written by Yun Kouga
What happens when misfit teenagers with catlike features and sexual ambiguities are thrust into an adolescence overstuffed with murder, mayhem, and manipulation? If you haven’t guessed, Loveless is an acquired taste, and decidedly not for younger readers, though it is a richly textured, beautifully drawn, diabolically compelling narrative full of pathos and resonance, sadness, and (we hope) redemption.
When 12-year-old Ritsuka—real name “Loveless”—suffers the gruesome murder of his older brother Seimei, he transfers to a new school, is promptly branded a playground freak, and is then (not that this helps the whole “freak” thing) drawn into a questionably appropriate relationship with an older man, Soubi, and a shadowy world of spells, phantasmagoric battles, and code names. Battles are launched with word spells (Get it? Words are weapons!), with Ritsuka and Soubi forming a sexually charged combat unit. Soubi is the aggressor in these battles, while Ritsuka provides his mentor defense, absorbing their opponents’ pain and damage. Think Hamlet by way of My Own Private Idaho, with a touch of Pokemon.
If the bare bones of Yun Kouga’s cute-meets-subversive story are not provocative enough, Loveless’ characters are kemonomimi, humanoids with animallike qualities—in this case, virgins with feline ears and tails that are shed when they’ve lost their virginity. Allusions, and sometimes more, to bondage, homosexuality, and pedophilia are prevalent, marking this as an adult title.
Kouga’s Loveless is a sumptuous contemporary fairy tale, a shojo, or young women’s, phenomenon in Japan, and a wild success for U.S. publisher TokyoPop, due largely to her sweeping, dreamlike artwork, crisp plotting, and smart dialogue. Kouga finds the vulnerabilities and charms in her characters, rendering them instantly identifiable despite their formidable eccentricities. Ritsuka is one of manga’s most vibrant, memorable protagonists, drenched in teen angst, but also alive with curiosity and a burgeoning power and awareness. Too, Kouga’s attention to heady themes like the power of words in creating our reality, the meaning of memory, the strength of family, and the loss of innocence lend a solid, bona fide literary air to the proceedings.