Love is complicated. The friendship that comes so naturally for two young college students somehow gets twisted and turned into anger and conflict every time they try to become lovers. Within Ogeretsu Tanaka’s first installment of Escape Journey, we get an up close and personal look at a tumultuous relationship that may or may not have what it takes.
After a failed attempt at romance back in high school, main character Naoto and ex-flame Taichi find themselves inadvertently in the same social circle on their first day of college. After the shock of seeing one another wears off, the two must struggle with old battle scars and a rekindled attraction that makes it difficult for them to stay apart.
Thus begins the book’s lengthy exploration of whether or not the two can overcome their past (or should), in order to get it right this time. Complicating things is their decision to keep their past romance secret from their new friends, a facade that becomes harder to maintain once Taichi starts attracting the attention of a mutual female friend.
As a boys’ love manga series, Tanaka’s thoughtful exploration of sexuality within today’s societal structure is a welcome addition. For Naoto, and I assume Taichi as well, their love for one another is a natural offshoot of the deep connection they have. It is the external world, and the barriers it poses, that are the main problem. Naoto verbalizes this struggle as he states, “Girls can go from friends to lovers, and then marry the guy. But for me and Taichi, lovers was the end of the line…” Through such dialogue, Tanaka touches on cultural beliefs and stigmas that still pose challenges, even in modern times.
Modern technology also plays an important role within the story as mobile phones and handheld devices connect the characters through texts, videos, games and images. Theirs is a digital world, with the only physical interactions seeming to occur within the confines of the college campus. Setting thus takes on an important role, initially reuniting Naoto and Taichi, and forcing them to remain in almost daily contact. Whether it is class, lunch hour or study sessions, the aforementioned physical space is pivotal in allowing their personal relationship to evolve.
In stark contrast to the techno-centric social sphere is Naoto’s preference for an “old school” bicycle as his primary mode of transportation. For the main characters, it also comes to symbolize their escape from the stresses and confines of everyday life. By fleeing the city on their trusty set of wheels, the two are able to get back to the basics and simply be who they are. In fact, my favorite illustrations are the full-page spreads that precede each of the story’s six chapters, or “escapes,” which filter out all the non-essentials to zero in on Naoto, Taichi and the bike. Readers who pay close attention to detail will enjoy observing how the duo’s expressions, posture and proximity to one another changes as the story progresses.
Tanaka’s deft hand also creates eye-catching characters and scenes that I enjoyed poring over long after I finished reading the last bit of text. (Admittedly, my guilty pleasure was admiring the artsy haircuts and hipster fashion featured throughout.) Naruto in particular stands out thanks to the twinkle in his eye and the detailed facial expressions that made his appearance as captivating as his personality. In contrast, Taichi’s brooding features and penetrating stare were the perfect fit for his shy and contemplative nature. Clearly, physicality is an essential part of the book, which the images convey more vividly than the text alone. This is especially true for the romantic scenes, which allow readers to see the bodies entwined in passion that borders on violence. In fact, I thought one particularly violent scene actually crossed the line into victimization. Unfortunately, Tanaka does not fully explore this serious issue, which is more or less brushed aside after it happens.
In addition, the illustrations include visual cues that indicate shifts in time, perspective and mood. I found this especially helpful when moving between Naoto’s outer and inner dialogue, as changes in shading and tone provided a distinct break that prevented any confusion between the two. I really enjoyed the glimpses into Naoto’s inner thoughts, which often involved snarky and humorous commentary on the situation at hand.
Tanaka also accentuates extreme emotion such as anger, jealousy or shock through visual cues that represent a change in artistic style. While the majority of the book is done with realism in mind, intense moments temporarily flatten characters into cartoon-like versions of themselves. The more primitive the image, the rawer the emotion. In many of these scenes, the text also becomes sparse to nonexistent, allowing the images to do the talking.
Overall, the book is a fast read that runs the gamut of emotions. The main characters show a surprising amount of depth given the somewhat superficial crowd they run with. Sadly, this does not hold true for the underdeveloped supporting characters. I was especially disappointed in the “flighty” females, whose muted reactions to emotional situations struck me as unrealistic. Thankfully, the backmatter’s biography section provided more detailed character sketches about the prominent female characters as did a bonus story set a little while after the main story ends.
Regarding age recommendations, I would limit this book to adult and mature readerships due to its sexual and violent content.
Escape Journey, vol. 1
by Ogeretsu Tanaka
Sublime Manga, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Mature