Well, here we are once again in the sweaty throes of summer, turning our attention to some even sweatier throes on the pages of our favourite BL titles. Normally, I would be sweating it out in both the seasonal and bookular ways in Japan, but as we all know, these are not normal times. None of my usual noodling around the bookstores of Tokyo this summer. I, like so many of my fellow fujoshi, am locked up in my apartment and locked out of the country that is my second home with no chances to stumble upon two lithe young men intertwined on the cover of a book in the ever-expanding BL section.
But not even a plague can stop the power of women who love fictional men who love men! Because we are fierce and determined and have shelves of hot man/man action already in our homes, Tokyo bookstores be damned! And in the lead up to this, our most sacred holiday, I discovered a beloved title on my own shelves that I haven’t written about before. So let us celebrate 801 this year with the blushy genius of Arai Niboshiko!
You might remember her as the star of this brain’s 801 celebrations a couple of years ago. Or perhaps you’re more familiar with her mainstream work as Noda Ayako. Either way, there’s always something hot simmering beneath the surface of everything this talented artist touches. Her new series Double might be a stealth BL, but it’s a serious slowburn, so I’m still withholding judgement on that one. But there’s nothing stealthy about Inga no Sakana. These boys are in love!
I actually read Noda’s incredible Ikazuchi Tooku Umi ga Naru which I thought was my first encounter with her work. But then a reader was kind enough to remind me of Inga, which I had read and then forgotten about? Despite my love of the art style and the intense, difficult relationship between our seme and uke, Issei and Ryoichi. This one too has everything I love in Noda’s work—the blushy noses, the lanky limbs, the awkward hands, and the painfully powerful eyebrows. Plus the schmex, of course! I would not lead you to some puritanical land on our most holy of holy days.
Charismatic Issei and shyly nerdy Ryoichi are cousins, and we first see them at the company where they both work, run by Issei’s father. They go on a business trip together, and there we see the secret underpinnings of their relationship. Arai jumps around in time to paint the fuller picture of just how they ended up in this place, from their days experimenting sexually in junior high to secret make-outs in the washroom at work parties. It’s by no means a healthy relationship. Ryoichi just wants to be with Issei no matter what, so he lets Issei control him in all kinds of ways. And Issei can’t actually accept that he wants to be with Ryoichi, so he ends up lashing out cruelly and never giving himself fully to Ryoichi. And of course, there’s no way a relationship like this gets a happy ending, but the ending it does get is satisfying and feels earned.
Arai takes us on a bit of a rollercoaster ride, peppering the book with casual intimacy and spicy hot bedroom scenes before inevitably bringing us back to the reality the two men face outside the bedroom. There are real emotions and real stakes to all of it, lending an unexpected and dark gravity to the book. Arai herself notes in the afterword that when she first proposed the idea for the story, she was told that maybe she should make it darker, so she did, but maybe she ended up veering into the territory of creepy. And to be honest, she kind of did. Just look at that cover. That’s not just dark, it’s disturbing. But hot.
Because hot is what Arai does best. It’s the casual intimacy that really sets this book apart, though. When they are away from the eyes of other people, Issei squeezes Ryoichi’s hand, plants a kiss on his forehead, and generally gives him a non-sexual affection that makes the schmexy times feel deeper and more meaningful. In the end, Arai (and Noda!) have this gift, a way of reproducing on the pages of her manga a sense of closeness and intimacy and warmth that I just don’t see in that many BL or non-BL artists. It’s a pleasure to read her work at any time, under any circumstances, but maybe especially now when so many of us are isolated and unable to access that intimacy with other people in real life. Look to BL to save us from the plague. It will be a sexy beacon in these dark times.