Boys Run the Riot is an LGBT manga series with a transmasculine lead written and drawn by Keito Gaku (and team). This introductory volume to the series is a poignant and hilarious romp through gender discrimination, high school, punk philosophy, following your dreams, and how fashion is often a double-edged sword for queer people. 

Basically, an absolutely poppin’ way to start the 2020s.

Boys Run the Riot Volume 1

Keito Gaku
Kodansha, Kodansha USA
January 2020

SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Boys Run the Riot Volume One. 

Manga Cover
The English release cover of Boys Run The Riot Volume 1 by Keito Gaku. The main character Ryo and the secondary lead Jin stand back to back on a cool city street. (Kodansha January 2020, Kodansha USA November 2020)

This article was originally published on WWAC in May 2022

The first chapter of Boys Run the Riot was released for free online on March 31, 2021, in honor of International Transgender Day of Visibility. The first volume was published in English two months later on May 25, 2021, featuring an alternate cover from the Japanese edition [via Wikipedia].

The main plot revolves around Ryo Watari, a shy trans boy who was bullied for being gender non-conforming in middle school. He has a crush on his best friend who is a girl, and he is super into graffiti art. He’s an average guy, pissed at society while trying to awkwardly stay in the closet. You know, the regular. Until he runs into the school outcast, a cis guy named Jin Sato who quickly takes Ryo under his wing and asks him to make designs for his fledgling streetwear company.

Manga Panel
Jin is wearing sunglasses and leaning closely. The speech bubbles say “I’m not just gonna get lucky. Isn’t it cooler to call the shots for your own future?” (Kodansha, January 2020)

Ryo is not into it at first, not wanting to be involved with the “new kid delinquent” (Why is he so flashy??) or have more bullying come his way. But Jin isn’t the gruff guy he seems, he’s big-hearted, shockingly meticulous and accepts Ryo immediately, telling him to use his art to express himself through fashion, baby!! The characters are spunky, punk rock, full of love and rage, and embody the philosophy of “individuals together”.

The art style has a serious, semi-realistic look that also isn’t afraid to be funny and cartoony. The juxtaposition of the highly detailed clothes and character shots with funnier or emotional moments really gives it a sense of youthful reality. The extra detail also helps balance out the care put into the fashion and gives the environment a sense of specificity.

The eyes and hands are definitely the next most noticeable feature of the art besides the attention to detail. They are clearly being used as types of gender markers by the artist. The eyes create a sense of femininity for Ryo’s face and yet the different hand styles show how Ryo is one of the guys. Eyes are certainly a hallmark of Japanese comics, and the emotions are all laid bare through the characters’ eyes in this manga particularly with a signature glow that the artist adds with solid white or various gradients.

Manga Panel
Ryo angrily spray painting a wall in a hoodie. The inking on his eyes resembles fierce winds or dramatic movements adding to the poignant scene. The captions read “It’s okay if the only one who knows the real me…is me.” (Kodansha, January 2020)

The translation is quite seamless. It captures the character’s personalities and attitudes with integrity and respect to the intent of the narrative. The lettering is a little basic, and the text isn’t well placed in the bubbles, because of the contractions in the dialogue. The text seems to stick closely to the Japanese original placements since it’s not edited to be balanced across bubbles. They also don’t replace sound effects but write the English translation next to them, (which is also faster).

A few of the font choices are distinctly western to give emotional cues to the English audience, but the designer mostly uses a standard manga font meant for tight spaces and mimicking natural handwriting. Any lettering issues are a worthy sacrifice to the flow of the dialogue. Design cannot save a poorly written story. It definitely reads like any other teen narrative we might find on the shelf. This adds a lot of emotional closeness that is so valuable for seeing queer people as full humans.

Manga Panel
Ryo looking at himself in a building window reflection. He thinks to himself “Ever since then…when I wear my favorite clothes, I feel at ease. It’s the only time I don’t see a version of myself that I hate.” (Kodansha, January 2020)

Some of the scenes in this book come partly from the personal life of the author, who dealt with the oppressive gender binary of school himself and also wore his gym uniform instead of the girl’s uniform. This will be familiar to other queer people who have felt the fear of standing out, especially when nobody seems to understand. But the ubiquitous nature of queerness is, in itself, a powerful form of healthy representation.

Queerness is a constant undercurrent of the whole narrative, without being an inherently negative thing and playing into the universal theme of following your dreams with no shame! The queer aspects and emotions also shift and change from moment to moment in a realistic way that’s not often allowed to be depicted in queer media in America. A guy who hates wearing his uniform gets into streetwear and informing all of this is the fact that he’s trans and scared to be himself.

Manga Panel
Ryo angrily looks down at someone. The speech bubbles say “shut up you skinny asshole. You’re a waste of a pair of balls.” (Kodansha, January 2020)

In the first chapter, Jin seems to embody the outward stereotype of toxic thuggish masculinity, but he ends up being a good influence on Ryo, showing him how being masculine is also about being confident and open with your emotions and good at communicating.

Ryo comes across roadblocks that are familiar to student-age queer people, like dress code warnings, ignorance from friends, and not wanting to be the outcast. But, when he’s with his friends outside of school, he can be understood and grow as a person.

The volume pacing and tone do get a bit circular in the middle with Jin repeatedly having scenes where he is dramatically cool. But it should also be taken into consideration that this was serialized weekly before collection. So, elements that might seem redundant are more necessary in that particular storytelling context.

Manga Panel
Jin leans over Ryo excitedly putting a hand on Ryo’s shoulder. The speech bubble says, “Do you wanna start a brand with me?!” (Kodansha, January 2020)

Fashion is only an added bonus to this heartfelt story. Each volume features gorgeously painted illustrations of unique streetwear, something Japan is widely known for in the States. It speaks to Japanese culture in the way that it has come to define itself personally, and also its origins, American Hip Hop from the Black community, as well. Hip hop is a really appropriate choice for fashion because it’s a style that is defined by its messaging of punk rock self-expression and breaking social norms.

From the first clothing mentioned in the series (Ryo’s uniform) to the parallels of him using clothing to be himself, the narrative immediately sets up a strong and resonant metaphor for how queer people have the power to take the things that hold us back and shape them into our symbols of freedom and self-love.

Several Manga Panels
Ryo and Jin are on a shopping trip for clothes. Ryo says “Look, this one’s in right now. Just get this one. Please.” Jin says “Shuddup I’ll kill you. I won’t compromise when it comes to clothes. I’d feel horrible if I bought something, regretted it, and never wore it.” (Kodansha, January 2020)

If you like fashion, queer content, or just a cool story about fighting for your right to party, this comic is definitely a standout winner in my book and personally resonated with me as someone who is a trans guy.

I felt a real connection about my feelings of what it means to live life to the fullest in the character of Jin and also the anger of feeling trapped to be someone who you aren’t in Ryo. It also made me nostalgic for when I, too, wanted to be a fashion designer and how that influenced my own passion for style and the constant search for clothes that feel like “me”. I’m definitely excited to see how this short series plays out as it releases in English!

As of today, the series is on its third volume and is available for sale online and in stores.

Editor’s note: all four volumes of the series are now available for sale.

Manga Panel
Jin rolls up the sleeve of the shirt Ryo designed. The rolled sleeve mimics an armband, and it has text printed on it that reads “No shame in my game”(Kodansha, January 2020)

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