Black Bird vol. 5
Black Rose Alice vol. 4
Boys Over Flowers vol. 3
Cactus’s Secret vol. 2
Blank Slate vol. 1
Bringing “Romance and Abuse in Shoujo” to a wider audience
Whew… it’s been a whirlwind few weeks. Rather than updating the site, I was focused on updating my panels, preparing for interviews, and attending Otakon and Anime Fest. The lead up to the con was unbelievably stressful and more than a bit overwhelming, but the cons were deeply rewarding as I spent time with great friends I only see a few times a year, met my idols, and yet again presented on topics I’m passionate about.
The presentation and format of “Romance and Abuse in Shoujo” has changed considerably from its original form, which is what is posted on the website, and my delivery these days is smoother and more practiced, even if most of the information is the same. I’ve added video clips of particular scenes from Boys Over Flowers and Wolf Girl and the Black Prince – there’s no anime adaptation of Hot Gimmick or Black Bird to draw from – and I’ve added a segment on teaching media literacy. The latter is most important, I think, because while I do have younger con-goers who attend my panel, I know there are also older fans who need guidance on how to broach the topic with younger fans in their lives.
Like I’ve said, that panel is my pride and joy. Every time I’ve presented it, I’ve had people approach me afterward to say thanks, to talk about how things are in shows they’ve seen as well, or to share their own experiences. It’s a powerful experience, made more meaningful by how strongly people respond to it.
Feminist-driven panels are growing more and more ubiquitous at cons these days – it seems like every one I’ve been to in the last couple years have had a “Women in Anime” panel, while others focus on LGBT topics or other issues of representation. My favorite fan panel I attended this year that wasn’t run by a friend was “Femininity in Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure”, a fascinating look at how a show traditionally thought of as hypermasculine has incorporated more and more feminine aesthetics over the years. It’s a broad field, and one I’m excited to see grow more and more at cons.
Black Bird vol. 5
Misao thinks she’s come to terms with being the bride of prophecy and dating a tengu lord. But is she ready to bear her handsome demon an heir?!
Kyo’s grandfather is impatient to secure the power of the prophecy and the line of succession, and he doesn’t care which of his grandsons fathers Misao’s baby. If Kyo doesn’t act fast, he’ll lose Misao and the leadership of the clan. But despite his desire for Misao, Kyo is hesitant to consummate their relationship, for that will bring about catastrophe… (Summary by Viz)
In this volume, Black Bird’s complicated relationship with sex continues. It’s heavily implied that something terrible will happen if Kyo and Misao have sex, yet again making comparisons to Twilight way too easy. It’s never explained exactly what it will be, but it’s recorded in the Senka Roku and is apparently too terrible for Kyo to even consider. He refuses intimacy with Misao, for fear he won’t be able to stop himself, which isn’t really great – it may be hard to stop with that rush of hormones for teenagers, but Kyo is an adult (once again, this is a relationship between an adult and a teenager, which is troubling in and of itself) and there should always be some allowance that the sex has to stop at any point.
What bothers me most here is that they never explain the issue to Misao. The series makes a big fuss about her wanting to support Kyo and act as his partner, but the other characters deny her agency by refusing to reveal such important information to her. Instead, she’s left sad and confused as Kyo refuses the physical intimacy that they both crave, unable to weigh the risks for herself. If this does end up being a plot point – that the tengu robbed her of her agency and how unfair that was to her – the series just may gain some esteem in my eyes. Only time will tell.
Not that the series handles that intimacy particular well when it does happen. He does it less, but Kyo still makes frequent grabs for Misao’s breasts and puts her in sexual situations despite her protests. When she tries to convince him to kiss her despite his proscription on sexual content, he pushes her down and kisses her neck and chest as she begs him to stop until she cries and asks for forgiveness. It casts sex as violent and frightening and uncontrollable, which is consistent with the rest of the series, but runs counter to the supposed emotional intimacy the two are supposed to share.
Black Rose Alice vol. 4
Dimitri Lewandowski is a celebrated tenor in early 1900s Vienna. When he is killed in an accident, his corpse is colonized by the seeds of a vampire master. At first, Dimitri denies that anything has changed, but as the people around him start dying, he is forced to accept the ghastly truth.
Flash-forward to 2008. In Tokyo, Azusa Kikukawa has become Alice, resurrected in a century-old body to become the breeding ground for a group of vampires. But one of the vampires in her nest has died, and now Alice must mourn for her friend even as the precariousness of the vampires’ situation sinks in. Lost and confused, Alice finds the diary of a young woman who lived in the house a century ago, and whose story has eerie similarities to her own… (Summary via Amazon)
It says only one point, but that’s fairly deceptive. Aside from the obvious power imbalances that continue to be present, there’s not really any incidences of overt abuse, but Dimitri is sneaky and manipulative. And that’s the thing about real-life abuse – quite often, it can’t be boiled down to a list of incidents quite as simply as it can in most fiction. There’s a lot of encounters that leave you feeling uncomfortable and imbalanced, unsure of what’s real and what’s not. I’m fairly sure that this is intentional and meant to impart that the world of vampires is a dark, frightening place despite all the beautiful boys that inhabit it. There’s some fascinating imagery in this volume, haunting and strange and frightening but also beautiful.
However, there are weird bits of gender essentialism speckled throughout. The ideals of virility and masculinity crop up over and over – Alice contemplates about whether she feels comfortable around Reiji because she thinks of him as a friend instead of as a man, while it’s clear that Dimitri being so aloof is part of what makes him so appealing, despite Alice’s frustrations. When the writer Toko comes to the house after propagating with Leo, the two talk about her difficulty in choosing and the importance of sexual attraction in the process. There’s some weird biotruths as she lectures Alice on how it’s important since pregnancy and childbirth are so dangerous, but the scene culminates in her declaring, “Without some titillation, you’re less than a woman!” and calling Alice “an animal, with animal instincts”. This attitude, while rarely explicitly stated, is common enough in fiction, albeit mostly applied to the male characters who struggle to hold themselves back in the presence of female characters.
Boys Over Flowers vol. 3
Tsukushi joins Kazuya and his family for Summer vacation at their villa in Atami. Friction erupts between Kazuya and Domyoji after Tsukushi and Domyoji’s kiss at the end of volume two. Even more juicy tension develops between Shizuka and Rui, but does anything become of it?!
Tsukushi overhears Rui telling Shizuka what he thinks of Tsukushi. Domyoji begins spreading rumors that Tsukushi is in love with him. He soon finds out that she is in love with Rui and he goes on a rampage. His rampage extends to an attack on Tsukushi herself. (Summary by Viz)
Yikes yikes yikes yikes yikes. Where do I even start?
Here is where Domyoji’s true colors come out: a violent, spoiled bully whose tantrums cause thousands of dollars in property damage and put people in the hospital. He has the worst kind of “affluenza”, since his money and status make him untouchable and his actions have absolutely no consequence. This volume comes as a reminder that power imbalances aren’t exclusively institutional, but can also extend to social capital – an important lesson when anyone can gain fame through the internet and celebrities are more accessible than they ever have been. The scene where Domyoji tries to rape Tsukushi is honestly one of the most viscerally upsetting parts of a manga I’ve ever read in 18 years of fandom, and comes with an extreme trigger warning. This should be a dark warning about how dangerous unchecked social capital is, especially as Tsukushi’s parents push her into his arms despite all the warning signs, but instead it focuses on how he stops when she asks him to, making her heart go doki doki.
Meanwhile, Rui accuses Shizuku of playing mind games, grabs her by the arm, and violently throws her down on a bed, which she responds to by enthusiastically making out with him. She says it’s natural, since he’s a man and she’s a woman, instead of excoriating him for his violent behavior. Shizuku is supposed to be the worldly, mature young woman who Tsukushi looks up to, so this approach to an “enlightened” attitude about sex sets a terrible example both for Tsukushi and younger readers. Kazuya tells Domyoji about how Tsukushi was once cheerful and well-liked, instead of the angry, terrorized person she’s become, which should be a gigantic red flag that Domyoji’s a big-time abuser. If he were written as a villain, Boys Over Flowers’ acuity toward the psychological toll of bullying and abuse, even for “strong” victims, could be powerful, but instead it’s just apologism. Ugh.
Cactus’s Secret vol. 2
Now that Kyohei knows Miku likes him, he’s turned her down! But Miku isn’t going to give up easily. However, Student Council President Itsuki Natsukawa witnesses Miku’s rejection by Kyohei and takes matters into his own hands. (Summary by Viz)
This volume injects a touch more drama into the mix by adding a brief-lived rival in Natsukawa. He’s handsome and charming, and though Miku remains steadfast in her affections, she still enjoys the attention. Natsukawa, however, quickly turns out to be a complete scumbag and uses underhanded tactics to try to get Kyohei out of the picture. It’s something of an inversion of the “He’s bad, but someone else is worse” trope – “He’s an idiot, but the other guy is an asshole.” It’s a nice shift away from what was long a genre standard, and Miku does not even remotely stand for or even entertain Natsukawa once his true colors come out. Instead, she sticks up for Kyohei confidently and without hesitation – a nice touch in a series clearly aimed at young women.
Interestingly, the series is starting to address some of the power dynamics that can become an issue in any romance. Toward the end of the volume, Miku realizes that her unrequited feelings, and decision to pursue him in hopes he may come to return them, gives Kyohei power in their relationship. I have no idea how this will develop, but I have hope.
Blank Slate vol. 1
What does it take to find your true inner self? Zen’s memory has been wiped, and he can’t remember if he’s a killer or a hero. And a lot of people will do anything they can to keep it that way.
Zen’s unearthly charm attracts a veritable rogues gallery. A bounty hunter becomes obsessed enough to become his new partner, while the daughter of a general treats him like some sort of guru. But when he meets a mysterious doctor who may know him from the past, Zen learns that the secret of his lost memory is definitely more sinister than saintly. (Summary by Viz)
Blank Slate is not a typical shoujo manga. It is action-driven rather than character-driven, and the main character is unrepentantly hollow and amoral. It seems like it would be more at home in a seinen manga magazine, and it’s a major shift from Aya Kanno’s more popular work, Otomen. Leaving the plot and action aside (both of which I found rather thin), there was a distinct lack of sexual assault. All too often, a character committing sexual assault is shorthand for a lack of a traditional moral compass, but Zen, though the manga frames him sexually and defines himself by his “villainous” urges, does not once take sexual advantage of a woman. Even when he’s alone with a totally helpless, blind noblewoman, he doesn’t abuse her. It’s not even presented as an option. It’s a nice shift from expectations.
Black Bird vol. 6
Black Rose Alice vol. 5
Boys Over Flowers vol. 4
Cactus’s Secret vol. 3
Blank Slate vol. 2
Dawn of the Arcana vol. 1