In terms of yaoi manga, few series have ever impressed me as much as Asumiko Nakamura’s Classmates. The story of two high school students, Rihito Sajou and Hikaru Kusakabe, falling in love and navigating their uncertain futures together, is not only heartfelt but features one of the most distinct art styles I’ve ever seen in comics. Despite all this, I went a long time having only read the final two volumes, but not the manga’s debut. Fortunately, I recently got around to fixing that. Is the series’ beginning indicative of the greatness it would later achieve?
First I need to talk about Nakamura’s artwork, which is some of the most fluid and expressive you’ll find in comics. The sheer sense of balance throughout is fantastic. Nakamura utilizes blank space and stylized anatomy very well. There’s an airy atmosphere to the visuals that’s contrasted by just enough heavy inking and intricate detail. The attention paid to rendering the curls of Kusakabe’s hair, for instance, stand out from and help frame his less detailed face. The dynamism of his physical movements while playing guitar are another highlight. Plus, the shading and patterns throughout are stellar. The frequent use of crosshatching to depict shadows looks great, and expanses of jet black are striking against the plentiful white.
The airy flow of the manga also owes a lot to the composition choices throughout. Nakamura’s page layouts are wonderfully varied while always guiding the reader’s line of sight along smoothly. None of the panels feel haphazardly placed, and the same even goes for the word balloons. Classmates has some of the most unique and organic speech bubbles I’ve ever seen. They twist to and fro, linking several panels together at a time and curving around each other to convey where voices overlap in speech. It’s incredibly impressive and reflects a degree of thought that makes the manga all the more rewarding to read.
Thankfully, this volume’s writing is also up to snuff. Nakamura does a good job capturing the tender awkwardness of young queer people struggling to show affection toward each other while still feeling uncomfortable in their own skins. The scenes depicting the couple’s courtship are particularly affecting, tying in song lyrics and poetry lines from their shared classes and strategically repeating them to great emotional effect. There are several standout moments here, as the characters cycle through rising actions and falling actions in accordance with the bumpy nature of their relationship. My main qualm story-wise is just with how quickly we get to a time-skip, and how large of one it is. With a budding romance between anxious characters like these, it feels like a shame to gloss over so much of their time together.
Overall, comics don’t get much better than Classmates. The series’ debut installment does a great job introducing its core characters, their anxieties, and the early days of their relationship. Their courtship is awkward but earnest, and the artwork depicting it is wonderfully expressive with great compositional choices and use of contrast. The time-skip is a bit of a shame since we miss out on so much of the characters’ time together, but what we do see is extremely touching.