Room 801: Gravitation (Volume 1)

BL, Boys Love, Shonen ai, 801. Whatever you call it, it’s true to say that it’s one of the most divisive genres in anime and manga; you either love it, despite its flaws, or you hate it with a burning passion. For the uninitiated, simply put, the genre focuses upon male-male relations, with often angsty, and in some cases tragic outcome, and no series typifies the good, bad, and the ugly of the genre better than Maki Murakami’s Gravitation. Started in 1996, and completed in  (though a sequel manga remains intermittently ongoing, under the title Gravitation EX), Gravitation tells the story of slacker-musician Shuichi Shindou, his musical career, the rise of his band Bad Luck and, of course, his relationship with deadpan snarker romance author Eiri Yuki. It’s a classic of the genre, and one of my favorites, as well as a good place to start an exploration of the genre of shonen ai.

The overall feel of the first volume is, as you’d expect for a manga aged at 18 years …a tiny bit dated. Murakami’s art may have evolved over the run of Gravitation, (you need only see how Shuichi's design dramatically changed in more recent years (above)) but, from the very first page of the very first chapter, it’s like stepping back in time to that period where everyone had noses to cut paper, every male character had that oval shaped face so beloved of mid-1990s shonen, larger eyes, and hair seemed to be alternately flowing in the wind and looking not unlike early 90’s U2. No, seriously (Hiroshi has Bono hair if I ever saw it). That said, it’s well executed, and not as bad as some manga of the period, or, indeed shonen ai in general; Shuichi looks cute, but not overly feminine, Yuki looks his 22 years, with the haughty pretty boy look now largely overused in the genre, and in shoujo as a whole, (heck, whisper it, but Ouran’s Tamaki bears more than a slight resemblance…) whilst the supporting cast are a suitably distinct crew and easily identifiyiable, from record producers to other bands to Shuichi’s sister and parents.

As chapter 1 (“Track 1” to begin a musical theme that runs through the series (heck, we get a Morrisey reference and one point in the first few chapters)), we’re introduced to our hapless, slightly synth obsessed, and, most of all, ambitious protagonist, Shuichi, his fellow band-member, guitarist and best friend, Hiroshi, (and Shuichi’s “attempts” at writing song lyrics). With the first few pages Murakami effortlessly sets up the tone, if not for the series, then certainly for the rest of this volume-a chunk of comedy, a little slice of life, and a dash of romance, and voila! In short, our not so dynamic duo are losers, they’re unprepared for the school talent show (made worse by technical mishaps), and on top of that, the usual issues of the high school/secondary school student; no girlfriend, and our protagonist has little on the brain but music. So far, so typical Japanese slice of life.

Around 20 pages, Gravitation seems to remember it’s a shonen ai series and promptly kicks the romance into gear; One shortcut home from an afterschool job later, and Shuichi bumps into our other main character, (step forward, brooding, snarky  romance author Eiri Yuki), who promptly rubbishes Shuichi’s (admittedly god-awful) lyrics. Shuichi, infuriated by his mysterious blonde critic, sets out to make him take back his words, and, by the end of the first chapter, runs into Eiri again. Hijinks ensue across the rest of the volume, with Shuichi drumming up the courage to invite Yuki to a concert his band are opening for, which introduces a few characters who become far more important later on, before promptly being dragged out (of a test no less) to agree to help Yuki’s sister reconcile (black sheep of the family) Yuki and his estranged Buddhist monk father. Oh, and Yuki has a fiancé. Wait, what?

What clearly makes Gravitation more than the average shonen ai can honestly be seen from its opening three or four chapters; it’s more hate than love at first sight, and yet, our protagonist is drawn to him, not because of any romantic notions (at first), but because Yuki has snubbed his musical abilities. They kiss later on in this first volume but it’s succeeded by embarrassment and apologies from both parties. Both seem unsure on exactly what the other means to them, and thus, Shuichi and Yuki’s relationship is fractious and antagonistic at points, but at the same time, surprisingly natural. Meanwhile the non-romantic elements of the story are  well developed; yes, Gravitation is clearly a shonen ai manga, but, even without these elements, it would still be a story about a young man, and his band, and him attempting to impress a staunch critic, and Murakami is very aware of this; Characters such as fellow musician Toma Seguchi are introduced not to push our protagonist into more compromising situations with Yuki, but because they play a role in the story of Shuichi and his band. Not only this, but it’s clear Murakami knows her chops; references to various Japanese and international rock bands are dotted across the pages of Gravitation, the painstaking process of 1990s music programming well caught, and every instrument well drawn and accurate .

But Murakami’s triumph is, without a doubt, her leading pair; Junjou Romatica may have three pairs of various backgrounds and chemistries to choose from, and Loveless a duo that aren’t nearly as dysfunctional as Shuichi and Yuki, but it’s Murakami’s duo that have almost indelibly emblematic of the seme and uke. Shuichi may be conflicted about his feelings for Yuki, but, even when told his lyrics are appalling still proudly sings them-he’s childish but enthusiastic, arrogant but good-hearted. He loves Yuki, but his music career is also very important to him. In sharp comparison to the weepy, navel-gazing protagonists of many other shonen ai works Shuichi is not only cheerful, and often hyperactive, but is also likeable and a well-rounded person. Even without his love story with Yuki, he’s still an everyman who follows his dreams; dreams the reader wants to see succeed as much as he does. Yuki, equally, whilst enigmatic, and playing up to his role as somewhat archetypal bastard boyfriend, still urges him on to do his best musically, and, by the end of the first volume, his mask has begun to slip, and the reader begins to see a little of why he’s the antagonistic dead-pan snarker we’ve seen so far. They are at once perfectly matched, and a perfect storm, characters that can be at each other’s throats one moment, and in each other’s arms the next.

Murakami’s couple are surprisingly multidimensional for a genre all too populated by whiny cardboard cutout protagonists and sullen, often abusive love interests. Here another point in Murakami’s favour arises ; Shuichi’s potential homosexuality is treated in a far more adult manner than in other manga, this may have been a major plot point, with the protagonist having to deal with his feelings for another man, something often regarded as hobbling other series into repetitive, and often frustrating will-they/won’t theying. In Gravitation, there’s almost a collective “So you like guys/You like Yuki Eiri” shrug from most of the supporting cast, after which the manga happily carries on; even now, it’s remarkably adult for a genre that all too often relies on overblown emotions, unwanted and sometimes forced sex, and teasing readers to breaking point, to outright state that at least one of its leading couple is homosexual.

Of course, there are some negatives to Gravitation; first off, its publisher-being that the Gravitation license sank with Tokyopop, and that, unlike its fellow shonen-ai manga, Loveless, no company have currently picked it up again, I’m having to review my rather battered Tokyopop copies; however, given this series’ cult status, it can only be a matter of time (fingers crossed).

The other key issues with the series largely come down to its age. Murakami’s previously mentioned artstyle is of its time; it’s pretty much generic 1990s shoujo-big eyes, big hair, and so on. By the time of volume 3 or 4, she’s clearly become both more confident, and begun to develop her style, but the fact remains that Volume 1 looks old, art-style wise. Compare it to, for example, its shoujo contemporary, Hana no Kimi (1996), or the other shonen ai blockbuster, Loveless (2002), and Murakami’s style starts to seem a tad pedestrian-that said, it gets the job done, it’s never harsh on the eye, and it has its charm. Meanwhile, the plotline suffers from  generic moments here and there, more because lesser series have taken influence from Gravitation in the intervening years, than because of any fault of Murakami-that said, some moments, in particular Shuichi just happening to see Yuki’s car driving past and chasing it into the road without knowing it was Yuki’s car until Yuki got out (no, seriously) require more than the average suspension of disbelief. 

Shuichi, whilst largely a well written character, does have the occasional overly emotional moment,  but nothing (from this volume at least) is particularly out of character, or stereotypically ukeish.

Yuki comes off less well; if his lover has become the stereotype for the emotional, passionate uke, then Yuki has become the poster child for semes period; Yuki is almost relentlessly mean, to the point of cruelty, snarking and sneering his way through most of this first volume, at the expense of Shuichi, belittling first his lyrics, and then his affection. Whilst there are hints as to why Yuki acts this way, from the first volume alone, Yuki comes across as antagonistic, rude, and occasionally malicious and predatory. True, he has a lighter side, that clearly wants to see Shuichi do well, but we see little of it this volume. Yet, as with Shuichi, his actions are realistic, and appropriate for his background. Background characters, meanwhile, either orbit around the series’ couple, or, in the case of Toma, quite happily get on with their own arcs. In short, whilst a little dated, there’s nothing too antiquated, either in artstyle or plot, to really dissuade the potential reader, and in fact, there’s a great deal of period detail and charm to it.

In short, whilst Gravitation may not be the best drawn, nor the best plotted, nor the best series of the shonen ai genre, its first volume is a near-perfect statement of intent. For lack of a better comparison, think of Gravitation as not unlike the Nirvana’s Nevermind of shonen ai; neither are overly technical, though both are nicely produced and  polished, nor overly complex. But, boy, do both have a driving force that keeps you glued to their respective mediums till the last seconds of CD, and the last panels of manga, a heartfelt, almost raw emotion, a nature that few have ever successfully replicated.

It’s why, nearly two decades after its first chapter, there’s a reason we’re still drawn to Gravitation; because few have ever topped it for its emotion, its characterization and its roller coaster plot. It remains the gateway to new shonen-ai fans, and few characters have so quickly left an impression on us, or on any genre, for ill or for good, like Shuichi Shindou and Eiri Yuki.


Popular Posts