At only ten years of age, Akihito Kuze suddenly inherits the Kuze viscountship after his father’s death. The family's capable butler, Tomoyuki Katsuragi, takes over the task of raising the boy, serving as his tutor. However, the handsome and intelligent Katsuragi, well respected even among the aristocracy, remains cool towards his charge. Akihito finds himself relentlessly drawn to Katsuragi, frustrated by the distance between them and driven to discover the reasons why.
Lasting from 1912 to 1926, the Taishō era, sandwiched between the modernizing Meiji era and the militaristic first half of the Shōwa era, is a relatively interesting episode of Japanese history. The influence of Western culture still grew, and until everything crumbled again under the pressure of the economy and the conservative right, liberal ideas flourished, and people from more and more walks of life were enabled to partake in the decision making process.
Period piece or not, starting a review on a Boys' Love manga with a history lesson might seem a little ostentatious. But knowing Japan was caught between tradition and modernity during the
early twentieth century is essential when it comes to understanding what makes these characters tick, given their relationship mirrors the developments in Japanese society at that time.
In compliance with his father's last wish, Kuze Akihito is entrusted in chamberlain Katsuragi Tomoyuki's care after becoming a viscount at only ten years old. In addition to having a knack for business, Katsuragi appears to be a charismatic and sociable young man, but it doesn't take long for Akihito to discover he merely acts the part. Strongly devoted to the Kuze, he is not shying at anything that might help strengthen the family's position - like having several affairs with members of notable aristocratic households. Still, his tone towards the young successor is not in the least bit affectionate but rather highly condescending, and as Akihito grows older and wonders how that even fits together, he develops an obsession with his mentor, changing his wish for approval from him into something quite different.
Yuuutsu na Asa is Hidaka Shoko's darkest work yet and might not be easy to get into at first. The atmosphere towards the beginning of the story is notably cold and oppressing; there is an element of non-con and little that points to mutual affection but for subtle hints. Weirdly enough, this is what allows the manga to slowly but surely build up what later turns out to be its greatest strength. With their true selves originally repressed behind a mask of social expectations to live up to, it's the characters' sudden emotional outbursts that help the manga achieve a level of emotional intensity rarely found as the story progresses and they are beginning to figure out what it is they want for themselves.
Taking its time to explore the foundation for their relationship in itself would be enough to set Yuuutsu na Asa apart from the bulk of BL manga in which the characters simply find themselves magically drawn to each other, who knows why. But the art only further increases the difference, with even conflicting emotions showing well in the characters' faces.
Thus, what starts out as merely a grim historical tale of political intrigue and sexual misconduct steadily turns into a manga that mercilessly tugs at the readers' heartstrings. One of them intrigued by the idea of being equals, the other clinging to old ideals, and both fighting a tug-of-war between their inclinations and their circumstances, it is never quite clear whether Akihito and Katsuragi are separated by their difference in social status or just a difference in mindset. In any way, the relationship between these two is a complex one.
In conclusion, far from being fluffy or humorous, Yuutsu na Asa is riddled with flawed characters and palpable emotions, making it a must-read for those that prefer their BL to be gritty and haunting.