Book Review: First love, catharsis. by Nuko Hatokawa

Cover to First love, catharsis. Two men sit on a bench at a train station. One holds a drink and is offering the straw to the other. The second man looks up at the first man from where he's leaning over to take a sip, and the first man smiles down at him. They have several shopping bags, and the first man has a laptop open.
First love, catharsis. by Nuko Hatokawa
pixiv comics

At home sick, Ikki’s first boyfriend and recent ex Karakida shows up.
Ikki, who has no libido and thought he couldn’t fall in love, thought he had made a clean break with his first love.
Regardless of the fact that he had been dumped, Harakida takes good care of Ikki and then kisses him. And then….
“One day, I’ll have to be touched by those hands.”

The long-awaited collection of the story of cowardly first love that caused a huge wave of emotion on pixiv.
An miracle supernova explosive debut in the world of BL.

Judgements

This is the third of three reviews of Japanese graphic novels, and perhaps for symmetry’s sake it’s appropriate that while I was lukewarm on the first and positive on the second, I cannot recommend this book even a little.

On a purely artistic level, there’s a lot to be desired. It is a single-volume collection of a webcomic originally published on pixiv, which makes it a little difficult to place in the doujin/published manga conversation. If you are familiar with the site, it bears all of the thumbprints of the media that comes out of there, including overly flowery dialogue with obscure kanji and panel composition that ranges from amateurish to actively disruptive to understanding what’s happening on the page. There were several times I had to stop and read chunks 3-4 times before I could get a handle on just the basics of what was happening on the page.

The content of the story, however, is deeply upsetting, to the point where I was glad to have the excuse of consulting the kanji dictionary to break up the horror. This book was always going to have a steeper hill to climb with me than the het doujin and the fluffy yuri because I have very little patience for BL’s genre conventions of pushy semes who steamroller over their bfs, especially in the bedroom where they stretch dubcon past its limits, and somehow this is the pinnacle of romance. If you are not as bothered by that as me, you may find this English-language review more helpful to you. Between Harakida’s flat out disregard of Ikki’s boundaries and masculinity and the ending where the ace ~chooses~ to initiate sex and is therefore ~empowered~, though, I personally can find nothing to recommend it. In fact, I would say it reproduces the absolute worst experiences aces have without one whit of the of the “catharsis” promised in the title.

So. Yeah. Book bad. But…. it is also interesting in a lot of ways? Alas.

Verisimilitude

[Content warning: sexual assault/rape, abuse from an intimate partner, anti-asexual sentiment]

When I reviewed Yagate Kimi ni Naru, I called it “Too Real in an upsetting way;” I regret to report that this book is somehow that but worse. Our main character Ikki is described as nonsexual, which in English is roughly equivalent to romantic asexual, but I would say it’s relevant to his story that he has his first love at 25, and so he lived until that point under the assumption that he was aromantic, and he is very sex-repulsed. He doesn’t have any social support (in fact, his friends tell him they always knew he wasn’t really ace and that he never should have said that he was), and so he really doesn’t have anyone to tell him that he doesn’t have to let his boyfriend sexually assault him.

I want to make something very clear: that he is being sexually assaulted by his boyfriend is not my judgement or interpretation; it is present in the text. Harakida says straight out that it sometimes feels like he’s a pervert raping him when they have sex. Ikki apologizes and his internal monologue says he doesn’t want to be playing the victim either. In a different chapter, called “Talking to oneself,” the reader gets to see Ikki’s thoughts through and then after a sexual encounter between the two of them, ending with Ikki forcing himself not to cry on the train ride home. Harakida knows that he is pushing Ikki’s boundaries, and apologizes for doing so over and over. He also promises to never do it again, but, well.

What is interesting to me, however, is that the manga does not draw this like a regular BL. In fact, it reminds me more of a horror manga. There are often faces in shadow, or closeups that suggest disembodied hands. It is the first time that I’ve seen a sexual situation with a sex-repulsed person actually lean into or even play up the horror.

Manga panel. A man with wild hair looms over the point of view character. His eyes are almost entirely white, with only faint suggestions of a pupil, while his face is completely in shadow, completely obscuring his facial features
Harakida about to kiss Ikki–the kiss that gets them back together

Additionally, when Ikki decides to initiate sex at the end, it is framed as overcoming cowardice, and he is not magically no longer repulsed afterwards. I would not classify this as an empowering ending—the opposite, in fact—but I appreciate that the text recognizes Ikki is making a choice, not being “fixed.” In fact, there’s an (oversimplified) flow chart towards the end about how to be happy if you’re a romantic ace, and spoiler alert, there is only one win state but quite a few ways to lose.

I do not know if this is an #OwnVoices work; the afterward doesn’t mention it, and cursory googling didn’t turn anything up. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were though, at least from the sex-repulsed standpoint. I hadn’t realized what was missing from other depictions until I saw this one. And I am telling you this so that you can realize it too without having to endure the stress of reading this book.

Brotherly Love

The marketing wrap over the dust jacket helpfully informs any potential reader that this comic had 1.2 million views on pixiv; to get a hard copy release, it would have to be popular, wouldn’t it? Now, as it happens, 1.2 million is 1% of the population of Japan, so I guess it’s possible every single Japanese ace showed up to read it. I would put a large sum on the proposition that that’s not what happened, though. In fact, the entire time I was acutely aware of the fact that non-aces could see this. Had seen this.

I think it’s a complicated question, and people’s mileage varies quite a bit on tragedy-tourism media. Certainly this story pulls no punches and is not particularly comforting to the status quo, even as the main character is eventually swallowed up by it. Of this genre, it reminds me most of the film Philadelphia, in that both acknowledge that the system is hurting people but this one, specific person was able to get a modicum of personal peace. The thing is, though, that Philadelphia was made with the knowledge that its main audience would not be in one of the groups the system is grinding down in it. First love, catharsis. doesn’t read like that. The author says in the afterword that they had drawn this comic just for their own edification, and as anyone with internet access knows, having a thing you made for your and maybe a few of your friends blow up is at least as much curse as blessing.

I want to show compassion and empathy for this author. Whatever parts of their life this is taken from, I feel deeply sorry that they had to go through those things. I don’t know what’s based in reality and what isn’t, but there are some things feel too intimately real to have been wholly imagined. But at the same time, I genuinely wish this book were never popular, never got a real release, languished in pixiv obscurity. Reading the Amazon reviews is almost painful; I just don’t believe the public at large is capable of understanding what’s happening in this book, and of course this is many people’s first and only exposure to ace characters.

I’ve grappled a lot in the past with how to ethically share ace pain—though I get nowhere close to 1.2 million views—and I don’t really have a good answer, but I know this isn’t it. Please, don’t subject yourself to this book, and don’t let your friends either. You deserve better than this, and honestly, so did Ikki.

4 Comments

  1. So, I haven’t seen “It’s Not You, It’s Not Me,” but the thing I would contrast between the review of that film and this manga is that… I’m not sure the author of the book is doing it on purpose. Like, in the review, there are quotes that make it seem like the film was made with the specific intent of portraying an ambiguous situation; that’s not the case here. Harakida never gets one single clue of how Ikki feels or makes any attempt to change, and while you can call that realistic, I wouldn’t call it a purposeful story arc if one of your main pair doesn’t have any growth or change.

    (There are also some things about this story that make me think that maybe the author is a survivor of sexual violence but not necessarily asexual, but I honestly don’t know, and I don’t think they need to disclose either way.)

    Like

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