Artist Spotlight: Toko Kawai
April 6, 2012
My recent very thorough foray into English-language BL has netted me several new artist to keep an eye on. Previously, I was a huge fan of est em, Fumi Yoshinaga, and Hinako Takanaga. Now, I also keep an eye out for anything by Satoru Ishihara, Keiko Kinoshita, You Higashino, and a few others. But my great loves now are Yugi Yamada and Toko Kawai. Truth be told, I think I might like Yugi Yamada a smidge more, because her stories frequently feature very funny bickering couples, and I never get tired of that. But Yugi Yamada has done about 30 titles and Toko Kawai has done eight, all of which have been translated into English. That’s a rare thing, as I’ve mentioned before, and she’s so good it’s worth taking a look at it all.
One of the reasons I like BL romance so much is that the genre is inherently biased, taste-wise. Most titles are only one or two volumes, and if you don’t like, say, younger couples, most books aren’t going to try hard to win you over. And you know what? That’s okay, because there’s something else for you out there. Even more interesting than reader bias is when the preferences of the artist creep into their body of work. Sometimes it can be a TMI kind of experience, like when I tried to read a bunch of Hinako Takanaga one-shots and found out that her ukes generally creep me out. Reading the afterword of many BL books, you find that the authors often profess a weakness for the type of story or characters they’ve just written about, and they can fall into a pattern where they write the same type of story over and over again. There’s nothing wrong with this, and I like that the authors seem to be allowed to go with what they know, so to speak. Also, it’s more than a little funny to me.
Toko Kawai is interesting because her books are all slightly different, taste-wise. This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s almost mind-blowing in the BL genre, based on my own reading experiences. Cut is a story about two abused teens who help each other out of their respective situations. Loveholic is about old friends in a photographer-salesman environment that hesitate to grow closer. In the Walnut features an established adult couple that more-or-less works at an art gallery and a story that is more mystery-of-the-week than it is romance. Each one is a little different. While none are exactly groundbreaking (though In the Walnut is very unique), in a genre where it seems like you can read hundreds of volumes of the same thing, even by artists you really like, a little variety is something special.
The real treat for me, however, is that she takes those different situations and uses them to her advantage as different environments where she can really develop her characters. I love character-centric BL books the best. All the sex in the world isn’t terribly romantic unless I can believe the two are in a relationship. And the more believable, the better. Some of her books are better than others character-wise, but one thing I do like is that many of them take established couples and investigate how a relationship grows after the consummation. That can be good or bad depending on the writer, but it’s unusual enough that it’s worth looking at here.
I’m gonna go ahead and feature these in chronological order, though the English publication order may or may not be different.
Our Everlasting – 2 volumes – June – 2005
Kawai’s debut work, published in 2000 in Japan. A college-age couple is featured in this story. Shouin and Horyuu have a very tearful confession in the first chapter, made difficult by the fact that shy Shouin refuses to believe that popular playboy Horyuu could possibly like him. After that, the story is about growing pains for the couple, including stories about the importance of communication (Horyuu is verbally and physically affectionate, but Shouin is shy), the difficulty in starting a physical relationship, how healthy it is to spoil Shouin rotten, and how the two became friends in the first place. I haven’t read the second volume (though I probably will after I finish this, then update tomorrow), but it sounds like it might explore infidelity and a possible end to the relationship.
As a debut work, Our Everlasting is pretty solid, but it’s one of the last interesting of Kawai’s stories. The development is fairly shallow, with both Horyuu and Shouin admitting their feelings in rather blunt and plain language, and neither is the most interesting character in the world. But there are way more boring characters in BL, and I like the extra touches such as Horyuu’s surfing and the fact that Shouin doesn’t realize he basically demands to be spoiled. And while the exploration isn’t the most elegant in the world, the series is all about finding out how the two feel about each other, and it succeeds in making a believable and fairly cute relationship. But again, this is more middle-of-the-road than most of Kawai’s other books are.
Loveholic – 2 volumes – June – 2007
This time, the couple is a pair of grown men. Nishioka is a popular and very successful photographer, but he’s notoriously fickle and difficult to deal with. One of his primary handlers, and the one who is best at making his work a success, is Matsukawa. Matsukawa works for a publishing company that makes extensive use of Nishioka’s photos and is key in obtaining the kind of creative freedom Nishioka needs for his projects. Nishioka has a crush on Matsukawa that manifests itself as an abrasive working personality. Matsukawa is more honest about his feelings, but doesn’t tell Nishoka how he feels until Nishioka can show him a sign.
One of the other things I like about Kawai is that her books are often themed, and usually the careers or themes are represented in the story more than the marginal amount you’d expect in a BL book. This is her second work, and not the best example, but it’s here where you can see that trend starting. Both Matsukawa and Nishioka care a great deal about their careers, and there’s much detail included about Nishioka’s photography practices, schedule, and shoots. This also improves upon the character and relationship development in Our Everlasting. Everything is slightly more sophisticated here, though she gets better at writing and subtlety later on. The fickle Nishioka and smooth Matsukawa also make for an interesting couple, and for those who like to see characters squirm shyly before they admit their feelings (I’m one of these), volume one is the romantic volume, whereas volume two features the established relationship. It’s still not super-special yet, but I think it is slightly more sensitive and deeper than many BL books, and I enjoyed it as a follow-up to the superior later titles I read first.
In the Walnut – 2+ volumes (3+ in Japan) – June – 2010
Tanizaki and Nakai are the couple this time, two young men who are in a well-established relationship that is, surprisingly, not the subject of this series. In the Walnut, rather, is about the art gallery that Tanizaki runs and the clients that come in. Each chapter features a different client with a different problem, and Nakai and Tanizaki solve it the best way they can. That sounds hokey and formulaic, but really, the chapters are awesome. Tanizaki specializes in art forgery, and frequently the solutions to the problem involve elaborate hoaxes. Sometimes they can be as simple as drawing a fake Klee for a sick little girl, and other times it involves copying a painting outright and using the correct chemicals and process to cheat age verification in order to get one up on a rival gallery owner trying to put him under. Each chapter also features a different real-life artist that is explored in varying degrees of detail.
Any manga that references or has anything to do with the history of western art is something I’m going to recommend until my fingers fall off from typing. My review of volume two of this series was a long essay about Felix Gonzales-Torres and Joseph Cornell. It helps that this series is also awesome. The stories are great, and I love the number of scenarios that Tanizaki and Nakai come up against. The romance isn’t neglected completely, either, and often the stories will also have some bearing on the reputation of one or the other. There’s also lots of little couple-y concessions, but one of my favorite things is the fact that the good-looking and otherwise awesome former model Tanizaki is apparently an unhygenic slob that Nakai has to take care of. It’s rare that a BL series can pull off a story about anything but romance, but this is one of the few. Bonus points for also being about something that is so relevant to my interests. This is probably Kawai’s absolute best series, and worth reading even if you only occasionally dabble in BL.
As far as I know, In the Walnut stories still occasionally run in Japan. June published the first two volumes in 2010, but a new volume came out sometime last year, and that hasn’t been announced yet. If the licensing gods are just, that will appear soon.
Cut – 1 volume – June – 2009
Sakaguchi and Yukimura are the couple in this story, set in high school. Sakaguchi is personable and popular at school, but Yukimura accidentally stumbles upon him in the park with his step-father one day. After realizing that Yukimura is a classmate, Sakaguchi tries to make excuses, but… finds it more comfortable to simply be with Yukimura, who is silent, keeps his distance from all the other students, and doesn’t like going home. Eventually we find out that both are abused, Yukimura by his mother and Sakaguchi self-abuses through his relationship with his step-father and through cutting. The relationship is healthy for both of them, and each opens up and helps the other through difficult and dark places.
I do have a taste for the melodramatic, but Cut is one of the darkest BL books I own, and also fairly tasteful about it. It was the first Toko Kawai book I picked up, and I was concerned that it would somehow be fetishized, but cutting is treated like the unhealthy outlet it is, and both characters recognize that each are going to dark places to escape some fairly ugly things. The step-father thing is creepy, and one of those BL plot devices you have to forgive, but is more-or-less the only unbelievable thing in here. Kawai does a good job of portraying the troubled teens, and more importantly, slowly easing them into a relationship which is recognized as healthy by many around the boys. This is an incredibly tricky topic to choose for a book like this, and I would not have believed that it could be tackled tastefully in the context of a BL book, but Kawai manages it. While I still think In the Walnut is the better book, Cut is still an excellent book, and very much worth reading. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the only of Kawai’s works that’s out of print/stock, and copies are currently running fairly expensive.
Bonds – 1 volume – 801 Media – 2007
It’s actually called [bónd(z)]. I’m not kidding.
The only anthology currently available from Kawai, though you can find her short stories in almost all the volumes available. There are four stories here. The first features a college-age couple that accidentally sleep together one night, then fall slowly, passionately, and obsessively in love with each other one summer. It’s an entirely physical relationship, and the hitch comes when one realizes he may actually love the other. The second story is about a high-school-aged couple where one resists the advances of the other after being told by a teacher that boys can only marry girls. There’s a lot of difficult emotions in play here, both cruelty and kindness. It’s good, but a little hard to read. The third story is the dud of the volume, sadly, and is a strange fantasy story about a rose prince falling in love with his gardener and getting a Little Mermaid-like period to be with him. The fourth story also falls a little flat, about a salaryman showing his boss’s newly-employed heir how to live like a regular person rather than a rich young man.
I was a little leery of this book, honestly. I bought it recently, and old 801 books like this had a bad track record for me. The print runs are so small that they usually sell out quickly if they’re good, and a 4-year-old book has had plenty of time to sell out if it was worth having. But I’m not sure why this one is still in stock. Because, seriously? The first story in this volume is quite honestly one of the steamiest BL stories I’ve ever read. I mentioned earlier that I’m not easily swayed by a story with only sex in it, but Kawai uses sex to bring the two characters here closer together, and it is absolutely amazing. That first story alone is worth the price of admission. The second story is quite good, too. The third story doesn’t really suit Kawai, and it shows, unfortunately, and the fourth story simply commits the sin of being boring. The second half is worth reading, but the first half is worth owning. Or, at the very least, reading at least once.
Just Around the Corner – 1 volume – 801 Media – 2008
Kishimoto and Kiriya found each other by chance. Not really a couple, they merely offer each other sex as comfort to get through some rough times. Even so, they have a very close, casual relationship that each seems to enjoy. Until Kiriya finds himself a substitute teacher at Kishimoto’s school and realizes that the latter has been lying about his age. Kiriya brutally breaks it off with Kishimoto, angry about the lie and not wanting to risk his job, but Kishimoto soon realizes he absolutely must have Kiriya.
This is a sweet story, and again, this one’s all about how well Kawai can write the characters. I like the twist that the deception breaks up an established couple at the beginning of the book. The fact that Kiriya acknowledges Kishimoto’s efforts to win him over as juvenile and somewhat self-centered also gives this book depth that most others don’t have. A tragedy has also touched Kishimoto’s life that does win him sympathy from Kiriya, but really, this one is all about the excellent characters. They were so good, in fact, that I hated Kishimoto, and I still found myself rooting for him throughout the entire book. And I also liked this book despite the fact I usually hate student-teacher relationships like this, regardless of the fact that there’s only supposed to be a gap of a few years between them (or at least, I think that was all it was). I wouldn’t have picked this up if I had known that’s what it was, actually, but it’s such a good book that I’m happy it tricked me.
Cafe Latte Rhapsody – 1 volume – June – 2010
College-age couple Keito and Hajime are up this time around. Both more-or-less fall in love at first sight when they meet after an incident at the bookstore where Hajime works. Things go their way as a friendship turns into something more, and the two of them drink lattes, take care of kittens, and explore the joys of romance.
Lighter fluff like this isn’t usually my thing, and it took me a long time to read this. There are some interesting elements in the mix here. Keito is a really massive guy, and an international student besides, so he’s incredibly awkward and is shy about his Japanese skills, so he doesn’t talk to a lot of people and gives off the wrong impression. Hajime, the small cute one, is often the one that winds up taking care of Keito and helping him through life, though the slight taste of drama at the end (Keito thinks Hajime might be cheating/bored with him, and Hajime has to chase after him) reverses that dynamic. But if you’re into cute stuff… seriously. There’s a ton of it here. I mean, the two hook up officially while fostering kittens. If that’s not the cutest scenario possible, I don’t know what to tell you.
I was surprised that this was a later work, because it’s rather uncomplicated and straightforward. It’s got the same strengths in character development and writing that Kawai’s been developing all along, though, so it’s still a good book. Definitely not my flavor, though.
The Scent of Apple Blossoms – 3+ volumes – SuBLime – 2012
Kawai’s newest series, it’s still running in Japan and was released just last week in English over at the SuBLime website. It’s what made me want to write this article!
Haruna, a salaryman/salesman, and Nakagawa, a brewer/tech support guy, are the featured couple here. Once again, the story leans heavily on a unique topic, in this case sake brewing. Haruna is trying to convince Nakagawa’s family brewery to sell his company sake, but Nakagawa’s stubborn grandfather curses him every time he swings by to beg. This doesn’t get Haruna down, since he’s mostly there to see Nakagawa. He admits to Nakagawa within the first 30 pages that he’s attracted to him, and when the rejection comes in the form of a “not interested in a relationship” rather than an “I’m not gay,” Haruna resolves to slowly win the frigid, rude, and distant Nakagawa over. Frequent work-related visits to the brewery also provide ample opportunity to talk about the brewing process and how all of that works. Bonus points for a pleasant sister and cranky old grandfather rounding out the Nakagawa household.
In addition to her usual excellent characters and interesting subject matter, this book is just charming. Less sugary than Cafe Latte Rhapsody, but not quite as melodramatic as even Just Around the Corner, The Scent of Apple Blossoms does a good job of developing the relationship here. It’s one-sides most of the way through the first volume, but Haruna isn’t completely obsessed with Nakagawa, and I like how slowly and naturally things progress between them. They are more or less an official couple at the end of volume one, so I’m curious to see where two more volumes will take them. Perhaps the volumes will focus more on the brewery? In any case, the first volume has a mature, balanced flavor to it that should appeal to BL fans who look for deeper stories and older couples. It’s got all the best of what Kawai’s built up over the years in it, and I can’t wait to read more.