit that from an artistic standpoint the yaoi anime I've seen have been pretty underwhelming. Most of the stories seem to be fluffy clichés not too far removed from the plot of a porno, and in fact, some recent examples degenerate into outright porn. Often, in an effort to appeal to the fanbase, the male characters are made to look and act so overtly female that I have to wonder what the point was in even making the show yaoi.
I'm all for stories and popular culture that embraces alternative lifestyles, but too often yaoi anime becomes an exercise in pandering to its yearning fanbase rather than provoking any thought.
But as with any blanket dismissal, there are exceptions. Fake, the first legally released BL title in the States, was funny, mostly realistic and featured likable characters. Loveless, for all its creepy shota undertones, had some interesting insight into the mind of a boy recovering from physical abuse. However, one of the best yaoi anime has never been released stateside. Even more strangely, it's science fiction!
AI NO KUSABI (Wedge of Interval)
Originally a serialized novel by Reiko Yoshiwara, Ai no Kusabi plays upon the familiar themes of forbidden love, class and caste systems, and tragedy. What makes it unique is the way in which these themes play out.
Ai no Kusabi is a rare example of shoujo science fiction, and avoids the "everyone is gay" fallacy of so many yaoi series by having this future city of Tanagura controlled by a computer. This computer is named Jupiter, and in addition to creating a caste system denoted by hair color (the darker your hair, the lower your class), it also controls the natural population by birthing very few women. The blondes are genetically bred to be bigger and smarter -- the aristocracy that works with Jupiter to run the government and the inner workings of society. The dark haired, long considered underclass "mongrels", have risen up and formed their own city of Ceres... but this has done little to raise their social ranking. They've also started reproducing on their own, though there's barely any women to aid in the process. Anyway, as prisons prove, men will turn to men when there's no women around.
It's one of those blondes, a top-ranking official named Iason Mink, who happens across a young mongrel named Riki. Iason saves him from a mob (who caught him trying to steal a car), and having no money, Riki insists on paying him back with his body. Despite blondes being forbidden sexual contact by Jupiter, Iason agrees, and decides to make Riki his "pet" (a sex slave). Riki is marked with a gold ring attached to his you-know-what.
Two years go by, and Riki is now twenty years old -- far too old to be a "pet". It's not a happy situation for anybody; Riki doesn't particularly appreciate being a slave (and is growing more and more resentful and hateful towards his master) and Iason is taking a beating in the Tanagura social scene. Not only does he have an old mongrel as a pet, but he's rumored to actually have sex with it! Iason feels a definite attachment to the wild and angry Riki, and hoping to calm him down, allows him a year of freedom.
Riki returns to his old gang, the street toughs known as "Bison", and to his old friend and lover, Guy. Things are good again... but when Iason decides it's time for his pet to come home, he hires the new kid in the group to trick Bison into working an illegal pet trafficking job. The gang gets arrested, Iason plucks Riki back into his clutches, and everybody else is let go with a slap on the wrist.
Guy can tell that Riki's not the same person he used to be, but in a quiet moment he confesses that he wishes they could be together again. That's when Riki reveals his shameful truth... that's he's a pet. That it was his master that let the gang go free. Guy is disgusted that the strong and dignified man he once respected has sunk to such a level, and kicks him out of the group. With nothing and nobody else to live for, Riki returns to Iason, and is told by an associate of his just how much trouble Iason is in for keeping him. Iason has risked his career, his status, even his freedom. It's enough to earn Riki's respect.
Slowly, Riki starts to see his captor in a different light. Something in him breaks, and he finally accepts the love that he never realized Iason was actually showing him. But even if Riki accepts it, Guy does not, and Guy is about to take matters into his own hands.
What separates Ai no Kusabi from myriad other yaoi titles is that it doesn't simply throw away the altered dynamics of having two males in an emotional relationship; rather, it capitalizes on them. Both Riki and Iason are alpha-males, and much of the story focuses on the issue of control: who has it, and who resents not having it. There is no "uke" and "seme" as yaoi fans like to say; only people who want to have things be a certain way, and can only fight with everything they have when life doesn't turn out the way they had hoped.
The show is animated by AIC, and in 1992-1994 when the studio was at its creative peak. Characters are designed by Naoyuki Onda (whose other credits include previous Buried Treasures TO-Y and Nineteen19), and I was amused by how male concepts of status and sexuality are manifest in the characters' wardrobes. While higher levels of society dress in increasing levels of elegance, the mongrels instead wear fashions that emphasize their bodies and show off their physical assets. The late Kaneto Shiozawa brings a superb sense of power and willfulness to Iason, in what is probably his most fangirl-melting performance.
The sci-fi look of the show is handled by mechanical designer and sci-fi maven Yasuhiro Moriki (Crest/Banner of the Stars, Nadesico, D.Gray-man), while the two episodes are handled by different directors, Akira Nishimori in episode 1, and Katsuhito Akiyama in episode 2. I appreciated the sense of dark gravity Nishimori, fresh from his work on the last episode of AD Police Files, brought to the set-up episode, but it's Akiyama's work that really shines; the last episode seems to move as if propelled by its own wrenching emotions.
If there's any fault to be had with the anime adaptation of Ai no Kusabi, it's in the way the story itself is adapted; it was thought that only those familiar with the book would see it (as it was only sold as a very expensive mail-order item from the magazine it was serialized in, Shosetsu JUNE), and so the rules of the world are not properly established, and some of the storytelling is a little rough and difficult to keep straight. As this society makes strange use of lots of English words for its various roles in society, things can be a little difficult to follow sometimes. The synth score, though very dated, takes cues from Giorgio Moroder and Jean-Michel Jarre in its feeling of timeless emotion and societal fates.
Ai no Kusabi is intense, both emotionally and sexually; for that reason, it's a little hard to watch for a straight guy. It's not pornographic, but is sexual enough to merit an NC-17 rating if it were a movie. I once made an edited version for myself so I could sit through it without squirming, but after having a gay roommate in college and editing enough grotesque-but-straight hentai in my early career to desensitize myself to pretty much anything, I got over it. There are enough important, deeply moving homosexual-themed live action films that are about as graphic, so I don't see the point in getting offended by material like this.
It may be difficult for some people, but Ai no Kusabi is easily the most moving, psychologically complex yaoi piece I've ever seen. If there was a piece worth overcoming one's dislike of the genre for, this is the one.
|A||Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.|
|C||Common. In print, and always available online.|
|R1||US release out of print, still in stock most places.|
|R2||US release out of print, not easy to find.|
|R3||Import only, but it has English on it.|
|R4||Import only. Fansubs commonly available.|
|R5||Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.|
|R6||Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.|
|R7||Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.|
|R8||Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.|
|Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.|
The two-part OAV has been released on DVD in Japan and Germany, but none of these releases have English subtitles. Fansubs are out there, however, and the original novel is currently being released by Digital Manga Publishing in three parts. I haven't read these books, but I'm looking forward to doing so.
Screenshots ©1992 Yoshiwara Rieko•MagajinMagajin
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