Publisher/Year: Libre Shuppan, 2007
Warnings: drugging, crossdressing in kimonos, and giant floating flowers where giant floating flowers have no right to be.
Shinohara Yukinari is a male escort at the host club ‘For Princess’. One night, while attempting to break up a fight between a colleague and hosts from a rival club, he attracts the attention of the intimidating yakuza boss, Sakaki. When Yukinari stands up to Sakaki, he impresses the older man with his courage, and a romance soon blossoms between them. But how can their taboo relationship survive when everyone around them is hell bent on breaking them apart?
One of the first things readers are likely to notice about Heart Strings is that Sakaki bears more than a passing resemblance to the underworld leader Asami Ryuuichi from the Finder series, right down to the slick backed hair and insouciantly-cocked cigarette. And Sakaki definitely conforms to the ‘criminal romantic lead’ archetype that seems to have developed in manga over recent years: classically handsome alpha male, reticent but suave, and just dangerous enough to send a chill up readers’ spines. Oh, and considerate enough not to jump Yukinari even when he’s laid out like a (concussed) man-meat buffet in his bed.
According to the atogaki, Yukinari was specifically designed as an ‘uke who behaves like a seme’. Apparently, this meant giving him a six pack and an assertive personality (undercut by his Revlon Lash Fantasy eyelashes and all the blushing and angstful moping he gets up to). But overall I think Akira Norikazu did a good job providing a romantic foil to Sakaki who isn’t a pushover. Which is just as well, because some of the ill-excused things Sakaki and Yuki’s friends do to him would be enough to set off warning bells in real life.
Nevertheless, the clichéd complications in the plot and the romance between Yuki and Sakaki shamelessly gloss over the darker side of both host clubs and the yakuza underworld. In Heart Strings, Yukinari isn’t an escort because he likes to exploit women’s insecurities for money. Instead, he genuinely believes he is being philanthropic towards his customers by being paid to flirt with them. Equally, the true extent of Sakaki and his group’s criminality is swept under the rug or only alluded to through throwaway lines or chibified mini-strips. The supporting characters also make a point to decry the thuggishness of yakuza in general while explicitly contrasting this to Sakaki’s straightforward and enterprising nature. In this way the reader is supposed enjoy the power and glamour of both Yuki and Sakaki’s worlds without having to contemplate the seedy underbelly of either.
But let’s face it — this is a romance manga, not an exercise in social realism. After acknowledging the caveats above I can admit to really enjoying this manga for all its schmoopy ridiculousness. Sakaki is sexy and dangerous, Yukinari’s courage and loyalty (and eyelashes) are admirable, and they’re both pretty hot together in and out of bed. Fans of Norikazu’s previous manga Twins Labyrinth will also enjoy multiple cameos by Rin and Ayumu (the manga’s fanservice-y extra chapter is devoted to them).
Anyone looking for a romantic BL yakuza manga will almost certainly love this…just make sure to check in your social conscience at the door.