SuBLime Manga Sampler
As I noted before on my review of The Man of Tango, it's unusual that Viz took so long to get into the yaoi business. Still, you can't say that they haven't tried their hardest to distinguish their SuBLime imprint from yaoi publisers of the past. They've got a slick website with a fairly active social media presence. They've not only amassed a solid collection of original works in both print and ebook form, but a equally sizeable collection of digital license rescues. All their digital offerings are available for DRM-free download in all the standard e-book formats along with free previews of just about everything in an easy-to-search format. I'm genuinely impressed at how hard SuBLime has worked to push their distribution model into the 21st century at a time when so many manga publishers (including their parent company Viz) have struggled to do the same.
That being said, I'm not here to talk about the site, but the works they have to offer. Thanks to a sale, I was able to pick up a handful of digital volumes, and today we'll be looking at a few of them for our first (and hopefully not last) SuBLime Manga Sampler.
Course One: The Night Beyond the Tricornered Window, The Ravishing of the Crown Prince, & The Scent of Apple Blossoms
THE NIGHT BEYOND THE TRICORNERED WINDOW
Kosuke Mikado is a humble bookstore clerk with a big secret: he can see ghosts. To professional ghost hunter Rihito Hiyakawa, that makes Kosuke the perfect partner. Kosuke can not only serve as a spirit detector, but Rihito can use Kosuke's soul as a sort of power booster to perform more thorough and powerful exorcisms. The two are now stuck together, much to Kosuke's discomfort and Rihito's flirtacious delight, but their work soon starts to take a darker turn. It seems that a number of their cases are tied to mysterious murders that just might be connected to a string of curses caused by a single woman.
I really enjoyed the manga, even if I suspect that most yaoi fans wouldn't like it as much as I do. First of all, there's not a lot of man-on-man action, and what is there is fairly low-key. There is no true smut to be found here, just a bit of manhanding, some tossed-away comments from Rihito, and the discovery that touching another man's soul creates a sensation that's not unlike an orgasm. That's perfectly OK, though, because it means that the mangaka can fill that space with plenty of character-building chatter that also helps keep the plot moving along. Another element that would turn off your standard yaoi fangirl is the fact that the plot isn't based around romance. Instead it's dominated by the growing (if reluctant) friendship between Kosuke and Rihito as well as the mystery of Erika Huira and the deaths left in her wake. I really enjoyed the interplay between Kosuke and Rihito. If you tilt your head and squint, you can see a bit of the seme/uke dynamic between them, but Rihito is far too cheeful and encouraging to be anything like your typical seme and Kosuke's overreactions are fueled not by fear for his sexual orientation but instead fear of the spirit world that's been more or less forced upon him.
There's even the beginnings of a story arc going on here. A local detective calls on their help with a missing person case which in turn is connected to a woman known only as Erica Huira. The story's transition into a supernatural sort of murder mystery is as smooth as silk, and the combination of strong character writing and the occasional bit of gruesomeness reminded me a little of Eiji Otsuki's Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. While it's not terribly slashy so far, this is a genuinely good start and I'm eager to read the next installment. RATING: 9/10
THE RAVISHING OF THE CROWN PRINCE
Feng Ming was only trying to get to his classes on time. He certainly wasn't expecting to get hit by a car on the way there. He absolutely wasn't expecting to wake up afterwards in an ancient Chinese palace surrounded by servants calling him “Your Highness.” Feng's soul is now trapped in the body of Prince Ahne of the empire of Xilei, but his problems are far from over. The sadistic regent Ren Ting sees through Feng's act and he's fully prepared to abuse and molest Feng until he surrenders to Ren's will. Now the two are locked in a power struggle that grows increasingly hot and heavy with the day, and it's going to take all of Feng's cunning and willpower to survive.
This series is proof positive of the old adage to not judge books by their cover. Mind you, I can hardly be blamed for being intrigued by this one simply because the artwork is so pretty. In a genre that's littered with so much sub-standard shoujo-styled nonsense, the sleek, handsome character designs and the lavish costumes and palaces on display here can't help but stand out. That's not to say that it sacrifices beauty for energy, though. Indeed, the pages sparkle with vivid expressions, swirling robes, and the swirl of long, silky hair in the wind. Make no mistake, The Ravishing of the Crown Prince is an absolute delight to look at. I just wish this beautiful art was in service of a better story.
The premise has potential. Indeed, it's basically a gender-flipped version of the 'girl falls into magical world' story that were all the rage in 1990s shoujo, complete with the romance. The problem is with Feng's love interest/tormentor, Ren. He's a sadistic, cunning bastard who will use anything to get his way and mold Feng to his liking. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, guile, blackmail – he uses all of this and more in the course of this first volume all so he can keep his power. I know this sort of sadistic seme is something of a kink amongst more hardcore fujoshi, but I like my semes to be NOT manipulative and rapey, so his presence turned me off from the start. It only got worse as the story goes on as it tries to portray Ren more sympathetically, but I doubt I'm the only one who sees this not as a bit of character building, but instead just another tactic Ren is using to disarm Feng. Worst of all, their so-called romance makes the plot stop right in its tracks. Instead of exploring this new world or who Ahne was before the soul transfer, we just spend page after page watching these two exploring the joys of Stockholm Syndrome. I really wish I could recommend this one, not only because of the art but because this comes not from Japanese creators but a Taiwanese duo. It's just a shame then that the romantic elements are so screwed-up and aimless that no amount of pretty pictures can make it palatable. RATING: 4/10
THE SCENT OF APPLE BLOSSOMS
Haruna's firm have been trying to convince Wakatake Brewery to let them sell their sake, but every salesman has been chased off by the cranky old proprietor. Now it's Haruna's turn, but instead of a scolding he instead discovers that the owner's grandson Nakagawa is just his type. Haruna's determined to make a move, but Nakagawa's icy exterior and Haruna's allergy to alcohol make any attempt to bond a challenge. It's up to Haruna to persevere for the sake of his job and his love life!
It's amazing how much a manga can improve by just putting a little time and care towards the characters, and The Scent of Apple Blossoms is proof positive of that. Haruna is unusually likable for an uke, as he's got a sort of forthright honesty and an outgoing personality that helps him (and the story) avoid a lot of the more cliched bits of forced drama. In comparison, Nakagawa is your standard icy tsundere, stopping just shy of spouting off a “baka” or two. He and Haruna do occasionally have a quiet moment or two where they simply talk and bond, but he feels far less sketched out as a character than Haruna and it hurts the appeal of their romance a little.
The story itself is a bit iffier. It starts strong, but it's also prone to throwing in the sort of Dramatic Misunderstandings that could only be found in romantic comedies, and the solutions can feel just a little contrived and tidy as a result. Still, I can appreciate that its focus is on romance and not on making them screw every couple of chapters because it makes their inevitable coupling in the second half all the more well-earned. It gets a little saccharine at times, but there's enough time spent with Haruna getting to know Nakagawa's family and the plot at large that it never gets too bogged down. Ultimately the execution and premise of The Scent of Apple Blossoms is fine, if rather unremarkable, but it's the little moments with the characters that goes a long way towards giving this book a charm that's almost as indefinable as the scent of good sake. RATING: 6/10
Well, this has been a nice diversion, but it's time to get back to the main course. After all, there are still plenty of manga to sample yet, and even a few new addition to the menu. We won't know what they'll be like until we sample them all.