I’m (provisionally) back after a murderously long hiatus, and I figured I’d take some time to talk about something I actually enjoy rather than just trashing whatever’s hot at the moment (although K-On!!’s time is nigh, for sure). And what I like, after a long week, is to sit down in Barnes & Nobles with some horribly rich cafe food, a Diet Coke and the first generic Viz manga with ‘Shojo Beat’ written on the spine that catches my eye.
I’m not proud about this, because quite frankly these books are really bad. I don’t really feel the need to explain myself on that point. If you flip through Ultra Maniac and don’t realize that there are things, important things, that are deeply and objectively wrong with what you’re seeing, then you don’t deserve literacy. Give it up; turn in your library card so some poor inner-city kid can use it.
What’s appealing about them is that, like the big sourdough pretzel I always order to read them with, they are comfort food. Big chunks of tasty and easily-digestible manga where pretty much every character is either completely evil or completely good (or at least has flaws that only make them more appealing). Characterization is largely provided by generous application of screentone and sparkles. Every other scene abandons seriousness and breaks down into slapstick. Plot is optional. God, I could read them all day.
Of course, that doesn’t leave a lot of space for a trenchant analysis of any series in particular. Everything is so value-neutral in the shoujo world. Shit pretty much just rains down on the main character until some mysterious hotty sweeps her off her feet pretty much without rhyme or reason. But there are interesting themes to the narratives that stretch across the genre which I think are worth talking about.
For one, I’ve always been a little bit concerned about the role that “love” plays in these stories. It always — always — acts to subvert the will of the main character, pushing them ever closer to the guy they just can’t stand. In Hot Gimmick, Hatsumi is inevitably shoved towards Ryoki, who literally plans on enslaving her. He’s such a prick that he tried to blackmail her into sleeping with him. She’s always deciding that she’s really done with him, that he’s gone too far this time, but “love” convinces her to stay. In B.O.D.Y., my manga de jour for this morning’s bookstore brunch, Sakura meets a boy who is the opposite of her ideal: flippant and insincere in the extreme. He, however, actively uses her “love”, which is just a crush she can’t shake, to draw her closer to him. This “love” shit fucking sucks if you ask me! Does it always have to be the case that the “love” interest is also the guy the main character absolutely despises?
Of course, adversarial relationships make for better stories. Case in point: Kimi ni Todoke, where the main couple get along just fine and the whole thing is a snorefest. But it’s weird how “love” is so regularly working directly against the main character’s best interest, and more significantly, forcing her to submit to a will that’s not her own. In most cheesy Western romances, bad boys represent a kind of empowerment, allowing women to escape from boring, dead-end homemaker futures. But in shoujo manga, the apotheosis comes when the main character “accepts her feelings” and capitulates to the love interest. In stories written by girls, for girls, and about girls, why is the good end always giving in to the guys they hate?
I’ll be talking more about my trashy tastes more in the immediate future with posts on realms of the anime world too nerdy for E Minor to soil his hands with (spoilers: Touhou). Until then I’d honestly appreciate your thoughts on this subject. I don’t quite have the grasp of the wide world of romance manga to draw conclusions from my observations, so please feel free to comment!