I give this dark, twisted, utterly INSANE yaoi manga by the author of Fushigi Yuugi (No, not kidding)...a 76/100.
So...I read about this on TVTropes and decided to read it on a whim. Not gonna lie, if you're expecting a sweet, fluffy shoujo romp full of warm feels and heartwarming moments, you're in the wrong place, because this manga is dark as all hell. Considering Yuu Watase, the mangaka behind manga such as Fushigi Yuugi and Ceres: Celestial Legend made this, it's honestly quite a shock. Normally, I'm not a fan of yaoi or shounen-ai, namely because many of the ones I've encountered were either too melodramatic, too silly, have weird views on romantic relationships, or pretty much have no plot and nothing else except sex. Thankfully, Sakura Gari avoids that one last pitfall, being a strong, gripping, complex story with many layers and mysteries behind its beautiful facade. To put it simply, in a more vulgar manner: It's fucking insane.
Sakura Gari takes place in the Taisho era (the years 1912-1926), and a young high school boy, Masataka Tagami, the eldest son of a librarian from a small village, goes to Tokyo to try and find his place in life. While trying to find a job to support himself as he prepares for his university entrance exams, he finds employment when he meets a man named Souma Saiki, who lets him stay at his house on the condition that he work as a house servant. At first, Masataka is happy to be able to make some good money and support himself through school. As time goes by, however, he starts to learn, and then become unwittingly involved in, the Saiki house's many dark, disturbing secrets, and things get even worse when Souma's dark secrets come to light.
Now, Yuu Watase is known for her bright, cheery, shoujo-style artwork, giving her female characters sparkly eyes, youthful expressions, and comedic superdeformed chibis. Fushigi Yuugi, her most famous work, has all of these. But seriously, if you look at the art style for Fushigi Yuugi and then compare it to Sakura Gari, the differences are like night and day. Sakura Gari has very clean linework, softer shading, impeccably detailed backgrounds that fit well with the manga's time period and setting, and the characters are drawn much more realistically, with very little exaggerated features, and it's less...cartoony. It's easy to see the differences here and here. Seriously, Watase has come a long way as an artist. If anything can be described as beautiful, Sakura Gari definitely fits the bill, no question. Some say this is her best artwork yet, and I'm inclined to agree.
On the other hand, its characters are kind of a mixed bag. Let me say one thing first: I LOVE complex characters who have more to them than meets the eye, who have equal amounts of good qualities and bad that make them fully human. However, if a character's bad qualities outweigh the good, it can be difficult to sympathize with them in any way, especially if they do genuinely bad things. Souma (the one with the ponytail) is one of those characters. The thing with Souma is that he starts off seeming like a genuinely good person who cares for Masataka in his own way...but when Masataka learns his dark secrets and tries to run, Souma goes way too far in trying to make him stay, and does some pretty horrible things to him. If you're familiar with standard yaoi tropes, then you'll know that Souma's one of those "rapist semes" who sexually and mentally abuses poor Masataka, and it can't be denied that raping someone is a horrible thing to do, even if you do have your reasons for it. Watase loves giving her villains or troubled abusers sympathetic backstories to explain their behavior, and while sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't (Nakago, anyone?), namely when it tries to use said backstory as a way to handwave or justify the bad things he does. You can make your villains sympathetic, but there are ways to do it without coming off as justifying or handwaving their bad behavior. Dilandau Albatou from Vision of Escaflowne and Claude Frollo from Disney's version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame are perfect examples of this. But...to be fair, the manga actually acknowledges this. Souma KNOWS he's done horrible things to Masataka and how serious it all is, and not only does he feel genuinely remorseful, especially when you learn his backstory, he actually does make an effort to make amends with Masataka, even if he doesn't go about it in healthy ways. The manga doesn't deny that Souma's done some pretty awful things in an attempt to keep Masataka with him, and while Watase does go out of her way to explain why he does what he does, showing that he's the product of a very, VERY toxic environment from which there was basically no escape, she also acknowledges that the people around him are just as guilty for the bad things they've done to him and unwittingly contributing to his behavior in the first place. Granted, the ending may still leave a slightly bad taste in one's mouth considering what inevitably happens, and your liking of the ending will depend on whether you actually want Masataka and Souma to get together or not...and considering Souma actually rapes Masataka several times...yeah.
Wow, that sure was a long paragraph on just one character. Now onto the others! Everyone else is just as complex, intriguing, and fascinating as Souma is. Everyone involved with the Saikis has their own story to tell, from the doctor who helps Souma's father and Souma himself from an unnamed maid who only appears for a few short pages and never again. Even characters who are completely, unambiguously evil and downright monstrous have reasons for doing what they do, and while some of them don't always get developed or fleshed out, the complex, twisty nature of the series really made me want to know just what these characters are going to do next, even if they seem like they're just thrown in there just for the sake of angst and losing their sanity. Plus, if any of you are concerned that Masataka is just going to be another Miaka, or just a simplistic uke stereotype, fear not, for he's not a helpless, useless kid whose sole purpose is to be cute and spineless and be Souma's toy. He can be nice and kind when he wants to be, but he has his limits and won't hesitate to call someone out on their crap if pushed hard enough. He has flaws. He doesn't always have the best relationships with his family members. He's insecure and can be a little resentful. He gets angry, he gets sad, he actually does make an effort to escape his situation (though it fails), and while bad things do happen to him, he isn't such a spineless wimp that he can't make an effort to help those he loves and fight to survive. Most importantly, he fights back. That in and of itself really makes him stand out and above every yaoi uke stereotype in existence.
The story is where some people might get divided, and I can understand why people might have grievances with it, especially in regards to its content. This manga is pretty much a gigantic soap opera: Sensitive issues such as rape, murder, child abuse, and sexual exploitation are constantly used as plot devices like they're going out of style, so liberally that it really lays it on thick. Almost none of the characters are genuinely good or human save for Masataka, and there's little, if any reprieve from all the craziness, like comedy scenes or chapters where you're allowed to just breathe or take a break from Sakura Gari's insane, twisted, messed up world. Some people say this is the manga's strong point: There's always something going on, there's very little filler or rut, and the story is always moving forward. It helps that the manga is short too, only nine chapters long in three volumes, so it's a short read. A very, very hard short read. On the other hand, many others are bound to take issue with Sakura Gari's content and how it handles a lot of sensitive issues, and that's understandable. Even I thought some parts were way too over the top, even in context, and some parts could have been handled much better than they were. Not only that, there's a LOT of graphic, detailed nudity, but it never goes out of its way to show any genitalia, surprisingly. Half the time I was reading it, I kept feeling like Watase wanted to go farther than she did in showing the sex scenes but didn't, to the point where I was like, "Come on, Watase! Just go full-on porn! We know you want to!" I have to wonder if it was because of executive mandate or because she wanted to be kind of coy about it and maybe feel like she trusted her readers to figure out what was going on without going all out. Who knows? But honestly? I'll read this over Fushigi Yuugi any day of the week.
Bottom line, if you want a deep, complex, genuinely intriguing yaoi that's also utterly bonkers, give this a shot!...but it's not for the faint of heart. Seriously.