A Meiji-Era Bodice Ripper: Stepping on Roses 1-3

I was planning to write this yesterday, but I got hooked on tsuritama (HA!) so that’s why I’m only finding the time to write this today.

I think it’s fair to warn you that I haven’t met an Rinko UEDA manga that I didn’t like. For me, she’s the quintessential Margaret manga-ka, down to the big old-fashioned hair styles and the dewy eyes. I think I also like that her series are known for their historical settings, however flimsy. I enjoy it when manga artists choose to have a specialty, of sorts. If somebody can be the manga specialist on seinen space sci-fi, or on shoujo sports high-school drama, then maybe Rinko UEDA is the master of the historical-based shoujo romance.

Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome?

The setup of Stepping on Roses is textbook paperback romance: Sumi is a poor girl with the unfortunate luck of having the most irresponsible lout for a brother. He doesn’t just leave the family in debt, but he also brings home wayward children he finds on the street and has Sumi take care of them. One day, with the debt collectors at her door, the children screaming for food, and her brother nowhere to be found, Sumi marches to the red-light district, with the intention of selling herself to the highest bidder. Soichiro ASHIDA, a tall, dark-haired businessman takes her up on her offer. He’ll provide her with the money that she needs if she agrees to enter into a loveless marriage with him.

But wait! There’s more!

You’d think that a faux marriage with a domineering man wasn’t bad enough, but Sumi unknowingly finds herself as a pawn in a nefarious ploy orchestrated by Soichiro against his best friend, Nozomu IJUIN. Soichiro apparently didn’t pick Sumi randomly from the bevy of desperate poor girls, he knew that she is exactly Nozomu’s type and that if Nozomu were to fall in love with her, he could then accuse his friend of stealing his wife and then gain the upper-hand in their business dealings.

(I love how even my descriptions for this manga are sounding more purple the longer I keep writing…)

So Soichiro comes into this story as a cold-hearted bastard and when his plan actually seems to work out — because Nozomu is super predictable and falls head over heels over the doll-like Sumi as expected — he then realizes that he may actually have feelings for Sumi.

A Beginner’s Guide to Raising a Lady

Sumi, in all this, remains seemingly ignorant of the bigger drama that’s unfolding around her. She is fully cognizant of possible problems in agreeing to the marriage, but is willing to hold up her end of the bargain by becoming an “acceptable” wife that Soichiro can show off to society. There are several funny scenes where Sumi is being tutored by Soichiro’s butler, Komai, on how to be a proper lady. She does it all: learning the correct tableware, walking with a book on top of her head, learning how to eat with the correct tableware with a book on top of her head… It’s all very My Fair Lady, without the cockney accent.

In the hands of another author, I would’ve thought Sumi to be an insufferable character. She has the naive, super-genki personality that I feel is a stereotype that’s overplayed in manga. Maybe I’m just more patient with this artist. After my experience with Tail of the Moon, I trust Ueda to create a character who may appear sweet and nice at first, but will later show their inner steel at the right time.  Sumi is tougher than she looks. If she can survive starvation and poverty, anything that these rich people throw at her would be a piece of cake.

Examining the Genre and Work within the Genre

This series is one of those works where I feel unsure whether I like it or not. How can I say that I enjoy the romance and the intrigue between Sumi and her paramours when this work is such a perfect example of female objectification? Am I not offended that Sumi is treated primarily as an object by her brother, by Soichiro, and by Nozomu. In these three volumes, they don’t seem to see Sumi as a person, by Sumi as a representation of their masculine desire, be it money, lust, or influence.

But how much of that is the author’s own creative bent, and how much of it is the pressure of the genre? Authorial intent is always shaky ground to tread on, but I believe that Ueda is aware that her work is marketed as a romance, so it may not be too unbelievable to think that she adjusts her narrative to fit in with the structure that romance readers have come to expect. Tropes are repeated precisely because they work to create an effective mood and tone. More importantly, tropes within a genre are the signposts that establish the work as a part of that genre.

I’m not trying to give Stepping on Roses a pass, or deny that I don’t feel queasy at some of the situations that Sumi finds herself entangled in. But I also cannot deny that I do like the story so far, and I continue find it compelling and readable despite all of its problems. It’s probably the author’s track record, but I have a feeling that Stepping on Roses isn’t going to disappoint me in the way that Honey Hunt didand if it does, then I’ll be more than happy to write up an updated review.

Are there actually any bodices ripped in this manga? Well, I wouldn’t use that phrase in the title if it weren’t true, would I?

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