Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
GN 1 [e-book]
Thrown out of her relatives' home once her compulsory education was finished, high school-aged Mito has been living hand-to-mouth on the streets for some time. She's disguised herself as a boy for safety purposes, but that doesn't make her life any more pleasant or really any easier. All of that stands to change when she runs into vampire Ruka. Ruka's immediately attracted to Mito in her boy guise, even though her blood tastes terrible as a direct result of her unhappy life. Ruka takes Mito in anyway and makes her his thrall, vowing to love her blood into deliciousness. Finally she's got a safe, warm home and a chance to attend high school – but could it all come crashing down if Ruka discovers her true gender?
Ema Toyama has worn many genre hats over the course of her manga career, a decent amount of which are available in English translation. Vampire Dormitory, one of her two currently ongoing titles, is the third to get a digital-only release from Kodansha, following Kamikami Kaesi and Aoba-kun's Confessions. Thematically it feels like a combination of Aoba-kun's more melodramatic emotional plotline and her earlier Missions of Love series in terms of raciness, with the added bonus of vampires. It's definitely the most mature of her works to be released in English, as well, and not just because of the mild sexiness: Vampire Dormitory's main focus is on Mito's desperate need to conceal her gender because she fears being homeless again.
The basis of the story is just that – teenage girl Mito was orphaned as a child and spent most of her life being passed around among relatives who didn't want her and resented her beauty. When she finished middle school (the end of mandatory education in Japan), she was thrown out of the house, with her relatives telling her that her pretty face would get her money. Internalizing what they meant by that and not liking it, Mito disguised herself as a (still pretty) boy, binding her breasts and donning a wig in order to make life on the streets even a little bit safer for herself. After she's fired from her most recent job, she has an encounter with Ruka, a high school boy who is actually a vampire. When Mito cuts herself in his presence, Ruka finds himself drawn to the “boy” and has a desire to drink blood for the first time in ten years. He takes Mito in, but this seems to be contingent upon the fact that he thinks she's a he; Ruka not only lives in a dorm, but he goes to an all-boys school, and as an added bonus he's only interested in 2D women.
Toyama's vampire lore is a bit different from what we more typically see in a way that skews towards shoujo manga sensibilities. Ruka has been able to survive on strawberry juice in lieu of blood, and apparently the blood of well-loved people (or possibly just women; that's a bit unclear) tastes very similar. The quality of a person's blood is directly affected by the amount of love and affection they've experienced in their life, so when Ruka first drinks Mito's blood, he's disgusted by how bad it tastes. Since this is directly related to her difficult life (and she admits that she's been homeless to him), Ruka decides that he's going to shower her with love and affection and “ripen” her blood himself. This, although neither he nor Mito realizes it, may be due at least in part to another piece of Toyama's mythology, that all male vampires have a human female soulmate whom they can never drink dry or turn into a vampire. (Lifespans between humans and vampires appear to be comparable here.) That Mito may be that soulmate doesn't seem to occur to Ruka because he thinks she's a boy, but the signs are there – he's compelled to keep drinking her blood no matter how gross it tastes and he's utterly unwilling to let her go. Plus this is a romance manga running in Nakayoshi, so we can draw our own conclusions from that little fact.
Mito not really knowing any of this, or only barely understanding it, contributes to her near-constant state of worry. She tries very hard to distract herself from her fear of Ruka discovering her true gender, because she truly is relieved and happy to have a safe place to call home at last. Things are complicated by the entrance of Ren, the school bad boy who seems to have lost his mother to a vampire who was not her soulmate (and who may have been his dad), and his worry for Mito only drives her anxiety higher. To her, humans have been the true monsters, and for all that he drinks her blood, Ruka has been far kinder and more humane to her than anyone else. Ren can't understand that, and may also be much closer to learning that she's a girl than Ruka is, and almost more than the whole vampire-and-thrall thing, this feels like the true crux of the story's drama: that for Mito, the “monster” represents safety.
There are a fair amount of sexist moments in this volume, which is interesting, because while Toyama isn't the most progressive storyteller, I haven't noticed her works leaning quite so hard into sexist elements previously. In part this could simply be because the story is a cross-dressing narrative, so Mito herself is going to be more aware of the gendered statements made in her presence. There are a lot of “boys don't cry” moments, either literally or figuratively, and Mito actually loses her job in the beginning because “his” good looks are drawing too many female customers to the restaurant. While the gendered bits can be a little jarring, it's hard to say that they don't belong in the story, because her gender is so much a concern for Mito, and possibly for Ruka as well, going forward.
Toyama's art has really refined itself since her previously published works. Vampire Dormitory is, as I mentioned, currently ongoing, so it dates to 2018, whereas the recently completed (in English) Kamikami Kaesi is from 2010 and Aoba-kun's Confessions dates to 2015. Bodies are drawn much more neatly and in general look more mature in both male and female characters, and the faces also look like they belong to older people than Toyama's previous highly rounded style. There's just an overall better flow to the artwork and a cleanness of line that was absent, making this a very nice-looking release. There's one small typo (a repeated word), but otherwise the translation also works well and gets major bonus points for knowing the difference between a butler and a valet.
If you liked Black Bird's style of fanservice where neck-biting looks rather like something more or you're in the mood for a slightly more mature gender-bender story, Vampire Dormitory is likely to be a good fit. It also works surprisingly well for non-vampire fans, as that feels more like a fantasy element than anything. While it's a digital-only release as of this writing, it's worth picking up, whether you're a fan of Ema Toyama's previous works or just looking for a new supernatural romance title.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+
+ Toyama's art has greatly improved, story has just enough angst for spice without overwhelming things
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