No sooner has young Aki bid a final farewell to his beloved grandfather, his sole surviving relative, than he collapses with an incurable illness. Coughing up blood, he wonders if he is about to die of the family ‘curse’ and, desperate to survive, remembers his grandfather’s last words: “There’s still someone looking after our family. He’s right in there…” From an old animal fang preserved in a little box on the family altar emerges a beautiful – and utterly naked – man with hairy ears and a tail, who seems to know all about Aki’s predicament. He’s a wolf spirit, bound to one of Aki’s ancestors to protect his descendants and to cure them of the curse of a virulent plague demon. To cure Aki, he must pull out and consume all the black, foul tendrils within him…and to make this revolting procedure less of an ordeal, it works best, he explains, if their bodies are connected as closely as possible.
Aki begins to recover but he is at once attracted to his wolf guardian spirit (whom he names Setsu) and repelled by the physical relationship they have entered into. But what will happen when Aki is cured? Will Setsu disappear from his life? The young man is utterly conflicted. He needs Setsu – but he also resents his state of dependency. And Setsu? For all his wolfish behaviour and swagger, what will become of him if Aki no longer needs him? Has he been lonely, Aki wonders, when his mortal masters bring their relationship to an end…or die?
A Strange and Mystifying Story (2006-12) is – to date – Tsuta Suzuki’s longest BL manga, running to seven volumes in total. It’s a real pleasure to see SuBLime Manga rescue it from languishing at only three volumes translated by DMP as this fascinating and very different supernatural story deserves a much wider audience. Volume 1 only contains two chapters (as is so often the case with first volumes in manga series) so there are two one-shots and a bonus chapter ‘Those Two’ to bulk up the page count. Let’s get the one shots out of the way first; they’re well told but won’t appeal to readers who have an aversion to BL stories with teacher x pupil or master x (very young) apprentice encounters. And yes, this series is rated ‘M’ for Mature even though there’s next to nothing in the way of explicit sex scenes.
My problem with A Strange and Mystifying Story? That cover art. There’s something off about the proportions – and when this series first started, I remember not wanting to look inside because the cover was off-putting. My bad. Luckily, thanks to a long taster brought out by the French publishers Asuka, I was able to get over my cover art aversion and the story really gripped me. It would also have helped to have another chapter about the main protagonists instead of the one-shots; the underlying mystery of Setsu’s past and the curse on Aki’s family won’t be explored until future volumes. But at least we get to meet one of the most likeable characters that Tsuta Suzuki has created: Aki’s genial boss, museum director Minamiura, a friend of his late grandfather. Could it be that he knows the truth about Setsu? If you like older protagonists and love the work of Bohra Naona (Midnight Stranger, Three Wolves Mountain) then you’ll love this story too. Tsuta Suzuki’s unique take on urban fantasy works because her characterization is so convincing. Later volumes will delve into even darker areas, but for now, the interactions between Aki, Setsu and Director Minamiura are portrayed with welcome touches of humour, making for an engaging read.
This new edition from SuBLime benefits from an excellent translation from Adrienne Beck that captures the voices of the individual characters really well. And the handsome colour page depicting Setsu more than makes up for the awkward front cover art. (This review is of the e-book.)
If you’re looking for a well-drawn, appealing urban fantasy BL with believable, relatable characters, then start here with A Strange and Mystifying Story. Just don’t expect it to show all its strengths in this first volume; it gets much better later on!