To say that standalone volume Seduce Me After the Show author Est Em is to the boy's love (BL) genre as Ursula K. Le Guin is to science fiction, as translator Matt Thorn suggests in his lengthy endorsement on the back of the Deux Press edition of the manga, is a little bit of an exaggeration. He was her former professor at Kyoto Seika University, and he is, as he himself acknowledges readily enough, biased. But he was only exaggerating a little. She is, without question, a mangaka who shows tremendous promise.
And her stories in this volume are likely to impress. The best of the five self-contained storylines across seven chapters happens to be the most conventional; Est Em is able to sublimate the occasional lack of creative confidence behind the genre codes of BL. “Rockin' in My Head” is practically perfect. The story is about a starving guitarist who loses a bandmate and a rock vocalist named Pete on the same day. Said guitarist decides to go drink his miseries away…and meets Pete's disillusioned ex-guitarist Joe. As it turns out, he adores Joe even more than Pete, and they become lovers because he reminds Joe of Pete. The story is drawn with an edgy, hard-wearing style that keeps a story that might otherwise rank as wish-fulfillment fantasy—boy scores childhood crush—from being too saccharine. Another of the short stores, “Café et Cigarette,” also trades on romance fulfilled—the artist protagonist finds both inspiration and adoration from the gallery owner he falls in love with.
Est Em changes things up, however, and not all of her stories have blissfully romantic, happy endings. “Twilight Cicadas/A Winding Kyoto Lane/Steamy Summer's Night” has a perversely long title and a tragically unconsummated romance. In this story, an elderly gentleman returns to his hometown of Kyoto from Tokyo for a festival. He meets plenty of old friends but soon discovers that the man he most wanted to see has recently passed away. They had been in love but, tragically, were unable to fully admit it to themselves. So now, many years later, his only consolation is the man's grandson—who looks just like him, of course—and the nostalgic sound of his flute. The story and its art are quiet, elegant, yet terribly poignant…especially considering how happily-ever-after has become the BL norm.
The manga's title piece, “Seduce Me After the Show” (and its prequel, “Curtain Call”), is the most ambitious. Est Em takes a stab at complex characters here, and she is not, alas, wholly successful. About two rising stars, a dancer and a movie director, the plot describes their romance as a choreographed display while drawing upon allusions to the opera Carmen. The director, it seems, cannot resist enacting a forbidden relationship with a man who actually loves him (but refuses, cynically, to admit it, knowing that doing so transgresses unspoken boundaries). Obviously, the story is wildly ambitious in its narrative construction, and despite some gorgeous visual experimentation with Carmen's skirt, Est Em perhaps overreaches here. Still, it—along with the rest of the stories in Seduce Me After the Show—points to a talented artist unafraid of experimentation and risk, and it is safe to expect great things from Est Em in the future.
Reviewed by Casey Brienza on July 13, 2012
Seduce Me After the Show