Nakata and Tanaka. Tanaka and Nakata. Their names are so similar that from the moment they start high school and accidentally mix up their administrative paperwork on the first day, they and their classmates can’t help but notice how alike they are! The same height, the same time to run the 50 m, the same taste in music… If, during class, Nakata spots a contrail in the sky, sure enough, Tanaka will also be staring out of the window in the same direction, and not at the board, to their teacher’s infuriated despair. Sitting sandwiched between these two is Yuki Tanigaki who finds herself alternately amused and annoyed by their antics. But it’s Tanaka that she’s attracted to and eventually, the two start dating. Nakata feels left out. But he carries on with his library duties in which he’s paired with Futaba, a girl who loves reading and, in spite of having her nose buried in a book most of the time, she’s surprisingly perspicacious when it comes to other people’s feelings. And when she notices Nakata unconsciously clutching at his chest from time to time, she realizes that he’s hurting.
How long will this ache last?
Meanwhile, the dating couple carry on being a couple, with Tanaka oblivious, it seems, to Nakata’s growing distress. Somehow or other Nakata and Tanaka find themselves (in identical T-shirts, natch!) attending the local summer festival together because Yuki has already made plans with her girlfriends. During the fireworks, the boys end up fighting – and Tanaka manages to convince himself that Nakata has become his rival for Yuki’s affections. It seems that all their points of similarity aren’t so similar any more.
As their friendship deteriorates, the school sports festival looms, and Nakata and Futaba work together at making the costumes. Returning to what they think is their empty classroom, they come upon Yuki and Tanaka in a highly compromising position, about to kiss. Nakata flees – and Futaba goes after him. “This is what happens when two people start to date,” she says, gently but bluntly. “Didn’t you know that? Or were you just trying not to see it… or think about it?!” But has even Futaba misread the situation? Is it really Yuki that Nakata has a crush on?
The story takes place over the four seasons, starting with the new school year in spring and ending in winter as the snow is falling. Gorou Kanbe cleverly threads recurring motifs throughout the chapters: a shared umbrella; the level crossing on Tanaka and Nakata’s walk home from school; those mesmerizing contrails in the sky outside the classroom. Some of these elements can be found in many slice-of-life school stories but they’re skilfully used here to show how the relationships between the characters are shifting and changing, especially that familiar shared umbrella trope. But what makes this story stand out from many other manga about falling in love in high school is the honest way Gorou Kanbe depicts the uncertainties and complexities of the experience. “What even is love?” Tanaka asks Nakata toward the end, averting his face so he – and we – can’t see his expression. “I just don’t know anymore.”
Gorou Kanbe has a great gift for conveying through her art how the characters are feeling – as opposed to how they’re reacting or what they’re saying. Facial expressions and body language are distinctively and meaningfully drawn… By the end of the manga, you feel as if you really know the four protagonists and are rooting for things to go well for them all. In her Postscript Gorou Kanbe has a special paragraph about the two girls: Futaba and Yuki Tanigaki – and one of the strengths of this story is the presence of these two very different personalities and the way they interact with Tanaka and Nakata. Girls are too often side-lined in Boys’ Love, either whispering in corners about how the male protagonists are hot or introduced as annoying and one-note love rivals.
By way of bonus material, there are four yon-koma and a little more background material in the mangaka’s Postscript.
Christine Dashiell has produced a sparkling translation for Tokyopop that feels just right in tone for this story which relies a great deal on its character interactions.
Gorou Kanbe is one of the new to English translation BL authors from MAG Garden’s BL list that Tokyopop have been featuring in their new LGBT+ LOVE x LOVE list. All her three titles (Like Two Peas in a Pod, Don’t Call Me Dirty and Don’t Call Me Daddy) are unusual, entertaining and perceptive pieces of graphic fiction. Her characters are really engaging, flaws and all; she’s skilled at creating genuinely funny moments and heart-breaking ones as well. Highly recommended.