Newly released by SuBLime Manga, Escape Journey Vol. 1 is a slice-of-life romance by Ogeretsu Tanaka. The series stars Naoto and Taichi, a pair of college students who used to be lovers back in high school. They run into each other again shortly after arriving on campus, and soon find themselves going through familiar motions both good and bad. Have they changed enough over time for their relationship to play out differently on a second try? Is Escape Journey good?
First and foremost, this is a beautiful manga. Virtually every aspect of the art is pleasing to look at and contributes to the volume’s atmosphere and emotional weight. The characters are very expressive, thanks largely to the amount of attention Tanaka pays to small details. For example, in one panel where Naoto is crying he’s biting his lip and his brow is furrowed realistically. The shading throughout is also notably good, with fantastic hatching and consistently depicted light sources. There’s a lot of lovely nature imagery in the backgrounds as well, plus some fantastic double page spreads that heighten some of the most dramatic moments.
There’s also a lot to love here plot-wise. The protagonists’ personalities are well-defined and their dialogue sounds natural (at least throughout the volume’s first half). Tanaka analyzes the unique pressures and social stigmas attached to gay couples, including the limitations of what terms they can use when referring to each other. One of the saddest moments in the volume is when Naoto laments that (in his mind, at least) the pair could never get married and become family. All in all, Tanaka does a solid job depicting many of the obstacles faced by gay men in homophobic society.
There are a number of other enjoyable details to the story as well. The supporting characters get a surprisingly high amount of page-time, allowing them to be a bit more thoroughly fleshed out than similar characters in other boys’ love titles. The main characters’ specific vocal ticks and speech patterns are also great, as they help distinguish Naoto and Taichi from both each other and other yaoi protagonists. Details like these really enhance the quality of the narrative in the first half.
Unfortunately, not all of the volume meets that high bar. There’s one scene roughly halfway through the story that doesn’t get treated with anywhere near the necessary level of seriousness, and it negates much of the strong character work both before and after it. Said scene involves an instance of rape that never gets acknowledged as such by any of the characters, and that results in no consequences whatsoever. This complete and utter lack of follow-up stains the rest of the volume, as it leaves the characters involved looking like a monster and like a victim with serious unacknowledged trauma respectively.
Overall, Escape Journey Vol. 1 is a confounding book. There are several aspects of it that are excellent, from its artwork to its handling of social stigmas against gay people. Unfortunately, one event in the middle sours the sweetness of the otherwise poignant volume, as a rape goes unaddressed and the perpetrator is never held accountable. What could have been a touching romance is instead deeply undermined by the terrible implications of how said assault is addressed. If this scene was cut out then the book would be lovely, but as is Escape Journey makes me disappointed given what it could have been.