Black Bird vol. 9
Boys Over Flowers vol. 7
Dawn of the Arcana vol. 4
Demon Love Spell vol. 3
Backstage Prince vol. 2
Demon Prince of Momochi House vol. 1
Does the predominance of abusive relationships in shoujo indicate anything unique to Japanese culture?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.
An audience member asked me this question at my Geek Girl Con panel, and I was so taken aback that for a moment I could only sputter, “I’m really not comfortable with that question!” Luckily, another person in the audience jumped in to point out that no, it’s definitely not something unique to Japanese media, which gave me enough time to regroup and give a better thought-out answer.
Romanticization of abusive relationships is in no way unique to shoujo manga or Japanese media in general. To be honest, I don’t know much about young adult media from countries other than Japan and the US, but I do know that the sort of dynamics I write about in this column are plenty commonplace in media from my home country. We are, after all, the country that produced Twilight, which I think is the most simultaneously beloved and hated romances of all time. It’s criticized largely for precisely the same reasons I criticize manga here. I was a vocal critic of Twilight as well, in its time, and reading critiques across the web was a major influence in how I interact with media.
But it’s not like Twilight was produced in a vacuum. Many of the feminist darlings I grew up with have come under very much deserved fire. My beloved Tortall novels by Tamora Pierce have recurring issues with power imbalances and teacher/student romances. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of the most influential “feminist” series of the 90’s and 00’s, but it had major issues with consent and abuse throughout its seven seasons. I don’t think there was a single healthy relationship in that entire show. And even in Gilmore Girls, a show predicated on female relationships, Rory’s string of unlikable asshole boyfriends is practically a meme.
So, no. This is not unique to manga, nor does it indicate anything uniquely Japanese. Rather, it is a sign that Japan, like many other countries, has issues with rape and abuse culture.
Black Bird vol. 9
Misao and Kyo finally go all the way, and Misao can’t regret the new levels of intimacy, even though all the other demons seem to be able to tell that they are now lovers. But does Kyo feel the same way? Instead of bringing them closer, their new status seems to make him turn away from Misao. Is that just the nature of guys, be they human or demon? Or is there something darker behind Kyo’s sudden lack of warmth? (Summary by Viz)
Only two points? I may faint!
But seriously, this volume of Black Bird impressed me. The main consequence of Misao and Kyo consummating is external, after all – demons and spirits pursuing Misao’s blood with a renewed vigor, including possessing humans to get at her. Sakurakoji handles the situation with more grace than I’ve come to expect from Black Bird, as she handles Misao’s internalized guilt, particularly over the ruined lives of the humans who were forced into attacking her, with deftness and grace. Even Kyo does well in the situation, unconditionally supportive and accepting. Meanwhile, Misao realizes how unequal their relationship, despite her earlier promises that she wanted to be Kyo’s partner, rather than someone who has to be protected all the time. It was a nice bit of honesty, and I do wonder if it was planned from the start or came from a realization by Sakurakoji or an editor. Either way, it opens the door for great potential character growth.
Still, there are some niggling issues carrying over from already-established plot points. This volume comes with the reminder that Kyo is Misao’s teacher, which is a relationship dynamic that is never okay. I’m also still pretty unclear on why Kyo was so insistent that they not have sex. He shamed her constantly to the point of cruelty for what seems like only a small shift in the status quo.
Boys Over Flowers vol. 7
Upon Rui Hanazawa’s return from France, Tsukushi’s feelings for him also return.
Together, they share a tender moment that is witnessed by Tsukasa. Tsukasa is consumed with rage and swears vengeance upon both of them in spite of the well-meaning interference by his recently arrived infamous older sister! (Summary by Viz)
This is shaping up to be a weird week, isn’t it?
Boys Over Flowers also turns out the best volume thus far, albeit with a couple major caveats. As I said last week, Tsukushi handled having both Rui and Domyoji vying for her attention terribly – rather than cut it off with one or the other, she kisses Rui on the beach while fully aware that Domyoji is pursuing her. It’s the kind of thing that happens in real life every day as people, especially teenagers, get carried away by confusing, contradictory emotions, but it’s still a crappy thing to do to someone. Domyoji’s response, at first, is shockingly sympathetic – he expresses his heartbreak and cuts the two of them out of his life. Tsukushi faces some renewed bullying for breaking up the F4, but nowhere near the severity she faced before. Even I, who find him completely repulsive, felt for him.
And then it all goes to hell when we meet Domyoji’s older sister, Tsubaki. Tsubaki provides some very useful context for what makes Domyoji the way he is, but I’m not sure if it’s in the way Kamio intended. The way she tells it, Domyoji’s arrogance is a defense mechanism from being isolated due to their parents constantly traveling and other children being afraid to play with him. The way I see it, she physically abused him, which left him with the rage problems we see today. She also unwittingly drags Tsukushi back to their house, when her presence there triggers Domyoji to start throwing things at her, introduce Kazuya to the F4, and promise to get her and Rui expelled. Him not allowing Kazuya to speak to her is a classic case of social isolation, a common abuse tactic, since he is her only friend at Eitoku other than Rui.
Dawn of the Arcana vol. 4
Princess Nakaba of Senan and Prince Caesar of Belquat only married each other for the sake of peace between their two warring countries, so no one expected there to be love between the unlikely couple. But just as feelings start growing between them, Nakaba’s power, the Arcana of Time, shows her a vision of a young woman’s murder. Has the time come for Nakaba to harness her power to change fate? (Summary by Viz)
Okay, I admit it. You win. Dawn of the Arcana has won me over to liking Caesar and Nakaba, both as individual characters and a couple. This is a shift I genuinely struggled with. Caesar was terrible in the first volume, physically and emotionally victimizing Nakaba at every turn and threatening her with rape, but he’s become a completely different character. It wasn’t a gradual shift either – there was barely any learning process or self-reflection on how miserable he was making her, no having to realize her humanity and those of the Ajin. Now he’s a decent guy, if spoiled and entitled as a result of his royal upbringing, who really only wants to help Nakaba and make her happy by helping the Ajin. The abrupt change pulls me out of the story somewhat – rather than consistent character growth that reflect the author’s own attitudes and beliefs, this feels more like a simple case of weak writing. All I can do is shrug and move on. Would Caesar coming to understand his wrongdoing and fighting to shake off old prejudices be more satisfying? Sure. But that’s not the series Toma has written, and I’m enjoying it well enough in its current state.
Demon Love Spell vol. 3
Shrine maiden Miko has sealed the powers of the sexy incubus Kagura, who has vowed to protect her. Miko finds herself suddenly popular with the boys at school and starts getting asked out. Has falling in love with Kagura made her more attractive to the opposite sex, or is some other mysterious force at work? (Summary by Viz)
This volume brings us to the halfway point of Demon Love Spell (thank god) and provides us with some of the most narratively messy, puzzling stories thus far. The majority of the book is devoted to Miko and Sou, a popular TV exorcist and former student of her father’s. I’m not going to go into great detail on the plot, but suffice it to say that it was utterly baffling and involved a drunken arranged marriage that Miko acquiesces to way too fast. Sou tries to force himself on her, but isn’t villainized for it – I suppose it would have been hypocritical, considering how pushy Kagura is. But no, the oddest element is how Kagura’s personality changes when he seals off his incubus powers. Instead of aggressive and sex-obsessed, human Kagura is mild mannered, sweet, and a little clumsy – the type of character usually described in anime and manga as “refreshing.”And yet, Miko still calls off her arranged marriage to Sou mid-wedding when he shows up. What does this say about Kagura and Miko’s relationship? Is his entire personality based on how horny he is? Is Miko’s attraction to him purely physical? Can Mayu Shinjo write a likeable character to save her life? (No.)
Either way, the volume ends with Miko’s father offering to give Kagura anything he wants – and Kagura demands a hot spring trip alone with Miko. Miko is horrified and frightened at the prospect of being alone with Kagura, but her father still agrees, making him complicit in her abuse. Feeling safe in a relationship? Mayu Shinjo never heard of it.
Backstage Prince vol. 2
There’s trouble brewing behind the kabuki curtain. Ryusei’s dad doesn’t want anything–or anyone!–distracting his son from his chosen profession. It’s no secret that he disapproves of Ryusei’s romance with Akari. Now he’s determined to sabotage their relationship any way he can! (Summary by Viz)
Can we please be done with the trope, “affable male friend is actually here to steal your girl away”? If we can’t, how about instead of being jealous, the male love interest trusts his girlfriend instead of getting angry/jealous/violent? Because this is a common relationship dynamic both in real life and in fiction, with very few models for dealing with it healthily. It paints all friends of other genders as potential rivals, and romantic partners as possessions to be jealously guarded instead of people capable of making their own decisions. This is what drives the action in the final plot arc of Backstage Prince. Naoki, up to this point, has been nothing but affable and helpful to Akari… so of course he was actually trying to get into her pants. He’s actually very manipulative – in addition to his obvious overtures to Akari, he tries to create a situation that would force her and Ryusei to break up. Of course, he’s not successful, but his unsuccessful manipulations are more or less swept under the rug at the end, when Ryusei and Akari marry as teens after knowing each other for only months – always a recipe for success!
Series total: 3 points
Backstage Prince was… fine. There’s little abuse to speak of, and though I’m not thrilled about the hasty teenage marriage, the series is overall inoffensive. Akari and Ryusei are utterly bland, and Akari in particular seems like a prototype of Misao, so much so that I kept typing and deleting Misao’s name instead. The way Ryusei leans on Akari as a sort of emotional safe haven is sweet, but there’s no sense of Akari’s inner or outer life other than her relationship with him. I wish the series had made better use of its kabuki theater setting, but we can’t all be Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, I suppose.
The Demon Prince of Momochi House vol. 1
On her sixteenth birthday, orphan Himari Momochi inherits her ancestral estate that she’s never seen. Momochi House exists on the barrier between the human and spiritual realms, and Himari is meant to act as guardian between the two worlds. But on the day she moves in, she finds three handsome squatters already living in the house, and one seems to have already taken over her role! (Summary by Viz)
Finally, a series new to me that I enjoy wholeheartedly right off the bat!
I don’t have too much to say about The Demon Prince of Momochi House here, but in the best way possible – for the purposes of this column, it does nothing really wrong! Himari is a fine main character; she is fun, driven, and assertive even in the odd situation she ends up in. Aoi, the main love interest, is sweet and willing to help, especially when it becomes clear that Himari has no intention of leaving the house. Even though Himari is in over her head, he never treats her like she’s stupid or berates her when she makes a mistake. On top of that, Aya Shououto’s art is lovely, with a sort of downcast sensuality to her male designs. The only problem is that Aoi seems to struggle with normal boundaries – the three points are due to him crawling into her bed in the middle of the night, even if nothing untoward happens.
Black Bird vol. 10
Boys Over Flowers vol. 8
Dawn of the Arcana vol. 5
Demon Love Spell vol. 4
The Demon Prince of Momochi House vol. 2
Dengeki Daisy vol. 1