There are plenty of series covering the genres you really only see in anime, such as mecha, harem, and magical girl titles, but there is one genre that is lacking in the UK on general release: yaoi, or boys’ love (BL). The terms in the west seem interchangeable, but for the purposes of this review (and as recommended by my editor), we’ll stick to BL as “yaoi” tends to refer to fan works these days.
However, one of the most popular BL series is finally getting a UK Blu-ray release. Based on the manga by Shungiku Nakamura that began in 2003 and is still going today, Junjo Romantica is primarily about the relationship between 18-year-old student Misaki Takahashi, and 28-year-old prize-winning novelist Akihiko “Usagi” Usami.
Misaki’s main ambition is to enrol in the university that his (much) older brother Takahiro wanted to attend – but couldn’t as he chose to bring up Misaki after their parents died in a car crash a decade earlier. Takahiro asks his old school friend Usami to tutor Misaki – and Misaki soon becomes aware that the novelist has feelings – unrequited – for his big brother. Misaki’s grades go up and he gets into the university, but then Takahiro suddenly announces his engagement and introduces his new bride-to-be. While Usami hides his shock, Misaki is furious with Takahiro on Usami’s behalf. It’s this caring side of Misaki that makes Usami fall in love with him. And it’s this pivotal moment – when Misaki bursts into tears out in the dark, snowy street because he feels so angry with his brother for being insensitive and so sad for Usami – that underpins their relationship. It’s why Usami falls for the younger man and it’s referred back to at later moments in the series.
So that he can attend university, Misaki moves into Usami’s luxury apartment where he pays his way by doing the cooking and housekeeping. This is problematic for Misaki as now Usami begins to fall in love with him, and their relationship soon becomes physical – even though the first physical encounter is far from consensual. There is also the issue that Misaki finds himself being added to Usami’s sideline in erotic fiction (written under a pen name) forming an ongoing love-hate situation with the writer.
This series is not just about Misaki and Usami; there are actually three different central relationships. Thus, there are really three different plots told over the course of the anime, the main one being the one described above, known as Junjo Romantica. The second relationship, Junjo Egoist, follows Hiroki Kamijou, a childhood friend and former lover of Usami, now a literature professor. Six years earlier, rejected by Usami, Hiro embarked on a relationship with Nowaki Kusama, a younger man who was orphaned as a child. Nowaki wants to study social sciences (this later becomes medicine) to give something back to his orphanage, so he insists that Hiroki becomes his tutor. The third couple, Junjo Terrorist, follows You Miyagi, a university colleague of Hiroki’s, who finds himself at the centre of the unwanted affections of his much younger ex-brother-in-law, Shinobu Takatsuki. While there is some cross-interaction between the characters in these relationships, most of the time the plots remain separated, and it is not that hard to keep track of everything.
It has to be said that Junjo Romantica is an anime that has some issues. Some of these are not really the fault of the anime, but just the general release. For example, there is no English dub available, and the only extras are some advertising promos and textless opening and closing – and the music on both of these tracks, namely the opening track “Kimi = Hana” by pigstar and closing theme “Baby Romantica ” by SCRIPT, is nothing that special anyway.
However, the main criticism that is levelled at Junjo Romantica is the lack of quality in the artwork. While you can argue that there may be issues with “yaoi hands” or the composition of the faces, there are some other details in the animation that are questionable. For example, in one scene where Misaki and Usami are at a posh restaurant, Misaki seems to hold his cutlery oddly. There are also times when the show looks dated, the prime example being that Usami’s drafts of his novels are saved on floppy disc, which might have made a bit of sense back in 2003, but certainly feels dated now – and arguably felt dated when the anime first aired in 2008.
All of this however, leads to a bigger question. Given all of these issues, why does Junjo Romantica remain so popular, not just in Japan, but with western audiences too? The manga was released in English back in 2006 by TokyoPop’s BLU label, and it is still one of the most requested titles to be rescued by other US publishers. Nakamura’s follow-up series, The World’s Greatest First Love, is currently published under VIZ’s SuBLime label, and is also popular. Why do people go for it?
Well, while the series does have its flaws, there are some positives too. Arguably, one of these is obviously the sex. Now, if you are expecting something really raunchy in this anime, forget it. Remember, this anime is released under a 15-rating. However, the characters do seem to be happily embracing each other, even at times when the relationship is seemingly unwanted at first.
Lastly, there is the comedy. Much of it comes from the exasperation of one partner in each relationship (normally Misaki, Hiroki and Miyagi) caused by the troubles from the other. Namely, Usami writing about Misaki in his BL novels; Nowaki abandoning his relationship with Hiroki while he goes to the USA to study; and Shinobu’s misguided attempts to get Miyagi to love him in the first place. There are also other comic touches, such as Usami having a peculiar love of children’s toys, with his bedroom full of teddy bears and other such items.
This series is certainly not for everybody. However, there are some positives that demonstrate its popularity. If anything, the best thing about Junjo Romantica is that it was able to get a UK release at all. At least it is good to see some BL being released in this country, and it might help see more titles being brought out in the future.