The response to my “Romance and Abuse in Shoujo” panel has been consistently overwhelming. The transcripts from my Sakura Con 2016 get new pageviews every day, and every time I present it, I get people approaching me afterward telling me how meaningful they found it. I’m incredibly proud to have put together something that touches people’s lives and resonates with their experiences so strongly.
Many of the series I used in my presentation are older, because those were the ones that made me take notice of this issue years ago. However, I’m not sure how relevant this is to current audiences – how many people sitting and listening are familiar with Boys Over Flowers or Hot Gimmick? New volumes of shoujo manga come out every week, thanks to the hardworking localizers at companies like Viz, Seven Seas, and many others. I curate my reading list pretty carefully, so for years I’ve made a point of looking for series with healthy relationships, or series that are aware of the abusive dynamics they contain. Starting work on this project forced me to engage with series I actively avoided, but what about the ones I just never heard of?
So I started wondering, how do the numbers break down? How many of the series that make it to US shores really do romanticize abuse, and how many don’t? In search of these answers, I’ve started a new side project: “Abusive Relationships in Shoujo by the Numbers.”
I have three criteria for picking series: They must 1) be licensed in the US, 2) available in full at my local library, and 3) have the main character involved in a romantic relationship.
When doing projects like this, I tend to be systematic so that I don’t get overwhelmed by options. I’m starting by working alphabetically through Viz’s Shojo Beat catalog, starting with Beauty is the Beast and Black Bird. Every week, I will add a new series, until I hit my weekly capacity. At that point, series will be replaced after completion. Each volume will receive a score based on how many incidences there are of abusive behavior, working from the list provided by The National Domestic Violence Hotline. I also include date of publication and Japanese publisher, to see if there are identifiable patterns with that.
I understand that assigning things numerical values doesn’t allow a ton of room for nuance, and this can be a complicated subject. Because of this, I’m creating a biweekly column in which I include my observations in addition to the numbers.
Beauty is the Beast vol. 1
Beauty is the Beast vol. 2
Black Bird vol. 1
Beauty is the Beast: Eimi’s fellow residents are a little bit crazy, but a whole lot of fun. They’ve got a secret mission planned for Eimi’s new resident initiation…and it has something to do with sneaking into the boys dormitory across the street and returning with a special keepsake! Can Eimi pull it off without getting caught by one of the handsomest (and cruelest) boys in the dorm? (Summary via Viz)
Based on the summaries, I went into Beauty is the Beast expecting a typical “bad boy” romance between Average Shojo Heroine and Bastard Boyfriend. Instead, it presents a quite grounded romantic comedy with an ensemble cast of dorm residents. Matsumoto Tomo’s chat columns reveal why: it’s inspired by her own experiences of living in a dorm. Many of the residents are inspired by girls she knew, as are the hijinks.
So what of the main couple? Eimi is eccentric in ways that charmed me, but I could see her annoying other readers. Wanibuchi, her love interest, is indeed a troubled youth who frequents bars, flirts with older women, and gets into fights, but he never turns that aggression against Eimi. The series walks a careful tightrope: he may be engaging in risky behavior, but never endangers Eimi, and Eimi is concerned but not actively trying to force him to change, allowing for a quieter but ultimately more interesting and believable dynamic. In fact, it only earned one point between two volumes: when Eimi breaks into his dorm, he catches her trying to take his nameplate, he jokingly says she has to do anything he asks. Although not explicit, there’s a clear implication that he means forcing her to do something physical. It’s not pretty, but luckily this the only time the blackmail angle shows up.
Black Bird: There is a world of myth and magic that intersects ours, and only a special few can see it. Misao Harada is one such person, and she wants nothing to do with magical realms. She just wants to have a normal high school life and maybe get a boyfriend.
But she is the bride of demon prophecy, and her blood grants incredible powers, her flesh immortality. Now the demon realm is fighting over the right to her hand…or her life!
Everything changes one day when Misao is attacked by a demon. Her childhood friend Kyo suddenly returns to save her and tend to her cuts–with his tongue! It turns out Misao is the bride of prophecy, whose blood gives power to the demon clan who claims her. But most demons want to keep her power for themselves–by eating her! Now Misao is just trying to stay alive…and decide if she likes it when Kyo licks her wounds.
(Summary via Viz)
Black Bird, however… well, there’s a reason I selected it for my initial panel. It’s a steamy supernatural romance, similar to Twilight but with demons instead of vampires, and the boy is making no effort to contain his urges. Plus, he’s her teacher for bonus creepiness points!
In contrast to the mild Beauty is the Beast, Black Bird managed to net 13 points in the first volume alone. Kyo treats Misao as his possession from the very beginning, proclaiming that he will be his wife and grabbing her breasts from behind the first time he saves her. It also makes heavy use of the idea that there’s a big bad world out there that wants to murder her, so the only way she’s safe is if she stays by his side, regardless of whether or not she wants to. In one incident that made me particularly uncomfortable, he flies while holding her, despite her fear of heights. As they land, he assures her that he won’t drop her; he just needed to show her that she can’t live without him. Throughout the volume, she remarks about how he makes her feel “so protected” through his possessive behavior.
It’s an eighteen-volume series, so strap in. It’s going to get ugly.
Beauty is the Beast vol. 3
Black Bird vol. 2
Black Rose Alice vol. 1