When I finished the opening story in Hiro Madarame’s mature readers manga, Scarlet, I’ve got to admit my first response was to re-read the back of the book. Billed as “romance/comedy,” the yaoi manga opens on a decidedly un-comic note: a scene in which a love struck student lies bleeding from a box cutter wielded by the boy he loves. This is comedy? This is romance?
A series of short stories about male/male couplings, Scarlet focuses on the power dynamics in its heroes’ believably flawed relationships. In the title story and its follow-up, “Scarred,” we see the volatile pairing of two classmates, Akio and Ryo. The latter is immature and unreliable, a serial cheater whose “European” good looks bring out all his girl classmates. Smitten Akio repeatedly forgives these dalliances, but his devotion is severely put to the test after one of Ryo’s jealous flings convinces him to violently cut off the relationship.
The duo’s relationship endures, however, and in “Scarred” we get to watch the twosome in the aftermath of Akio’s assault. “I guess I’m also an idiot for not being able to let you go,” Akio says at one point, and we the readers can’t really disagree with him.
A less troublesome pairing gets depicted in three subsequent shorts, “One Night Stand,” “One Night Stand Again,” and “Toki’s True Feelings.” In these, Toki, “a plain sort of man who blends so well into the back people don’t even notice me,” is liberated from invisibility by a one-night stand in a gay bar. This brief encounter ends up being with a man who works in the same building as Toki, which forces the closeted introvert to become more open about his desires. It’s a slow process for Toki, but Madarame ends her little trilogy on an optimistic note.
The third set of stories, “My Lover” and “Project: Naoki Makeover,” proves the slightest entry in the book, though it does contain one disturbing sexual moment where its cool guy hero takes advantage of his sleeping nerd lover.
The tales in Scarlet are mildly explicit: we get more than one lovemaking scene in the book, though the artist backs away from detailing anything too clearly. As an artist, Madarame shifts between lithe-lined renderings of her lovely boy/men to simplistic cartoons a bit too much in the Akio/Ryo stories (particularly when Ryo gets histrionic), though she thankfully tamps down that tendency in later stories. Yaoi fans who come to this stuff for the images of pretty-eyed boys won’t be disappointed.
As a look at flawed romance, Scarlet has its moments, though this reader came away from all three of its couplings wishing that we’d been given more of each story. Madarame would go on to produce a better-known manga entitled Cute Devil, so perhaps this collection is best seen as her still-somewhat-tentative take on material she’ll explore more fully in her later works — hopefully, without any box cutters involved.