Every now and then I like to take a break from action and fantasy manga to read a love story. Unfortunately, finding good romance manga starring gay protagonists can be a challenge. There are some good ones out there, though. I remembered enjoying Toko Kawai’s In the Walnut Vol. 1 about a year ago, so I decided to go back and give it another read. In the Walnut stars Tanizaki, the owner of an art gallery, and Nakai, his boyfriend. The pair’s adventures revolve around the underbelly of the fine arts world, ranging from counterfeiting to art theft. With that said, the tone of the series is sweet and heartfelt. Is this volume as good as I remembered it being?
I enjoy this volume’s core chapters a lot. Tanizaki and Nakai’s exploits are unique in the comic medium; it’s not often that you get to read about artists creating counterfeit versions of preexisting counterfeits, or about other painting-themed criminal activities. Though the main characters are a couple, their romance takes a backseat to artistic intrigue, and I don’t mind. The premise is charming in and of itself, and the characters work outside of a romantic context. They both have their own interests and motives, so they don’t seem to exist solely for the purpose of dating one another. Tanizaki receives a bit more development than Nakai does, but the discrepancy isn’t large enough to be a huge deal. Overall, they make a likable couple.
This volume also impresses visually. Kawai imitates other artists’ styles on multiple occasions to show their work in the titular art gallery, and she does so very convincingly. Her imitation of Thomas Gainsborough’s work really looks like his work, and her recreations of works by Paul Klee are spot-on. Kawai also impresses when working within her own style. Nakai’s facial expressions frequently add visual comedy, transitions between panels and scenes are well-constructed, and the nature elements (such as skylines) are pleasing to look at. My main complaint with the art is just that the characters’ chins are sometimes rendered in a strangely pointy fashion. Nonetheless, this volume’s visual storytelling is strong as a whole.
Unfortunately, things fall apart a bit in the volume’s backup chapters. These chapters depict Tanizaki and Nakai’s first meeting, as well as how they became a couple. These flashbacks are where In the Walnut enters the sort of uncomfortable territory that makes a lot of yaoi unreadable. The toxicity of Tanizaki and Nakai’s relationship here, while not as bad as in certain other yaoi titles, is still disturbing, and it contrasts starkly with the rest of the volume. Aside from one or two short lines of dialogue, little in the main story hints at the relationship being built on such a questionable foundation. Even worse, the unhealthy nature of the relationship’s early days isn’t addressed at all. The story just skips ahead to the couple’s healthier, more likable days, without ever acknowledging that there were problems to begin with.
As a whole, In the Walnut Vol. 1 is an enjoyable read. The main story features well-realized characters who exist independently but also make a good couple. The art-crime plots generate a unique sort of suspense, and Kawai’s artwork impresses throughout. Unfortunately, the volume’s bonus chapters throw a wrench into the fun. They present versions of the characters who don’t seem fully congruent with their earlier depictions or with the series’ tone as a whole. If it weren’t for these chapters tainting things, In the Walnut would be among the yaoi genre’s greatest standouts. As is, however, this volume is only enjoyable up until the switch to flashbacks.