Saturday, August 15, 2020

REVIEW: In the Walnut (manga, vol. 1) by Toko Kawai

In the Walnut is contemporary BL manga with occasional mystery elements. It's licensed (or was licensed? not sure, seems like it might be out of print) by Digital Manga Publishing under their Juné imprint.

I usually try to list translators when I can, but for some reason this doesn't seem to have a translator credited anywhere on the volume, not even a translation company unless Juné did it in-house.

This review includes spoilers.


Tanizaki runs his grandfather's old art gallery, In the Walnut, which specializes in restoring and selling artwork in instances where the artwork's owner might not be interested in attracting too much attention or answering too many questions. Nakai is Tanizaki's lover, an aspiring filmmaker whose only subject is Tanizaki.

The volume is very episodic. In the first story, a piece of modern art by Lui Shiina is stolen from a gallery. Later, a young man named Kusama brings Tanizaki a painting and asks him to strip it down to it undercoat, no questions asked. If you think that sounds fishy, you are correct.

In the second story, "Liar Angel," Nakai hits his head and is taken to the hospital. When Tanizaki goes to pick him up, he meets a young boy named Ryota who desperately wants to buy Paul Klee's "Forgetful Angel," his sister's favorite painting. His sister has always had bad eyesight and is beginning to go blind. Ryota wants her to be able to see the original painting before her surgery. 

In the third story, "I'm Not Hamlet," a mysterious client wants to sell a painting she inherited. It's supposedly by Thomas Gainsborough (spelled primarily as "Gainsboro" in the text, but also "Gainsborough"), but it isn't any of the ones listed in his body of work. The client has paperwork identifying it as the real deal, but Tanizaki still can't decide whether to take this risk - it would mean taking out a large loan, and if he can't find a buyer it would go badly for him. Then the situation is complicated by the arrival of one of Tanizaki's grandfather's old rivals.

The volume ends with several extras (almost a quarter of the total page count, which is why I'm reviewing it as part of the whole) that reveal how Tanizaki and Nakai first met and became a couple, how Tanizaki became a model and why he stopped, and how the two of them ended up where they were at the beginning of the first story.

I got this on a whim at a used bookstore. From the look of things, although it says "volume 1" on the cover, the second volume was either never released in English or had fewer copies available. You can still find reasonably priced new copies of this first volume, but that isn't the case for the second, and the series doesn't even show up on Juné's website.

So I guess it's a good thing this is pretty episodic. And honestly, it stands alone fairly well - no painful cliffhangers, and most of the important questions, except Tanizaki's issues with his grandfather, get answered.

I liked most of the volume well enough. The first story was a bit dated (or perhaps there are cultural issues I'm unaware of), but I still enjoyed its tragic twist. And it made me realize that there are topics that show up a lot in English-language m/m fiction that I almost never see in yaoi/BL manga - in this case, HIV.

The second story was sugary sweet, although, again, it resolved itself in a way I found surprisingly enjoyable. It also started digging a little into what seemed to be Tanizaki's private little well of self-loathing (the one thing that never really got any resolution or answers in this first volume, unfortunately). The third story continued down that path a little farther, as Tanizaki did illegal things in order to get back at his grandfather's rival (who, to be fair, started it).

This is where I get into my primary issue with In the Walnut: I didn't really like Tanizaki and Nakai as a couple. They seemed okay, at first. Nakai was the sweeter and more openly loving one, while Tanizaki was fine with sex but more prone to shielding his heart. In the third story, unfortunately, Tanizaki did something awful: he left Nakai in the company of a creepy old guy who, in the end, was fine with just holding Nakai's hand and calling him cute, but who Nakai had been scared was going to rape him. Nakai told him off for this, and it turned out that the man's intentions were entirely innocent if overly enthusiastic (he just wanted to dote on Nakai like he was a cute grandson), but it still wasn't okay - Tanizaki should have let Nakai know what the plan was, what he was in for, and gotten his consent beforehand.

Nakai wasn't exactly a great boyfriend either, though. The extra that revealed how the two of them met and became a couple was an absolute mess. In the interest of adding a bit more steaminess to the story (since the bulk of the volume just had a few kisses, a few shots of them waking up in bed together, and maybe some fade-to-black sex), this extra had lots of sex (although it still wasn't terribly explicit). Nakai was a film student who spotted Tanizaki and begged him to star in his short film. Tanizaki agreed, but only if Nakai paid him, either with more money than Nakai could afford or with his body. Nakai considered himself straight and didn't immediately agree, but when he finally caved, he kept insisting on filming Tanizaki while they had sex. 

After their arrangement ended and Nakai realized that he missed Tanizaki but wasn't sure how to get through to him enough to start a true relationship, he submitted Tanizaki's sex video as his final film project. For some reason, Tanizaki didn't go ballistic and instead called the video "completely consensual" and ran off with Nakai. Except that while Tanizaki consented to being filmed while having sex, he didn't consent to the video being released for public consumption.

The volume's focus was on its various art-related stories, so it wasn't written as a romance, but I still expected something better than this. I actually liked Tanizaki and Nakai well enough as a couple in the first two stories. Too bad it went downhill from there.

The volume's artwork didn't really appeal to me too much. It wasn't the worst I've ever seen, but for a manga focused on famous artists and artwork it wasn't really that great - very stereotypical yaoi, complete with "yaoi hands" (which you can even see on the cover - I'm pretty sure Tanizaki's left hand is several inches larger than his head). 


Besides the bonus manga focused on how Tanizaki and Nakai met and ended up together, there's also a 2-page afterword by the author with some comments about the three main stories and flashback bonus manga.

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