I’d heard of manga artist Harada before amongst fujoshi-adjacent fandom, but the only other manga of theirs that I’d read was “One Room Angel,” which I enjoyed, but felt fairly light on the BL aspect. A few months ago I was curious to read one of their works that was more “BL”, and “Nii-Chan” was one of the first listed on Goodreads. Before reading it, I’d mostly heard whispers of “oooh Harada makes the super dark problematic manga ooooh” so I was curious to see how it measured up to the hype.
Overall–I loved this manga, and it was one of my favorite comics I ended up reading last year. It builds feelings of foreboding and release very well, the characters and plotlines are layered and complex and has a really psychological feel to it. Thematically, it tells a really interesting and thought-provoking story about the nature of deviancy and conformity in society. On a personal level, it hit upon a lot of things I find interesting in stylized stories that involve forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as about the nature of how people process feelings of disgust towards terrible actions, both in fiction and in reality.
And the art SLAPS!!! The paneling and layouts and visual storytelling in general are so good, building dread and painful closeness and intimacy using solid black panels to slow down time and create a feeling of being trapped. There are also plenty of casual pages that feel more open, with more visual room to “breathe,” and the contrast helps amplify the intense moments. I love how there is definite attention paid to the environment, which gives the story a more grounded feeling. However, characters will suddenly appear framed by solid black or white backgrounds at crucial moments tp emphasize their isolation. I also enjoyed how the erotic scenes all felt very distinct and expressed different emotions throughout the story, expressing both desire and discomfort in the earlier chapters, and comfort and intimacy in the end. Harada’s linework has a very delicate, elegant quality to it that I find very beautiful to look at, especially in the depiction of facial expressions and the sensuality of bodies, and the use of stark black and white gives the pages a sense of intensity.
(Note: Not sure I feel comfortable posting full screencaps etc bc 1) most of the Really Good examples of paneling are 18+, and 2) while I do partake in scanlation-reading I don’t feel great about re-posting artwork. Is this is an ethically consistent stance? I don’t know! but since is available out there for those who want to seek it out, I will just say, in regards to the art “source: dude trust me.” I will also say that, I liked this comic and its art so much I did order my own copy…)
(CW: general discussion of grooming & sexual assault; also contains spoilers for the story.)
Now the story itself: Before I read it, I saw reviews from people expressing how horrified they were at the story, interpreting it as a tragic story about a boy obsessed and trapped with his abuser. I disagree immensely with that interpretation. In my opinion, that take only makes sense if you are literally applying the events of the story directly with how things work in the real world. In real life, pursuing your childhood abuser and getting into a sexual and romantic relationship with them is obviously a Bad Idea. However, to me Nii-chan is less interested telling a realistic story about childhood sexual abuse, and more interested in expressing the specific agony that comes from being considered “disgusting” to society, especially the disgust shown to direct or indirect victims of abuse who behave deviantly. It does so by focusing on taboo and shocking subject matter, but in a way that I personally thought managed to be artful, disturbing, thought provoking, and erotic, all at the same time.
Yui, our protagonist, is able to pass as a “normal” student for most of his childhood because his parents seem less concerned with the harm their child may have endured from a child groomer than they are with their own personal disgust, and fear of looking bad for overlooking it for so long. Meanwhile Kei, aforementioned groomer, is fucked up from his own experiences of abuse, but unlike Yui was never able to live as “normal.” Kei’s family despises him, once again not because of his crime against Yui, but because they find him an inherently disgusting, shameful object who must be converted to normalcy using such methods as forcing him to have intercourse with a female sex worker. Shame and disgust with deviancy is all over the place in Nii-chan, affecting the decisions of everyone involved, but Yui is able to overcome both his own and Kei’s layers of shame–not with love, not even necessarily forgiveness at first, but by pushing to uncover the truth and forcing Kei to confront it with him. Yui also uses violence against Kei, but his motivations are not that of a “rape revenge” narrative, but rather a desire to reconnect and force Kei to understand his feelings. Yui may have been the one wronged between them, being groomed as a child and later blackmailed by Kei, but the story makes it clear that that distinction doesn’t matter to greater society. Being gay and unwilling to participate in normal hetero activities is considered just as disgusting and abnormal as being a “pervert” child groomer or formerly-groomed-kid attracted to said pervert. It’s notable to me that in the story Kei’s own original abuser (the “Ojisan” to his being the “Nii-chan”) is allowed to continue living a peaceful life after his crime because he is now living a normal, hetero-family life, without any consideration as to the wellbeing of Kei himself. For Yui and Kei, it’s clear that the society that allowed them both to be abused in the first place demands normalcy above all else, even above preventing or acknowledging harm. Their choices, in the face of this, is either to try to suffer and assimilate to it, or to deviate completely and find forgiveness and healing on their own terms.
In an interesting twist and a heartwarming scene in the end, we get to see Kei and Yui kiss without fear in public, professing their love for each other while the presumably straight people gawking in the background are told by Maiko (the wlw solidarity) and the narrative itself, to fuck right off. (something I absolutely did not expect in the BL doujin about fictional pedophilia and rape: a v PSA to not harass Real Life Gay People Just Minding Their Business in Public). In the end, it’s not guaranteed that Yui and Kei’s future relationship will be all sunshine and roses. Even though Kei has Yui’s love and forgiveness, he is still in the process of unpacking his own deeply engrained shame around himself and his body. Yui also realizes that his own love for Kei, while indeed incredibly intense, isn’t a magical quick fix for more engrained, socially-imposed issues that need time and effort to mend. Despite these remaining conflicts, I read this as very much a happy and hopeful ending. These are characters who are not perfect, who have experienced and committed crimes against each other. But they are ultimately able to communicate and speak honestly and freely to each other, admitting their vulnerabilities and sharing pleasure–consensually, finally!!!–despite being highly aware the difficulties and hostility of the “normal” world outside that they have faced.
Which is why I found some reviews and interpretations of this story rather bizzare. It’s neat to me that Nii-chan struck a thread with more “normie” readers outside of the niche of shota enthusiasts due to its excellent storytelling; however it has also lead to quite wild takes. It’s interesting to see both people who express their disgust that this story was created at all, as well as people who laud it as a “realistic” depiction of abuse that “hopefully opens the eyes of disgusting shota fans and how harmful the media they consume actually is.”
The first part at least is a visceral and understandable reaction, the second feels like it’s missing the point in a way I find rather sad. First of all, because as mentioned earlier, the story is farthest thing from realistic–it ends with the protagonist pursuing and getting into a happy romantic relationship with his former abuser! There is definitely a layer of realism in this story that makes it feel a lot more grounded than works purely intended to be fantasy, but it is still very much exploring themes with fiction and art in a way that would probably be very difficult to do ethically with real people or live action. Second of all, what a way to take an emotionally complex, multi-layered story digging into the roots of disgust and shame and the ugly ways people try to run away from or deal with it, and simplify it down to a moralistic message of “don’t draw the disgusting things.” The entire theme of the story is that it looks beyond blaming individuals for harm, but points out how the characters were failed by the authorities who refused to do anything to help or prevent abuse and abandonment.
I also take issue with various interpretations such as this one that seem to read the epilogue as Yui being re-victimized and falling back into Kei’s manipulation. A non-zero amount of people seem to think their relationship is problematic™ now specifically because Kei takes drugs, smokes, and because Yui shares the cigarette in the end, which is very strange to me. With a life trajectory as stressful as Kei’s, it would be odd if he DIDN’T have any substance-related coping mechanisms. It is true that I don’t speak Japanese, and perhaps in the original language there are more subtleties that the scanlators missed for this one. But my interpretation of what text there was, the larger themes that seemed to be exploring, as well as the visual language was that the ending was one of comfort and intimacy between the characters and their bodies, with a sense of hesitancy and melancholy, but directed more at their frustrations with the world than with each other as individuals.
This story is certainly not for everyone, but I personally appreciated how it played with my own sense of disgust while also challenging it in a very thought-provoking manner. I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of disgust and revulsion towards media, especially BL media, both in regards to stories like “Nii-Chan” that deal openly with the themes of grooming and predation, but also because of seeing so much casual disgust and suspicion towards completely fluffy, wholesome, BL or queer media content made by queer people on the internet. It feels like an interesting small-scale reflection of the themes that I interpreted here, that no matter how “problematic” or “wholesome” certain stories or creators might be, its queerness will be considered deviant or disgusting in some way by greater society. Disgust is a natural and very human response that I think we should all experience and be aware of in ourselves, but it dos not always lead to useful action, not just in regards to reacting to fictional media, but in the realm of dealing with real life grooming and CSA, where expressions and actions driven by disgust can have the opposite intended affect and end up harming rather than supporting survivors.
Because of this, I have no idea if this series will ever get localized, especially in today’s climate that views depictions of transgressive sexual themes with suspicion. During the process of writing this article I ordered my own (used) copy because I’m just very in love with Harada’s art style and storytelling chops as a cartoonist, and I hope I’ll be able to read and review more of her work in the future.
- I didn’t forget Maiko! I think she was a very interesting character, and made me happy that the girl in this BL actually served a really good purpose of fleshing out the theme of the story rather than being either a flat “girl support” character or “girl antagonist” type. I thought she was a good example of how even people who are not direct victims of abusers can have their lives negatively impacted by them. Also, her initially being the character to represent “normal” but it being revealed that she herself is gay and has her own frustrations with fitting into society was just very interesting to me.
- I linked this above, but wanted to expand on here. There was an interesting twitter thread talking about in order to support survivors of CSA in real life, it’s important to counter the feeling of disgust. Because while it’s natural to be disgusted at the nature of such terrible crime, that disgust can oftentimes be self-serving rather than actually helpful to survivors. The thread also touches upon the “pedophilic intrusive thinking” that many survivors develop, leading to fear of becoming like their abusers and perpetuating the cycle of self hatred and disgust. While Nii-Chan is a fictional story, I felt like this felt very relevant to the themes explored, especially in regards to the fear of doing wrong and becoming monstrous.
- In the world of Boy’s Love, there are many crimes–rape, murder, violence are commonplace, but the worst crime in the realm of Yaoi seems to be….lack of communication. This is the core of the fantasy for me, or at least the kind that I feel most personally connected to. In real life, when people do horrible things, you may never know the reason, and the perpetrators themselves may not even know, or care to know. People certainly do terrible things simply for the sake of cruelty and power. What a fantasy it is though, to force people who have hurt us into vulnerability, and be able to know the truth, and be able to heal from that. Maybe it’s not the fantasy that everyone desires, but it is an interesting and compelling one.
- Because of this, in the end after all that blustering about “OOOOOH the most problematic manga EVER,” reading this and finding it actually…very heartwarming and positive made it a very interesting experience for me. Perhaps after all this time my threshold for what is really “DARK EDGY MEDIA” has been raised a bit, but as mentioned above, I felt thematically overall it was a happy and encouraging ending, one where the survivors get to live and grow and become better people.