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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A Meiji Era Love Story: Tokyo Lastochika 1

This title is my first digital manga purchase from JManga and I’m glad to say that I’m pretty pleased overall with the whole process and the product.  If they continue to bring in unique and interesting titles such as these, I’ll be sure to continue being a regular customer.

I think this may be the first manga that I’ve read that’s completely set in the Meiji Era (that short Meiji arc in Tsubasa doesn’t really count) and which addresses the cultural upheaval that happened in Japan, most especially in a cosmopolitan area like Tokyo. Tokyo Lastochika chronicles the time when Japan moved from feudalism to Westernized industrialization and how it affected society at large as well the lives of two young people living during this time.

Hana TSUMURA is a young female who has decided to work as one of the live-in housemaids of the Arima family. Her mother had recently passed away, and left with few options, she leaves her younger brother in the care of a family friend. While bidding goodbye to her brother, a carriage rumbles by, almost running them both over. Hana’s face gets a minor scratch on her face and feels already out of sorts before she even reaches her new place of employ.

When she reaches the mansion, she realizes that the young man riding the carriage is none other than the Mitsuyuki ARIMA, the young master. He was speeding back in the hopes to catch his own father’s last moments, but by the time he arrived, the elder Arima had already expired.

From the opening chapter, there’s already the spark of chemistry between Hana and Mitsuyuki. He may look snooty, as rich young masters are generally portrayed, but he seems to always have a gentle look always ready for Hana. His interest in her slowly develops in the subsequent chapters; he’s concerned for her well-being and makes her feel valued, even with the difference in their social class and status.

Hana, in turn, is a terrific female main character. She may not have the status and upbringing of Mitsuyuki and the rest of the nobility, but she’s caring and forthright, two qualities which are not exactly compatible with each other. She has no problem speaking her mind or defending her dignity, even at the risk of losing her job.

Hana and Mitsuyuki’s relationship is not going to be free from obstacles — even in the first volume, there are numerous forces working against them being together, with some being easier to surmount than others. Yet it’s really lovely to read a story where you know you can feel hopeful that everything will end up all right in the end.

I love all of the little period details that Miyoshi included in this series, such as the increase in the number of cars on the roads, the new proliferation of department stores, and the construction of buildings such as the Ryounkaku. If I’m reading historical fiction, I expect  authors to do their homework since it’s the details that could make or break the story’s milieu.

If I may be allowed a quibble, the only area of improvement that I would suggest for JManga is to improve the English language adaptation. Some areas of the dialogue seemed to be translated verbatim from the Japanese-language instead of using the corresponding or closest English equivalent. It’s somewhat jarring to see the phrase “isn’t this an article that is blood circulating,” and wondering for a few moments what that’s supposed to mean. Oh, and somebody should correct the typo on the table of contents, since it’s showing that the chapter title is “The Spring of 1920” when it’s supposed to be “The Spring of 1910,” as it appears everywhere else.

Really looking forward to volume 2!

A Bride’s Story as Feminist Literature

エイホン家 by めかぶ (Pixiv: 2388857)

This was the manga that I wanted to write about on Monday to start off my “Feminist Friendly Titles” week. I didn’t have the 2nd volume on-hand earlier this week, so thank you, NYPL for having a spare copy of the book for me to browse.

(I realize that the post title is super pretentious, but I was an English lit. major and old habits die hard~)

A Bride’s Story exemplifies the medium at its artistic best. Kaoru MORI’s attention to the smallest detail is evident on each page. I can’t even begin to think about the number of hours it’s taken to draw the intricate embroidery and patterns on all the clothing and fabrics and the woodwork.  In the author’s notes in volume 2, she says that drawing all these details “makes her feel alive.” I adore Mori, but that statement just made me love her even more.

The first two volumes of A Bride’s Story center around Amir Halgal and her husband Karluk Eihon. Amir arrives at her new family’s home and must learn to adapt to not only her life as a young bride, but also to the lifestyle and expectations of her husband and the rest of the family. The chapters cover various aspects of this society’s culture and traditions, from food preparation, to hunting and herding, and clan relations. The chapters are structured as short vignettes, focusing specifically on that one detail of the life of Amir and Karluk (or one of their family) before moving to another detail in a later chapter.

A Closer Look at the Young Bride

It’s fitting that, among the cast of characters living in the Eihon home, there’s a English anthropologist named Smith who’s studying the clan and their culture, almost as a stand-in for the reader. As the first titular “young bride,” I want to channel Smith and try to figure out what Amir is all about.

When we first meet Amir, she’s twenty years old. While the author has mentioned that she has other siblings, the only family member whom we do see is her elder brother, Azel. The Halgal family, unlike the Eihon, are nomadic during the summer months yet have a particular spot where they spend their winters.  This partially nomadic lifestyle explains Amir’s expertise in tracking and hunting.  She is an expert with a bow, able to shoot birds from the sky and rabbits in the steppe. In addition, she is also an excellent horse rider, able to climb on a horse sprinting at breakneck speed. In short, she’s pretty kickass and doesn’t even realize it.

Amir’s also not too shabby in the domestic arena: after shooting the rabbit, she dresses and prepares a stew for Karluk and the rest of the family. She then uses the rabbit fur to sew him a lined vest. In another chapter, she embroiders a tunic for Karluk, containing various motifs to protect him from illness. It’s one of the recurring scenes running through these volumes, in that Amir genuinely cares for her husband’s well-being and will do what she can to make him happy and comfortable.

Being that she is from another clan and still unfamiliar with the social customs of her new clan, Amir sometimes finds herself committing some faux pas.  Thinking that her in-laws thought that her clothes smelled bad, she undresses and runs out in her underclothes so that she could wash her dress — probably scandalizing  everyone in town who saw her in doing so.  She’s so innocent and well-meaning, though, that they probably shrugged it off immediately.

It’s really just so easy to love Amir.

Problematic Issues

Let me stop pussyfooting: one of the concerns that I’ve seen from other people who’ve read this manga is the eight-year age difference between Amir and Karluk.  (Which, by the way, is the same age difference between Hazuki and Rokka in Natsuyuki Rendezvous but whatever.)  The marriage between Amir and Karluk was arranged by their elders, so it fits the narrative well in that clan and tribal relationships are formed and maintained through inter-marriages with other clans. Which brings us to another problematic issue, that is, the treatment of Amir as a mere commodity, but later.

As Amir’s husband, Karluk occupies an interesting space in the narrative. He is twelve, but he is expected to be a man once she arrived. They have their own home, and she generally defers to him for the final decisions. For all of Amir’s innocence, Karluk possesses a complementary maturity. His impression of Amir may have been of an older sister at the onset of their marriage, but gradually, you could see him looking at her not only with affection, but attraction.  Also, Mori deftly handles the intimate moments between the young husband and his wife by showing us just enough that we can understand their initial awkwardness yet giving them enough distance during their closest moments.

The main point of conflict happens when Amir’s brother, Azel, attempts to reclaim her back to their clan. They want to use her as a bargaining chip to yet another (and much stronger) clan to the North. Of course, the Eihon will not agree to this insult. They tell Azel that Amir is now part of their family and that she will not be going anywhere with him. From this, violence results in a later chapter, and Amir and Karluk are faced with the possibility of no longer being married.

How can I include this manga as a feminist-friendly title when women are objectified? Amir, in her clan’s eyes, is property — something that can be given and taken back on their whim. I don’t see this as a problematic issue to the manga since this, unfortunately, still happens in our modern world, not just in the fictional 19th century Caucasus.  Women, all over the world are treated not as persons, but as commodities. If a manga can continue to bring this issue to the forefront of discourse and discussion, then I think that manga has succeeded in more ways than one.  Discussing feminism doesn’t just mean praising the good and condemning the bad — sometimes you need to expose what’s wrong in the world, in how women are treated, and from that, find a way to fix or eliminate the problem.

I don’t know how much more enthusiastically I can recommend this title: it has gloriously beautiful art; greatly nuanced characterizations, especially in its lead female Amir; a sweet developing romance; and relevance to real-life issues. If I’ve at least convinced you to give it a browse the next time you find yourself at a bookstore (or library), then I’ve done a good job.

Love and Sex in Old Edo: Sakuran

Sakuran is one of those manga titles that I’ve had on my “please license this in English” wishlist. I had the chance to see the movie adaptation at New York’s Japan Society earlier this year and enjoyed it a lot. To be quite honest, I only found out that Vertical Inc. had licensed the Sakuran manga for the US market and were going to release it this summer mostly because of the promotional items they had at the Japan Society screening. (Just goes to show you how up to date I was with my manga news…) Suffice to say, I wanted more Sakuran, so I figured that if the adaptation was anything like the source material, then I had a lot to look forward to from the manga.

Vertical’s presentation of the manga is stunning. From the glossy foil cover, to the multiple colored pages, it’s hard to not get a sense of the care that Vertical’s editorial team has poured into this book. There was a point when I flinched at the prices that Vertical was charging for their books (being so spoiled on the <$10.00 prices of other manga publishers that have since passed on), but now, I’m happy to pay for quality. Also, if you’re still cautiously on the fence about this book, you’ll be please to know that it’s a one-volume completed work. You buy it, and if you don’t find yourself fawning over it, then you don’t need to get any additional volumes to wrap up the story.

Having said that, I would be among the first to admit that Anno’s art style isn’t for everybody. I liked the art in Sugar Sugar Rune, didn’t love it so much in Happy Mania. I think I’m more impressed with her art when there’s some degree of fashion or styling involved. In Sakuran, it’s almost like somebody let her loose in a fabric shop and gave her free rein to every pattern imaginable. All of the oiran are bedecked in a myriad of lovely kimono. The colored pages are essentially visual smorgasbord, but even in the black-and-white pages, she doesn’t get lazy on the clothing details.

Also, I don’t recall if this true of the other manga created by Moyoco ANNO, but looking through this book, no panel is extraneous. Each little space is filled with something of visual interest. She’s able to present the world of Yoshiwara in great detail, down to the smallest grain of rice that Kiyoha shoves in her mouth, but even in the panels where only a character’s facial expression is drawn, there’s still a lot of interest and detail on that face.

So, if I’ve convinced you to get this manga, then great.

My dissatisfaction with Sakuran comes back to my personal belief that Moyoco ANNO is a better illustrator than storyteller. She comes up with a great premise for a story, but somewhere along the creative process, things get shaky. So, maybe she doesn’t know how to fill in these flaws in the story, or her editor just can’t get the nerve to tell her that she should fix a few things, but the end results of most of her manga just end up so hollow to me. Maybe I’m the only one who’s affected like that, but somehow, I don’t feel that’s the case.

In a nutshell, Sakuran is the story of Kiyoha, a girl who was sold to a “teahouse” in the Yoshiwara district of Edo and how she moved up from a maid to one of the top-ranking oiran. Kiyoha’s life is not without hardship; she’s often beaten and tortured (probably more frequently than the rest since she often tries to run away) and even as one of the popular courtesans, she wasn’t immune from deception and heartbreak. If only Kiyoha was just a tad bit likeable as a character…

As you would expect from a title about Edo-era courtesans, there’s several instances of sexual intercourse between the oiran and their customers. It’s not overly explicit, but it’s not the Barbie-doll shoujo sex in Kaikan Phrase. Even Kiyoha, from a young age, understands that sex is not love, and unfortunately, sex is her job. To guarantee her rise in the ranks of oiran, she has to catch and keep the attention of the most powerful lords and samurai. Even if these samurai are old and pervy. Especially if these samurai are old and pervy.

Alas, our heroine falls for a young, handsome merchant named Sojiro. It doesn’t seem as if an oiran taking a lover is approved, but as long as she takes care of her other “regulars,” most people would turn a blind eye to her extracurricular shenanigans. Being that this is Kiyoha, however, subtlety is not a part of her vocabulary. She blatantly ignores her other clients, even leaving a pre-arranged party altogether to have sex with Sojiro in the other room. If this was a fairy tail (or a regular shoujo manga) , Kiyoha would escape her life as a courtesan and live happily ever after with her sweet lover.  But again, this isn’t that simple — and Sojiro isn’t a prince.

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recall that the film ending veers differently from the manga ending. I first thought that I preferred the movie ending, but in the course of writing out this entry, I think the manga ending feels more authentic. Kiyoha has known no other world other than what’s she’s seen within the teahouses; the outside world is too harsh for her, only in her acceptance of her gilded cage will she find satisfaction.