Warning: This column contains SPOILERS for all volumes of Yun Kouga’s Loveless currently available in English.

MELINDA: Hello readers! As you know, Manga Bookshelf is currently hosting the Manga Moveable Feast, a monthly virtual book club in which the manga blogosphere comes together to discuss a single manga, topic, or mangaka. This month’s Feast features the work of Yun Kouga (read my introduction), a versatile artist whose work runs the gamut from RPG-style shounen fantasy, to josei romance, to boys’ love, and more. But in North America, Kouga-sensei is best known by far for her ongoing series Loveless, a shoujo fantasy involving supernatural intrigue, spell battles, and cat ears, but most of all, heartbreak. Lots and lots of heartbreak.

Originally published in Ichijinsha’s action-heavy, BL-tinged shoujo magazine Comic Zero Sum, Loveless was a great fit for Tokyopop’s lineup, alongside titles like Kazuya Minekura’s Saiyuki Reload and Shiho Sugiura’s Silver Diamond, but after the demise of Tokyopop’s North American publishing division, fans of the series were left hanging with no new releases after 2008′s release of volume 8. Fortunately, Viz Media has come to the rescue, not only releasing the series’ subsequent volumes (now standing at 11, both here and in Japan), but also re-releasing its earlier volumes in omnibus format.

As a latecomer to Loveless, all I really knew about it going in is that it featured cat boys and (possibly) some kind of sketchy shota relationship—either of which would have been enough to send me running quickly in the opposite direction—but as Michelle and I delved in to the series’ first two volumes, I quickly discovered that the series has much, much more to offer. Viz’s second omnibus release (encompassing volumes 3-4) inspired me to rave excitedly on camera, and further reading has only increased that excitement. Events of the third omnibus (volumes 5-6) led to this ode, Lovesick over Loveless. I’ll let that post speak for itself.

The truth is, Yun Kouga’s work (and Loveless in particular) hits so many of my personal storytelling kinks in so many instances, it would be prohibitively time-consuming to catalogue them all. But perhaps more significantly, she manages to address several of my usual turn-offs (and at least one known deal-breaker) in a way that makes them somehow palatable, even to me. As a result, my reaction to Loveless has begun to resemble nothing more than a kind of romantic longing, characterized by ever-wandering thoughts and a persistent love-struck haze. in short, I’m lovesick over Loveless.

Now that Viz’s omnibus releases have finally caught up to the newer volumes, I’ve been able to race through what’s available in this series, and though I think the latest volume may have broken my heart beyond repair, I’ve invited Michelle to become broken along with me. I hope she’ll forgive me. Michelle?

MICHELLE: As someone who wishes for more unhappy endings in manga, I certainly don’t object to heartbreak! And Kouga-sensei offers the best kind, as it’s not her style to simply serve up dramatic and/or tragic plot twists, but rather to focus on what these upheavals mean and feel like to the characters. And it’s in the understanding and the relating that lies the heartbreak.

MELINDA: Well said, Michelle! For those who may just be joining us, I’ll briefly go over the story’s premise, and some more recent plot points.

Ritsuka is a 12-year-old who has suffered a couple of major tragedies. First, two years prior, he experienced some sort of massive amnesia which left him with no memory whatsoever of the person he was before that time. This sent his mother into an increasingly unstable condition in which she does not believe that he is her son, and physically abuses him whenever he betrays himself as not “her Ritsuka.” More recently, his older brother, Seimei, to whom he was very close, was found horribly murdered—burned beyond recognition—with no explanation other than a cryptic message left for Ritsuka blaming his murder on an organization called “Septimal Moon.”

As the story begins, Ritsuka is approached by Soubi, an art college student whom Ritsuka has never met or even heard of, though he claims to have known Seimei. Soubi introduces Ritsuka to an underground society in which spell battles are fought by two-person teams made up of one “fighter,” who performs the spells, and one “sacrifice,” who directs the battle and takes all the damage for the team. Ritsuka, he is told, is a sacrifice, like his brother before him. Furthermore, Soubi was his brother’s “fighter” and has been bequeathed to Ritsuka upon his brother’s death.

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This situation is difficult for Ritsuka, as he struggles to get used to the idea of Soubi, who wants (needs?) to be completely dominated by him, but as the two find themselves forced to fight together, they eventually form a meaningful bond. Just as Ritsuka’s starting to get used to his new circumstances, things get even more complicated when, in volume seven, he finally discovers two very painful truths—that Seimei is alive (and had someone else killed in his place) and that Soubi is still bound to him.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to these points (the second one, in particular, becomes absolutely heartbreaking in volume eleven), and much more has happened than what little I’ve stated here, but I expect these things will come to light as the column goes on.

MICHELLE: Yes, there’s so much that I hardly know where to start. I guess I’ll go chronologically, and start with the fact that I’m absolutely fascinated by whatever it was that happened right around Ritsuka’s tenth birthday. It’s not just amnesia, and it’s not just a personality shift—even the subjects he’s good at in school are suddenly different! That might be, to me, the most ominous thing. Where did that ability come from? Was it always latent in Ritsuka? What on earth happened to cause such a psychic break? I have a feeling it has to be something absolutely horrible perpetrated by Seimei, and I wonder how many years it’ll be before readers finally know the answer.

And, of course, the massive betrayal in learning that someone you loved and thought you knew was never really that person in the first place? And this is exactly what I meant in my response above—the reveal to readers that Seimei is alive is handled with absolutely no fanfare. Kouga-sensei is not attempting to shock the readers, she’s forcing the readers to watch Ritsuka find out, and that’s where the real drama is.

MELINDA: Yes! That whole thing is just brilliantly executed, in my opinion. Some of that realization starts slowly, as Ritsuka finds out, little by little, that the Seimei he thinks he knew doesn’t resemble the one anyone else knew in the slightest, and that even he knew on some level that Seimei was really frightening all that time, but hid those thoughts away, even from himself. Just that is horrifying enough. But then he discovers the truth–that Seimei is alive–in the cruelest way possible, from a third party, as he faces Seimei’s new fighter in battle.

What I love most about all of this, though, is that Ritsuka gets to have real, complicated reactions to all of it. There’s no switch inside him that turns off his love for Seimei or, to a great extent, even his trust in Seimei, despite the genuinely awful truths he’s learned. Seimei isn’t the person Ritsuka thought he was, but Ritsuka’s version of Seimei doesn’t just die. It can’t. It’s too much a part of Ritsuka himself.

There’s a scene in volume 8, where Ritsuka is finally face-to-face with Seimei (who has slaughtered his way through the building to get to him, even writing “Ritsuka, I’m back,” on the walls in blood), and he’s thinking, “The fact that Seimei is here… it’s proof of so many lies.” Yet his first real reaction is gratitude that his brother isn’t dead after all. And that’s not a feeling he can just put aside.

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MICHELLE: It happens a lot of times in Loveless that Ritsuka is allowed to feel two different things simultaneously, which is not something I’ve seen a lot of in manga, come to think of it. In the earlier volumes, this happens most often regarding Soubi, whom Ritsuka simultaneously wants to see and wants to avoid. And just when he decides to believe in Soubi, Seimei comes back and puts everything in turmoil.

Soubi’s reaction to learning Seimei is alive (in volume six) is heartbreaking as well, as you so eloquently (and with perfect visual aids) write about in your Fanservice Friday post. I love how this just really cements the realization that Soubi, despite appearances to the contrary, isn’t some simple creepy seme type. He’s a broken and vulnerable person who feels more Loveless than Beloved. He’s been cast aside with apparent ease by the person who was his “God,” and is desperate for Ritsuka to make their bond stronger. He must know that his bond with Seimei still exists, but would now rather have Ritsuka for his “master.”

MELINDA: I’m glad you brought this up so quickly, Michelle, because it’s Soubi’s place in all this that has broken my heart most gravely, and it’s ultimately a greater source of pain for Ritsuka, I think, than his brother’s betrayal—at least by the time the end of volume eleven rolls around. The danger signs are there early on and, as you say, even when he is first struck with the truth of Seimei’s betrayal, there’s a sense that he already understands the potential ramifications of that in his relationship with Ritsuka. Even before we’re made fully aware of the … inseverable nature of his fighter bond with Seimei, it’s clear that something’s up, and as Ritsuka’s face-off with his brother looms closer, Soubi becomes more and more visibly desperate to belong to Ritsuka, and Ritsuka alone.

The scene in volume seven where Soubi entreats Ritsuka to fully accept him so that he can fight for him against Seimei’s new fighter, Nisei, is one of the most affecting in the series—and in a series like this, that’s saying a lot. “If you accept me, Ritsuka… If you forgive me, Ritsuka… If you want me, Ritsuka…” Soubi says with startling calm, like he was reciting a sutra, as the brand Seimei marked him with bleeds painfully on his neck. It’s a stunning scene, made more so by the fact that Ritsuka’s left to wrestle with his own motivations—his fear that by accepting Soubi he’s simply manipulating him.

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MICHELLE: Ritsuka really does have all the power. More than he wants to have, really, especially when Soubi insists that Ritsuka treat him like an object. It’s rather hard for me to understand wanting so depserately to be dominated, but in Soubi’s case it seems to have some connection to wanting to forget that he is a person and the emotional pain to which people are susceptible.

MELINDA: There are some pretty powerful scenes around this same time-frame on that subject, too. I’m thinking particularly of the beginning of volume seven, which is when Ritsuka finds out that his brother carved his name, “Beloved,” into Soubi’s neck. It’s Soubi’s friend Kio who lets the cat out of the bag, as he opens Ritsuka’s eyes to Seimei’s violent tendencies. The whole scene is pretty powerful, with Ritsuka demanding that Soubi show him the damage Seimei did to his body. But the bit that really strikes me is the conversation afterwards, in which Soubi explains that, from his perspective, Seimei’s brand isn’t violence, but rather a bond—one that he entered into willingly.

It’s complicated for the characters and for us as readers, as we try not only to wrap our heads around the world as Soubi sees it, but also try to reconcile that with the knowledge that Seimei really is violent, and that his bond with Soubi was only forged to serve himself. I really like the fact that Kouga portrays Soubi’s subservience to Ritsuka and Seimei as being both the same (from Soubi’s viewpoint) and totally different (from Ritsuka and Seimei’s viewpoints).

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MICHELLE: I found that whole sequence absolutely chilling, somehow. Perhaps it was seeing normally upbeat Kio delivering a line like, “Oh, I knew him. I hated him.” It just sets the tone for all that follows, as Ritsuka begins to realize all the weird little things that would happen when Seimei was around, like fish mysteriously dying and such. Ritsuka pushed these niggling doubts aside and convinced himself he wasn’t afraid of Seimei and that he loved him, but the truth was, he knew something was off all along. Just more evidence to the support the “Seimei did something awful” theory for the amnesia onset.

MELINDA: Yes, I agree (I can’t wait until we finally get some answers about that), though I wonder, of course, how Seimei is the way he is, too. I mean, is he just a sociopath? That’s the simplest answer, but I don’t necessarily expect things to be simple in a Yun Kouga manga.

I was going back just now to the first omnibus, which I hadn’t read in quite a while, and was struck anew with Soubi’s surprise at discovering that he actually loved Ritsuka. He’d gone to him, because Seimei had ordered him to do it, and had told Ritsuka he loved him, because Seimei said he must. But he somehow hadn’t expected to really feel that kind of love. At the time that just kind of went right by me, but now that we know so much more about Seimei, and especially about his relationship with Soubi, it makes so much sense. He’d only learned to be subservient to these really horrible people—first Ritsu, then Seimei—and had no idea that a master like Ritsuka even existed. It’s heartbreaking, really.

MICHELLE: It is. It makes you wonder what kind of person Soubi could’ve become without these influences. Not that he’s at all a bad person as he is, of course. But he certainly isn’t free; it’s the last thing he wants.

Your comment does bring up the point that there’s tremendous reread potential in Loveless. There are all manner of nuances that the reader puzzles over initially, and perhaps that’s why I’ve seen some reviews describe the series as confusing, but which might make a great deal more sense in retrospect. Even though the series is kind of notorious for the time it’s taking to unfurl, that’s actually due to the publishing schedule and not to any lollygagging about in the story itself. At least, I don’t think so. I get the sense that Kouga knows exactly what she’s doing.

MELINDA: I agree, though I think we’re definitely at an advantage being fed all of it at once. Still, as you say, there is tremendous re-read potential in this series, and I expect I can keep myself busy during the year-long wait between volumes revisiting what’s come before. Just the short time I spent with the first two volumes today made me want to re-read the entire thing from the start—and I’ve barely just finished!

You know, as anxious as I am to find out what happened to Rtisuka’s memories, I feel like it might break my heart to lose the Ritsuka we know now.

MICHELLE: I was thinking last night that Ritsuka’s plight reminds me some of Echo in Dollhouse, in that the protagonist has this other/earlier self that s/he’s trying to regain, believing it to be superior to their current self. (Ritsuka even believes that his being who he is now is “a sin for which I deserve to be punished.”) But what will happen to the person s/he is currently? In Dollhouse a melding of sorts happened, if I recall rightly, and I hope that we’ll get something like that in Loveless.

Because Ritsuka really is very endearing and very consistently characterized, too. One of the things that most impresses me about how he’s written is how his most strongly held opinions and desires are clearly the result of the things he has been through, but Kouga just lets readers notice that themselves rather than putting up flashing arrows pointing it out. He’s yearning for someone to love, he jumps at the chance to “make memories” and leave people with photographs of himself so they won’t forget him, he’s utterly opposed to inflicting any kind of violence, and he absolutely hates secrets and lies. When Kio apologizes after bringing up Seimei’s violent tendencies, Ritsuka reacts with, “There isn’t anything that I don’t want to know! Not knowing is the worst!”

He’s an honest, gentle, and caring boy in a way that isn’t cloying at all.

MELINDA: And he’s just willful enough to take charge in the way Soubi needs him to as well, without being a sadist like his brother. There are a number of scenes that spring immediately to mind for me when I think of Ritsuka and the moments that have most defined him for us over the course of the story which I’d love to discuss with you. I’m glad you mentioned Ritsuka’s burning need to “make memories,” with people, because the there was an early scene along those lines that struck me much more profoundly a second time around.

I was startled to recall as I paged through the first omnibus volume again that the very first thing he does with Soubi after meeting him is to drag him off to “make memories.” The guy’s a complete stranger and an adult, but since he identified himself as a friend of Seimei’s (or, well, he let Ritsuka identify him as such—I think that’s an important distinction), that was good enough for Ritsuka. Then, my heart broke to pieces in just one panel, when Ritsuka insists that he’s sure Soubi will forget that Ritsuka was even there with him if he doesn’t take pictures. It’s a tiny thing then that we don’t fully understand until later, but it just shattered me.

MICHELLE: Practically the first thing I thought when Ritsuka immediately buys into the “a friend of Seimei’s” claim is “Nooo, don’t go with him, little boy!” And, y’know, Ritsuka’s not a stupid kid. I’m sure he knows not to go off with strangers, but he was desperate for any kind of link to his beloved (no pun intended) brother, and so he just lights up and his demeanor changes entirely.

His assertion that, without photos, Soubi will just forget he was ever there makes me wonder if something like that has actually happened to him. It doesn’t seem that Misaki, his troubled mother, has forgotten him particularly so much that she doesn’t see the person he is now, unless it’s to accuse him of not being “her” Ritsuka.

MELINDA: I wonder this, too, and it keeps on coming up, over and over again, in various ways. Then later, in the battle with Bloodless—a pair who use their enemies’ worst fears against them—we find out that Ritsuka’s worst fear is not just that he’ll be forgotten, or even that he’ll forget himself again, but that the few memories he actually has will be proven false as well. He’s already lost the memory of most of his own life, and now he’s discovered that his most precious memories of his brother may be nothing but lies as well. So if Seimei is a lie and Ritsuka is also a lie, what does he even have that’s real at all?

I’m thinking it all comes around to the memory loss in one way or another, compounded by the revelation of Seimei’s massive deception. In another scene that comes to mind from early in volume seven, Kio expresses disbelief that anyone could forgive the kind of violence that Seimei perpetrated on Soubi and accuses Soubi of being a “total fool.” Ritsuka responds by calling himself a fool as well. “You’re a fool and a masochist, Soubi, so you’re happy no matter what’s done to you! And Seimei is a sadist, so he can do anything to you, right? And I’m a fool for sticking my nose into this, aren’t I?” Then he thinks to himself, “But… I can’t let go of anybody’s hand.”

His response is very much in character, in that it’s yet another admission that he’s afraid to let go of anyone he loves (and who might love him), but it’s what he does afterwards that I find the most telling. He turns to Soubi and starts buttoning up his shirt so that he won’t catch a cold. For all he’s been through and how much he’s found to be scared of, more and more as the series goes on, his instinct is to become the grownup and take care of other people. (His speech to Soubi late in volume eleven takes this even one step further, but I expect we’ll come back to that later on.) Partly I think he has found, time and again, that he can’t trust adults to take care of themselves, let alone him, but also I think he’s desperately trying to hold things (and people) together on his own, every little bit that he can, lest he lose one more thing.

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MICHELLE: I really love the imagery of the “I can’t let go of anyone’s hand” moment, too. Another thing that strikes me about that shirt-buttoning scene is what Ritsuka says during it: “Y’know… I could never do anything like that for you.” Even though he finds violence abhorrent, it’s still his instinct to give Soubi what he needs/craves, and it saddens him that this is something that he simply cannot do.

MELINDA: Yes, yes! The fact that he words it that way, “for you” rather than “to you” (which is surely the way Kio sees it) acknowledges its importance to Soubi, and makes it clear that, even if Ritsuka can’t quite understand why Soubi would want something like that, he understands that he shouldn’t just dismiss Soubi’s feelings about it. It’s really touching, actually.

MICHELLE: Another scene that really stands out for me happens in volume five. It’s late at night and Nisei has tipped Misaki off that Ritsuka is not at home—he’s at Soubi’s house using the video-game interface to get information on Septimal Moon—and when Ritsuka finally shows up, she tries to contain herself but cannot. The ensuing abuse is incredibly disturbing, and I’m fascinated by Soubi’s reaction to it and his realization about Ritsuka. “Ritsuka is the way he is because of his mother. Ritsuka is searching for someone to love. He wants to find that person so badly. And when he thinks he’s found them, he gives them his all. But that kind of unwavering trust that won’t budge a millimeter… that in itself is madness.”

I think it’s important to note here that Soubi—his own acceptance of Seimei’s violent tendencies aside—knows that the face Seimei showed Ritsuka was not his true one, but isn’t going to be the one to shatter his illusion.

MELINDA: There’s something else that connects these two scenes, actually, and I never would have noticed it had we not discussed them together! I just realized that in the scene you mention in volume five, it’s Soubi who is taking care of Ritsuka, giving him his coat so that he won’t get cold. And it’s somewhere in between these two scenes—I think probably at the point in which Soubi discovers that Seimei is alive and his world gets shattered—Ritsuka becomes the adult and Soubi the child. When I think about it, that’s the turning point. Everything between them is different after that.

MICHELLE: I think you’re right! I think that’s when Ritsuka—and the reader—realizes how much power he truly has over Soubi. I must admit I now have geekbumps because YOU HAVE FOUND THE CRUX OF LOVELESS.

MELINDA: Hee! Well, it may be too early to identify it as the crux of the whole series, but I feel excited by the discovery all the same. I admit that I was surprised to read Sarah Ash’s feelings about Ritsuka’s shifting character, because to me he’s grown up drastically in the past few volumes. And it really does all start just at the moment that Soubi falls apart. As many times as I read it, I’m still blown away by that scene in volume six when Soubi arrives at Ritsuka’s house, broken to pieces and begging Ritsuka to run away with him. It’s the last page of chapter four where it happens. Ritsuka, stunned by Soubi’s sudden earnestness thinks, “If you’re serious… then… I’ll be serious too.” And suddenly he’s the grownup. I mean, he still has his moments of childishness and uncertainty here and there, but that’s really when he takes charge, and we see this build all the way through volume eleven, up to the point when Seimei takes the opportunity to crush him.

And really, that’s significant to me, too. Even after Seimei’s return, he’s held it together pretty well, still taking care of Soubi (that one of the first things he asks Seimei when he confronts him is “Why are you scaring Soubi?” is, to me, indescribably touching). But you know how, no matter how grownup and independent you become, it can be almost impossible not to regress in the company of your family? For instance, I’m senior management at my job, but when my parents come to visit the office, I find myself struggling to maintain that “in charge” version of myself in front of them. It’s so hard not to become the child again in those circumstances. I realize we don’t yet fully understand Seimei’s motivation for destroying Ritsuka, but I almost feel like his part of his objective in volume eleven is to show Ritsuka that he’s still the little brother–as helpless and dependant as ever–and that even growing up is something he can’t do without his older brother’s permission.

MICHELLE: That scene where Soubi arrives and shows Ritsuka his emotional pain reminds me of an earlier time when a wounded Soubi turned up at Ritsuka’s window, but then wondered why he came and decided to go away again and spare Ritsuka the sight of his injury. Now they’re so close that he can show Ritsuka, if not the full truth of what’s happened at least some sign of his despair.

Another moment that really sticks out for me the most in the post-Seimei aftermath is when Ritsuka shows up at Soubi’s place to cook him an omelet. He wants to do something to cheer him, and he’s twelve so he can’t do much, but he can make an omelet with an inspirational ketchup message on it! I like that it was a sort of grown-up thought to be having, but an age-appropriate execution.

MELINDA: What a wonderful way of putting it, Michelle! A “grown-up thought to be having, but an age-appropriate execution” is exactly right, and that’s the kind of thing Yun Kouga does really well, too. Even as she’s having Ritsuka take on the adult role with Soubi, it’s not like she turns him into an adult. In fact, ruminating on the ideas of “adult” vs “child” is a major theme in this series, and I love all the ways in which she explores that topic.

I’ve already gone on and on about how brilliant I think the whole cat ears thing is—how she uses a common (and fairly silly) manga trope to both comment on our society’s obsession with the significance (and ramifications of) losing one’s virginity, while also providing silent notes on all her characters—but she’s got a lot of things to say which reveal themselves in other ways.

There are a few scenes in particular that spring immediately to mind, two of which are in volume eleven. First, I thought of Ritsuka’s conversation with Yuiko early on (I adore Yuiko, by the way, in case I haven’t mentioned that). He’s trying to figure out what to do or even think about his brother, the sociopath—something no kid his age should be having to figure out—and though Yuiko has no idea what’s going on, she’s trying to help. Twice in that conversation she mentions the fact that they’re just kids, and that this means that they can do what they want. “Even if we make mistakes, it’s okay because we’re kids!”

And of course, that’s the whole problem. Ritsuka’s just a kid, but he’s being put in this position where his mistakes might have truly dire consequences, both for him and for others. Meanwhile, it’s the adults in the story who are acting like kids—allowing their own issues to get in the way of being the grownups, even when they’re dealing with children. (Maybe even especially when they’re dealing with children?)

“Lately, I’ve met a lot more adults,” Ritsuka tells his psychiatrist, just a few scenes later, “And I think adults are actually pretty childish.”

Well said, Ritsuka. Well said.

MICHELLE: The way adults interact with children seems to be something Kouga is particularly interested in. Earlier this week, I read your post about Crown of Love, and was struck by the dialogue “If you think I can’t lie to you when you look me right in the eyes… then you really are just a kid. If you think adults are always nice to children, you’re making a big mistake.” And then in volume nine of Loveless you’ve got Nagisa saying that Ritsuka “understands all too well that adults are not always kind to children.” That’s a neat insight into how Kouga views the comparative maturity of these two characters.

And, I note, I love Yuiko, too!

MELINDA: But, true to form, even while acknowledging that adults often fail to act as adults and are often unkind to children, she doesn’t straightforwardly vilify them for it. She has a way of writing a character from the point of view of “Wow, you fucked up,” without just abandoning them, much as Ritsuka doesn’t abandon those who have failed him, for better or worse. Meanwhile, she lets the kids show us how it’s done, without making them into perfect saints either.

One of my favorite scenes, post-Seimei, comes immediately after his escape from Seven Moons Academy—an escape ultimately facilitated by Soubi, who is unable to refuse Seimei’s order to essentially break him out. There’s a lot packed into that event, as it’s when both Ritsuka and we are confronted with the true power of Seimei’s bond with Soubi, and the extent to which their shared name, “Beloved,” is able to maintain that bond, even against Soubi’s will. Soubi is devastated by his own betrayal of Ritsuka, and reverts into what Ritsuka calls “toddler mode,” and though Ritsuka is not completely sure how he’s supposed to handle it, handle it he does, basically by ordering Soubi to get over it and go to sleep. Ritsuka’s grumpy and tired, and not as nice as he might like to be, but he’s still taking care of Soubi and keeping him close, rather than letting Soubi distance himself or wallow in his own regret.

MICHELLE: I like that scene, too, ‘cos it’s like Soubi—having been compelled to obey Seimei—is repeating the refusal (“don’t want to”) that he wishes he could have made. And, of course, with Ritsuka he would’ve been allowed to make such a rejoinder without repercussions, but when he rejoins Seimei in volume eleven he’s ordered not to speak until given permission. “I don’t want to hear your voice.” Soubi would be so much happier if he could serve only Ritsuka.

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I wonder… is the bond really a thing that’s compelling him, like supernaturally, or is it just Soubi’s internalization of the bond that renders him incapable of disobeying? And, actually, I wonder why this Fighter/Sacrifice system exists at all, especially with the academy. Why was it established? Surely not for the purpose of all this infighting! Is there a greater threat out there to which we’ve not even been introduced?

MELINDA: There’s definitely a lot we haven’t been told yet, including the entire purpose of Seven Moons Academy and Septimal Moon, and I think whenever we finally find that out, we may understand a lot more about the bond between fighters and sacrifices. But I feel like there are a few scenes that have been intended to let us know that the name itself is a powerful supernatural bond that can’t be broken, especially when the fighter is a “blank” as Soubi is—or certainly Soubi’s been made to believe that this is the case. He’s told repeatedly by both Ritsu, who trained (and abused) him and Seimei who claimed (and abused) him that it’s impossible for him to betray his sacrifice once he’s been marked with his name. That said, I specifically pointed out that both have abused him (both physically, emotionally, and in Ritsu’s case, sexually), because it certainly seems possible that, between them, they’ve brainwashed Soubi into believing something that’s not actually true.

I wonder, though… one of the things I found most heartbreaking about Soubi breaking the window for Seimei to escape, is that I got the impression in the previous volume that Soubi thought it might be possible, if Ritsuka truly wanted him and accepted him as his fighter, that he could actually become his fighter. He’s been told that a blank’s ownership is absolute (yet non-exclusive for the sacrifice, how cruel is that?) but the later flashback to Soubi’s first meeting with Seimei, in which Seimei describes his marking of Soubi as allowing him to be “reborn” as his property, makes me wonder if Soubi though it just might be possible to reborn once more, if only Ritsuka would fully accept him. And I wonder if he is pleading, hoping for the same thing later in the graveyard in volume eleven.

MICHELLE: I got that impression, as well. Soubi wants their bond to be real. I’m not sure Ritsuka fully grasps that, though, because as Soubi is walking away, he thinks, “In the end… all those times… Soubi only ever listened to me as an indulgence.” Perhaps he thinks he was being pitied or humored by Soubi when the latter would “consent to obey” him, but it wasn’t really like that for Soubi.

(click images to enlarge – read right-to-left)

MELINDA: I think that’s what I found most painful about that whole sequence of events, actually. I mean, what happens is obviously heartbreaking, with Seimei cruelly taking Soubi from Ritsuka, as if Ritsuka hasn’t lost enough already. But even more awful, in my opinion, is Ritsuka’s misunderstanding of Soubi’s feelings on the matter. That’s what ultimately broke me, and it really did break me, to an extent from which I’ve yet to recover. The fact that this misunderstanding seems to have been Seimei’s intent? I just… wow. He actually waits to remove Soubi from Ritsuka just at the moment when it would hurt Ritsuka the most. And Soubi.

I realize his true objective must be larger than this;there’s no reason for him to need to hurt Soubi, for instance, for whom he feels nothing, unless it serves some other purpose to do so, which means it has to be Ritsuka he’s really trying to hurt. But why? Is it related to the memory loss? Is he trying to punish Ritsuka for something? Is he trying to break him down in order to control him as well? Or is it even bigger than that?

Time will tell, I realize, but in the meantime, I mostly just want to kill Seimei. Possibly with my own bare hands.

MICHELLE: He’s the one that put them together in the first place, with orders for Soubi to love Ritsuka, so he is obviously enjoying getting them to really care about each other and then ripping them apart. Somehow I get the feeling he’s trying to trigger something in Ritsuka. I don’t know. But it’s almost like… Seimei did something that got Ritsuka to the person he is now, and now he’s trying to make him into something else that he can use. I thought it was interesting to see that Seimei’s actually been creepy from day one, as his first thought upon seeing his baby brother was that his mother had created Ritsuka expressly for him.

MELINDA: Heh, yes. Though, it’s so difficult to figure out what Seimei actually enjoys. I mean, it certainly seems like he must enjoy hurting people. Yet he’s so cold about it all.

There are a number of other fighter/sacrifice pairs introduced over these later volumes, and we’ve barely talked about them at all; I’ll the first to admit that I’m too focused on the major players right now to give them the attention they deserve. One of the darker stories, however, comes from Mikado, another sacrifice who felt a kinship with Seimei when they were both training, because of their shared inability to comprehend emotion. Mikado describes them both as “empty inside,” which absolutely jives with what we’ve seen in Seimei. And when Seimei orders his fighter, Nisei, to rape her and cut off her hair, she’s horrified, less by the act itself, and more by the fact that, from her perspective, Seimei broke their “code,” by doing it (in his words) for “no particular reason.” So is it really that he enjoys hurting people? I’d say that’s absolutely true of Nisei, who revels in watching Ritsuka cry. But what’s the deal with Seimei?

MICHELLE: I found the Mikado reveal very shocking. I mean, yes, Seimei has definitely killed at least one person (the guy whose body was used as a Seimei stand-in) and slashed a couple characters with his knife, not to mention inflicting all sorts of mental and emotional anguish, but this just seemed exceptionally horrible, even for him. Ritsuka is sure Soubi would never do such a thing, but if commanded by Seimei… I am not so sure, and that kind of makes me feel ill. I would hope Soubi could break the spell, either literally or figuratively, if it came to that.

This incident did put something else in perspective, storytelling-wise. After the major Seimei drama goes down at the end of volume eight, it’s as if the story takes a step back from the precipice. Our characters go back to their lives, Ritsuka goes back to school, where Youji and Natsuo enroll and act like brats. One starts to wonder where the story’s momentum has gone. But in the midst of that there was a story about Yuiko being bullied and when Ritsuka confronts the girls, they admit they have no reasons for their actions. He’s angry at them, and yet, here is Seimei giving the same answer. What’s it going to take for Ritsuka to stop feeling like he’s “on Seimei’s side” in all this?

MELINDA: That’s a very good question, and… yes. “Yes” to everything you’ve said here. I find myself wondering if Seimei is escalating his most gruesome behavior almost to see how far he can go. How far can he push his fighter? Are there limits to his control? Or maybe even, is there anything he can do that’s awful enough to make him feel regret? What are his own limits?

I admit I kind of don’t even want to think about how far Soubi would go if commanded by Seimei. I love Soubi too much to handle it. Yet, I suspect Kouga will confront me with it sooner or later, anyway. Probably sooner. She’s never been afraid to push her readers into uncomfortable places, of course, which is one of the things I love best about her.

Speaking of which, this is a bit of a shift in topic here, but wow does she push at my boundaries with Ritsuka and Soubi’s relationship. We see this again in volume eleven, when Ritsuka is ordering Soubi to “take action” in a way that looks very much like physical action, because Soubi never believes his words. Obviously, we don’t actually see anything truly inappropriate take place, and she’s been really careful to draw a line there, but it’s absolutely uncomfortable. And part of why it’s uncomfortable is that she makes clear all along that it’s problematic, though we can’t help rooting for them as… something. Something close, but not that close.

(click images to enlarge – read right-to-left)

MICHELLE: I honestly don’t know how I feel about that aspect of their relationship. I feel like it’s going to end up getting physical eventually, but probably not before Ritsuka grows up. (Soubi, perhaps, not wishing to do what was done to him?) And that it will be because of who they are and not what their roles are. Like, Soubi has suggested that he’d want to be “taken” in that scenario, which I don’t interpret simply as being the uke, but just in terms of “the ball is in your court, whenever you want me I am here.” But it’d be better if Soubi wanted it because Ritsuka is Ritsuka and not just his master.

Does any of this make sense? It’s a bit rambly.

MELINDA: It does make sense, and I guess I’m there with you. I mean, I can’t help wanting to see them together for the long term, I just don’t know what that really means, or if it’s in the cards. I mean, out of all the mess, Kouga does seem to like giving her characters happy romantic endings of some kind. And there’s no denying that Ritsuka and Soubi’s relationship feels… well, kinda romantic—for the reader, at least. I admit I’ve occasionally wondered if part of the purpose of the cat ears is to constantly reassure us that Ritsuka is still a child, at least in the Loveless universe’s sense of the word.

On a somewhat related note, I find it particularly ironic that Soubi doesn’t trust Ritsuka’s words in a story that is largely about the power of words. All the teams’ battles are fought with words, Seimei’s greatest weapon during his initial confrontation with Ritsuka is the power of his words (and the possibility that he’ll force Ritsuka to use words to somehow subjugate himself). And Ritsuka has this fantastic revelation in volume nine about words and how important they are. Yet Soubi doesn’t believe a single thing he says, at least not as far as his own worth to Ritsuka goes.

MICHELLE: At first, I found the spell battles kind of silly, but they’re actually depicted rather well, with Kouga showing some subtle differences between fighters at different levels of skill. And even the sacrifices are able to impact the battle by imparting words of encouragement upon their fighters.

About Soubi, he probably just can’t believe that someone would tell the truth to him when they weren’t forced to do so, given all the abuse and manipulation he’s endured.

MELINDA: I agree, I’ve found the spell battles to ultimately be pretty spectacular, not just because they’re extremely well-drawn (they really, really are), but because they’ve offered us both numerous character notes for our leads (and supporting characters, of course) and what feels like a rather fresh take on the idea of the power of words, which is a pretty common theme in manga. I admit that I’ve always been fascinated with stories that include variations on kotodama, and this feels like a modern take on the concept.

MICHELLE: This is a somewhat out-of-the-blue topic shift, but before we conclude I want to make sure to talk at least a little about Yuiko and Kio, who are the closest friends of Ritsuka and Soubi, respectively. We’re privy to Yuiko and Ritsuka’s meeting in volume one, during which she’s persistent and he thinks she’s a ditz, but it’s not until volume nine, during which Kio is being held hostage by Seimei’s group, that we learn that he and Soubi actually became friends under very similar circumstances.

Both characters keep our leads grounded in the world and support them with positive attitudes, which is why hints that they may be involved on a deeper level are kind of.. troubling. There’s a rather random reveal in volume ten regarding Kio, for example, and I also can’t help wondering whether upbeat Yuiko could possibly be the real Loveless fighter. After all, Youji tells Ritsuka that it’s someone he’s probably already met, while Yuiko notes in volume six that, “When I’m with Ritsuka I feel my best… He makes me feel like I can do anything.”

I should clarify that I don’t mean “troubling” in the sense that these characters aren’t absolutely genuine, because I believe they are. But I would like to keep them out of harm’s way, especially Yuiko, who seems to be leading a relatively happy and normal life.

MELINDA: I’ll admit that, deep down, I’d prefer that Yuiko remain the grounded, non-supernatural friend she is to Ritsuka now, because I think she’s really good for him like that (and of course, she’s a lot safer out of the fray), but I’m not sure what the chances are, since we’ve had this rather stunning reveal regarding Kio’s secret life. I really like both characters, though, and I appreciate the fact that they are, in their individual ways, true, devoted friends, even if they can’t completely understand what Ritsuka or Soubi are really about. I’m also glad that both Ritsuka and Soubi have come to value their friends, despite their initial resistance.

I’m not completely sold on Kio’s odd backstory at this point—I rather liked his place in Soubi’s life as it was—but I’m willing to trust that Kouga will win me over to it.

Is it terrible that I harbor an unfounded hope that the name “Loveless” might appear on Soubi, instead of… well, anyone else? I know that, as a blank, that’s supposed to be impossible. But I can’t help wishing it could be true.

MICHELLE: I wish for it, too. And the fact that Ritsuka’s name has yet to appear on his body gives me at least some hope that something special is going to happen for this particular pair.

MELINDA: Of course, it will be a long time before any of our questions or hopes are answered, and after having the opportunity to essentially marathon this series on our first read, I suspect the wait for volume twelve will be difficult to bear. But I’m so very glad that Viz provided us the opportunity to give this series a real chance. It has won my heart completely.

MICHELLE: And mine!

All images © Yun Kouga. Original Japanes edition published by ICHIJINSHA, INC., Tokyo. English translation rights arranged with ICHIJINSHA, INC., Tokyo. Published by VIZ Media, LLC.

To submit your contributions to the Yun Kouga MMF for inclusion in this month’s archive, please send your links by email to melinda@mangabookshelf.com or via Twitter to @mbeasi between now and Saturday, July 20th. If you would like your contribution(s) to be hosted at Manga Bookshelf, please email them to Melinda, along with any included images. Contributions to the Yun Kouga MMF will be archived here.

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