CONTENT WARNING for discussion of police corruption; racist and homophobic microaggressions. SPOILERS for FAKE.
American manga fans of a certain age should all remember when Tokyopop was the go-to publisher for manga in English. Nearly every bookstore comic shelf from 2000 to 2010 had volumes upon volumes of series with the little red and white robot on the top of the spine. They published big names like Saiyuki by Kazyua Minekura and Angelic Layer by CLAMP, as well as under-the-radar titles such as Dragon Knights by Mineko Ohkami. One of those other lesser-known, but truly excellent, titles was FAKE by Sanami Matoh.
FAKE is a BL mystery-drama manga originally published between 1994 and 2000 in seven volumes. The basic plot is akin to an American police procedural: the majority of each volume centers around a single case, followed by smaller filler chapters that add more depth to the characters or show what’s going on outside of the main plot.
The dominant emotional line throughout the series is the evolving relationship between detectives Dee Laytner and Randy “Ryo” MacLean, who are partners working out of the fictional 27th precinct of the New York City Police Department. However, just as important as the mysteries and the growing romance is the found family that the detectives build and the support it provides them.
Dee Laytner: A Light in the Dark
Dee Laytner is introduced as being sarcastic and a joker until he and Ryo get down to the brass tacks of their latest case. As perhaps can be expected from that set-up for a character, Dee’s past is not exactly rosy. A foundling orphan given to a Catholic orphanage, Dee built a family out of the other orphans and neighborhood children, the nun who raised him, and the patrol officer who found him as an infant.
Sister Maria Lane, called “Mother” by the orphans and occasionally “Penguin” by Dee, is a constant presence in Dee’s life. It’s implied that he visits her frequently as an adult, laden with extra foodstuffs for the current group of orphans—carrying on the good example that was set for him as a child. The relationship she shares with Dee is based on mutual care and unflagging support, even when he gets on her last nerve.
Jess Latener, the police officer that found Dee as an infant, was only around until Dee was a teenager. In a series of events that ended with Jess dying to protect Dee, the audience learns that he worked for the local mob covering up their drug-running operation. Even though it turns out Jess was a dirty cop, he was also Dee’s inspiration to become a detective and stay true to himself.
The found family that Dee makes with Ryo is rounded out by Bikky and Carol. Bikky is Ryo’s ward, adopted during the first case that the detectives solved together. Carol is Bikky’s best friend, and though she has her own guardians, they’re never seen in the series.
One might expect that Dee would take on a paternal role, but he’s much more like an older brother. He bickers with both of them constantly, but every time either are in danger, Dee does his all to protect them. Multiple times, he puts himself into direct harm to take a blow meant for one of the children. Further, despite the bickering, Dee can relate to Bikky and Carol because he has a similar childhood background to both of them: working-class, with street smarts from “the school of hard knocks.”
It might be surprising that Dee found confidence in himself and in his sexuality given the two dominant forces in his childhood were from institutions not known for accepting LGBTQ+ people. However, what Mother and Jess instilled in Dee wasn’t the rules and unsaid laws of their institutions, but the confidence that comes from knowing you are loved and cared for totally and unconditionally.
Dee never got the chance to come out to Jess, but given how he very literally gave his life to protect Dee’s, I can’t imagine that any revelation of sexuality would have changed Jess’ perception and love for him. Mother guessed on her own that Dee was attracted to men as well as women, and it changed nothing in their relationship. That completeness of love is then what Dee passes down to Bikky and Carol. Sure, they bicker and snipe, but Dee has their backs, just as others did for him.
In his relationship with Ryo, Dee is undoubtedly the aggressor. He initiates most of their kisses and all but one of the scenes of intense physical intimacy. Admittedly, Dee does push at Ryo’s boundaries, like manga horndogs are prone to do, but where Dee comes off as unique is that he has a line that he does not cross.
There are two places where Dee puts the breaks on what he’s doing: once when he confesses that he can see that Ryo is nervous, and again when Ryo is going through emotional turmoil after meeting his parents’ murderer. The interactions and interruptions give Ryo breathing room and allow Dee to notice Ryo’s expressions and know when he’s feeling distressed versus when he’s relaxed.
The relationship between them is also the first time Dee shows vulnerability. He worries that Ryo may not return his feelings, and that leaves him adrift because Ryo has become a fundamentally important part of his life.
He has to take a step back several times when his pushing results in him literally falling over because Ryo pulls away too fast. So he stumbles, gets back to his feet, and tries a different approach. Eventually, he and Ryo find a place where they push and pull in harmony with each other, which allows them to trust each other and build a stronger, healthier found family with them both at the center.
Randy “Ryo” MacLean: Shadow in a Smile
FAKE introduces Randy “Ryo” MacLean as a fish out of water. He’s the straight man for Dee’s jokes and is half-Japanese in a precinct full of (presumed) white men and women. But under his smiling, calm exterior, Ryo has plenty of turbulence.
Ryo’s family situation is a stark contrast to Dee’s. He’s from a well-off, middle-class family, but he was completely bereft of the unconditional support that Dee had. While both Dee and Ryo are orphans, Ryo’s parents were killed when he was eighteen years old in a case of mistaken identity. His parents lost their reputations as well as their lives, which led to almost every member of Ryo’s extended blood family abandoning him.
Ryo’s aunt did take him in, but everyone else instantly turned their backs on him and smeared his parents’ names. Any trust Ryo had in his family was broken. This lack of family is why he’s fairly emotionally closed off and closeted, and why it’s then a tremendous step for him to open himself up to a new family.
Ryo first meets Bikky on the other side of an interview table. Within a few minutes he gets the young boy to open up about his father’s death and volunteers to be his legal guardian; first in the sense of police protection, then in the track to adoption. Soon after, Ryo meets Bikky’s friend Carol and later protects her when she accidentally gets in the middle of a drug deal. She ends up becoming a frequent visitor at his apartment both to visit him and Bikky.
Where Dee’s confidence and brashness results in a protective cloak that extends outwards, Ryo has a softness and calculated vulnerability that draws people in. He connects over lost parents, but very carefully doesn’t say how he lost his parents nor what happened to him after that; a small sacrifice to hide the rest of his emotional glacier.
Even so, by opening up at all, he encourages Bikky and Carol to bring their emotional issues to him and know they’ll be addressed seriously. They can trust him, irrevocably, and he will not betray that trust the way his own relatives did to him. This makes him the parent-figure to both Bikky and Carol, while Dee is more the older brother/stepfather.
On the flip side, both Bikky and Carol also want to look out for Ryo. Bikky in particular is initially very hostile towards Dee and his romantic intentions towards Ryo, and often gets between them through violent means (such as biting Dee’s hand or kicking, punching, or shoving him away). Overall, there’s a give-and-take of Ryo being the adult that can protect the kids from external threats, be they physical or emotional, while the kids try to protect Ryo’s inner life.
In his relationship with Dee, Ryo is the passive partner. Many of their physically intimate actions include him resisting Dee’s advances, especially when Dee comes on particularly strong. However, whenever Dee comes out of emotional or physical danger, Ryo, especially in the later volumes, is the one to initiate physical intimacy.
Dee chasing and Ryo resisting plays into typical seme–uke (“top/bottom”) dynamics, but the times where FAKE flips the script and Ryo becomes the more active partner really stand out, both in the series itself and when compared to other BL manga like it.
The fact that Ryo does gradually become more active also means that his general passivity feels more like a legitimate character trait rather than a stereotype. Ryo isn’t passive “because he’s the uke,” but because he didn’t have the love and support that Dee had as a teenager. His upbringing led to him becoming closeted emotionally, and thus repressed physically, except when the people who are important to him are in danger.
We see a major turning point in Dee and Ryo’s relationship the first time that Ryo initiates a sexually intimate moment. It’s a scene that’s tangled up in many other emotions, as Ryo’s past has recently met his present and he wants to lose himself. He seeks out sex as a way to distance himself from the fraught emotions he’s feeling—not to make himself feel good during a bad time, but because he’s somewhat given up.
Dee knows that Ryo’s been through the wringer, and is also insulted that Ryo would think he’d have sex with anyone, no matter what the circumstances or personal relationship. This time, Dee is the one to decline Ryo’s advances, and the two have an honest conversation instead.
They’re at a point where they’ve found support with each other, and where that support is tested. Dee has added to his existing support system and steps into a role where he can give support as well as receive it. Ryo has rebuilt the support system that he lost and can let himself be vulnerable in front of those he trusts.
The found family Dee and Ryo create leaves them both in a place where they can discuss their relationship in frank terms. It’s a conversation that leads Ryo to a place where he can more comfortably examine his emotions and internal life. He comes to grips with the fact that he’s sexually and romantically attracted to men and feels safe enough to directly express his sexuality in general and his attraction to Dee in particular.
Happily Ever After…
Overall, the establishment of the found family built by Dee and Ryo is the emotional B-plot that allows the romantic A-plot to work. Without Bikky, Carol, and the other less prominent members of their family, neither Dee nor Ryo would have been vulnerable enough to reach each other. It ties their emotional arcs together from beginning to end.
FAKE is perhaps not as well known as other BL titles. It is fairly short against a backdrop where series easily have ten or more volumes, the original Japanese publisher was bought out, and the mangaka took a long hiatus before returning to the story and characters. If you’re looking for the series in English, you can only find it used.
However, FAKE created a bedrock that influenced many future LGBT+ manga and anime with “found family” as the central focus. It was also a series where the expected seme/uke tropes were twisted in ways that felt natural to the characters and their emotional growth, showing that those tropes can be pushed in new directions.
FAKE presents us with a set of people initially very different and allows them to connect and find love and support with each other. They create their own community that is queer-friendly in a world that is not as friendly, as shown through the criminal cases Dee and Ryo investigate. It’s an emotionally satisfying work that has left behind a small and lasting legacy within the BL genre, and deserves to be read and remembered as an important touchstone in manga history.