“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” The threat of this adage echoes throughout the first volume of Keito Gaku’s Boys Run the Riot. The protagonist, Ryo, a closeted trans boy with a talent for graffiti art and a secret crush on his best friend, thinks about this phrase bitterly upon seeing Jin, the new kid in class, who unashamedly wears a hoodie, earrings and sunglasses to school. How could Jin have avoided the hammer when Ryo has been struck by it his whole life? This conflict threatens their nascent friendship, but then Ryo comes out to Jin, who immediately accepts him, and their plan to start a fashion brand suddenly seems like more than an adolescent dream.
Despite the theme of fashion, the manga never makes the mistake that clothes designate gender. Ryo is not a boy because he has short hair and likes to wear trousers; he’s a boy because he’s a boy, and he expresses himself through fashion and art. The little moments of euphoria he feels in the volume – seeing himself in the mirror dressed in new clothes; hearing another guy on the street gender him correctly – are some of the most important parts of the book. Through fashion and art, through what Ryo chooses to wear and create, he can express himself, and the fear he has that despite his efforts, some people will never see him as a boy is heart-breaking. While gender and gender identity are not the main focus of the book – which helps it stand out from the sheer volume of queer stories that are solely about coming out – they are still important elements, that never get lost among the jokes and passion for fashion.
Ryo is a fantastic protagonist. Gaku-sensei, who is also trans, drew on his own experiences to create a complex, believable teenager, brimming with righteous anger and hidden talents. His empathy, frustration and sense of humour all sing on the page. Whether directing profanity-laden rants at another student, slapping a book back into its place on the library shelf with catlike reflexes, or finding the perfect urban canvas for his latest mural, he thrums with life. At once he’s brash, then blushing and reserved, and then crying and daring Jin to dismiss and give up on him. His emotional conflict feels real and warranted, never exaggerated. Even in this first volume, he has begun to develop into a more confident person, and it will be a joy to follow his evolution as the series progresses.
Jin is similarly a joy to follow. A loyal friend and seemingly fearless, when he discovers that Ryo has the same taste in fashion, he impulsively suggests they go into business together. Gaku-sensei uses Jin to further explore the assumptions people make. Despite agonising (understandably) over how people view him, Ryo immediately assumes that this new kid is a bully, a delinquent, someone to fear and run from – which he does, the second he sees him outside of school. Jin challenges his opinions, but he empathises, and it doesn’t harm their friendship. In fact, Jin is pretty much the perfect friend (and ally), and his goofy confidence is hilarious. Spotting Ryo’s artistic talents, he gives himself the role of business manager. Jin’s innate abilitiy to read people and analyse a situation is at odds with his boisterous personality, and it works perfectly.
Aside from the protagonists, this volume also introduces us to Chika, the girl Ryo has a crush on; Itsuka, a passionate photographer; and Tsubasa, the genderqueer cousin of one of the minor characters. Chika barely makes her mark, but so far seems sweet and fun and non-judgemental. Hopefully, she gets a chance to shine later in the series. Itsuka is the sole member of the school’s photography club. When Ryo and Jin need someone with better technology than a smartphone to shoot portraits for their website, Itsuka is the perfect candidate. He’s a fascinating character, struggling with self-confidence and toxic friendships, so it will be lovely to see him settle into his new role with better people. Tsubasa is briefly introduced at the volume’s end, and it’s great that Gaku-sensei has created a landscape where Ryo is not the only queer person. In the coming volumes, it will be very interesting to see how their experiences differ from Ryo’s.
Of course, when a manga depicts an artistic genius, the mangaka’s artwork needs to reflect that. Happily, Gaku-sensei has a great style, with memorable character designs and simple backgrounds with some standout locations, such as the pop-up store where Ryo bumps into Jin. Gaku-sensei did collaborate with other artists, including Shintaro Wein, whose artwork stands in for Ryo’s graffiti. The mural of a young man emerging from the zippered back of a schoolgirl is the perfect depiction of Ryo’s struggle, and forms the focal point of a shockingly brilliant double-page spread. These details really lift the manga, and despite some uncanny character designs (Chika’s wide eyes and titled head, which at times seems too big for her body, come to mind), Gaku-sensei’s artwork supports his story admirably.
Something many readers will appreciate is the sheer volume of extras included at the back of the book: a four-page interview with Gaku-sensei, discussing his inspiration and the impact of his manga; two pages of translation notes which highlight Leo McDonagh’s brilliant localisation; and a page of acknowledgements from editor Tiff Joshua TJ Ferentini. It’s clear that Kondansha knows what an important title this is, and it’s lovely to see the care and respect taken with the release, from a new cover designed by Phil Balsman and drawn by Gaku-sensei (you can see the original cover on the first glossy page), to the fact that Boys Run the Riot has an all-transgender localisation team. The book also looks and feels gorgeous, and seeing as the series will only be four volumes long, it’s a title many collectors will want to own.
Boys Run the Riot is an important manga, but beyond that, it is a lovely, funny, passionate story about art, fashion, and finding your place in the world. As one character wisely states, “Living freely also comes with sacrifices.” Ryo, Jin and their friends have chosen to live freely; they are the nails the hammer will not strike, and hopefully, they won’t have to sacrifice too much to live as they truly are.