~by Yun Kouga
I initially read Yun Kouga's manga series Loveless after it was released in English by Tokyopop. I was surprised by how much I liked it, finding the story to be oddly compelling and engrossing if occasionally confusing. Tokyopop only released the first eight volumes of the ongoing series and so I was exceedingly happy when Viz Media rescued the license. The quality of Viz's release is much better than Tokyopop's, as well. Viz re-released the first eight volumes as two-volume omnibuses based on the special limited edition of Loveless published in Japan. The first omnibus, released in 2012, collects the first two volumes of Loveless as well as additional material previously unavailable in English. In Japan, the contents were released between 2002 and 2003. Since July 2013's Manga Moveable Feast focused on Yun Kouga and her work, it was the perfect opportunity for me to revisit Loveless.
Ritsuka Aoyagi is a new student at Yano Jonan Elementary School. Though he can't be bothered with his classmates, the withdrawn sixth grader does his best to at least put up a good front for his teachers. At such a young age, Ritsuka has already been through a lot. His older brother Seimei, who he adored, was brutally murdered and he suffers from physical, mental, and emotional abuse at the hands of his mother. Even Ritsuka's past is obscured--his memories and personality from two years ago are lost, the amnesia brought on by what is assumed to be some sort of trauma. Ritsuka is alone and has nothing that he can claim as his own until he is approached by Soubi Agatsuma, a college student with a mysterious connection to Seimei. For never having met before, Soubi shows an unexpected and disconcerting level of devotion and affection towards Ritsuka, something the younger boy desperately needs but is hesitant to accept.
One of the most peculiar things about Loveless is apparent within the first few pages: many characters have cat ears and tails. Later it is revealed that this is a physical sign that those individuals haven't had sex. It's an admittedly strange addition to the manga but Kouga uses it quite well. The presence or absence of ears and tails impacts characters' interactions and relationships, how they think about and act towards one another. The cat ears and tails also serve another purpose in Loveless, allowing many of Kouga's characters to be particularly expressive. Tails bush out when they're startled; ears fold back when they're upset or perk up when they're attentive. Actually, in general I find Kouga's artwork to be beautifully expressive and emotive. It creates a mood and atmosphere that captures the story's darkness, intimacy, and barely subdued sexuality exceptionally well without being overwhelmingly oppressive.
The beginning of Loveless is a story of intense yearning and loneliness with characters who have been broken, damaged, and twisted. But even when they despair they still cling to hope. Ritsuka has trouble accepting himself and difficulty trusting others; the attention he receives from Soubi is both welcomed and feared. Loveless is also a story about the power of words. In part because of his association with Soubi, Ritsuka is pulled into a world where battles are waged with words and spells are cast that can cause considerable pain and physical damage. Whether he realizes it or not, Ritsuka is already quite familiar with the even more insidious psychological agony caused by words uttered in everyday contexts--such as when his mother continually denies that he is even her son. The first omnibus of Loveless raises more questions than it provides answers, but it does establish an intriguing tale and characters. Even having read it before, I still find Loveless to be a strangely enthralling and compelling manga.