Novel review

by Labingi

Volume 1

Ai no Kusabi remains one of the very best BL stories ever created, which makes it doubly unfortunate that the writing style of volume 1 of June's official English translation is exceptionally bad. Bad enough to feature in a creative writing course under "How not to write. Ever." That said, this lengthened edition of Rieko Yoshihara's seminal BL novel (translated from the 2001 Japanese edition) offers new character development and improved world building of sufficient interest to please any Ai no Kusabi devotee.

For the uninitiated, Ai no Kusabi is a science fiction story set in a dystopian, eugenically stratified planet populated mostly by men. It concerns the elite Iason's sexual enslavement of "mongrel" gang leader, Riki, and the complex and highly psychologically realistic webs of love, hate, and tragedy this relationship incites for Iason, Riki; Riki's "pairing partner," Guy; Iason's subordinate, Katze, and Iason's best friend, Raoul. Volume 1 is almost entirely devoted to Riki's gang, Bison, with brief appearances by Iason and no Katze or Raoul.

But first things first: the writing. (Disclaimer: I can't parse how much of the linguistic effect is original versus translation, and no doubt some of my discontents derive from different conventions in Japan and the West.) The dominant style wields clich with the same ham-handed gusto with which young punk, Kirie, flings insults at Riki:

"As outsiders looked on in amazement, [Bison] faded away into that good night with nary a struggle. Isn't [Riki] the one rushing in where angels fear to tread?" (57)

Gives me an image of Dylan Thomas and E. M. Forster trapped in BL novel, Forster averring, "This was not the gay utopia I longed for," and Thomas, grasping E. M.'s tweed-clad arm, exclaiming, "Get me the f— out of here!" Other lines are simply painfully overwritten: "The slums is a monster that devours the soul of youth and spits out the gristle" (51). The gang bangers sometimes speak more meticulously and clearly than undereducated kids living on the street would, though, in this respect, this edition reads much more naturally than the from-Spanish fan translation. The new translation is, to my American ear, jarringly British. (Even in Britain, is it the norm for teen gang members to call each other "chap"?) The translator, Kelly Quine, was clearly avoiding the word "guy" because there's a character named Guy, but her solutions were less than ideal. On the upside, the anime sub is also British English, so there's a consistency in this. Grammatical errors are not infrequent. For example, Quine (or her editors) cannot decide whether "slums" should be singular or plural and, at one point, manage to make it both in one sentence. The translation of the title, "The Space Between," is a poor rendering of "Wedge of Interval." The "interval" (ai) is a Japanese pun on "love," the point being that love is a wedge, and it's disappointing that this translation ejects the word matters most. Happily, the original Japanese title is retained in much bigger, bolder letters than the English translation. Most fans will probably feel jarred by the translation of Dana-Bahn as Dana-Burn, again, especially if you have an American ear.

But we don't love this story for its glowing prose. This edition enhances the anime and fan translation of the novel by providing additional character work on the members of Bison. Riki's role as badass of the slums and universal object of desire is highlighted to good effect. It is centrally important to the story that Riki be strong and impressive, and here he is – or rather "was" before his defeated and humiliated return to the slums after three years with Iason. As ever, Riki's sullen, smoldering, often stoned despair is gripping and well contrasted with his former glory. We also get a much deeper look into Riki and Guy's relationship, with stress on its being based on emotional communication, not sex. This emphasis intensifies the contrast between Iason and Riki's sex-driven relationship and also highlights the tragedy of the post-Iason loss of communication and emotional understanding the progressively pulls Guy and Riki apart. Kirie comes to the fore as an important point-of-view character. His strength and charisma are heightened, though his overbearing childishness remains, emphasizing his role as Mini-Riki. Perhaps most pleasing, we are treated to serious character differentiation among Bison members, Luke, Sid, and Norris. Their conflicted relationship with Riki becomes one of the strongest themes in the volume: they are envious, sexually stymied, angry at Riki's abandonment and lack of leadership, yet after deliberately planning, at one point, to rape him while he's stoned, they hold back – because he is still their friend. The small scene resonates powerfully against Iason's inability to view Riki with this basic respect/restraint.

Yet not all of the narrative changes to this edition are for the best. Riki and Guy have always been somewhat deprived of "passionate" writing, and this edition deprives them further. Gone (or pushed to a later volume?) are lines about how "each one knew the number of freckles on the other's body" and "having licked each other's hidden places" (fan translation). Instead, we're told that since their days in Guardian, they had been "physically involved." Gee. The very extent of the detail added to this edition may also work against the overall story structure by generating too much digression from the main plot. The from-Spanish fan translation – though its English is dicier – renders an earlier edition that has more forceful, forward plot momentum.

Its shortcomings not withstanding, this edition offers vastly improved world building. Yoshihara very wisely eliminated dubious argument that Amoy's (as it's spelled here) skewed gender ratio is form of birth control. Instead, she attributes the phenomenon to some physical property of the planet: much easier to swallow. The role of women in Ceres is also clearly explained where, previously, it had been implied. The relationship between Amoy and the broader Commonwealth of other planets is much clearer as is supercomputer Jupiter's theory of government. (I may be dense, but it took this translation for me to realize that the reason the Blondies are so cold and, ideally, sexless is that Jupiter wants to make them like machines: the computer's ideal beings.) Indeed, these sociological explanations are so extensive that they can become repetitive and digressive. On the whole, however, the novel profits from a more internally consistent, clearly elucidated setting.

The volume's illustrations, by Katsumi Michihara, are simple, attractive, quite tame pencil sketches, of which the raciest is the cover illustration with Riki chained and Iason leaning over him. The figures tend to have similar faces, but they are easy to differentiate. These sketches are a nice complement to the text.

If you're an AnK fan, I'd recommend buying this volume. It will give you new information and more time with beloved characters. If you haven't encountered AnK before, I'd suggest starting with the anime (and some background summary reading). To date, the anime remains the most consistently high-quality rendering of this story available in English translation. As for this volume, I'm giving it a B+. That breaks down to A+ for the overall story it begins, A– for its helpful additions to previous versions, and D for writing style.


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