Back when Digital Manga was switching from being an edgy, seinen-focused publisher to a purveyor of boys’-love and yaoi, one of their first Juné titles was Chigusa Kawai’s La Esperança. It’s seven volumes of exceedingly chaste romance between two of the moodiest boys you’re ever likely to find at a private school somewhere in the more scenic parts of Europe that’s kind of like a high-end Epcot. The lack of physicality to the romance may be explained by the fact that it was originally serialized in Shinshokan’s Wings magazine, which seems to traffic more in suggestion than explication. (It also traffics in awesome comics like Fumi Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery and Flower of Life. And it traffics in cheese-cart casts of attractive men, offering varieties designed to maximize the chance of reader enchantment.)
Digital Manga’s new Kawai title, Alice the 101st, seems even less romantically inclined, but it gets off to a very nice start thanks to the creator’s engaging characters and gorgeous art.
It’s about an elite music school, also in one of the more scenic parts of Europe, because Kawai loves her grand arches and spires, and she draws the hell out of them. She also likes her youthful characters, and they end up looking even cuter against the imposing hallways and elegant chambers of scenic Europe. The most cherubic member of the student body is Aristide Lang, who lags far behind his classmates in terms of technique or fundamentals. He can’t even read music. (Kate Dacey, who knows from technique and classical repertoire, shares some thoughts on the title’s musicality in her review.)
So why is he here? Well, his father was a gifted violinist, and Aristide does seem to have some innate talent, though it only emerges on certain pieces of music. Some of his teachers are understandably frustrated, and his classmates are alternately intrigued and annoyed that this late-coming amateur made the cut, even motivating the school to make a special admission and add one to their usual 100-student limit. On the whole, even Aristide doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing there, just that important adults in his life wanted it for him. That’s a realistic note.
I like that Kawai isn’t particularly unkind to the people who find Aristide’s presence annoying. They’re kind of jerky as a rule, but it seems like Kawai understands their point. None of them turn from detractors to cheerleaders in the first volume, and there’s a nice sequence illustrating one of Aristide’s teachers progressing from derision to acceptance. It seems clear that the teacher more or less resigns himself to Aristide’s presence rather than entirely bowing to the boy’s hidden brilliance. It’s clever stuff.
And Aristide does have his advocates. There’s his nerdy room-mate (a four-eyes without the glasses), and an older student who takes a teasing interest in the kid he calls “Alice.” (One of the best jokes in the series, at least for me, was the fact that the older student gave up the violin for the viola. The horror!) The cadre of friends and foes will undoubtedly offer plenty of friend-maybe-more geometry, with various students taking sides and gazing with innocent longing at their peers.
Kawai also created a one-volume boys’-love vampire series, written by Isaya Takamori and published in English as I Want to Bite (DokiDoki). I’m not going to run out and track down vampire yaoi, but I’m sure it has its audience (which probably doesn’t include me), and I’m sure it at looks great.