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Men of Tattoos would’t be so bad if the mangaka hadn’t fallen into a mindset that seems disturbingly common among yaoi writers: that distasteful, even offensive material can be made up for with a few vaguely-outlined penises.

It’s not that I’m easily offended; just the opposite. And I wouldn’t mind a story about prison gang rape or sexual violence if it was handled with thought and care. But Men of Tattoos is as flippant about potential HIV infection as it is possible to be.

As the title indicates, Men of Tattos is about the Yakuza (except for one odd, unconnected college love story) and focuses on two gay couples. In the first story, Kubota and Katagi are childhood friends who grew apart, met up again as young men and became lovers. Katagi is pretty extensively tattooed, despite being a mere Yakuza underling, and is so dim-witted he doesn’t realize that Kubota is a cop looking to bust him- which he does after a drippy sex scene. As they wait for the squad cars, Kubota cheerfully tells Katagi to be good so he can get an early release and they can be together. It’s not clear how long Kubota aims to be together with Katagi, post-incarceration, before he puts his stupid ass back in jail again.

The second story focuses on a new couple. Mutou is the devoted retainer of the son of a powerful Yazuka boss. Teenaged Arima is a whiz on the stock market, so his evil father keeps him imprisoned in his room, making money for the organization, with Mutou as guard. Mutou was in love with the boy’s mother, who headed the organization until his death. Since her son, in typically unlikely manga fashion, looks exactly like her (minus the boobs) it’s not too difficult for him to persuade Mutou to let him escape…

Story number three starts with a gangster nonchalantly tossing a woman out of a window. Firmly established as a Bad Man, Nogami (for this is his name) goes on his rounds, collecting protection money from businesses on his turf- though it’s never explained why he performs this lowly task himself, since he’s apparently a Yakuza boss. Nogami stops at a club and sees a pretty new ’employee’ -i.e. hooker- and decides to give her something to do. Nogami isn’t even deterred when he finds out she’s really a dude who looks like a lady. For the hell of it, he decides to snuff his sex partner, only to find he’s a cop…in fact, is Kubota from the first story. Because apparently this Japanese police force employs a detective whose specialty is fucking guys and then arresting them.

How the hell do they teach that in the police academy?

Incidentally, the final panels of that story reveal the fact that Kubota has some pathetically scrawny chicken legs.

The fourth story is the only one with even a faint emotional impact. Mutou and Arima are living an Ozzie and Harriet life in hiding from Arima’s dad, but Arima is plagued by headaches and severe tinnitus. Meanwhile Katagi has just gotten out of jail. Kubota- minus an eye, which he apparently due to the beating Nogami gave him- is waiting. Katagi describes being gang-raped every day in prison, yet saying nothing to avoid causing trouble and jeopardizing his early release. Kubota is shockingly unconcerned by this- well, it’s all sunshine and kittens now, right? There’s a disturbing more-than-a-hint that Katagi contracted HIV in prison, but it’s dropped an instant after it’s brought up.

After some more sticky sex scenes, Kubota takes Katagi to see Arima, who is the son of Katagi’s old boss. He’s lying in a hospital, kept alive by a host of machines. It seems Mutou and Arima didn’t escape after all; they were both gunned down by Arima’s father’s henchmen. Mutou is dead and Arima’s getting there. Their picture-perfect life was Arima’s delirious dream. It’s the collection’s only touching moment.

The final story is unconnected to the others. A college boy is in love with his womanizing friend, and has resigned himself to never getting any from that quarter. But one night he dreams that his friend crawls into bed with him. Naughtiness ensues, and it turns out that the friend was having the same dreams and yada yada. But the author gives this tired idea a weird twist: the dreamy friend is rather…gelatinous. Whenever college boy touches him with any part of his body, it sort of…sinks in. I;m sure someone finds this idea hot- presumably the author- but that someone isn’t me.

The art in Men of Tattoos is quite good, but there’s nothing remotely unique about it; it could have been done by a dozen other manga artists. The stories have interesting concepts, but they never move past the initial idea: there’s no exploration of the anthology’s darker themes. They’re barely touched upon, used for set dressing and not plot or character development. It’s a disgustingly lazy form of writing, and the sloppiness and flippancy offend me far more than the subject matter ever could.

 

The verdict: If every other yaoi manga in the world catches fire and burns to ash, you might want to read Men of Tattoos. Otherwise, don’t bother.