WARNING: The following contains discussion of sexual abuse and violence.
A lot of mangaka start off as doujinshi creators -- even CLAMP began as a doujin group. Compared to commercial publishing, doujin creators have much more flexibility in terms of topics and publishing schedules, but their market is substantially smaller, which is why their works are often overlooked by the mainstream. In These Words, published by the U.S.-based doujin group Guilt|Pleasure, is one such work.
Guilt|Pleasure is the collaboration between artist Jo Chen, or TogaQ, and writer Kichiku Neko. They specialize in BL stories with a dark twist, mainly within the crime thriller genre. This is because Kichiku Neko is a former Staff Sargent at the U.S. Air Force Security Forces. Her professional experience with law enforcement gives her rare and unique insight into police procedures and criminal psyches that are not often seen in manga, let alone BL stories.
This is why all of Guilt|Pleasures' works carry a gritty sense of realism that lends itself perfectly to the group's penchant for dark themes. This is particularly apparent in its flagship series In These Words, the story of a sexually deviant serial killer and the psychologist who is trying to profile him.
The protagonist of In These Words is Asano Katsuya, a Harvard-trained psychologist who’s hired by the Tokyo Police Department to interrogate a recently apprehended serial killer named Shinohara. It turns out that Shinohara specially requested Katsuya to interrogate him, beginning a tense battle of wits. But as the interrogation continues, Katsuya starts to have nightmares about being horribly tortured and abused -- something that he doesn’t remember experiencing.
The early part of In These Words is not really a BL story. Instead, it's a psychological thriller about Katsuya trying to profile Shinohara while dealing with his own terrifying visions. Their dynamic is reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs -- Shinohara is a clever, vicious, narcissistic and charming serial killer, not unlike Hannibal Lecter. He tries to toy with Katsuya through graphic descriptions of his abuses and murders but never gives up all his secrets. Katsuya is calm and rational, yet he can’t help but be rattled by Shinohara’s charisma, just like Clarice Starling.
Unlike the nonphysical relationship in Silence of the Lambs, there are a lot of sex scenes throughout In These Words, though they are not always romantic. In These Words' approach to sexual abuse is different from other popular BL psychological thrillers like Killing Stalking, where the line between abuse and love is blurred. It clearly distinguishes the BL storyline from the abuse/crime storyline with careful storytelling and meticulous art.
The abusive sex scenes are thoroughly disturbing and readers are made to witness very agonizing scenes of torture and rape, with the victims’ fearful faces clearly on display. These scenes are meant to showcase the serial killer’s brutality and psychopathic tendencies and to raise the stakes of his crimes, they are not intended to romanticize him. Fittingly, these scenes are particularly tough to get through.
But when the romance starts, the sex scenes are in clear contrast to the abuse. The protagonists have an intimate, flirtatious and steamy relationship, and consent is always given, which is refreshing for BL. On top of this, the seme and uke dynamic is never uneven, there is equal power between there two adults and there is respect and love shown throughout their interactions.
The way In These Words clearly distinguishes consensual relationships from non-consensual ones may be a result of the creators’ western background, where issues like consent are much more rigorously debated. The western influence is also reflected in the art style of TogaQ. Her artwork does not look like typical Japanese manga with stylized and exaggerated art but rather more grounded in the western realism tradition. The colored prints in particular look very like classical European oil paintings, with subdued and layered coloring and symbolic imagery.
TogaQ is an expert with shadow and light, especially in the way light reflects off of the human body and face, which gives a palpable sense of texture to the characters’ skin and muscles. Her masterful use of shadows creates a disturbing atmosphere that's downright cinematic. Her attention to detail is also incredible -- she and Kichiku Neko went to visit a real Japanese love hotel just to draw one scene for the manga. TogaQ even recreated the patterns of the wallpaper and the bedsheet that brings the sleazy air of the love hotel to life.
An even more unique aspect of In These Words comes from the psychological aspects of the characters, which is Kichiku Neko’s specialty. Her law enforcement expertise makes all the scenes involving profiling and police procedures feel grounded. Even though they may not always be exciting, it is what real-world crime-solving looks like.
The mental state of the killer is also carefully mapped out -- he is definitely a psychopath and a sickening character. But he is also not a perfect killing machine. He makes mistakes and leaves details that help Katsuya piece together a profile, yet it’s never enough to actually get a full picture. This is why his cat and mouse game with Katsuya is so interesting to see develop.
While Katsuya is a smart and competent character, he doesn’t have superhuman deduction skills like L from Death Note or Sherlock Holmes. He can only build the profile of the killer from the available evidence, but he is not always accurate. He is also not invulnerable, and when he’s hurt, he experiences long-lasting trauma just like everyone else. His flaws make him believable, and his true strength lies in the way he confronts his trauma.
Another great thing about Guilt|Pleasure is that the group's work is available in multiple languages including Chinese, German, Korean and French. However, English is the group's primary language, so English-speaking readers won't have to wait for translations that can sometimes be clunky.
Guilt|Pleasure's works can be purchased through the official website either in digital or physical format. The physical books are absolutely worth owning as they are beautifully printed and contain a lot of extra material.