Walking home one night from his dead-end job at a pachinko parlor, 21-year-old Chihiro is bemoaning his lack of ambition and direction in life when he surrenders to the plaintive cries of an abandoned kitten and acquires a four-legged roommate. Just as he warms up to caring for another life and not coming home to an empty apartment, Shiro, the kitten, falls ill and sends unprepared Chihiro into a panic. Luckily, he runs into Kumazawa, a local vet, who takes Shiro to his clinic and treats her free of charge. In gratitude, Chihiro accepts a position as live-in housekeeper and odd-jobber for busy Kumazawa, who lives above the clinic. As he gets used to his new routine and helps out downstairs, Chihiro feels at home and tentatively starts pursuing a career goal. He just wishes his heart wouldn’t complicate matters by pining for more.
Despite its blandly generic title, Honey Darling is a cute, above-average addition to the yaoi genre. Unlike many other profession-themed romances, the setting here is not just a gimmicky, interchangeable frame. Kumazawa takes his work seriously and lectures Chihiro about the responsibilities of pet ownership. Later, recognizing that he’s been avoiding the pain that goes along with the warm-fuzzies of veterinary work, earnest Chihiro forces himself to confront the death of a patient. Other visual and plot details tie veterinary medicine to the story, including a slightly awkward but amusingly informative four-page chapter where the characters discuss how to become a veterinary nurse, how demanding the job is, and how Kumazawa’s focus on work has prevented him from finding a wife, ending with Chihiro wondering if he’s really been tricked into working towards his “MRS.” degree.
There’s not a lot of conflict here, but the reader doesn’t much notice or mind, as the focus lies more on emotional, soft-hearted Chihiro as he comes into his own and builds a relationship with his new “family.” Kumazawa, a tall, quiet bear of a man (“kuma” actually means “bear”), is intimidating, but kind. Other staff members and acquaintances of both genders round out the small cast and keep the story from feeling too insular. All the while, growing little Shiro wanders the halls, claims cozy spots, explores newness, skitters across floors, cowers behind corners, chases toys, curls up on laps, climbs up legs, jumps on shoulders, and generally makes herself adorable. In fact, in the aside on becoming a nurse, Akira apologizes that her boys love story has become more of a cat story, although I think she balances the two pretty well. (Then again, I’m a cat person, so Shiro’s ever-present kitty-ness seems spot-on to me.)
Being yaoi of the fluffy variety, Honey Darling avoids addressing gender stereotypes or any real-world issues affecting same-sex couples in Japan. Neither character identifies as gay, yet neither of them frets too much when he realizes he’s fallen for the other (Chihiro worries, but only because he doesn’t think his feelings will be welcomed or returned). Their physical and emotional relationships are unrealistically, idealistically easy, but the author never pretends otherwise and the story succeeds at being what it wants to be: a light, happy little love story (with a cat).
Akira’s art is on the more attractive end of mainstream yaoi style. Although her principals fit the typical burly manly man and slender pretty boy pairing, they consistently look their ages, appear to have muscle and bone structure and substance, and display enough individuality in their features to distinguish them from the unimaginative fare of many other artists. Akira reinforces the upbeat tone with shojo screentones and sparkles, random flowers strewn across the pages, and silly chibi moments, such as Kumazawa depicted as a bear in a white lab coat or usually-fanged Chihiro sprouting a tail and cat ears whenever he gets excited or startled or otherwise emotional (which is often).
Honey Darling is geared toward mature readers, with the standard invisible-genitals censoring in sex scenes (of which there aren’t very many). Alternatively, there’s no non-consensual sex, no violence, and only one instance of mild swearing when Chihiro fears for tiny Shiro’s well-being.