by Rebecca Silverman,
Izumi Sena, currently attending university, is the youngest child of a showbiz family. His mother's an actress, his father's a singer, and his flashy older brother Shogo leads a popular band. There's so much to keep organized that the family manager lives with them – the eminently capable Rei. All of these people team up to convince Izumi that he should repeat his single show business experience: when he was a little boy, he was on set with his parents, who were filming a commercial. When the girl who was supposed to be in it couldn't come, Izumi was put in her costume and asked to play her role opposite child actor Ryouma Ichijou. While that was enough acting for Izumi, Ryouma, unaware that his co-star was actually a boy, fell head over heels for him, and now is insisting that he'll do the “ten years later” version of the old ad, but only if the same girl plays opposite him. Since Ryouma is now a force to be reckoned with, everyone wants to convince Izumi to put on a dress again and play the part.
And thus begins Love Stage, the anime adaptation of Eichi Eichi and Taishi Zao's yaoi manga of the same name. It is a mix of romantic, slightly uncomfortable, silly, and serious, with the result being that it's really an awful lot of fun to watch. The pacing is actually fairly slow, which gives us time to get behind the idea of Izumi and Ryouma as a couple – we really get to know them and what drives them. In Izumi's case, this means going through a lot of confusion and some serious heartbreak. His life plans, semi-forced commercial appearance or not, do not involve becoming an actor. He's basically an otaku with dreams of breaking into the manga industry, and he spends his days either at his manga club at school or holed up in his room working on his submission for the breakthrough artists' contest at totally-not-Kadokawa. He's a major fan of a cute magical girl series and utterly obsessed with its lead, the blond pig-tailed Lala-Lulu. He dreams of one day being as good as his favorite author, Saotome-sensei, the man behind his beloved Lala-Lulu. The only major problem here is that Izumi is laughably bad at drawing...and that he has absolutely no idea. This leads to an interestingly uncomfortable situation for viewers – we know he has exactly zero chance of winning any manga contests, but no matter how many times we yell at the screen, he won't hear us. Watching him move towards the inevitable in episode six is painful, sort of the everyday version of seeing someone go down in the basement in a horror film.
Because Izumi's obsession with Lala-Lulu is so strong, the show makes use of her in ways that are both unexpected and highlight how much a fictional character can mean to someone. Yes, there's the obligatory hug pillow (complete with distressed look on her face) and the alarm clock that you will want to smash after roughly one episode, but Izumi also dreams about being part of Lala's world. She's a safe person to fantasize about, for one thing, but when he feels like his life is crumbling around him, his dreams of her help him to pick himself back up. Lala-Lulu functions as his sub-conscious in a sense, and this adds a layer to the show that is both unexpected and effective.
Ryouma is a much more humorous character, as well as the classic romance hero, playing both villain and romantic interest in equal measures. One problem with this trope, and one could argue with the romance genre in general, is that this means that he presses kisses on Izumi without the latter's consent, and at one point all-out assaults him, pulling down Izumi's pants and touching him sexually against his will. While Ryouma later gets a grip on himself, for some viewers the damage will have been done, if not during the assault scene, then when he spends forty-five minutes kissing an unaware sleeping Izumi. This is without a doubt the most problematic aspect of the show, and one which will hopefully abate in coming episodes.
That aside, Ryouma, as you may recall, does not know that Izumi is a boy when the story starts. This leads to some inner turmoil for him, as well as a look at his meaner side. Ryouma's constantly at odds with both himself (“Do I really love a guy?”) and Izumi's brother Shogo, a flamboyant rock star who loves his baby brother fiercely...and might be kind of hard to deal with even if you weren't trying to date said brother. (Shogo's voice, provided by his rumored inspiration Daigo, seems a little flat at times, and certainly doesn't feel up to the level of the rest of the acting, but the character is so out there that it works.) Once Ryouma has come to terms with his feelings, he becomes a very goofy character, prostrating himself before those he feels he's wronged, walking into poles, and getting starry-eyed of securing Izumi's cell number, to say nothing of texting more than a thirteen-year-old girl, much to Izumi's annoyance. More importantly, he comes through when Izumi needs him, and as of episode seven, things are really starting to look positive.
In terms of art, animation and music, the ending theme is incredibly catchy and has been stuck in my head for days. (Interestingly enough, most of the classic seme/uke imagery is found in the animation for the opening and ending.) Colors are bright to the point where some of them are distracting, particularly where eyes are concerned, and animation generally looks well done. The most bizarre note is the censorship, which rather than using black bars or sparkly mist sort of dissolves the characters into sky. Honestly, I'd have preferred the mist – watching Ryouma make love to a blue space is just weird. Fortunately nice details, such as introducing ancillary cast members after the preview, help to make this feel more well thought-out than Sky Lovin' would make it seem. It certainly won't be a show for everyone, but Love Stage's first seven episodes set up a romance that looks at its characters as people, not just two guys who are supposed to kiss.
Love Stage!! is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Rebecca Silverman teaches writing and literature and is the author of the fantasy novel A Tale of Apples.
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