Welcome back to the est em fanclub! I know you’ve been out there chewing your fingernails, waiting for me to heap praise upon her again, wondering when her graceful lines would appear here once more. The wait is over! Take those fingernails out of your mouth and join me with some indigo love and one of est em’s more recent BL works.
Although I have to say upfront, this will probably be the least fanclub-y post about est em you’ll find my brain writing since Yagate, Ai ni Naru features my least-favourite/most-squicky BL storyline: brothers. I let a lot of things slide in BL because you know, it’s boys’ love, it’s fantasy, it’s not meant to be any kind of real-life depiction of anything. I’ve read the theory, the academic papers, the lay opinions. I know that one of the reasons BL works for fans and those of us who like to ruminate on the deeper meanings of the genre is that nothing is off-limits and differing power structures can be played out in a multitude of ways. But still, I cannot get over the incest taboo that has been so deeply ingrained in my head by the culture I grew up in.
And it does not matter if the brothers in question are not blood relatives, as is the case in Yagate. You grow up with someone, spend your childhood together as if you are related by blood, your parents and everyone around you treat you as if you are related by blood. And then you develop pants feelings for each other? It squicks me out. I cannot get on board with brother sex. So you can imagine how I felt when I realized that the men in the relationship in Yagate are brothers. (It probably says something about this on the back of the book, but I make it a practice never to read the backs of books. I like to read a work without knowing anything about it.) Fortunately, this is est em and her talent saves the day!
Even though Taisei and Kota are technically brothers in that Kota was adopted by Taisei’s parents after his own father died, they were older when it happened and each of them at different times says flat out, “I never once felt like we were brothers.” In fact, underlying the events of the story is Taisei and Kota struggling to figure out how they feel about each other and where they fit into each other’s lives. And being an est em work, sexual behaviour is limited to a couple intense kisses. The real focus is, as always, on the relationship the two men have with each other.
Both Kota’s adopted and real fathers are/were indigo dyers. His real father worked for his adopted father and Kota naturally followed in the tradition, learning the work from a young age. Taisei was more outwardly focussed and it was always assumed that Kota would take over the shop when his adopted father died. But then Taisei returns and asks to be taught the trade. Which is where the story starts. We see their history in snippets of flashbacks or, in the case of the death of Kota’s father, two poignant panels one below the other, the top one featuring Kota with his father, the bottom just Kota in the same room, now darkened. It reminded me of the panels in the shoemaker’s story in Hatarake, Kentauros!, the wordless sequence of the centaur’s human lover growing older while the centaur is unchanged.
I loved seeing est em turn her focus on this very traditional Japanese art. In the afterword, she notes that her own mother was a dyer (of another kind) so it was something she was exposed to from childhood. In writing this piece, she sought out an indigo dyer and watched the entire process to make sure she got it right. And she shows just enough tantalizing bits and pieces of this process that I found myself wanting to seek out an indigo dyer and see the whole thing for myself.
And of course, she takes advantage of the possibilities of the indigo imagery, creating the most gorgeous title pages for each chapter, images of Taisei sinking into an indigo lake, Kota rising up from a blue abyss, the two men back to back framed by rolls of exquisitely patterned fabric. I want to make posters of them all and cover my office walls.
I also like how she pushed further than the usual BL focus on the relationship between the two men to look at the traditions they live in, the pressures they face as artisinal craftsmen in a world that is less and less interested in tradition, the relationships they have with the past and their families. But it is the relationship between Kota and Taisei that frames everything and grounds the work, which is no surprise at all in a book by est em. It is the thing I love most about her, the fact that she can take a subject matter that I find squicky as hell and make me see the beauty and heartbreak in it.