“I used to sell myself. I’d do whatever anyone wanted for money. And that’s normal for me! This guy you just slept with here… he’s disgusting!”
The BL genre is relatively new, having first come into existence in the 1970s with pioneering works by artists such as Moto Hagio and Keiko Takemiya, but not really taking a stable form until the 80s; this is how Deux Press can get away with calling I Shall Never Return “early yaoi” even though it’s less than 20 years old. For all that the 90s are more recent than the 70s, though, there’s definitely something distinct about I Shall Never Return that sets it apart from more recent BL series. Both the art style and the content bear the marks of the era in which the book was created. They don’t make ’em like this any more.
The story concerns the tumultuous relationship between Ritsuro the glasses-wearing neat-freak and Ken the smouldering bad boy; they’re friends in childhood, but when Ken turns thirteen, his parents get divorced and he starts going off the rails, and Ritsuro tries to “console” him in a way that he seems eager to forget about afterwards. Four years later Ritsuro is doing normal seventeen-year-old boy things, but Ken’s working as an “escort” (read: prostitute) and having sex with Ritsuro’s girlfriends. Which is more than Ritsuro does: for all that he wants to be as normal as Ken isn’t, Ritsuro only has eyes for Ken. This is the setup for a stormy love triangle between Ritsuro, Ken, and Moeko, the girlfriend Ritsuro loves but can’t make love to, who succumbed to Ken as much out of pity as attraction. Add the consequences of Ken’s seedy past to the mix, and we have a recipe for Drama with a capital D.
I Shall Never Return is as melodramatic and as stuffed full of heightened emotions as the title implies. (Can’t you just see a prima donna singing that line with the back of her hand pressed to her forehead?) And yet — for all that the knobs have been turned up to 11 and every chapter is punctuated by Big! Dramatic! Events! — Kazuna Uchida’s actually injected more psychological realism into this one volume than many BL artists manage to produce in their whole careers. The level of dysfunction Ken displays is not rare in BL manga, but what is rare is the degree to which Uchida’s willing to follow-up on the implications and consequences of his self-destructiveness. In particular, his relationship with Ritsuro is so intense as to be a little scary for both of them, and this is acknowledged to be dangerous and unhealthy; they’re co-dependent and it’s not good for them, and the difficulties they encounter are partly self-created.
I have to admit that there are times when the over-the-top emotions are too melodramatic for me, and I like melodrama. But on the whole, I Shall Never Return is deeply impressive as a portrait of mostly well-meaning but damaged young people trying to “lick each other’s wounds”. It’s almost entirely free of the typical tropes and clichés of BL manga, and comes across more as a serious shoujo manga about relationships between boys than anything else, and is none the worse for it.