REVIEW: Ai no Kusabi by Rieko Yoshihara

The Elites of Amoi, androids engineered for the ruling caste, occupy the capital city of Tanagura. Under Jupiter’s restrictions, the Elites are all sterile and forbidden from indulging in sexual activities. They keep “Pets” purely for voyeuristic purposes, and they are kept for about a year before being discarded. Iason Mink, a high-class Elite, runs into Riki, an unusual black-haired mongrel, makes him his “Pet” which Riki resents being. As Riki learns of the dangers Iason faces by keeping him, he finds himself developing feelings for his master.

Warnings: Noncon, Sex Slavery, Underage Sex

Category: M/M, F/M

Ai no Kusabi is most famous as a classic BL anime title from the 90s. It was released as OVAs and quickly became something of a niche fandom favourite for not only it’s intriguingly mysterious sci-fi setting but also for it’s sex scenes which, at the time, were unheard of in their explicitness. But the anime itself was a rather threadbare adaptation of the light novel series, and left audiences with more questions than answers about it’s setting and characters.

It’s a sweeping political epic about institutionalized oppression, rigid caste systems and sexual exploitation. Incorporating aspects of slavefic, dystopic sci-fi, and romantic tragedies, this is a story that runs the gambit of emotionality, struggle, power imbalance and sexuality. The story revolves around a bottom of the social ladder street urchin named Riki. Riki is from the slums, and has lived his life as what the citizens of Amoi refer to derogatorily as a “mongrel.” He’s got the tenacity and drive to make something of himself however, and that driven nature and charisma draws people to him like moths to a flame. He eventually encounters a very powerful person named Iason, one of the members of the social elite and ruling caste of the Amoian society, and from there his life changes irreversibly when Iason takes him in and decides to make him his personal Pet.

The writing is, at first, a little bit difficult to parse. The prose is dry, or at least the English translated prose can be fairly dry, and the author spends almost the entire first book in exposition about the setting, rather than in any character or plot driven action. It’s an awful lot of telling instead of showing and can read a bit like a history textbook about the social climates and areas of Amoi. The pleasure city Midas, the slums of Ceres, the Elite’s city of Tanagura, and the socio-economic climate of the various sectors and how they relate to each other are all explored in extensive detail, including their histories and the attitudes of the people living in them.

Once the setting is established, and the story starts moving into really exploring it’s characters, I found it hard to put it down. It was a breathtaking rollar coaster ride all the way to it’s gloriously tragic ending. The way the characters interact and develop over the course of the plot is incredible and it brings to life such a vibrant story and heartbreaking depiction of a society stacked entirely against it’s citizens. There’s backstabbing, there’s characters with hard to understand motives, there’s political agendas and government conspiracies. It has everything an epic should have, it just takes a little bit to pick up it’s speed.

There are illustrations throughout, the artsyle eventually refined into the iconic style of the anime adaptation. While the illustrations in the book are a bit rougher, there’s something enchanting about them as well; soft watercolour aesthetics, flowing hair, and expressive faces.

It’s hard not to feel for these characters, as they struggle with their emotions and the way they relate to each other. The narrative does an extremely good job at getting the reading invested in it’s characters, from the main two to the side characters. Even the antagonists in the narrative are interesting and engaging, and carve out a place in your feelings, even if those feelings are negative. I’ve rarely, for instance, disliked a character as much as I dislike Kirie, which is a testament to the authors talent for character development. Iason’s slowly building recognition of the exploitative nature of the system he rules from, his feelings for Riki that grow over time, as well as Riki’s progress into accepting his feelings and even returning them despite all of his own trauma and headstrong refusal to submit. The feelings of self worth that he struggles with the more he lets himself become the Pet that Iason wants him to be. And of course, the ending that will leave you in tears. You really grow attached to the cast the more you try to delve into their thoughts, their motives and their feelings.

Ai no Kusabi has some of the best, most breathtaking and unique worldbuilding I have ever read. It is extensively explored, sometimes to the detriment of the prose as before stated, but always to the strength of it’s setting. It’s a science fiction story set on a far distant planet, ruled by a sentient computer and a caste of Elite androids. There is so much complexities going on between the varying sectors of the society, from the pleasure district citizens living under the tyrannical oppression of the ruling caste, to the mongrel descendants of a segment that once tried to revolt and ended up destitute and cut off from the resources provided to the rest of Amoi as a result. One of the most interesting bits of setting info is how the slum district of Ceres is left there in abject poverty as a warning to the citizens of Midas, who for all intents and purposes are also severely oppressed, but with a lower caste than them to feel superior to are more willing to put up with it.

Then there’s the entire Pet system, a caste of genetically manufactured humans made to serve the Elites in their city as living sex dolls. Bred to be docile, compliant, vapid and sexually voracious, they are trained to perform for their Elite masters in the tower of Eos. Their society among themselves is also explored to fascinating degrees, as Riki is introduced into their ranks despite being a mongrel picked up off of the streets. The chaos that he injects into that world is incredibly interesting to follow.

It’s a very harsh world, filled with unhappiness and a subjugated population and it’s so incredibly well explored that it feels complete in a way that few other settings do. It is so incredibly unique, and beautiful in a bleak sort of way, that you can’t help thinking and ruminating on it for some time even after you’re done reading it. It’s small wonder that while the anime adaptation was confusing to follow without having read the books, there was always the sense that there was more to know, even if you didn’t know it all yet, and that mystery is in large part what hooked audiences who couldn’t even read the at the time untranslated source material.

Of course, Ai no Kusabi is famous for being one of the most steamy and explicit BL titles of it’s time. The books, despite starting with a sex scene in chapter 1, actually don’t have a lot of explicitly shown sex, but when they do it is incredibly hot. The amount of power struggle between the two main characters is heady, and goes a long way to making the sex feel powerfully erotic. Even when the text is not showing explicit sexual content, sex permeates the entire narrative in almost every aspect. There’s a raw sensuality to everything about the story, from the electrified power exchanges, to the seductive nature of the character’s relationships, to the sexual aspects of the exploitation of the populace of Amoi. It’s a beautifully steamy story and if you like that kind of slavefic incorporating social imbalances and systemic abuse it will be right up your alley. Of course I do wish there had been a little more scenes between Riki and Iason, my heart was left longing for a just a wee bit more.

This is hands down one of my all time favourite pieces of kink media. The anime adaptations are both gorgeous, despite not exploring anywhere near enough of the story to be coherent on their own. There are side stories and radio dramas that further expound on the story and the characters, who will always live in my heart of some of my absolute favourites. It’s an almost perfect piece of kink literature in every single way and I long for more people to discover it.

Ai no Kusabi is out of print, but circulated as PDFs on fan sites.


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