In the volume 29 thread, made an impulsive criticism of Naoe's sexual conduct, which sparked a discussion of sexual assault in Japanese popular literature. I retract my critique of volume 29: the characters are very in character, and that's good writing. But I want to offer some scattered thoughts on sexual assault in Mirage and other stories and my personal reader response on when it works and doesn't work narratively. I'm going to start with some other titles and wrap around to Mirage.
SPOILERS follow for the sexual-assault related stuff only in Trigun (anime version), Ergo Proxy, FAKE, Ai no Kusabi (okay, this is most of the story), Banana Fish, Acid Town, and, of course, Mirage.
I can think of a couple of examples of what seems to me sexually invasive behavior that creeps me out but is clearly not meant to be a big deal. This is where I feel the cultural difference most.
Trigun: Anime Vash (not manga Vash) has a habit of coming on strong to various women, including physically hanging on them while professing his undying love. His goal is to make them think he's an annoying idiot—and it works. But the behavior itself is hard for me to accept from a character who is, in essence, a saint. It just seems like Vash should know that this could feel threatening. But it's clearly not meant to be read that way. If I want an in-universe explanation, I might posit that their planet, which is clearly patriarchal, has a culture in which invading women's space (as it seems to me) is kind of okay, and Vash is part of that culture.
Ergo Proxy: Vincent and Real's one kiss scene involves his pushing her down in a way she finds threatening enough to go for her gun (but at the same time, she doesn't resist or even object afterwards). And it feels so out of character for Vincent especially that I don't know how to interpret it. He is an extremely kind, mild, self-effacing, subservient, long-suffering person. It just doesn't fit with that kind of physical domination. Again, I can only attribute my perplexity to cultural difference. But if I need an in-universe explanation, I'd guess that their background doesn't really include a vocabulary for courting women and expects lunging instead?
Overall, It Depends on Psychological Realism
These examples of obvious intercultural perplexity aside, my reader response to sexual assault usually depends on how psychologically realistic I feel the portrayal is. And I generally align "psychologically realistic" with "morally responsible" on the part of the text (apologies if that sounds overly moralizing) because the psychological reality is that being assaulted is damaging—and a story that is true to that is not condoning assault, not really, even when it presents as titillating.
FAKE: Disclaimer: I was turned off by FAKE, with the result that I've only skimmed the first volume of the manga, so I may be missing huge swaths of its virtues. I can only say that what I read gave me the impression of one guy constantly sexually molesting another guy with the general sense that this was supposed to be cute and a sign that they were meant to be in love forever. Maybe there's more to it than that, but, as a reader, I have no patience for sexual assault being presented as cute (outside perhaps of extremely broad comedy). It lacks realism to me, which means I lack engagement with the characters.
Ai no Kusabi (BIG SPOILERS): Ai no Kusabi is a story about sexual slavery, and it definitely plays sexual torture for audience titillation—but it is very clear that this type of social relationship is corrosive, and that clarity is what pulls the whole story together as a nicely structured tragedy (I'm mainly referring to the 1992 anime version). Riki and Iason have a real attraction; they even end up with real affection. But none of this alters the fact that being enslaved to Iason ruins Riki's life: it robs him of hope; destroys his self-worth; wrecks his prior, healthy sexual relationship; and propels both Riki and Iason to a tragic fate. And, yeah, that's about what it could plausibly do to someone. It's taken seriously, and it should be.
Banana Fish/Acid Town: (Note: I've only read Acid Town up to volume 2 so far, so that's what I'm commenting on. And thanks to Imperfekti for the Tumblr rec; it was her comparison of Acid Town to MoB that got me to check it out.) I'm going to examine these two manga together because they are thematically so similar. These are both stories with protagonists who have been badly sexually victimized and behave accordingly. While neither story is exactly "realistic," both are serious in expressing these boys' trauma. Both show their protagonists as being understandably extremely leery of being involved in any sexual relationship.
(Light character SPOILERS…) In Banana Fish, Ash and Eiji gel so well as friends in part because there is no sexual tension in their relationship; it's a testament to the power of being platonic friends. In Acid Town, Yuki and Tetsu do have sexual tension (Tetsu falls in love with Yuki), and this is predictably a strain on their relationship. While both stories are shojo-ish fantasies in which teen boys do not behave like teen boys (generally) really behave, both please me and engage me, in part because they do recognize sexual assault as seriously psychologically damaging.
Mirage of Blaze: Mirage is a bit like the FAKE trope taken seriously. It also has one guy constantly sexually molesting another and this is a sign that they're in love forever—but Mirage actually sells it. (In so many respects, the story is a quintessential example of taking really common genre clichés and proving they can make good storytelling if profoundly, sincerely explored.) Mirage sells it by creating characters in Naoe and Kagetora whose identities and experiences make sense out of the dynamic. I understand why Naoe keeps lunging at Kagetora (I don't approve in the moral abstract, but I understand). And I understand why Kagetora keeps resisting and at the same giving a bazillion signals that he really wants it. And I understand how all this can coexist with, indeed be inextricably tied to, their being in love forever. In word, it's because they're badly wounded by 400 years of crazy life, and the sexual lunging is part of the continuing wounding, even though it is—amazingly plausibly—part of the healing too. Their lives are not pretty, and their relationship is not cute. Mirage, in general, is a very good look at the ugliness, the messiness, of the human psyche, and it makes sense that sexual assault would be a piece of that ugly mess.