House of 1000 Manga
by Shaenon K. Garrity,
When I read smut, I want it smutty. As part of my job as a professional manga nerd, I find myself reading a lot of Boys’ Love (have you seen the length of the BL review section in Otaku USA?), and time and again I've been disappointed by titles where hot dudes who are also probably also psychic manimals or something fall in lust/angst (or langst) but barely even kiss. Where is my peen, I ask? Give me smut! Give me smut and nothing but!
But I'll forgive almost anything if a manga is funny, and His Favorite, although a disappointingly PG-level BL manga, is pretty darn funny. Also it feeds my love of tiny dorky angry guys.
Sato is the hottest guy in school, followed everywhere by crowds of lovestruck girls who can't get enough of his bishonen good looks and heavy-lidded cool. But Sato only wants to hang out with gawky semi-delinquent Yoshida, who's baffled by the attention—not to mention annoyed, since now every girl in school hates him for taking up priceless face time with Sato. Plus, Sato seems more interested in picking on Yoshida than palling around with him. But could it be that Sato's interest is more than friendly? Could it be that Yoshida is, in fact…His Favorite? OMG! And if so, why?
Because they have a past together, of course. This is a manga. It soon comes out that Sato has a secret history as a picked-on fat kid, though since he's grown out of his awkward childhood nobody recognizes him—except, eventually, Yoshida. Giving the seme a traumatic past to excuse his bad-boy behavior is a BL standard, but when we finally get to the flashbacks to Sato's stint in an abusive fat camp, it's played for over-the-top absurdity. (The kids are forced to lose weight by fighting ravenous tigers and anacondas all day, and there are rumors of genetic experimentation.) Meanwhile, the hotness and popularity of the present-day Sato is exaggerated to a ridiculous degree—all the more so because he's not even the only bishy guy at the school, and soon the manga fills with other hot guys, most of whom are also into Yoshida.
Ah, Yoshida. Again, my personal biases distort my critical opinion, as biases are bound to do when smut is involved, but Yoshida's character design is unique in BL and enormously charming. Basically, he's a cartoon doodle. He's got rumpled hair and bug eyes and a stretched-out mouth. He looks a lot like Luffy from One Piece, even down to the scar on one cheek, but while Luffy lives in a world of other wacky cartoon people and looks more or less normal in that milieu, Yoshida is paired off with the foot-taller, shojo-eyed Sato. My House of 1,000 Manga cohort Jason Thompson has commented in the past on the way shojo artists often draw male and female characters in radically different styles; reviewing Rie Takada's Happy Hustle High for his seminal Manga: The Complete Guide, he noted “in Takada's world, guys and girls look like different species.” But it's rare to see this device in BL, and although Yoshida is supposed to be “ugly,” his exaggerated expressions and flailing body language make him predominantly huggable.
There are a lot of funny characters in His Favorite, and one of the other perks it has over most BL is a good extended cast. Yoshida is part of a circle of awkward losers, but over the course of the series his friends find love too; his pal Makimura (whose face is just one of those henohenomoheji doodles Japanese children make out of hiragana) is an eternally hopeful horndog, while his tubby friend Akimoto develops a shy romance with his childhood friend. Sato develops a rival in Nishida, a guy who's not just handsome but ridiculously nice and heroic, unlike the standoffish Sato. There's even a second handsome-cool-guy/weird-looking-tough-guy couple.
It'd be going too far to say that His Favorite has massive character development, but the characters do grow, change, and develop richer relationships. Sato starts out in the stereotypical mode of the sadistic seme who pushes Yoshida's boundaries and torments him in various ways, one of my least favorite BL tropes. (My other least favorite? Manimals.) Thankfully, he grows into less of an asshole as the series progresses and he's forced to be a better boyfriend—and friend—to Yoshida. And Yoshida starts to honestly address his own feelings (of course he's secretly been into Yoshida all along, this, again, being a manga) instead of getting pissed off all the time. By the third or fourth volume the two of them have an almost healthy relationship. Well, by BL standards. If you squint.
If only there were more sex! Again, personal bias. Sato and Yoshida fool around from time to time, and it's implied that they get hot and heavy between fadeouts (Yoshida sometimes shows up at school in the morning looking like a Looney Tunes character who's just had a stick of dynamite blow up in his face, so freaked out is he by whatever it is he and Sato got up to), but their on-panel activity only occasionally goes further than stolen kisses. As the manga progresses and author Suzuki Tanaka gets distracted by side characters and comedy plots, the steamy scenes get fewer and farther between. This is very much a romantic rather than sexual BL, but some readers get off on romantic tension, or so I'm told. In the comments for His Favorite on publisher SuBLime's website, one reader calls it “a perfect little teen love story,” which is about right.
But hey, it's funny, and genuinely funny BL manga are rare. Half the comedy comes from Yoshida's cartoonishly over-the-top reactions to, well, just about everything, and half comes from the slapstick exaggerations of well-worn manga tropes. Over the course of many volumes, the knot of girls chasing Sato inflates into a vast, deadly mob feared by every male student and some of the teachers. At one point all the girls at school engage in a vicious footrace for the right to pursue Sato, with participants falling into booby-trapped pits. (Nice Nishida materializes out of nowhere to rescue them.) The improbably hot guys fighting over Yoshida multiply and start challenging each other to duels from the tops of cliffs. And Yoshida continues to react like he can't even with this nonsense.
Suzuki Tanaka isn't one of the great BL artists. Her storytelling is simple, her art attractive (and funny) but not exceptional. Mostly, it just seems like she's having a lot of fun. And in manga, that's a valuable feature. Maybe even more valuable than smut.
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