The super-laid-back Tatsumoto Saburou zemi, where even a monkey could get an A. It’s practically made for those types of people.
By: Fumi Yoshinaga
Publisher: 801 Media/Digital Manga Publishing
Age Rating: M/Mature/18+
There’s a certain character type that shows up so often in shoujo manga that I’d die happy if I never saw it again: the Perfect Rich Student. Born to a wealthy and probably aristocratic family, this character — almost always male — is gorgeous, classy, well-connected, popular, athletic, and aces all his classes without breaking a sweat; if he has a flaw, it’s almost always “arrogance” or “coldness” rather than anything that might actually hinder him or make his path through life anything other than a trouble-free joyride. Needless to say, Fumi Yoshinaga is too clever and too subtle to fall for a cliché like that: Ichigenme offers a far more realistic picture of the children of privilege.
Main character Tamiya, a law student from a middle-class background, finds himself in a “zemi” (supervised study group) populated entirely by lazy rich kids who have spent their academic careers coasting by on easy courses, paying other students for lecture notes and essays, and jetting off to Hokkaido for skiing weekends whenever they feel the urge. Tamiya, being a studious, serious-minded type, is made uncomfortable by his fellow-students, and none more so than Tohdou, the most laid-back of them all, who introduces himself to Tamiya at a zemi party by stripping off and then kissing him. Yet, drunken antics aside, Tohdou proves to be wiser and less shallow than the other students, and he and Tamiya develop an affinity that has as much to do with shared values as with the mutual attraction that Tohdou spots instantly and Tamiya takes a while to recognise.
One of the many joys of Ichigenme is its sensitive treatment of Tamiya’s coming to terms with his sexuality. Most contemporary BL sidesteps this issue, either by locating the coming-out process firmly in the characters’ pasts, or obscuring it with a haze of romanticism; using the identity crisis prompted by a first same-sex encounter as a trigger for character development and a source of emotional resonance was once a popular device, but has fallen somewhat out of favour. Ichigenme portrays Tamiya’s slightly belated sexual awakening as a difficult, intermittent process that involves a lot of denial and a lot of wrestling with self-doubt and anxiety; it rings true, and it’s all the more heartbreaking to read because it’s so undramatic.
Yoshinaga uses the same gradual, low-key approach to build up Tamiya’s relationship with Tohdou, and here her skill with layouts comes into its own. Yoshinaga’s layouts can sometimes look a bit staid by comparison to her contemporaries, but that’s only a first impression. In fact, she has an unmatched ability to build a mood through repeated or near-repeated images, through long wordless sequences, and through varying the rhythm of the panels. The various scenes with Tamiya and Tohdou in Tamiya’s apartment are breathtaking without being particularly explicit, either sexually or emotionally.
All of these elements are combined with a realistic and often very funny account of Tamiya and Tohdou’s last year in law school. The secondary characters are particularly well-realised, especially the women, and the world in which they live feels real and three-dimensional. There are few BL manga as satisfying and well-made as this one.