Saturday, September 15, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Loveless, Volume 1 by Yun Kouga

My mom bought this, among a bagful of other mangas, from the library not quite knowing what it was. Which is okay with me, because lately I've been trying to expose myself to new things. I'm not sure if Loveless is a little too new, though.

The story has this way of straddling the line between taboo and "Squicky-but-I'll-live." What I mean by that is... well, I suppose genre can't really be spoiler, can it? The central focus of Loveless is on a boy named Ritsuka who is one day acquainted with an older man named Soubi. The twelve-year-old Ritsuka and the college aged Soubi feel overwhelming romantic attraction for one another. While their romance is (at least not at this point in the series, I can't speak for the later volumes) not explicit, it isn't shut behind closed doors. If you can't handle boy-man love, get out now.

I guess I really shouldn't be writing a review for this book, because I honestly don't know how I feel about it. There's a lot of things I liked about it, but there's an equal amount of things that I didn't, and probably an equal amount of things I've been conditioned by my conservative culture not to like. Granted, conservative is not always bad.

What did I like about the book? Well, I like most of the characters, although at the beginning of the book Ritsuka is a little snot and I wanted to punch him. He's quite a bit like Sasuke from Naruto. Arrogant, self-absorbed, and completely devoid of empathy. In the beginning. We quickly learn that "devoid of empathy" is far from the truth and that Ritsuka, like most heroic protagonists, can't stand to see others in distress. Unlike most other heroes, he avoids having to witness distress by being an asshat. Go figure.

Soubi is still up in the air with me. He's a little too much the mysterious gentlemen trope, and his lines seem a little more sloppily written than the other characters. It seems as though the author doesn't have a very good read on exactly what kind of person Soubi is, either, and he seems to blunder through the book just going along with everything unless he feels like being a prick. Actually, I don't like Soubi. NEXT.

Oh, I love this one. The third major character is my favorite. Yuiko is an adorable classmate of Ritsuka's who desperately wants to be his friend despite his tendency to say disgustingly mean things and make her cry. She talks in the third person, is illiterate, and doesn't always get what people are telling her, but she's so full of the right kind of oblivious pep that it's hard not to like her. Honestly, I wouldn't mind if the manga were about Yuiko, but it's not, so I digress. I'm interested in seeing the dynamic between Yuiko and Ritsuka develop, especially as it's rather obvious that Yuiko has a thing for him.

There are a few other characters brought up, but they were either introduced in confusing segments that don't make a whole lot of sense, or they're someone I want to get into when covering the plot. Which is all over the place, by the way, and that's one of my biggest complaints. The plot is a bit of a mess. There's so seemingly unrelated things going on that it can all be hard to keep track of, and that's not a good thing when the audience is still getting used to the bizarro world this story takes place in. Which I haven't told you about yet! Doh!

So here's the deal with the version of Earth portrayed in Loveless: Everyone is born as a Kemonomimi. What the hell does that mean? It means that at birth everyone is born with cat ears and a tail. These magically go away when a person loses their virginity. With such an open display of who is and who isn't a virgin, there's this totally overhwhelming sexual overtone throughout the story, and I can't imagine what it would be like to live there. Can you imagine your parents knowing the exact night you lost your virginity because you walked home without your ears? Holy cow.

Not only is this vaguely explained, but it takes a while for that explanation to happen. I spent the first half of the book wondering why the hell some people had cat ears and some did not. What was the significance? I was really hoping for the second species appeared out of nowhere deal, like Love and Tentacles, but I didn't get that. Ah well.

Additionally, there's an odd dynamic in this world that isn't fully explained by the end of the book and I don't really understand if there's a true logic behind it at all. There exists in this world a type of magical dual where two individuals whose souls are connected engage in a battle of words. The two individuals take up the rolls of Combat Unit and Sacrifice. The Combat Unit indirectly battles the enemy Combat Unit by... shouting out whatever verb he chooses and occasionally linking specific commands to that verb. Which can do anything so long as it's in favor of the protagonist. I don't really get it. And the Sacrifice, who does not engage in combat, accepts all the physical pain that the Combat Unit would normally endure. Which, I admit, is pretty cool. I've always like shared or transferred pain dynamics, like the Elf siblings in Hellboy II.

Now what's the driving force behind all this man-boy sex, virgin catfolk, and word battles? Well, I don't know yet. Some evil organization is after Ritsuka, and that's about all we know in that regard. Soubi is here to help him, and that's all we get. It's not spelled out at all. In fact, whenever someone should be developing the plot in that direction, the character literally says "No comment." How annoying.

There's a subplot involving Ritsuka's apparent amnesia and his crazy ass mom. Now, honestly, this subplot is awesome and bizarre enough that I almost want it to be the sole focus of a story. Somebody with some Hollywood connections, make this part of the series a movie. Just this part. Oh, let me tell you about it first. At some point around two years before the start of the book, Ritsuka lost his memories and replaced his old personality with a new one, which originally resulted in a diagnosis of split-personality disorder. This personality change has caused Ritsuka's mom to go off the deep end, and she no longer regards her son as her own. She harasses and beats him while sending herself into hysterical crying fits, often embracing him as she inflicts pain. She seems to want to bring out the old Ritsuka by being a mother, such as making his favorite meals, but can't bear to see the new kid. She regards Ritsuka as a demon inhabiting her son's body, and is so persuaded by her own insanity that she at one point bites a chunk out of Ritsuka's neck. This mom is a serious nut.

Naturally, the story drops a few things that hint at other developing plots or things in the works, but none of those have really panned out at this point. Such is the way of series, I suppose.

One of the largest flaws in this book, and it's something that plagues it from cover to cover, is an inability to focus. Yun Kouga clearly has ADHD, as her characters leap through various conversations in the same bubble. In the same panel Soubi will be talking about the death of his enemy, and then he will randomly blurt out "I love you" without finishing his first thought. Naturally, the entire focus of the scene then shifts to Ritsuka freaking out about his confused prepubescent heart, and not the dead people. This is constant. It will throw you off.

The other thing that's going to throw you off? Clutter. The panels are filled with lots of little micro-texts that are supposed to give some life to the characters and show you what they're thinking, but Kouga just tossed these text bubbles wherever they would fit, and it doesn't make reading the book a seamless event. Instead you will jump all over the panel reading in what you think is proper order, only to unscramble the words once you reach the end. It's a real pain.

Also, fault of the format, some of the word balloons are trapped in the binding and have been rendered unreadable. Maybe TokyoPop should consider framing their pages.

Now, as this is a manga, I have to comment on the art: Most of the time, the art is phenomenal. Chapter beginnings in particular have such a great attention to detail, that you'll find yourself drinking up the shadows before moving on to the next page. However, this isn't always true. I'm not sure if Kouga has an intern, or if she spends too much time sleeping, but there are a number of panels where the character being portrayed looks like somebody else. For instance, Ritsuka has white hair in a number of panels which made me think I was looking at Soubi. That's not a good thing, and it makes the story that much more confusing.

Despite its flaws, Loveless did draw me in by leaving many things hanging. Also, Yuiko. So, while it wasn't even close to the best manga I've ever read, and it's riddled with inexcusable flaws, I'm going to continue reading the series. If there's one thing the story has done properly, it was to hook me. If we see more of the disturbed mother and Yuiko, the other books should hook me too.


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