Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
A Strange and Mystifying Story
Setsu, a wolf-spirit, claims to be tasked with watching over Akio's family, so when Akio's hereditary illness struck, Setsu appeared to save him. But now that Akio's healed, Setsu doesn't seem in any hurry to leave again. Is it simply because Akio was lonely and wished for him to stay? Or is there something more to the spirit's continued presence – and does Akio want there to be?
The second volume of Tsuta Suzuki's A Strange and Mystifying Story, previously published by Juné and now re-released by Viz's SuBLime imprint, does much more to build on Setsu's past than on the main couple's relationship. This may well turn out to be because of Setsu's past, and given both the short story at the end and the extended flashback in chapter three, that seems like a very distinct possibility. The issue is that in the moment, it neglects Akio and Setsu's relationship, and that leaves the sex scenes feeling a little hollow and Akio's (internally) professed feelings sounding kind of empty, because neither of them are grounded in a couple that we can easily root for at this point in time.
This is even more of a problem because of how the series began. When Setsu originally appeared on the scene in volume one, he declared that the easiest way to heal Akio, which involved pulling out and ingesting “gunk” (malignant energy) that he inherited from his ancestors, was to have sex with him. Since Akio wasn't entirely comfortable with this and some of the phrasing was a little funny, it basically led to their relationship beginning with Setsu casually assaulting Akio in order to “inject” him with his power/energy. By the end of the first two chapters (the rest of volume one was unrelated short stories), things seemed to be moving in a more positive direction, but volume two then opens with an immediate flashback to Setsu's initial involvement with Akio's family followed by a chapter that appears to take place in between chapters one and two in the first graphic novel. It's this latter part that really gums things up, as it's not only a return to the less-healthy sexual relationship, but it also backtracks on Akio's emotional progress, making his admission that he's starting to fall in love with Setsu in the following chapter feel like it comes out of nowhere. If there's anything “strange and mystifying” about this book, it's Suzuki's decision to mess with the timeline in this manner.
That's a shame not only in terms of competent storytelling, but also because there's definite potential for this couple, at least if we accept that the tropes of the romance genre (and often BL in particular) allow for later good relationships to begin unhealthily. (There's a fun exploration of this issue in the book Beyond Heaving Bosoms for those interested, although it does primarily deal with heterosexual romances.) Setsu's past reveals just how he got involved with Akio's family several hundred years ago, and it shows that he's generally speaking got a good heart and genuinely cares about people, no matter how he tries to pass his interest off as just “alleviating boredom.” The short story at the end further demonstrates this by showing how he first met the ancestor who ended up cursed as a battered child, whom Setsu immediately defended and took under his wing. Recognizing a continuing need for his presence, Setsu remained with the child as he grew up and had kids of his own, and when one of those children initiated the family curse, that's when Setsu took steps to ensure that he'd be able to continue keeping an eye on the family line. All of this implies that he already cared for Akio before his summoning, and that no matter what he was bound by his own will to save his life and to continue caring for him. We do see this in later sex scenes when Setsu does ask for Akio's consent; it feels more like a genre cliché the author is working with that it doesn't feel entirely honest.
We continue to see this devotion in Setsu's conversations with the spirits who live in Akio's garden, from whom he's trying to learn more about his new lover. While it absolutely would have been better for him to ask Akio himself rather than the plants outside, it again does show that he's got more interest in Akio than as merely a sexual object – and that he's making a space for himself among the spirits already present in the house so as not to ruffle any leaves. The main issue then becomes that Akio himself doesn't really see this happening because he can neither see nor hear the spirits. This leaves Akio floundering as he tries to figure out his own feelings and whether or not they're real or merely the result of being grateful to Setsu for both saving him and making sure that he's not alone again. Of course, his dilemma also means that we readers are in the same position, and all of Akio's repeated statements about how he may be falling in love mean very little if we don't actually see him doing so – and no, the sex scenes don't count in this case.
A Strange and Mystifying Story's second volume continues the feeling brought on by the first – that there's a good story in here that just isn't quite coming through. Between an overreliance of genre tropes and too much telling without enough showing, the book feels like an exercise in almost getting there. Given that this is a license rescue, it seems probable that we simply haven't reached the point where Suzuki really gets into her groove with the piece, but as of this volume, it feels questionable as to whether it will be worth the wait.
Overall : C+
Story : C+
Art : B-
+ Interesting fantasy elements, good use of both flashbacks, starting to get a better feel for Setsu