Say what you will about TokyoPop as a publisher; they have in this incarnation honed a talent for selecting single-volume BL titles that are a cut above. This is largely in terms of works that combine sweet romance with a sort of tortured yearning, and while nothing has quite reached the level of There Are Things I Can’t Tell You, Glass Syndrome combines the more prurient aspects of its genre with a heartfelt love story, creating characters that you desperately want to see happy because life has beaten them down to the point where they’re not even sure that’s possible anymore.
Glass Syndrome follows two high school boys, Toomi and Nijou. Nijou is outwardly the better off of the two – he’s good-looking, athletic, intelligent, and always willing to lend a hand. What no one realizes, though, is that this is to a degree an act: somewhere along the line people slotted him into the role of “talented nice guy” and he’s unable to free himself from it. In part this is because he’s afraid to do anything that contradicts people’s image of him, and while he can refuse small things (playing basketball after school), the larger requests, such as those posed by a teacher, he feels compelled to acquiesce to. That’s how he ends up meeting Toomi, a classmate he’s been only peripherally aware of. Toomi’s been absent for far too many days by the teachers’ count, so Nijou ends up acceding to his teacher’s request to stop by Toomi’s apartment and see what’s going on.
The answer is “nothing good.” Toomi is the not-so-proud possessor of one of manga’s worst Debt Dads; his father, following his mother’s death, began gambling and ended up cleaning out the safe at work and running away. Toomi is left with no money, no parents, and a sense of being abandoned that feels very real – his mother died, sending his father spiraling downward, who then abandoned him in two senses: first by retreating into his grief to the point where he didn’t pay attention to his son, and second by a more literal abandonment when he ran away. It’s at this point that Toomi becomes desperate; his father did leave the insurance money from his wife’s life insurance policy alone, but that’s not enough for Toomi to live on. To support himself, he ends up turning to sex work: he dresses in drag and does what are essentially chat-based peepshows online. There’s a very real sense that this is both allowing him to eat and also providing him with a mild sense of being needed; after all, if there are people watching “Haruka”’s performances, then that means that there are people who care about him, even if only just a little.
The emotional thrust of the story is therefore how Toomi and Nijou find what they’re missing from their lives in each other. Nijou provides companionship for Toomi based on who he really is, and Toomi grants Nijou permission to be fully himself with no performative aspects, something he doesn’t feel is possible even with his parents. (The only glimpse we get of Nijou’s homelife is when his mother doesn’t question his statement that he ate on the way home from cram school, which could either indicate trust or that he doesn’t feel taken care of, depending on whose perspective we engage with.) When Nijou first arrives at Toomi’s apartment and both realizes what’s going on and gets a sarcastic set-down from Toomi about him being a teacher’s pet, Nijou is forced to face up to himself in front of another person for the first time, vomiting in his emotional anguish. This shows Toomi that there’s more to Nijou while allowing Nijou to see that there are people he can let his guard down in front of. It’s a relatively short scene, but one that colors the entire book, establishing the theme of feeling safe and cared for in a world that forces both boys to feel like they have to put on masks to keep themselves afloat.
The romance isn’t quite perfect. Nijou finding a card with the web address for Toomi’s online activities feels contrived (why would Toomi just leave that in a coat pocket?), and we can see why Toomi falls for Nijou much more clearly than the reverse, in part because Toomi’s trajectory is more emotional while Nijou’s is at least in part caught up in finding what Toomi does online sexually stimulating. There’s certainly nothing wrong with him being sexually attracted to Toomi, in or out of drag, but it does create a complication in that Toomi isn’t really working out of his own volition; he was more or less forced into the job by his circumstances. The epilogue chapter does show us that when it comes to Nijou, Toomi’s comfortable with whatever his boyfriend likes, but in the main story it does add a bit of a snag to the romance, and forms the basis for Toomi to question Nijou’s feelings at one point.
This issue notwithstanding, Glass Syndrome is overall a good book. The plot combines pathos and yearning nicely, and we get the very real feeling that both protagonists deserve to be happy and that they can be together. Despite Toomi’s job, this isn’t all that explicit, with the sex scene happening off the page and Nijou’s fantasy of Toomi more implied than shown. There’s an unrelated short story also included (with its own epilogue) that isn’t quite as good, as it doesn’t have the space to develop the romance or characters, but on the whole, this is worth reading if you like your romance on the angsty side and don’t mind (or like) a lack of explicit sex in your BL.