English, Please!: Zetsuai 1989 / Bronze: Zetsuai Since 1989 / Bronze Final
September 9, 2011
Minami Ozaki – 5/14/1 volumes – shoujo/BL – Margaret/Chorus – 1989-2011
It’s no secret I’m a terrible sucker for romance comics. Especially weepy, drama-filled romance comics. This series is the queen of weepy, drama-filled romance. Zetsuai/Bronze goes so over the top that car accidents become trivial because they happen so frequently. Not even I can take it seriously by the end, and I read Let Dai about seven times before I could finally admit to myself how bad the dialogue was. But I still love Let Dai to pieces, and I don’t love Zetsuai/Bronze any less for being… a smidge unlikely.
I’ll be honest with you, though. I was completely obsessed with this series about a year or so ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to re-read it before I wrote it up here. I was afraid that I would hate it if I read it again. That I would come to my senses and realize that I didn’t like either of the characters, or that it was just too ridiculous. But I loved it to pieces the first time through. I’d buy an English translation the second it came out, I would read every page, and I would probably try and get as many others to read it as possible. With the recent release of the gaiden/final volume of the series, along with Viz’s apparently imminent boys’ love line, I think the chances of this series getting translated are good.
It is one of the early cornerstones of the boys’ love genre. It’s among the first of these modern super-soapy BL stories, and it does love and drama with quite a bit of style. Over twenty years later, there’s still not much that can match the drama of Zetsuai 1989 and its sequels. And I love it unconditionally for that.
The publication history is complicated, but I’ll talk my way through it. Zetsuai (which translates to something like “Everlasting Love”) actually started out as a Captain Tsubasa doujinshi. This isn’t that unusual, because it seems like most modern BL series evolved from artists who drew Captain Tsubasa and Saint Seiya doujinshi through the 80s. Captain Tsubasa is a soccer manga, thus the main character of Zetsuai, Takuto Izumi, is a soccer prodigy.
One night, Izumi finds a very sick young man lying in the gutter. Kind soul that he is, he takes the stranger home with him and nurses him back to health. Unbeknownst to him, the random stranger is Koji Nanjo, a popular idol that almost anyone else in Japan would have recognized. Koji says nothing, and enjoys Izumi’s simple hospitality as he skips out on his oppressive schedule for a few days.
But wait! Koji soon realizes that Izumi is a kid he fell completely in love with as a child. At the time, Koji thought Izumi was a girl, but after a few chapters, he becomes absolutely certain that the small soccer player he fell in love with was Izumi. And the chase begins.
Koji is rich and determined, and Izumi wants nothing to do with him or a relationship. Koji finds his life as a celebrity unsatisfying, and Izumi has his own personal demons to deal with, not the least of which is a murder he witnessed first-hand as a child. Soccer and music mix themselves together with the reluctant love story and Izumi working through his own personal (and very disturbing) demons. Koji’s fame and his constant presence bring a lot of Izumi’s past to light in the gossip magazines, and instead of trying to forget it, he’s forced to very publically confront it.
Zetsuai 1989 isn’t a pleasant story. Mixed in with all the usual drama are orphanages, a sudden school transfer, Koji’s sex addiction, a suicide, and two car accidents. Koji is also a lot more like a stalker than a lover, an unpleasant trend that stays with the BL genre to this day. It ended early, with the relationship in a bad spot (Koji had forced himself on Izumi and been rejected) and an unpleasant rape scene that doesn’t involve Izumi.
Zetsuai 1989 got a new title and a fresh start with Bronze: Zetsuai Since 1989. The first series ended in 1991, and Bronze started shortly after. Bronze picks up where Zetsuai left off, with Izumi acting as a reluctant romantic interest to a stalker-ish Koji, who becomes increasingly violent, moody, and uninterested in anything other than Izumi. Amazingly, his career doesn’t suffer, and his popularity soars as he makes a new band and begins releasing hit album after hit album. Izumi does well for himself too, eventually becoming a sports star on the national soccer team and even getting an opportunity to train in Europe.
The drama is non-stop in Bronze. Izumi, though occasionally affectionate, always keeps Koji at arm’s length. Koji is often violent in response, and the two physically fight on more than one occasion. Koji is also some sort of heir to a sword school, and he has ridiculous brothers that try to kill him periodically. There are two, maybe three more car accidents. Izumi’s sports career ends twice. And there’s one thing that Koji does to himself that, to this day, is one of the most spectacularly over-the-top things I have ever seen in a manga. The fact that this happens fairly early on in Bronze, and that the story continues without fixing it, is one of my favorite things about it.
But even with a reluctant lover like Izumi, there’s still plenty of romance. For all that, the characters age, and they grow closer. It’s difficult to appreciate, since there’s so many absolutely ridiculous and twisted things about their lives, not to mention that they’re both celebrities, but it does a fairly good job of documenting their relationship growth. This, along with the addictive drama, is why I enjoyed the series so much. It’s difficult to convey why it was so enjoyable, but for romance fans, it’s addictive in a pulpy kind of way, even while it can be hard to sympathize with either Koji or Izumi.
Bronze ran in Margaret through the late 90s, then on and off until Ozaki ended it in 2006 after growing very ill. Like Zetsuai, Bronze ends in a bad place, with neither the plot nor the relationship resolved in any way.
Ozaki hasn’t drawn anything since 2006, but earlier this year, she began drawing Bronze side stories in Chorus magazine, and in about ten days, there’s a new volume coming out called Bronze: The Final Chapter. Apparently the volume will contain two side stories as well as a proper finale for the series, though I have no idea about what any of the story covers. I do know that she’s drawn several Bronze doujinshi, and at least one of them was a post-finale story that gave readers the “happy” ending (ie Koji and Izumi have graphic sex). There’s also a side story volume called “Bad Blood” that contains several short stories about young Koji Nanjo, published around the time Zetsuai transitioned into Bronze.
Interestingly, this ran in Margaret, so as heavy and romantic as the relationship is, there’s very little sex. There’s definitely a lot of sex happening, but the scenes usually cut away before anything happens. It makes up for it in different ways, though. There’s lots of blood, which Ozaki eroticizes extensively. There’s plenty of lovingly-drawn sports scenes that are probably meant to be pretty boy eye candy, and lots of glamorous Koji photo shoots that are likely the same thing for a different taste. There’s a little Nazi fetishism thrown in, especially at a Koji photo shoot at the beginning of the second volume of Bronze. There’s also things like this pool scene, where you can literally hear “Moving in Stereo” as Izumi cockteases Koji.
This is my second-favorite thing in Bronze.
On that note, Zetsuai 1989 is like a manga version of a John Hughes movie. It lives and breathes the late 80s, and everything about it is a product of that time, even in the later volumes. The big shoulders, the band Koji is in, the music, the layouts, the character designs… everything. This is not a bad thing, and while the art is dated, it’s unusual enough to stand on its own as well. Ozaki is great at compositions, and there are some pages I could stare at forever.
Unfortunately, Ozaki never drew anything else. She apparently has one other three-volume BL series called “Love Me” and Captain Tsubasa doujinshi in addition to all her work on Koji and Izumi. It’s a shame, but Zetsuai makes for a wonderful life’s work.
As I said, it’s a cornerstone of the BL genre. It seems to bridge the gap between emotionally complex tragedies of early BL like Song of the Wind and Trees and the doujinshi scene of the 80s, where Shounen Jump characters made out with each other. Where 70s BL comics seem to be a lot about lost loves and lost opportunities, Zetsuai takes that and puts the characters through it over and over again, meaning lots of great life-affirming sex almost-scenes are sprinkled throughout, something that doesn’t exist in the pretty world of 70s BL. And again, we also see the beginning of the creepy, overbearing BL stalker in Koji, though Izumi predates the pansy uke stereotype, so he stands up for himself fairly adamantly. I’m willing to believe that Koji was fairly influential in other ways, too – I read Sensual Phrase earlier this year, and I see a lot of Koji in Sakuya. I see a lot of Zetsuai in Sensual Phrase as a whole, honestly. They have very similar patterns of unlikely tragic accidents that happen because of the celebrity character, or the character’s past, the character’s brother, et cetera. The car accident at the end of Sensual Phrase had Bronze written all over it.
One of my greatest wishes is to see Zetsuai/Bronze in English with the exact same type of translation that Sensual Phrase had (ie hilariously self-aware). There are plenty of things that Viz could publish under a BL imprint, and perhaps Zetsuai is too old, the publicity from the new volume too little to sustain a 20-volume series. Younger manga readers seem to hate dated art with a passion, and the body types in Zetsuai aren’t the same type of willow-y androgynous character designs that are popular now (though, come to think of it, maybe pretty boy Koji is mixed somewhere in the roots of that). But it is the rare addictive drama, the type of story that hooks romance junkies like me and doesn’t let go, and it’s kept that quality with it for the last 20 years. Perhaps an omnibus treatment isn’t out of the question.
I’m guessing the Koji side stories and the doujinshi probably are, though.