Men of Tattoos

Yuiji Aniya – June – 2011 – 1 volume

This book. Not only is it a mature romance, with yakuza and police officers and the sort of gritty crime angle I can’t resist, it has actual gay men in it who meet at a bar, and it also has a highly unusual narrative structure. A really good one. Not quite nonlinear, but it definitely jumps around a bit and brings everything together at the end. Someone pinch me, I’m dreaming.

I thought this was a collection of short stories. The first story in the volume is about a couple named Katagi and Kubota. Katagi is a yakuza, and Kubota is kind of his caretaker. The first story is mostly the two of them lazing around Kubota’s apartment while Kubota mentally goes through how they met and what it is that Katagi does. The story opens with the two of them watching a news report about a gang-related shooting, and Katagi keeps trying to get away to meet his boss, with Kubota continually delaying him. But it turns out that Kubota is an undercover police officer, and when he finds a gun in Kubota’s coat, he arrests him. But he really does love Kubota, or so he says.

The second story is about a couple named Arima and Mutou. Arima is the son of the boss of Mutou’s gang, and Mutou is a kind of sub-boss. Arima is also the son of a woman that Mutou was deeply in love with. It would seem that Arima is in love with Mutou, but Mutou dare not lay a finger on Arima, despite the blessing of Arima’s rather callous and uncaring father. You can guess where this goes. The story ends with Mutou telling one of his underlings to meet him at a ferry at 10am the next morning, the implication being that Mutou and Arima are running away together.

The third story is about an extremely violent gangster named Nogami. Nogami, while squeezing protection money from a brothel, sleeps with one of the women. The woman turns out to be a man, who Nogami has sex with anyway while nearly beating him to death. Turns out the man is an undercover cop. And actually, the undercover cop is Kubota from the first story. The man that Nogami was threatening to rape while beating Kubota? Coincidentally, it was Katagi, Kubota’s lover from the first story. Kubota arrests Nogami, but not before beating him within an inch of his life right back. Then you realize that the underling that Mutou was bossing around in the second story was Katagi, and that the 10am meeting at the end of the second story was what Katagi was trying to leave for during the first story. And the activity that Mutou and Katagi were planning in the second story was what Katagi and Kubota were watching on the news in the first story.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t bother to memorize names in these books, so this was all lost on me until I made the connection of “undercover cop who arrests yakuza he has sex with.” Then I connected that character from the first story. Then everything else fell into place.

There are several more chapters. Everything in this book made me go back and re-read the stories before, assigning new meaning to them. It’s difficult to figure out what’s going on in one of them, and I actually finished the book and read it again before I could place all the events and everything that happened. This is not a bad thing. The feeling I got when everything lined up was overwhelming, and it made the story, really, that much better. The short stories stand quite well by themselves, but to have them all snap together in an overarching narrative… it’s almost too much to ask of any book, but this one does it. There is a reunion between Katagi and Kubota in the end, but it’s… tragic. It deals with an issue that never comes up in BL manga (let alone BL manga that might take place in a prison and deal with… Katagi’s particular trial), likely because this issue is a little too harsh for many to deal with in a casual read like this. And to be fair, it’s not really dealt with here, either. It’s merely something between Katagi and Kubota. It took me a minute to process what was going on and to re-interpret what Kubota was saying, and how Katagi felt about it, but it… did make me tear up. It also dealt with a realistic after-effect of what led to said issue. I thought that was a nice touch, too, and made the ending that much more haunting and heartbreaking.

There’s a short story that takes up the last quarter of the book that almost spoils the tone of the excellent main piece. It’s about a young man who falls in love with a classmate, but can’t admit his feelings. But every night, a near-solid ghost comes to said young man’s room, and the two have sex. There are… apparently real-world repercussions for this. This is never explained. It’s a little silly, although it’s still a sweet love story.

I can’t tell you how much I loved this book. It’s one of the best BL one-shots I’ve ever read, the right mix of gritty, romantic, utterly tragic, heartbreaking, and touching. The nonlinear narrative makes it that much better for me, because I love it when a story can break itself up and come together like that, especially one that’s essentially a simple romance like this. And yet, it isn’t a simple romance. There are certainly love stories, and revenge stories, and yakuza violence, and lots of other things. It’s so well-written. And the art is wonderful, too. Everything about this book… it’s just about perfect. The only thing I would change is the unrelated story in the back, and I would have liked even that in any other context.

Really. If you’re into BL, and enjoy the tragic/depressing books like I do, you have to read this. It’s great. Get your hands on a copy.


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