In two volumes, Ogasawara Uki’s Black Sun Doreiou tells the story of how Commander Leonard de Limbourg comes to completely surrender himself to his enemy, General Jamal Jan. The story is set in the Middle East amidst an enduring battle for the Holy Land. This is usually where I stop. I just have very little interest in prince-of-the-desert stories. The suave, controlling, and dismissive generic Arab/Persian/Turkish prince/high-ranking official who captures the unsuspecting foreigner and after a few attempts to avoid or escape captivity and being subjected to some non-con, the foreigner conveniently forgets his life before the uke-napping and finally catches up with the prince who has been in love with him from day-one, but was just misunderstood. Rather than being gag-inducing, it’s more like I can feel myself nodding off just at the thought of reading it.
In yaoi there’s always the garden variety salaryman, high schooler, or novelist who encounters overtime, exams, and manuscript deadlines, respectively. And I’m satisfied with these pedestrian characters in pedestrian settings; it’s slice of life, so I’m not expecting the history of open-heart surgery or detailed mechanics of a bomb. But when we move out of the realm of everyday life into fantasy, adventure, or sci-fi, I need details. If you presume to take me to another time or place, I want to feel like it. Although holodeck-type immersion would be nice, I’d settle for a decent plot supported by a number of event-, process-, and logistics-related details that come together to give life to an otherwise recycled story. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.
Fortunately I didn’t need to ask, Black Sun came through with a good story coupled with lots of, what I now believe is one of Ogasawara Uki’s calling cards, sex-at-a-moment’s-notice. But as always, there’s two sides to every story. Shall we?
Let’s begin with the setting. One of the main characters hails from the fictional region of Gerun and a comment is made about an attack on fortress called or in a region called Aion, but other than that, all other locations are spoken of in regards to their proximity; southern, coastal, &c. And the place in which most of the story occurs remains a nameless Middle Eastern territory, and is sometimes directly and indirectly referred to as “the Empire.” I could ask for more, but as I disclosed, the majority of the story happens in one place, so there isn’t too much to keep track of.
What about the characters? I found most of them to be very interesting and some were even hilarious.
Leonard de Limbourg. A man of many burdens. We find out that he is a Commander who became so reluctantly after the departure of his superior and mentor. He is a monastic knight; judging by his attire (light coat with a dark cross), his name (French) and his foe (somewhat generically Middle Eastern, but leaning towards Turks; initially assumed so due to his dress and title of Janissary and later confirmed by Ogasawara’s admission), I’d say Sensei modeled him after a knight of the Templar Order during their decline, but some time off from their dissolution and subsequent integration into the Hospitaller Order. He is a prince, though neither heir apparent nor presumptive and as such carries the name, but no weight. When Leonard was a child, he lived a sheltered life and saw the duties of a monastic knight as a way out, quite literally–he wanted to see the world. He grows into an honorable man who is confident in his one-on-one engagement skills, but thinks less of his ability to lead. This lack of certainty plants seeds that blossom into a desperate courage that allows him to ask the unthinkable of his mentor and fellow monastic knight on the eve of his senior’s departure. When this inner conflict resurfaces as a result of being overwhelmed by his captor, I thought it was a far better agency for his resistance than the obligatory, halfhearted struggle against non-con, and it made me support the character more than I usually would have.
Jamal Jan. A General in the assumed Ottoman Empires’ forces. Sans the suave, he is the controlling and dismissive generic Arab/Persian/Turkish prince/high-ranking official who captures the unsuspecting foreigner, though not so unsuspecting as they are at war. But that is only from a distance; look closer and you will find a character with just as many complexities as his adversary, if not more. He is a man who can barely contain his ego; hubris leaking out everywhere he goes. He regards his superior with reverence, and though he still manages to take liberties with his position, he accepts castigation without resistance. Certainly a General known for his prowess on the battlefield would be entitled to an overlooked transgression or two, but when you consider that before facing conscription and subsequently rising through the ranks he was, and in essence still is, a slave, his attitude becomes all the more intriguing. One of the things I appreciate most about him is his commitment to carry out his duties to the best of his abilities even though he never desired to assume any position, let alone General, in the Emperor’s military. He himself makes mention of other generals, but seems to remain peerless in the eyes of those around him. While such dynamics are not enough to excuse his narcissism and all of the actions that are informed by it, together with it they create a very well-rounded, well written character.
There is one thing I am confused about though and perhaps someone can enlighten me. Doreiou is supposed to be translated as “Slave King” and Jamal is addressed by subordinates as “Your Excellency,” but while he is a slave, he is not a king and I’ve never known military officials to be addressed as such, even in armies that were in service on behalf of the royal family unless they themselves were actually royalty. Could it be because he also resides within the Emporer’s compound? Should I just overlook this? Any thoughts?
There are other characters worth mentioning, but I really believe that discovering their merits on your own would be infinitely more rewarding. So I’ll just talk a bit out the interaction between the two leads before moving on to the story line.
One of the things that I dislike about the prince-of-the-desert stories is the all-encompassing sense of ownership the predator has over his prey. They completely strip away the prey’s sense of being and torture them to the point where they no longer question their current state or purpose. It’s sad because I end up feeling really sorry for the character and, for me, that response means that I’ve given up on the character as well. And, in the end, I rarely feel that what they’ve sacrificed or lost was a fair trade for what they’ve gained. However, oddly enough, these stories are one of the very, very few instances for which I think that those mindsets and that situation of cause and effect actually fit. You have this pompous, untouchable guy who seems to want for nothing and expects just about everyone to bow to his whims. As a reader, you have no problem believing that he would humiliate and subjugate someone to such extents and think nothing of and not particularly because he’s mean or tyrannical, but because he thinks that’s just how it’s done. So rather than faulting him for it and being appalled by his actions, you, or at least I, read them as comical and inadvertently let–who is essentially–the bad guy into my heart. But regardless of how troublesome that may be for me, the beauty in that is, now I am even more invested in the story because I have at least two people to root for.
There’s a thin line between devotion and infatuation and regarding Leonard, Jamal is no where near it; he is firmly embedded deep in Camp Obsession. The manner in which he literally and figuratively wrings out all opposition from his prey-turn-property and thereafter replaces it with a singular desire–himself–is devastating to Leonard, but it also forces him to deal with the turmoil in his heart. At that point, not only does Leonard have to think on his fleeting pride as a Commander, as a soldier, as a man; but he also has to reconcile his latent inclination to be embraced by a man with his insuppressible reactions to the man embracing him. I think it is worth pointing out that this man, who took him time and time again, occasionally reminded Leonard of someone that he esteemed greatly. From their first encounter, a condescension from which I believe a full recovery does not exist, to the moment Leonard had to acknowledge his thoroughly ingrained and thriving attraction to and hunger for Jamal, he is constantly grappling with these things. Although the ending does not directly address it, I don’t see how he could come out on the other end with any more than a sliver of who he was prior to such trials remaining. Whether that makes the ending happy, sad, or bittersweet is up to the reader to decide.
And the story itself? While some details like the heres and wheres are vague, others are built up enough to impart to the reader a solid understanding of the character’s histories and motives as well as the cultural protocols and the schemes under which they operate. For example, the information that is given about Leonard’s youth helps us recognize the cultivated need to honor his family yet to also defy or disassociate himself with them. In turn, we understand his desire to see the world and consequently support his choice to embark upon knighthood. There’s also Jamal’s parade through the city, his acceptance of it and the cheers and jeers that are hurled in his direction during it. In order not to give anything away, I’ll just say that along with the Emperor’s detailed prescription and Nicolaides’ realization/criticism, the parade exposes some principles of their culture pertaining to how they enforce accountability and manage repercussions and rewards in accordance to an individual’s position and in light of their merits. Furthemore it helps frame Jamal’s background and his relationship with the Emperor including where Nicolaides fits into the picture. All of the moments that feed these examples help the story develop and unfold and in a cohesive and engaging way. There are many other things, too. And with the integration of all of these bits and pieces is where I believe Ogasawara has won me over with this story and made the greatest improvement where her storytelling is concerned.
If you’ll remember, I wrote about how Ogasawara has a habit of cramming lots of ideas and details into a story and rather clumsily so. Well, Black Sun reveals profound progress in this area. Having a story run for two volumes helps, but compared to previous works it is easy to notice the difference in the delivery and flow of information throughout the chapters. If I were to present a visual representation of her works, I’d say that titles like Urakatana Kaminoki (2001), Virtuoso di Amore (2005), and Nightmare Fortress (2006) are like the works of Wassily Kandinsky; there’s a lot going on and it’s interesting to look at, but where do you rest your eyes to even begin to understand the story being told? On the other hand Tamashizume (2007) and Black Sun Doreiou (2007) resemble the paintings of Franz Marc; just as with Kandinsky’s work, they’re interesting and are a lot to take in, but even with all the chaos, there are definite focal points to start with and a certain number of guided paths for your eyes to follow, thus allowing you to absorb it at a metered pace and without feeling assaulted. After all, neither reading nor art appreciation should be exhausting.
In the end? As alluded to in Week 0 of this series, I went into reading Black Sun with specific expectations. First, I assumed I was going to have to struggle through this prince-of-the-desert story and find ways not to fall asleep and reasons not to give up. Well, so much for what I thought. I read the two volumes twice just before bed over three nights and I needed no help in turning the pages; they practically turned themselves. Second, even if it turned out to be moderately enjoyable, I didn’t think I would have all that much to say about it (which is why I included the promise of a few quickies in the intro to this series). Of course, if you’re reading this line, you can see for yourself how much I misjudged that one. And finally, Even if I liked it and even if I had something to say about it, I was sure I was going to get to this point and report that my feelings were perched atop a fence and teetering neither which way. I suppose that makes it 0/3. In the end, I really enjoyed Black Sun Doreiou and I’ve read it a number of times since the first go. It’s a good story that includes action, adventure, sex, clashing steel, beautiful artwork, sex, interesting characters, character development, naked men, enough details to keep my attention, sex, and lots of uke penes. I guess it really wasn’t too much to ask for.
Notes: This was originally part of a series I did leading up to YaoiCon 2012.