Ai no Kusabi
In the far future, humans have become a space-faring, technologically-advanced, widespread, and, concurrently, intensely stratified race. At the bottom of the hierarchy sit the impoverished "mongrels", one of whom is a frustrated biker named Riki, but one day, Jason, one of society's elite "blondies", suddenly saves Riki from death at the hands of a rival group. Apparently out of a sense of internal debt to him and a lack of any other means of repayment, Riki submits himself to Jason as his "pet", a legal sex slave. As time passes, however, they, without intending to, begin to turn into something more than "slave and master", which puts Jason at odds with the other elites and places him in a dangerous political position. Meanwhile, Riki has been absent from his gang long enough that his relationship with them has become irreparably damaged, and upon his eventual return he seeks to hide his new status as a blondie's "pet" from Guy, his anxious lover.
Anime and its devoted fans are sometimes the subject of mockery from those who associate the medium with either hackneyed storytelling or certain "unpleasantries" widely believed unique to the genre. Within the anime world itself, the yaoi genre endures a similar sort of derision. Criticized for its melodramatic plots and inaccurate depictions of homosexual romance, so called “shonen-ai” anime has a trashy reputation rivaled only by that of hardcore hentai, and it's perhaps telling that the 1992 OAV Ai No Kusabi, often called a “pinnacle” of the genre, seems to have earned its place at the top merely because the yaoi elements themselves are done expertly. The piece hints at a more interesting story on occasion, and yet the dearth of compelling characters and the lack of a plot that can hold up without the shonen-ai touches will make this dull viewing for those seeking anything besides unrealistic homeroticism.
The light novel on which this OAV is based is, apparently, one of the very few to have set a shonen-ai romance to the backdrop of a science fiction story, and it presents us with what seems to be a world in which humans have colonized other moons, women appear to be around only in highly reduced numbers, a hierarchy with blond men at the top and so-called “mongrels” at the base has emerged, and, most strangely, certain males are kept as “pets” for the pleasure of said "blondies". But much of this is guesswork on my part. There’s no background information given anywhere in the series, and this adaptation seems to serve as a “spotlight” for the novel, designed for the benefit of those who have already read the story rather than first-time viewers. It’s honestly quite hard to understand, and even when the show, in the second episode, makes a slightly larger effort to make the setting important to the plot, we still learn absolutely nothing about the important facts. Ai No Kusabi never tells us why there are no woman around or how this society even came to be, and on top of this, the story is laced with inconsistencies, including the fact that the “mongrels” seem to have much more freedom of movement than their described status would indicate. As such, the setting simply feels gimmicky.
I might have been somewhat more forgiving had the characters been likable, but sadly, I was unable to love a single person in the series. Riki is needlessly crabby, angry, and loudmouthed, while Jason is overly-cool and calculated as well as generally unpleasant. Meanwhile, Guy, Riki’s gangmate and original “lover”, begins as a bland but at least vaguely pleasant character but has a sudden and jarring shift to a mean-spirited jerk by the end of episode one, and by the end of the second part he’s become alarmingly irrational, violent, and borderline psychopathic. Not being a shonen-ai fan, I can’t quite pin down the exact archetypes that these charcters fit into, but I can say for a fact that they all feel like they belong in such a title as workable stock characters and that they would never survive scrutiny anywhere else. Nobody’s behavior makes the slightest bit of sense, with Riki’s needless and apparently voluntary submission to sex slavery taking the crown, and whatever “development” occurs feels more like a set of jarring, arbitrary inconsistencies than an actual spectrum of human emotions. It’s also a bad sign when I root for people simply because they aren’t doing the awful things that everyone else is, and while I won’t elaborate, said acts involve some, very, very disturbing mutilation that made me quite uncomfortable (and I’m usually not squeamish in the slightest). I could empathize with the characters when particularly bad things happened to them, but the fact that the show’s creators had to go to such a horrendous and over-the-top extent to make me care in the slightest really only reminded me of the larger problem.
Ai no Kusabi is quite skilled at using Shonen-ai techniques, and there’s no shortage of attractive, muscular men, said men getting shirtless screentime, lengthy kissing, lust, and, somewhat more uniquely, a great deal of actual homosexual sex, all of which is implicit, as consensual as a relationship with a human “pet” could ever get, and generally fairly tasteful. The problem with this series is that it’s a mess in almost every other regard. Scenes bleed into each other without transitions, annoyingly easy-to-miss time skips occur in several places, minor characters survive seemingly fatal wounds with little explanation, flashbacks entirely ruin the mood by breaking scenes into pieces on multiple occasions, and, finally, the overbearing, constant, and pervasive sexuality completely overwhelms everything else that the movie tries to say. I had heard people say that this title had a fairly realistic romance for a yaoi title, but if these angsty, shallow, irrational, and ridiculous love stories are the top of the heap, I’m mortified to ever even glance at what lies on the bottom. The narrative often slips at the expense of the sex scenes or out-of-place kissing and stroking, and while the series sometimes lingers on the science fiction elements just, just long enough to make you think that they’ll explain something, it invariably reverts to the romance an instant later. Moments like those make me wonder if the creators didn’t quite know whether they wanted this to be a sci-fi story with some yaoi elements or a yaoi story with a sci-fi gimmick to sell copies, and I would have been infinitely happier had they settled on the former path. Instead, we have a production whose weak story combines with shoddily animated fight scenes, a dull color scheme, and a mediocre synthesizer soundtrack to make an unimpressive, boring, and disappointing piece.
I had high hopes for Ai No Kusabi, and I wanted to like it much more than I did. I’ll concede that the science fiction setting has potential, and even as a straight man I will admit that the homoeroticism is well-played in spite of the annoyingly inane relationships themselves. But Ai No Kusabi really just isn’t all that interesting. The ghost of something fascinating is here, and maybe that something simply got lost in the process of making an OAV out of the original story, but in the end, everything is just trendy window-dressing for what makes yaoi yaoi.
It had potential, but it really was a huge disappointment. Those who enjoy yaoi may add at least one star. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: This title contains sex that would instantly earn it an "adults only" label if just one or two more inches were left unobscured. Aside from some run-of-the-mill violence, one scene contains a frighteningly graphic maiming, and while I don't find homosexuality offensive in the slightest, there's a disturbing scene that involves some (thankfully unseen) genital mutilation. This is absolutely not for children, or for those offended by male-to-male kissing.
Version(s) Viewed: Prerelease Fansub
Review Status: Full (2/2)
Ai no Kusabi © 1992 Rieko Yoshiwara / AIC / Magajin Magajin
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