For a while now, it's been OK to come out of the closet in America. Somewhere between Ellen Degeneres and Rosie O'Donnell, between Will and Grace, The L Word, and Queer as Folk, talking about homosexuality has become an acceptable thing on television. Kizuna is one of the few Japanese shows brought to the US that attempts to capitalize on the small but growing interest in gay and lesbian themed anime. However, it's a mediocre show at best that haphazardly combines corny melodrama with silly antics in "the real world" where, nevertheless, virtually everyone is male.

In the first of two OVAs, Ran is introduced as perhaps the world's most promising kendo student. Tragically, a car intended to hit his beloved boyfriend, Enjoji, slams into him instead. Enjoji's father is a Mafioso, and this wayward attempt on his son's life sends things into turmoil. Just as Ran recovers, life becomes more complicated when Enjoji's half-brother Kei shows up. Ran is drugged by one of his professors who's taken him to a gay bar, and Kei beats the guy senseless before he can take advantage of the situation. Kei blames Enjoji for Ran's misfortune, but when the professor gets his friends together to take revenge, it may take the whole family to keep Ran safe. In the second episode, Kei keeps looking for love in all the wrong places, and Enjoji and Ran have to point him to his bodyguard Masa for the relationship he desires.

As thoroughly discussed throughout anime circles, shonen-ai and yaoi stories are not really created with homosexual men in mind as primary readers. Most are intentionally designed for young women who want to read romantic stories but, due to cultural mores, fear actual relationships with men. Of course, there are also those who just appreciate page after page of slightly built pretty boys. Either way, shonen-ai and yaoi almost never deal with real issues for the gay community.

Kizuna is a prime example of this truth. Homosexuality is a plot twist, nothing more. In the life that we're shown, it's as if women weren't even an option! There's only one in the entire program who shows up for maybe fifteen seconds of running time. That severely limits the show's potential impact. Although there are a couple of "blink and you'll miss it" love scenes and a kiss or two, these people are simply not gay in the conventional sense. The love triangle, the dramatic tension, and the martial's all something that could be in any typical manga or anime, and homosexuality is just used as a selling point. Otherwise, it more resembles Shakespeare as originally performed, where the men played all the parts in drag--though to mention this show and Shakespeare in the same breath makes me want to gag.

Homosexuality used mainly as a plot point doesn't always kill an anime, though. It certainly didn't hurt Fake from being one of the funniest anime I've ever seen. However, Kizuna doesn't play straight with the audience (pun intended). The first episode lifts clichés out of thin air. It manufacturers cheesy melodrama where you can almost anticipate the sappy music cues. To top all that off, it ends on a very dumb note (right after the credits finish). The second episode is completely different, taking us from morose angst to happy-go-lucky humor. It moves more quickly than the first, but it has far less plot (and what's there is simply stupid). Funny, perhaps, but not worthwhile. From a technical perspective, everything is competently done, but if you never see this show, you'll never miss anything groundbreaking by any stretch.

The original DVD presentation of Kizuna was a mess. Though the artwork itself looked fine, the disc had a minimal menu, no chapter stops, and badly timed (and burned-in) subtitles. However, Be Beautiful (a subsidiary of Central Park Media) has released a new version in the summer of 2005. All of these problems with the physical presenation have been wiped away. Though it is still not a fully-loaded disc, the new DVD is head and shoulders above the original. I'm still not a fan, obviously, but if you do like Kizuna, now's the time to buy (or replace your original copy).

I cannot completely condemn Kizuna because of the few things it does attempt to do. I realized when I was watching this show that it's one of the only times I've ever seen an anime couple of any sort working through a relationship. Most shows keep the lead loves apart for an elongated time, making the longing more important than the actual relationship. How many shows end when somebody finally makes a choice? Here, as poorly as that connection is defined, we still have two characters actually in the midst of a relationship trying to work things out and care for each other. Does it excuse the failure of the show on most every other level? No. But it does mean that I have to give it points for doing something I rarely get to see.

Though I'm not a fan of gay-themed programming, that didn't bother me much when I watched Kizuna. What bothered me most was the lazy plotting, the overwrought anguish of the first episode, and the funny but worthless antics of the second. With sexual subject matter that will turn off one audience and bad writing that will turn off another, I'm not sure that there's an audience left. If somebody could take that kernel of a vaguely original idea in Kizuna--the story of a "real" relationship rather than merely another tale of kids pining away--and run with it, I'd be interested. As it is, though, Kizuna is a mess.

Kizuna -- strong homosexual content, brief nudity/sexual content, profanity, violence -- C-