Story & Art by Nozomi Mino
Translation by Andria Chang
Touch-up Art and Lettering by Michelle Pang
Design by Yukiko Whitley
Edited by Karla Clark
Yakuza Lover is an oddity. Make no mistake: it’s josei smut, except a few times when it isn’t. And when it isn’t, it’s a tried and true formulaic, trope-reliant romantic comedy. Smut can be funny, a sense of humor is an excellent mechanism to break tension, amplifying the intensity of focused erotic moments. While Nozomi Mino captures this tightrope act, balancing formula expectations, well executed comedy, and sensual romantic sequences, all of these elements are at odds with the overarching setting, the Japanese criminal underworld. Yazkua, or even unaffiliated Japanese gangster comedy isn’t a vacant genre. There is an abundance of material available, from the infamous King of Minami franchise, to the more contemporary Yakuza game series, it’s a genre rife with defining examples. Here’s the catch: the focus is almost exclusive to satire, or at least a hyper-exaggeration of violent drama. Conversely, Yakuza Lover goes out of its way to romanticize the dangerous allure of Yakuza culture sociopathy. While the end result is entertaining at the very least, it leaves a lingering, problematic aftertaste by the end of the first volume.
The crux of this questionable afterglow stems from the primary romantic interest, Oya Toshiomi. On the surface, Oya presents himself as a typical josei (or even shojo for that matter) romantic interest: amorous, compassionate, deeply entangled within a tide of infatuation for Yuri, the series protagonist. He quickly professes his undying love, and acts out in exaggerated chivalrous ways, nothing too new for serialized romance comics. However, in the midst of expressing desire and physicality, Oya unleashes faces and expressions otherwise reserved for unambiguous, villainous foils in action comics. Fast enough to inflict a serious case of whiplash, Oya transforms from gentle, tender lover into someone who relishes in receiving severed pinky segments of atonement, or much worse.
Far be it from me to slander the bad boy archetype in erotic fiction, it’s popular for a reason, and more power to enthusiasts. But Oya’s transformation is extreme enough to warrant a conflict with suspension of disbelief. That a gentle, caring lover reveals his inner demon at the height of eros, while maintaining a calm and calculated demeanor in matters of life and death is a peculiar way of showcasing an emotional array. Worse still, this Jekyll and Hyde light switch only flips when he expresses unmitigated lust for Yuri. It leaves a subtext of romantic sadism beneath his pretty boy facade alongside rank and affiliation with organized crime. Yet, the subtext, with visual and contextual clues abound remains nothing more than unsubstantiated: his words and actions never signify intent beyond showing affection and passion for Yuri; Oya maintains as a reliable narrator in the story. As such, it boils down to a case of mask slippage. The mask Oya wears as the leader of his clan is that of calm, calculated composure, infallible at instilling fear in his enemies while simultaneously making cool-headed decisions of life and death. Only Yuri, his fated lover, is capable of both releasing his inner sociopath (of lust), while igniting his glacial Yakuza heart.
Much like Oya’s character, Yakuza Lover excels at lightning fast transitions between polar opposites. One page focuses on well-timed, outlandish expressional comedy, the next on carnal passion. If represented as a mountaineering expedition, the dramatic peaks and valleys are so thematically different, yet so close together the expedition would result in no survivors due to the pressure differential. The narrative structure as a whole is manipulated by the unbridled passion between Yuri and Oya to the point their entire world is consumed by spontaneous opposites. The passage of time, raw emotions, and substantive character development are all subsumed within the core of a fiery affair, and it’s quite entertaining. While one step and a few camera angles away from pornography, Yakuza Lover manages to tiptoe a line of comical, and at times steamy absurdity, delivering a top tier guilty pleasure read. It never pretends to be something it’s not, and stacks more layers of foolishness on top of an already contrived premise.
Past a needless amount of critical analysis, Yakuza Lover is a, “what you see is what you get” title. Yuri is an Everywoman protagonist, a fungible, albeit entertaining proxy for those turning the pages. She isn’t given a last name, much of a background, or personality past being an occasional spitfire ready for serious lovin’. She is suitable for her purpose as an erotic escapism fantasy, and not much else, which ultimately is her narrative function. She works in the story because it’s how she’s supposed to work in this type of story.
While Nozomi Mino excels at drawing steamy romance scenes and excellent silly faces, the rest is entirely forgettable and often uneven. Both Oya and Yuri can appear with rendered, acute detail, or with perplexing proportions depending on the page. With some frequency, Oya’s neck is so exaggerated and long it defies any sort of anatomical reality. And, with the exception of a few key set pieces, screen tones make up the bulk of background work throughout the volume. It’s enough to convey a stylistic relationship to josei manga at large, and never breaks through as being unique, or even identifiable in a blind lineup. This isn’t inherently bad, it’s a title designed to hit a very targeted demographic, which it accomplishes quite well. On the other hand, there aren’t any surprises to be found, either. It makes no attempt to push the boundaries of genre or style, and that in itself is what makes this book so entertaining: it never pretends to be something it’s not.
Yakuza Lover is the kind of series to be sought out, not stumbled upon. It’s a series for those in need of a bit of fictional mind moistening, and accomplishes that specific goal in a satisfying manner. Despite utilizing some suspect plot mechanisms, it leans into its own foolery with absolute conviction, producing a highly entertaining experience. While not something I can recommend outright, it falls into a rock solid guilty pleasure position; I knew what I was getting myself into, and jumped in anyway. Fans of more nuanced, deeper josei romance should, without question, look elsewhere.