Childhood friends Kazu and Moto have always been together but as puberty hits in junior high, sociable, good-looking Kazu gets a girlfriend and quiet Moto wishes that he could get one too. They join different sports clubs: Moto tries archery while Kazu likes basketball. It doesn’t help that they’re in different classes either. Kazu may seem self-confident in company but he’s begun to realize that the person he really has feelings for is Moto. Then Moto happily announces that he’s found himself a girlfriend at last, and Kazu pretends to be happy for him – but inwardly starts to crumble. To add to his problems, his home life is beginning to fall apart as his father is either absent or comes home drunk. Kazu doesn’t tell Moto but Moto can’t help but notice the changes in his friend. Feelings go away, just like theirs did, Kazu tells himself, thinking of his unhappy parents. I can just appreciate that we get to go to high school together. Yet when Moto tries to introduce his girlfriend Ishi to Kazu, Kazu can’t handle the situation; as she innocently reaches out to brush away a stray thread from his jacket, he jerks his arm away violently, his face betraying his inner turmoil. Later when the boys are at Kazu’s home, Moto tries to raise what happened (Ishi was, understandably, upset) but Kazu says all the wrong things, then loses control and makes a pass at him. Moto, shocked, hits him – hard – and leaves.
And so they drift apart. Kazu bleaches his hair and starts to hang out with a different crowd; his parents divorce. Time passes… and Kazu gets a part-time job. His friends outside high school are older; they call him Yana and they drink and smoke. Is there any hope for the two childhood friends to come to some kind of understanding or have they drifted too far apart?
If the graphic style and character designs of Welcome Back, Aureole (2017) look familiar, it’s because Takatsu is the name adopted by mangaka Misaki Takamatsu (Skip and Loafer 2018 onwards) for her Boys’ Love works. As I’m a massive fan of the charming and quirky Skip and Loafer, I was really intrigued to see what the mangaka’s BL would be like and I’m far from disappointed! Even so, some of the panels in this earlier work look a little hastily dashed off in places, especially some of the early depictions of the characters, which doesn’t get the manga off to a strong start. However, if you’re not put off by the first pages, the authentic feel of the slice-of-life story will begin to convince – and as you read on, it slowly, quietly goes from strength to strength. There’s subtle use of the fleeting image of a butterfly. And the soft-hued colour page at the front is beautifully executed. Takatsu is skilled at conveying nuance when her characters are talking together, whether it be their stance or the little flickers of emotion that cross their faces; you really feel that you get to know Kazu and Moto well and when they say hurtful things to each other, you feel their pain. One of the strengths of Skip and Loafer is the delightful and believable way Takatsu/Takamatsu portrays the characters; it’s all done with a light touch (perfectly captured by her style of drawing) but when something of importance occurs, it really counts because she’s laid the ground in preceding scenes, as well as making us feel for the people involved.
Welcome Back, Aureole is another welcome discovery in the wonderfully varied Tokyopop LOVE x LOVE LGBTQIA+ list and the translation is again by the ever-dependable Christine Dashiell. As well as the mangaka’s afterword, there are two extra short snapshot pages at the end, one entitled ‘What Happened to the Two of Them Afterward’, which I suspect were under the dust jacket art in the original Japanese edition.
This quiet and well-observed manga falls more into the slice-of-life category than romance; even the mangaka herself says in the afterword, ‘Thank you for letting me write a slow and steady love story with too-few love scenes’. So if you were hoping for something spicier, the Teen (13+) rating means this just isn’t that kind of Boys’ Love. But it’s a sympathetic and touching portrait of a childhood friendship that has the potential to mature into something far more enduring; the final chapter is called ‘Two Years Later’ and keeps the reader guessing until the final page.