There comes a point in one’s manga reading life that you get sick and tired of the same old school story. At least for me, when it comes to school-based BL tales, I’ve set a strange expectation that I will find the same tale over and over again. Either the young man falls in love with his brash teacher or the freshman attempts to dominate his senior. I sometimes feel like BL has exhausted almost every permutation on school life.
So I had my hesitations in picking up Smells Like Green Spirit. First, it had a tacky title (seriously, it sounds like it attempts to be as cool as the Nirvana song). Second, the cover art for the first volume is odd. I can’t quite place other than “It doesn’t look like a BL title at all!”
Perhaps those signs were telling about how unique this book really is.
Let’s start with Mishima’s Kimoi Hair…
The story begins with an uncomfortable scene of a beautiful boy with long hair being bullied by his schoolmates. Apparently, his hair was too beautiful that it was disgusting. We then discover that this bullied boy is Mishima who’s stuck in the boondocks and is surrounded by people who probably won’t understand his newfound epiphany: he was gay.
Mishima’s already resolved that this town will never understand that a boy like him will have an interest in beauty, make-up, and men. He’s resolved enough to be forgiving of his classmates who know less, reasoning with his mother that his small injuries were a result of some fun afternoon rough housing. I find Mishima’s character commendable and interesting because unlike most characters I’ve read who view their abuse as their trauma or victimisation, Mishima makes it his strength.
Given the backward mindset in his town, Mishima continues to live by the day, expressing as much of his new found identity when he can. A cute stroll around town with his lipstick on is not bad, isn’t it? However, a strange encounter with one of his bullies eventually leads him to a deep secret and a new ally. Kirino’s one of Mishima’s earliest perpetrators (and one who actually gave him a really cute haircut!) is also secretly gay in their little town. This then starts a beautiful friendship between two boys who are starting to grapple with their newfound sexualities.
Age old BL formula will tell me that this will eventually lead to the two of them falling in love and how this is a story of how they become meant for each other. But it isn’t. And I’m happy that this title even goes beyond that. Instead, Nagai dedicates the first volume to the birth of a friendship between these two kindred souls. Smells Like Green Spirit is one of those few BL titles that traces the growth of two young men (maybe three if we include the other ‘confused’ bully, Yumeno) as they discover more about their identity and sexuality. It’s a beautiful friendship, I might add. Laced with an interesting complexity which Nagai beautifully narrates.
Hick town is the best town
The series turns into an interesting mix of humour, discovery, romance, and fear that leaves every turn of the page quite unique and unexpected. To a degree you are engaged with how these two boys grow and it’s amusing watching them talk about mascara and all that stuff. And usually, in BL, the story will revolve just around them, but what I love so much about this series is it takes into the context their small town and the people around them and it gives their story this rich complexity often forgotten in the usual BL.
Unlike most BL, Smells Like Green Spirit has this small town consciousness and this is heightened in the second volume where the boys’ actions lead to particular repercussions. Its effect can be frightening, as in the case where Mishima discovers a teacher’s interest in him. It can also be heartwarming, as in the case when Yumeno struggles to identify his emotions for Mishima. It can also be heartbreaking, in the case of Kirino as soon as he hears from his mother the rumor that has been going around town.
Spoilerrific as those sound, it’s really barely grazing the surface. If anything, it’s one of those stories where the book fully immerses and connects you not only to its characters but to their community as well. And you know what’s funny? It’s not even a fantastic escapist town! It’s a small Japanese hick town in the mountains but damn, rarely do I read a community so alive and present in such a text.
This comic divorces from the whole “you and me against the world” BL logic and reframes it to “how can we be ourselves in a world like ours.” It’s a beautiful reframing to which this story answers in two different ways. And I love how this story placed these two endings in parallel with each other. It’s a good reminder of reality and how, as readers, there should be times when we shouldn’t set ourselves to expectations.
Does this mean this is not your conventional BL? In a way it is and in a way it isn’t. And that’s good isn’t it? I love it when a comic like Smells Like Green Spirit appears because it challenges every conditioning I’ve received from comics and gives me something new. Something fresh yet still familiar. Something real and yet something different.
I love how this story turned out and I’m glad I gave it a chance. It was rightfully peculiar. Because it had such an odd first impression, my expectations on this title was really low that it was such an amazing experience when it started breaking it. Oh god, I love this story. I love how it has made me uncomfortable at first and amazed at the end. So this is how a fairly realistic school-themed BL would read. It’s a gem in the rough among all the other stories out there and rightfully well placed and well recognised not just by BL fans but also by manga fans.((Interesting note, Smells Like Green Spirit has been at the top of Chil-chil’s BL and was recently listed in Comic Natalie’s Best Manga of 2013))
Did I tell you guys how I love this story? Yeah, I love this comic.