I am so rarely surprised by books these days. Delighted, often. But a true surprise once I crack open a new read is something out of the ordinary. Like with so many things once you have become an OldTM, you find the familiar beats in the stories you read. You look at the cover or the blurb and you form an idea of what you’ll find inside based on your past experiences. And even if what is inside is well written and wonderful in all ways, the surprises are generally plot twists and nothing about the basic elements of the book itself. It’s like listening to the debut album of some indie band and realizing that they are just following in the footsteps of My Bloody Valentine at the end of the day. Sure, it’s enjoyable, but it’s not shaking up your musical world view.
So you can imagine my sheer joy when I realized that the first series from Shizuka Nakano is not only stealth BL but also stars a magical gardener! The cover of the book had me thinking it would be some kind of traditional Japanese arts sort of deal, a chef meets a gardener and opens an old-school restaurant to try and revive interest in a dying way of Japanese life or something. I should have known better from Nakano’s previous work, which has always had an element of the fantastic to it. And the obi even says he’s no ordinary gardener, but honestly, I figured he would be a celebrity gardener or something. I certainly never imagined a BL love triangle with nature spirits! As I read the first pages and slowly came to understand that Toru had a very serious crush on his pal Akira, I got very excited. This series runs in Comic Beam, which is known for its weird and experimental content, not for its dedication to love between men, so I truly did not see this blossoming romance coming. There’s also a foodie manga element to the whole thing, as Toru is a chef at a traditional Japanese restaurant and prepares dinner for Akira pretty much every weekend. Often using ingredients given to Akira by garden spirits after he helps them out in some real way. Seriously. How is this even a book?? It is too much, too powerful, too great.
This is one of those treats that unfolds slowly over the course of the first volume, so all the pieces really only fall into place in the last pages. Nakano has great pacing, which doesn’t surprise me even though this is her first longer series. She’s really honed her skills in shorter pieces over the years, and she puts all of that experience to use in Tedaremonra. We start in with Toru showing his chops at the restaurant, making fancy flowers out of daikon radish. And then! A mysterious phone call. He responds with instructions and discussion about how to cook a particular kind of mushroom, and his coworkers assume he is talking to his girlfriend. But he is talking to landscaper Akira, and once Toru steps into Akira’s apartment, we see that while Akira is not his boyfriend, he would very much like Akira to be his boyfriend. They are close enough that Toru sleeps over on the same futon as Akira, but Akira is apparently dense enough not to realize that Toru is into him, even when Toru is caught basking in his scent in the early hours of the morning.
So surprise number one is a total success. I am delighted by the end of the second chapter to realize that I have in my hot little hands a slow-burn BL by a non-BL artist whose work I love. And then the third chapter introduces me to the next twist in this unexpected twist of a story: the gardener is a monster hunter. Akira does traditional Japanese landscaping, and that is all fine and good. But the discussion of his work begins with other landscapers suddenly feeling their protective charms vibrating while they are pruning a particular bit of land. Oh no! This is a job for a real gardener! So they call Akira’s company and he shows up to defeat the evil spirit haunting the garden. The spirit master of the garden appears to thank him for his efforts with a bushel of rare mushrooms, and thus we see the flip side of the events in the first two chapters. Maybe this all sounds like gimmicks for gimmicks’ sake, but the flow of the narrative feels so natural that it doesn’t come across as cheap or weird in any way. It feels more like, well, of course, there are garden spirits and gardeners are there to protect them. It’s interesting to me that Nakano has turned her attention to Japan and two very traditional fields in Japanese culture when everything else I’ve seen by her has been turned outward, featuring countries and cultures other than Japan, but she does not miss a thing in her portrayal of her native land here. Carefully prepared meals are lovingly depicted, bonsai trees are given the space to grow in her pages, and everyone seems to live in a pretty old-school house. Her retro 60s-style is toned down—it doesn’t feel quite as out of place in its own time. But it’s unmistakably her work, the same angular noses and choppy hair, the sharply delineated spaces of the characters and their settings.
And I’m apparently not the only one to fall head over heels with this surprise treat. Volume one only came out in September of last year, but it had already gone in for a second printing by November. My fingers are crossed that this will be the book that finds greater readership for Nakano and gets her the English translation I’ve been hoping for for so many years. I look forward to celebrating the pure and perfect love that grows between Toru and Akira.