Momoko Tenzen’s Seven is another one of those boys’ love manga that, like Kimi Shiruya, moves the genre boundaries outward, although unlike the latter — and most popular examples of the type — it is rather bleak, at least at the beginning. It is a collection of three interrelated stories, the two parts of “Seven,” involving a boy named Nana and a wanderer named Mitsuha, and “Within Plain View,” about a young man named Nanao and his younger brother, Hiromu. (Note: Looking back over this, I’ve realized it’s riddled with spoilers. Be warned.)
Nana knows nothing of his life before he was about twelve, when he was picked up off the street by a bar-owner. The man was kind enough to give him a home and show some compassion, cruel enough, in a careless way, to name him “Nana,” which means “No-Name.” Nana had no memories, no name — no one is even sure how old he was — but at least he had a life, of sorts. The man let him help out at the bar and held him at night. For Nana that physical anchor has become the requirement for getting a decent night’s rest. The bar, after Nana’s benefactor’s death, has fallen to a man named Ei, not a bad man, although a little hard; Nana still has a livelihood and a place to live — a room on top of the bar. And the boys in the neighborhood will hold Nana at night — in return for sex. When Ei’s friend Mitsuha — another orphan — wanders into town and asks for a place to stay, Ei offers to let him share Nana’s space. Mitsuha is riveted when he hears Nana’s name: he had a little brother named Nanao; they were separated when Nanao was three, and the foster home they came from burned, destroying all the records. But Nana is not his brother. In fact, they get off to a rocky start, but things do improve: Mitsuha, a decent man, actually shows some genuine concern, and Nana decides to drop his defenses a little.
The second part of “Seven” sees the two on the road when Mitsuha realizes that he has to renew his driver’s license; he leaves Nana to explore an inhabited island while he heads to Hokkaido to take care of business. Working outdoors in the sun, people who are honestly kind, the trust of a child, all are new experiences for Nana: when Mitsuha returns, he finds Nana transformed, and faces a decision himself.
“Within Plain View” separates the two parts of “Seven” (I’m not convinced that was necessary or that it makes sense). Nanao has always been a proper older brother to Hiromu, teaching him to stand up for himself and bandaging his wounds when the standing up doesn’t quite work out right. Hiromu has brown hair and light eyes and gets teased for being “adopted.” Nanao reassures him, pointing out that he looks exactly like their father and even if they weren’t related by blood, they would still be brothers. As the boys grow older, however, things change: Hiromu, when he enters high school, has trouble talking to Nanao — there is a new tension between them, and whenever Nanao’s around, Hiromu starts to feel suffocated. And then the boys learn that Nanao was adopted. The tension between them, as it turns out, has to do with something that is not exactly brotherly love.
These are understated stories that have some real power, especially the first part of “Seven.” In that story, the confrontation between Nana and Mitsuha that resolves their crisis comes close to breaking your heart. Nana does not live in a gentle world: it is not particularly brutal, but it is not kind to lost boys, and while he is strong, he still hurts. And if he has any illusions about his own worth, they are perhaps weighted in the wrong direction. There is one sex scene, between Nana and another boy. It is not, as is usually the case in BL, a consummation, but a summary of Nana’s life: empty and cheap. It’s no wonder that he lives behind a fence of sharp edges. When he finally sees what he wants, a man who actually cares about him, he throws pride and dignity to the winds: as he tells Mitsuha, “I have nothing. What’s the point in being pretentious?” The second part of “Seven” presents us with the realization that Mitsuha, in spite of appearances, has kept his distance from Nana emotionally and now faces the same choice, although much less boldly stated: he can continue to hide behind his detachment or he can step away from his pride. As he says, “It’s probably too late to turn back.” And Nanao, who has a brother somewhere out in the world, and who moreover knows who that brother is, has never tried to meet him: the risks are too great, he’s too frightened, until Hiromu says simply, ‘”I’ll go with you” — another statement, and with a much less romantic cast than usual, of that phrase that is almost a litany in BL: “I will be by your side.” These are, ultimately, stories about finding the courage to step away from the safety of the pain you know and to face the risks of happiness.
In a genre that relies heavily on formula, these are somewhat singular stories, not particularly obvious, although in broad outlines they are predictable. What interests me about them, and puts them a cut above the schoolboy romance that constitutes a huge portion of this genre, is their spare, elliptical quality. This is one of those cases in which dialogue, illustration, and narration work together to build a seamless text that leaves things unsaid but understood: another one, like Kimi Shiruya, in which important things happen in the spaces between, creating a resonance that really, as much as any other element, ties the stories together. Tenzen, like Ishihara, has used the genre tropes to fill in the gaps.
This elliptical quality is exemplified by Tenzen’s drawing. The visual representations are elegant, sketchy, sometimes startlingly expressive, displaying a noteworthy economy. One easily sees the humor in Mitsuha’s face, the strength in Nana’s, and the sorrow behind Nanao’s smile. (I actually blocked out portions of the page on some of these images, convinced I was picking up the emotional content from context: not really — it’s there in the image.) The delicacy of the drawings — and they are very delicate, rendered in fine lines that seem barely to intrude on the page — is only heightened by the use of a brighter paper than is usual for Juné: each page is luminous, and while the page layouts are not extreme, Tenzen is adventurous enough to create a dreamlike quality in some sequences while keeping narrative flow clear. (Regrettably, the effect is marred by what appears to have been dirt on the plates during printing, resulting in small gaps in the images that show up often enough to be noticeable.)
You may ask yourself how I’m finding all of this in what is, after all, a comic directed at teenage girls. That’s always a question: how much did the artist put there and how much did I? In my own defense, let me start by noting my belief that if you’re only looking at the surface, you’re missing most of what’s going on. I’m also finding that the Japanese have taken the graphic novel as a medium and transformed it into something both challenging and very sophisticated. And who said young adult fiction can’t be substantial?
The best summary, I think, is the title: “Nana” is written with the kanji character for “seven.” “Nanao” is written with the characters for “seven” and “sound.” Like the title, Tenzen’s stories are not obvious, and even somewhat cryptic, making us reach for the meanings that are there.
(Juné [Digital Manga Publishing], 2007 [orig. Taiyo Tosho Co., Ltd. (Japan), 2004])