In a Buenos Aires coffee house, Spanish-born tango aficionado Angie speaks with an old flame about his latest breakup. He confesses that he feels emotionally detached from his partners, whether he is on the dance floor or in bed, and despairs of finding someone with whom he can dance and love as his true self. Fifteen years later, Angie finds himself in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, sporting a scruffy goatee and breaking hearts as he and Bene, his female roommate and dance partner, teach tango at a gay bar and perform at small local venues. One night before a show, worldly Bene plays cupid and introduces Angie to Hiro, a half-Japanese, half-Colombian gentle giant with some emotional baggage and a fondness for salsa music. After a few tango pointers and a few more drinks, Angie knows Hiro is “the one” and he sets out to convince the hesitant object of his affections that their souls are perfectly in step.
Though there may not be as much dancing as author Okadaya would have liked, Argentinian tango informs her story and the emotional lives of her characters from the first page to the last. Its history, philosophy, aggressive sensuality, and organic nature shape how Angie sees the world and himself. He and other outsiders gravitate to tango’s intimate, unscripted dialogue and the commonality they find in its immigrant roots, as they struggle to overcome traumatic pasts and create their own identities.
As for those traumatic pasts and the futures that follow, Okadaya comments that she’d ambitiously mapped out full character histories before realizing she couldn’t possibly squeeze them all into one volume. While she does an admirable job fitting in what she can, the process isn’t seamless. The central tale feels solid, but the epilogue, which looks in on the principals’ senior years and provides some of the sweetest moments of the book, also causes the most frustration. It relies on a few cryptic flashback panels for exposition: one of these recalls a surprisingly dark, difficult-to-allocate childhood trauma, while others reveal a character’s shocking fate, which is not subsequently elaborated upon. While these events may be necessary to Okadaya’s overall narrative, she doesn’t devote enough attention to their explanation to fully convince the reader. The jarred reader is left wishing Okadaya had been able to work more of her ideas into the story itself, rather than leaving them for later commentary and the reader’s best guess.
Stylistically, The Man of Tango is a strange cross between traditional BL (boys’ love), which is generally created by and marketed to straight women, and bara, which is mainly created by and marketed to gay men. The book includes common BL elements, such as emotion-driven romance, avoidance of real-world social hurdles, partners fitting physical “types,” and a lead who identifies as straight. However, they are merged with with common bara elements, including darker themes, middle-aged leads, and “bear”-like figures with body hair and highly developed muscles. Despite being the smaller partner, Angie is more than buff, and even Bene sometimes looks like she could easily wrestle an actual bear and win. Also unusual are Bene’s prominence; the equal opportunity nudity; and uncensored graphic depictions of both straight and gay sex.
This stylistic mash-up makes sense in light of Okadaya’s confession that, when she was initially asked to do a story for a BL magazine, she was unfamiliar with the term and assumed her editor wanted something like the erotic manga of Gengoroh Tagame, who is famous for dark, testosterone-driven, bara-style work. Fans of mainstream BL may find Okadaya’s manly men—and one rather manly woman—to be distractingly burly, while bara fans may find the artsy focus and untroubled romance to be too fluffy. Mature fans who enjoy blurred genre distinctions and tango’s bold silhouettes, however, may find this an enjoyable change of pace, even with its narrative flaws.