English Please: The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese & The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice
August 1, 2012
I’ve confessed my fondness for Setona Mizushiro before. I’ve written up Heartbroken Chocolatier as a translation request, but I mentioned that my absolute favorite was something else. It’s this two volume series. I like this story so much, I decided to wait for the official BL holiday, 8/01, to write it up. But that almost cheapens it, because it’s different from most BL. That the characters are gay is incidental, though it’s much better at portraying a “real” relationship (though one filled with ridiculous amounts of drama) than most BL. It’s a josei series, a romance about two men. It’s also probably the best romance manga I’ve ever read.
Some of these images are mildly NSFW.
(I love those covers. Each of the pictures on the walls behind them is the name of a chapter in the story.)
Kyoichi and Imagase know each other from college, but haven’t seen each other in a number of years. As fate would have it, Kyoichi’s wife hires Imagase from a private investigator’s firm to find out if Kyo is cheating on her. Which he is, and Imagase confronts Kyoichi with the evidence and offers him a deal. Turns out, Imagase is gay, and had a huge crush on Kyoichi in college. Kyoichi is scared of his wife finding out about his infidelity, so he agrees to go to a hotel with Imagase, to pass a night with “kissing only.”
The encounter is almost painful. Kyoichi is completely freaked out, and can’t quite comprehend that his good friend from college had a crush on him. Imagase, for his part, is quite the gentlemen, and despite expectations, the night isn’t terribly hot and heavy, though Imagase does wind up orally servicing Kyoichi. Kyoichi cheats on his wife a lot, it turns out, so Imagase wrangles a total of three trysts out of him at the beginning of the story in order to conceal his affairs.
But Kyoichi isn’t necessarily being unfaithful, he’s just the type of person that can’t say no when women pressure him. This makes him sound like a complete asshole, but it… uh, was definitely a mindset I could relate to. The trysts with Imagase worry him, but he gets outright incensed and puts an end to it when he finds out Imagase has a boyfriend that he’s cheating on.
Turns out, though, Kyoichi’s wife was actually having him investigated for infidelity because she was planning on divorcing him, and was hoping to get a bigger settlement if he was unfaithful. Heartbroken, Kyoichi lives by himself for a few months, then Imagase shows up to comfort him. He knows Kyoichi can’t say no.
And that’s the basic plot of The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese. Kyoichi can’t say no. He’s definitely uncomfortable in a physical relationship with Imagase, and won’t let him go all the way with him. He frequently tells him he should find another gay man that is capable of loving him. But if Kyoichi’s flaw is that he can’t say no, Imagase’s flaw is that he’s completely obsessed with Kyoichi. He has violent mood swings, where he tells Kyoichi that he’s just having fun until Kyoichi finds his true love, then leaves in a rage when Kyoichi does the completely expected thing of sleeping with a married woman. They’re both flawed, and their flaws keep them from growing closer. Or, in Kyoichi’s case, the fact that he doesn’t think he is capable of loving another man keeps him from really getting close to Imagase, even while Imagase is clinging desperately to him.
Rarely do you see a romance manga where the couple isn’t happy together, but this is one of them. That it’s still an incredible read is why I love it so much.
The climax of the story is when a serious girlfriend from college comes back into Kyoichi’s life. She immediately realizes what’s going on between Kyoichi and Imagase, and tries to guilt him into choosing. Kyoichi isn’t gay, so he chooses the girlfriend without realizing that Imagase will leave him, thinking it’s his heart’s desire. It’s the wrong decision, and both Kyoichi and the girlfriend realize it.
The Carp on the Chopping Block Jumps Twice picks up where Cornered Mouse left off, with Kyoichi and Imagase living a happy life together. Kyoichi begins to accept the fact that his life with Imagase might be what he always wanted, despite the fact he’s not gay, but his suspicion that he can’t love Imagase like a real gay man lingers. It’s also a problem that Kyoichi isn’t one to say his feelings out loud, and Imagase is the one that initiates everything in their relationship. Things fall apart when Imagase begins to suspect Kyoichi of having an affair with an office girl, and Kyoichi can’t bring himself to say that he loves Imagase better. The two split, and Kyoichi tries to live his life without Imagase. Again, it’s the wrong decision, and he knows this, but he has to try and live with it this time, hoping that Imagase has found a gay man that loves him.
Interestingly, but appropriately, the story ends not with a confirmation that the two will always be together, but that they could break up again as soon as next week. Imagase may just go crazy and leave again, and Kyoichi may cheat and find a woman he loves. There’s no promises. But they know that they’re happy together, and that’s good enough for now.
It really goes to great lengths to dissect the pieces of a relationship. I’m not sure how common the “can’t say no” syndrome is, but it was something I could relate to, again, and it was easy to see that Kyoichi may have found himself swept into a relationship he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. But that he couldn’t say “no” when Imagase tried to leave, either, was another interesting aspect of his personality. That they weren’t the perfect couple, and that it ends with the two realizing they could be happy together, made this feel a lot more realistic than 90% of the romance manga out there.
Their sexual relationship was also developed well. Again, it wasn’t something Kyoichi was at all comfortable with, so they don’t actually physically consummate for awhile. And when it does happen, it’s an amazing scene. Not because of the sex, but because of the aftermath. Kyoichi sees himself in the mirror, and sees what he is doing, and the look on his face doesn’t say that he made the right decision. Imagase covers his eyes and keeps going. It’s wordless, but everything is there, all the same.
Later, Imagase asks Kyoichi to switch, and be on top for a change. The shift in power in the sexual relationship is not something that Kyoichi had ever thought about. His thought process is well-documented, and he can’t believe how much it changes things, and how thoroughly he loses himself in it.
I could keep going. There’s a lot of good stuff here. But I’ve written 1,200 words, and I have to stop. I could talk about how the scene at the end of Chopping Block where Kyoichi and Imagase get together again is one of the absolute best, most tense scenes in any romance manga ever. There’s an undercurrent of things going unsaid, of both waiting for the other to say the right or wrong thing. It’s amazing, and I wish hard for an English translation, because I know I’m missing the nuances in Japanese. I also love Kyo’s crisis of conscience that play out with black, white, and gray versions of himself during major events. There’s lots of other things I love about this series. It’s funny, sad, romantic, and everything I want to read whenever I pick up a romance comic. But I have to stop here.
I’ve read it dozens of times, and I still shed a few tears every time. Again, it’s the best romance manga I’ve ever read, and I’ve read hundreds of them. None of them are this good. I’ve said enough.