January 17, 2010

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Solfege

Written by Fumi Yoshinaga
Illustrated by Fumi Yoshinaga
June Manga

[Note: Before I start this review, I think it's helpful to mention that I have read almost no Yaoi manga at this point in time. I think I might have read one or two here and there over the past few years, but I can't think of any off the top of my head.

Not because I don't like the idea, just because my manga reading was a little slim there for awhile. So some of what comes out of this review might show that inexperience. Please bear with me! -Rob]

If you follow my reviews at all, you will know I'm a fan of Fumi Yoshinaga, so when I saw this on the shelf at the library, it was definitely coming home with me. Yoshinaga has a ear for dialog that's almost always pitch-perfect and she likes to throw her characters in tricky situations and see what happens.

Soulfege is no exception. Kugayama is a spoiled rich kid who ends up as a closeted music teacher and pretty much fails to care about anything. When a former student comes to him for help getting into music school, Kugayama takes an unusual interest in the young man, leading to feelings he's not sure are reciprocated. Their relationship takes the inevitable path to the bedroom, leading to all sorts of complications when the secret gets loose.

What will happen to these two musical partners after their passions are revealed to the world? Will Yoshinaga give them a happy ending or take a cue from the operas the student Tanaka sings so well? The answer lies in the text, and you'll just have to read to find out!

Solfege takes its name from the word that is defined as musical studies and music features heavily in the story, as you might expect. Tanaka wants to get into an exclusive music school because it's his only real option. Kugayama teaches music in a school and the idea of a fine performance stands in at several points in the narrative for the feelings of the characters involved. Yoshinaga also emphasizes the link between passion in music and passion in one's personal life, which I thought was a nice touch. (After all, no matter how hard we try, we cannot separate our personal feelings from our actions.)

But the real music is in the story itself, carefully crafted by Yoshinaga. The plot is perfect for a one-and-done and follows the structure of an opera. We meet the characters, establish the conflict, things go right, then they go wrong, then it gets worse, and by the end, a resolution that closes the story. The ending might be a little too convenient, even for a fictional story, but I like the idea that Yoshinaga used the plotting style of opera to tell her story about two musical lovers.

As with any story she writes, there is a strong sense of character and dialog to fit that person's style. Kugayama is arrogant, disdainful, and often uncaring. It's not unusual for him to cut people, especially Tanaka, and his long list of failed lovers reflects this. Like a child, Tanaka is eager to learn but quick to be hurt even though he is obviously much older. He's comfortable in the submissive role, and it shows in his posture and remarks throughout the story.

The supporting cast get their own distinctive voices as well, from the fellow teacher to the astute student who's not afraid of Kugayama to the most prominent of Kugayama's ex-lovers. One of the things I like best about Yoshinaga's writing is that while she often has stock characters, they never feel like stock characters. She always tries to give them something to do.

One thing that did surprise me a bit was the frankness of the sexual situations. Yoshinaga doesn't show much, but the dialog definitely gets fairly heated. Honestly, it's nice to see gay sexual situations treated so normally and matter of fact. Plus, the idea of the issues in age and frequency of sex were pretty damned funny. (Like I should expect otherwise from Yoshinaga?) My only qualm is with the equality of the partners, but from what I understand, that's sort of a theme in yaoi, so I guess I'll be seeing that a lot.

Artistically, this is a pretty standard Yoshinaga work. The characters have her usual design of soft faces with eyes that tell most of their emotions. I did notice that she seemed to use the cartoon exaggeration face a bit more here than I'm used to from her. There's not a lot in the way of backgrounds, just a few simple props to set the stage. Reading a Yoshinaga manga is like watching a stage play--you're there for the interplay of characters, not the lavish settings.

If you like Yoshinaga's other works (and if you don't, I'm not sure we can be friends) and are not offended by overtly sexual references, then you'll definitely like this one-shot manga, as it features all of her best writing traits in one simple volume. I think it would be a good place to start if you don't know much about yaoi manga, but since *I* don't know much about yaoi manga, I'm a little leery to say that. For whatever it's worth, it's made me want to read more, and that's always a good thing, no matter what the title. Solfege is like a good piece of music--you'll want to listen to the interplay of Yoshinaga's characters again and again.