The titular gangsters are the Fujimaki Clan, a once-feared crime syndicate who’ve launched a legitimate business: a yakuza-themed cafe, staffed by the clan’s former foot soldiers. Though the food is tasty, and the waitstaff comely, the cafe is all but deserted — that is, until Shinri, the clan leader’s only son, discovers the root of the problem: no one can brew a decent cup of tea! Not to worry: Shinri just happens to be an expert on the subject, thanks to his grandmother, a tea connoisseur so dedicated that she grew her own leaves.
Of course, Yakuza Cafe is yaoi, so there’s also a romantic subplot running in tandem with the shop’s rehabilitation. That storyline involves Shinri and a brooding, muscle-bound thug named Mikado, who’s famous for his fiery temper. Though others warn Shinri not to become emotionally or physically involved with Mikado, Shinri finds himself irresistibly drawn to Mikado and his elaborate dragon tattoo. (The tattoo, it should be noted, is almost a character in its own right.)
Yakuza Cafe has three things working in its favor: a cast of handsome men, a clever premise, and a deep affection for the genres it parodies. Shinano Oumi draws elegant, if generic, characters in a variety of pleasing shapes and sizes: broad-shouldered types for readers who prefer rugged men and slender, snappy dressers for those who favor metrosexuals. Oumi doesn’t just populate her story with attractive characters, she inserts them into a situation that’s ripe with comic potential: what could possibly go wrong when former hit men serve tea and pastries to teenage girls? Of course, none of these scenarios would be funny if Oumi overplayed them, but she uses a light touch throughout the story, whether she’s borrowing ideas from The Drops of God — grandma’s tea expertise could easily spawn a manga of its own — or putting a BL spin on a gangster manga cliche. (Mikado tries to slice off his own pinky in order to atone for his relationship with Shinri.)
The main drawback to Yakuza Cafe is the romance. Shinri and Mikado’s attraction is explained by means of a very tired shojo trope — The Handsome Senpai From My Childhood — and never properly developed. That’s a pity, because the other lengthy story in Yakuza Cafe, “The Crimson Seal,” achieves a much better balance between the main story and the budding relationship between a college grifter and a Fujimaki foot soldier. “Seal” also offers the manga’s only really emotional moment, culminating in a Tragic Death as sincere and silly as anything in Crying Freeman. (I say this with love.)
Whether you’ll enjoy Yakuza Cafe boils down to a simple test: do you read yaoi for the stories or the pictures? If the former, you’ll find it entertaining, with passably exciting bedroom scenes; if the latter, you may not find enough visual stimulation to hold your interest through all the maid cafe and yakuza jokes.
Digital review copy provided by Digital Manga Publishing.
YAKUZA CAFE • BY SHINANO OUMI • DMP • 168 pp. • RATING: MATURE (18+)