I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later, Yakuza Lover would have an arc that put more emphasis on the “yakuza” part of the title than the “lover,” shifting the focus from sex to mob politics at least for a brief time. For many series, this would be a neutral, even positive shift; not so for Yakuza Lover, where the sexual content is great but the story really doesn’t matter.
What made the first volume of Yakuza Lover great had nothing to do with the story, which was rote, flimsy, and poorly-paced, and everything to do with the sex, which scratched an itch for me in a way that commercial erotica rarely does. Its emphasis on consent, Yuri’s active role in her own sex life, and the reciprocal giving and receiving of pleasure was something I’d never come across in a professionally-published manga. As long as the sex was good, the story didn’t seem to matter too much.
The sophomore volume, on the other hand, takes over half of its page length to get to an actual sex scene. The Russian mobster Semilio decides to get to Oya through his newest and most obvious vulnerability: Yuri. He kidnaps her and ties her up, telling her she’s now his, and her only choice is whether or not to comply. Oya, of course, comes to the rescue, but there’s a price: he stays with Semilio in Yuri’s place, leaving her safe but alone and scared.
Yep, it’s a sexual menace arc. It’s one of my least favorite plot devices, yet it seems inevitable in trashy romance series like Yakuza Lover. Semilio, who bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Yosuke from Persona 4, is a bit too obvious a foil to Oya, all silky smiles and cruelty. While Oya appreciates Yuri for who she is, Semilio dresses her up in lingerie of her own choosing while she’s unconscious. While Oya would never try to force her to do anything, Semilio threatens her with torture if she doesn’t comply. While Oya is even-tempered and controlled, Semilio is easily and quickly angered to the point of rage. They’re such direct opposites that Semilio doesn’t come across as a full character.
Perhaps the fleshing out will come later. There’s clearly some kind of history between the two men, something that would drive Semilio to kidnap Oya’s girlfriend just for the sake of antagonizing him, but this volume offers no answers as to what it could be. Oya even knows the year Semilio was born. How was this rivalry between two powerful men born? While future volumes may hold the answer, the slapdash storytelling gives me doubts that it’ll ever come up again.
The best part of the volume is easily how it builds on Yuri’s character. She first caught Oya’s attention when she fought against some petty gangsters who were trying to get her forcibly addicted to drugs, but the situation she’s in now is much more dangerous, and with her hands chained, she’s unable to defend herself as she would normally. The easy outs would be for her either to fight herself free regardless, retaining her characterization as feisty but in a more pandering way; or for her to lie back and tremble until Oya comes to rescue her, shifting her toward more of a wilting violet who only gestures at willfulness. Instead, the volume finds a more realistic average between these two: she fights as much as she can, but in the end she’s over her head until Oya can come save her.
The character writing continues in this vein; she acts in ways that are totally reasonable for a young woman who has just seen the man she loves put himself into harm’s way for her sake, when she’s powerless to stop it. But Yuri doesn’t just cry; she gets angry, which is a normal part of the fear response that these kinds of stories often neglect. Plus, instead of just weeping prettily, Nozomi Mino shows she’s willing to draw Yuri as messy, even ugly in her anger. There’s an obsession in media with making sure female characters always look appealing, even when crying or angry; Elizabeth Olson is quoted as saying she had to learn how to cry prettier when playing a grieving widow. Mino may not be the most technically skilled artist, but she truly does bring a unique point-of-view that is rare in smutty media, even what’s aimed at women.
There is a slightly discordant note in Oya’s behavior, however. He is, overall, an extremely caring boyfriend. He spoils Yuri rotten with material goods but, more importantly, he is attentive to her emotional state, swearing up and down that he will never do anything to make her feel uncomfortable or frightened. However, he can also be scarily possessive and gets angry at the sight or even idea of other men touching Yuri, even if it’s something like catching her when she falls. It’s played up as a joke or a cute quirk, but it worries me for story developments to come.
The second volume of Yakuza Lover functions less as pure smut, and the story is still weak and indulges happily in cliches. However, the refusal to condescend to its audience in how Yuri is written and the continuing emphasis on consent make it worth continuing to read. I’m looking forward to the next volume.