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Posts Tagged ‘Relationships’

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Image from Amazon.com

Despite shojo manga’s reputation for romance and shonen manga being known for endless battles, both categories place a heavy weight on relationships. Shojo manga heroines pine for seemingly impossible loves while shonen manga heroes fight against unlikely odds, building a group of trustworthy teammates in the process. But whether it’s shojo or shonen, these stories often share another commonality that may not be so wonderful: the relationships, characters, and interactions between them get tangled up in formulaic, gender-stereotyped patterns. Boys have to knock heads and throw punches before they understand each other (not to mention rescue their female fellows to demonstrate their masculinity) while guy-crazy girls enter a subtle game of war as they fight to reach the apparently unobtainable guy, caught up in getting the romance of their dreams. Such posturing does happen in real life, but fiction can exaggerate relationships according to gender stereotypes. Yet among all this hyped-up relationship drama, an understated shojo manga called Natsume’s Book of Friends seems to put aside gender stereotype-heavy plots to get at a simple yet powerful human truth–our struggles to build connections with and understand others.

Takashi Natsume, the protagonist of Natsume’s Book of Friends, knows more about loneliness than a young man his age should. His parents died when he was little, resulting in him being shuffled around from one unwelcoming relative to the next. To make matters worse, ever since he can remember, Natsume has been able to see things other people can’t–strange beings akin to spirits or demons called yokai who harass him wherever he goes. Unable to see what he does, his relatives and his peers found him creepy and considered him a liar, rejecting and isolating him. Natsume has never had a place he could call “home” or people who he felt he could confide in. Now a high school student, he still has to deal with his troublesome ability, but he thinks he’s finally found the place he belongs when he’s adopted by his distant relatives, the Fujiwaras. But his troubles with yokai increase after he finds a mysterious book called “The Book of Friends” left behind by his long deceased grandmother, Reiko. Snubbed by everyone around her because of her own ability to see yokai, Reiko took out her frustrations on the supernatural creatures, beating them in duels and then binding them to her will by collecting their names in that book. Now, with help of his new bodyguard, a yokai who looks like a ceramic cat, Natsume must deal with the yokai who pester and attack him for their names and powerful The Book of Friends.

When I first came across Natsume’s Book of Friends, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. On the surface, it may sound like many other manga before it, but while this series certainly has a good dose of dangerous encounters, it uses Natsume’s ability to see yokai to jump into issues such as isolation, trust, and the joys and difficulties of having connections with others. For much of the series so far, the story works on an episodic basis, without the immediate tensions and drama of most popular series. But I quickly got used to the pace, and fell in love with Natsume’s struggles to connect, protect, and wind his way through the complexities of relationships. And perhaps because the series attempts to tackle relationships on a more fundamental level, without the extra drama of idealistic romances or out-of-this-world battles to save humanity, it feels as if the puff of accentuated gender norms has been skimmed away, leaving organic interactions between the protagonist and those he encounters.

b10.01Natsume makes the perfect protagonist to tackle these relationship struggles. He’s been rejected so many times for being honest about what he sees that he’s closed himself off, putting on a mask of normalcy to avoid problems. Now that he’s living with the Fujiwaras, their kindness has warmed him up to connecting with the people around him, but building relationships has become foreign to him. He wants to connect to others, and wants to be honest about himself, but doesn’t know how, especially when he fears his ability will either put his friends and family in danger or cause them to reject him. Yet even as he sees yokai as a threat to his life with the Fujiwaras, Natsume’s kindness leaves him unable to walk away from yokai he becomes involved with, and he begins to see the pestering and sometimes dangerous beings in a different light. Finally, one of my favorite additions to this series is the exorcists, who complicate and challenge Natsume’s thinking, namely his growing desire to help both humans and yokai. His interactions with the exorcists teach him that although he has at last found people who share his ability to see yokai, that does not mean that they fully understand each other. All three of these groups force Natsume to confront new and often difficult questions about relationships with others, from how to balance his projected image of a normal teen with his often troubled reality, how much to let people in and how much to keep them away from his secrets and problems, to confusion about who to trust and what to say. And of course, how to understand others. Although some of these troubles may seem fantastical, taken out of the supernatural context, they are all problems that everyone faces and can relate to, male or female.

That’s not to say that Yuki Modorikawa has created a gender role-free paradise in Natsume’s Book of Friends. Gender roles still seep through, albeit in a more subtle manner than some other popular shojo and shonen series; Natsume is dubious of being carried away by a female character (even as that character saves him from a dangerous situation) until he distinguishes her as a female yokai rather than a woman; at numerous points, yokai tell Natsume to “man up” or call him a “wuss”; and Natsume’s foster parents reflect an ideal traditional household with a cheery stay-at-home mother and a father who works outside the home. They’re subtle, but if you look for them, gender roles are definitely present.

Even so, these gender norms do not feel imposed on the story as the proper way to act or live as a man or woman. In fact, the protagonist himself diverges in many ways from the typical path of male characters. Natsume isn’t bolstered as a masculine superhero who saves cute damsels in his spare time nor are the girls around him flocking like maniacs to score prince charming. The series has ample chances to make Natsume into a prince charming figure, since he does assist female yokai and girls several times throughout the stories and it’s been noted in the story that Natsume is handsome, but these details never push their way to the front. Even when Natsume is repeatedly mistaken for a female relative or told to be more of a man, he does not try to reassert his manliness by exaggerating stereotypical male qualities. He is concerned with protecting those around him, a trait often seen in both shojo and shonen heroes, but Natsume’s protectiveness feels natural, the kind of protectiveness we all feel toward people we care about, no matter our gender. Notably, he doesn’t feel more protective of his female relations and acquaintances than the male ones. He wants to keep them all safe to the best of his abilities. Natsume isn’t made out to be the complete opposite of what’s considered to be masculine like Asuka from Otomen, but he’s a wonderful example of a well-rounded male character shown to have a healthy range of emotions, and a gentleness and vulnerability mixed with perseverance that sets him apart from both male and female ideals of the perfect man.

cnatsume_yuujinchou_v05_ch16_p004_transcendence_ashitakaxtaiyouIf anything, Natsume’s grandmother, Reiko, could be said to possess more stereotypical qualities of a male manga protagonist. She is long dead by the start of the series, but her legacy of taking her frustrations and loneliness out on yokai is reminiscent of many bad boy or delinquent types such as Naruto (Naruto) or Kyo (Fruits Basket), (although this behavior is seen in female characters as well). When yokai speak of the prowess of Natsume, they usually aren’t referring to the protagonist, but rather Reiko. While his grandmother dealt with her loneliness through force and violence, Natsume takes a more peaceful approach. Although his supernatural powers are strong, he’s not particularly strong physically. Instead, his true strength lies in his growing kindness and desire to protect the things he has come to care about, a double-edged sword that both makes him more susceptible to attacks and gains him loyal and powerful friends. I appreciate that these two different types of strength (physical strength and kindness) that are stereotypically applied to one gender more than the other have been switched around in Natsume’s Book of Friends. Midorikawa discusses that she considered making Natsume a girl, but I’m glad to see a nice male protagonist who neither reeks of someone’s idealized but boring prince nor has to be the super strong man to sort things out. Having a character like Natsume takes the focus away from questions of masculinity and gender norms in favor of explorations of relationships that are less gendered than we often see in fiction.

So, if you’re tired of series that lay the gender roles on thick and want one that explores the struggles and joys of relationships in a sophisticated, bittersweet manner, I recommend giving Natsume’s Book of Friends a go. A quick note before you do! For those of you who aren’t fans of episodic stories, don’t pass this series up just yet. Although the series does start solely episodic, events and characters start to connect and reappear more frequently as the story picks up. The anime is also streaming legally on Crunchyroll.

 

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9a2149f150155b275461a2d912498eeaAt the suggestion of one of my readers, I recently started reading the Korean webtoon, Cheese in the Trap. Since I ended up spending most of my weekend reading all the chapters that have been translated into English, I can confidently say it’s addicting.

Hong Sul is a 23-year-old college student who has just returned to school after taking a leave of absence. Much to her surprise and suspicion, Yoo Jung, a handsome, popular, and super rich upperclassman, suddenly wants to hang out with her. While he seems like the perfect guy to just about everyone else, Sul is convinced he’s hiding a dark side.

cittThe premise may sound typical, but the execution is anything but. Switching between the past and the present, readers (and Sul) try to piece together what happened before the heroine took her leave of absence and reconcile that with the present situation. At first this can be a little disorienting, especially since some of the characters’ relationships are so different in the past compared to what they are in the present, but after a chapter or two, the pattern becomes clear and a good back-and-forth flow is established. Flashbacks often reveal something about Sul’s relationships and her experiences with people while simultaneously deepening the mystery.

Along the way, issues like bullying and stalking pop up and so far, those issues have been handled well. Those instances add drama yet are presented as serious problems. Perhaps that’s why watching Sul deal with bullies has been inspiring. Although she keeps many things (like her worries and problems) to herself, Sul speaks up and rationally confronts others when she needs to. Her attempts don’t necessarily end the problem and more often than not someone else–usually a guy–has to intervene, but there’s a sense of satisfaction at seeing her stand up for herself and others. She never feels like a damsel in distress who frivolously tries to make a stand. Her words and actions mean something and the help she receives–be it from a man or not–seems realistic.

There’s also much enjoyment to be found in the daily life of Sul and her classmates. While I’ve read slice-of-life manga before, Cheese in the Trap is one of the few that tackles the realities of college students in a way that is both entertaining and down-to-earth. How often have you seen your favorite slice-of-life characters complain about the cost of tuition? We see Sul talking to friends about school-related issues, dealing with horrid group projects, and trying to balance top grades with jobs. It’s common for school to become just a backdrop for the social drama that is the focus of the story.

Additionally, slice-of-life dramas/romances often center on the school-age heroine’s search for romance. When academics are mentioned, it’s customarily at the detriment of the heroine who is revealed to be a poor student. Making some heroines of school-based series struggling students is one thing. It’s good to represent a variety of people so, depicting such a protagonist strikes a chord with those of us who struggled in school or know someone who did. Yet at the same time, like with many of the trends and tropes I discuss on this blog, seeing the majority of those heroines fail academically gets old. Ultimately, the school girl heroine, who is supposed to represent an average, likable girl, coincides with academic underachievement and that’s not a particularly good message.

Therefore, the fact that Sul puts an emphasis on her academics set this comic apart from others that I’ve read. She works hard to get good grades so 97245321that she can get scholarships takes on jobs to support herself and get through school. She doesn’t even bother with romance because she’s afraid it will distract her from her academics. It’s made clear that Sul’s top grades aren’t the result of genius, which might have made her hard to relate to for a major of readers, but rather the result of hard work and sacrifice. Sul’s character is still that of a normal young woman, but she represents different struggles that are just as important to depict as the struggles depicted by the typical school girl type.

The rest of the cast and Sul’s relationships with them are equally remedying. The joys and troubles of relationships explored in Cheese in the Trap are not limited to those of dating and romance. Instead, there is a healthy mix of friendships, potential romances, classmates, family, and everything in between. Another nice change is that the romances aren’t presented as rosy dreams of young lovebirds, driven by destiny and the search for “the one.” While Cheese in the Trap‘s romances can be as touching as any good romance, these romances also feel more reality-bound. There are sweet, blissful moments mixed with tenser ones as the couples try to overcome issues and make their relationships work. The relationships aren’t limited to heterosexual relationships either. As the series goes on, a homosexual couple is introduced and I thought the series did a good job of creating two realistic characters who happen to be homosexual instead of two caricatures of gay stereotypes. When this couple becomes more involved in the plot, the difficulties of being homosexual when those around them aren’t so accepting is explored.

There’s so much more I’d like to say about this series, but for now, I’ll leave you all with this: Cheese in the Trap certainly has drama and mystery (and exceeds nicely at both), but at the heart of the story is a twenty-something woman trying to work her way through life, learning just as much about herself and relationships with others as she is about academics. Three-dimensional characters and relationships, a good mix of genres, entertainment, and serious issues, and an excellent execution make this a series I highly recommend.

Edit: Here is the link to a site that allows you to read the comic in English while still supporting the creator. Make sure to follow the site’s instructions on how to access the translation or you’ll just see the comic in Korean.

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How many times have you read a story about a nice girl head over heels for a guy who seems to treat her like dirt yet is still supposed to be a “good” guy, the guy all the girls dream about? Fiction often gives us tales that are more fun in one’s dreams than in reality and the rough, forceful guy appears to have landed a place in the dreamworld of many a teenage romance stories. But what does it say to young readers, both male and female, if the guy who treats the girl poorly ends up capturing the girl’s heart, sometimes over the choice of a “nice guy” rival? It’s one thing to see that scenario once or twice every couple of years, but when it’s in every other story, people unconsciously start forming ideas over what they read and see everyday. That’s why I was happy to see one manga series that seems to have something else to say about romance to its readers.

In Otomen, Asuka, the guy who loves things like cooking, sewing, romance, and cute things, falls for Ryo, the girl who can’t cook or sew, but can show you martial arts skills that would make even a burly guy think twice about challenging her. It’s the typical opposites attract, but instead of the good girl-bad boy combination that seems so prevalent nowadays in which the good girl must soften the guy’s hard exterior, Asuka and Ryo accept each other as they are and help each other grow. As two people who fall outside gender stereotypes, it can be hard on them to accept themselves at times. Asuka especially is burdened with self-doubt about himself. When he first meets Ryo, he worries that she won’t like a guy who has “girly” interests. But when Ryo discovers Asuka is, in reality, not someone who society would traditionally call “manly,” she doesn’t like him any less. In fact, she accepts him completely, making Asuka realize he wants to, and can, show Ryo his true self. Ryo’s one of the first people he’s felt like he can truly be himself with.  When Asuka starts to feel down about himself, Ryo is always there, cheering him up and accepting every part of him.01_050

While Ryo is much more comfortable with herself, even she has moments of self-doubt. When Ryo is elected to represent her class in a contest to find the most ideal woman in the school, Ryo feels a lot of pressure to not let her classmates down. But she knows that while she might look pretty, internally, she doesn’t match what society thinks an ideal woman is: a woman who is delicate and demure, can cook beautiful and tasty meals, make tea, clean, etc. She’s not good at household things and would choose an action flick over a romance any day. She tries her hardest, but after failing the first two rounds, her classmates are calling her clumsy and Ryo feels she’s a disappointment. Asuka attempts to cheer her up, but Ryo says she’s realized that as a woman she needs to learn things like sewing and cooking and generally how to be more feminine. In one of my favorite moments so far, Asuka confesses he likes her just the way she is and wants her to stay like that. He tells her that if she can’t cook or sew, he can.lotomen_v05_p043

In a way, that really sums up what Asuka and Ryo’s relationship is like; what Asuka feel he lacks, Ryo makes up for and vice versa. It’s one of the most balanced relationships I’ve seen in more recent shojo. Is it a little too rosy and perfect? Yes, but in comparison to other romance fantasies, I love this one which shows a type of relationship with an underlying message that’s healthy and modern: find someone who thinks you’re wonderful for all your faults and all your strengths and support each other.

If that isn’t enough of a message for you, Otomen also goes so far as to make fun of the jerky love interest type. One of Asuka’s friends, Yamato, a boy who looks like a girl, but wants to be manly, struggles with impressing girls so, he does a practice date. It turns out Yamato is one of those people who buys into the idea that jerky guys are cool and as a result, he comically makes a mess of his practice date. He shows up late dressed like a punk(?) because cool guys are supposed to make their girls wait, tries to act tough, pulls his “date” forcefully along without saying anything, and more. I loved this chapter since everything Yamato does to be the “cool” jerk ends up going over poorly. While stuff may seem romantic in fiction, it may not be so cool in real life and Otomen depicts this in quite an amusing fashion.

What do you think? Is Otomen giving readers a better idealized relationship or is it just another example of unattainable perfection? And what do you think of the other relationship trends in fiction? Seriously problematic or just fantasy?

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The unique storyline of Skip Beat! has caught the attention of many feminists for its feisty heroine, Kyoko. After spending years at the beck and call of Sho, the guy she’s head over heels for/superstar, Kyoko discovers that her prince on a white horse is actually a self-absorbed jerk who was only using her as a maid. Her heart may have been crushed, but rather than crumple to the ground and curl up into a ball, this heroine picks herself up and steels her mind on something else: revenge. With that Kyoko enters showbiz to become a more popular star than Sho. While her initial focus is pure revenge, she grows passionate about acting and changes from a girl obsessed with a jerky guy to an independent woman and a force to be reckoned with.

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From the left: Reino, Ren, and Sho

Interestingly, although Kyoko breaks from living life under the foot of a guy, throughout the thirty volume series so far she seems surrounded by men with a possessive nature. In between spasms of humor and (sometimes mixed up in them),  nemesis Sho, coworker Ren, and singer Reino all have an interest in Kyoko and, whether their motivation is good or not, they all have moments of fighting to have some to a lot of control over her.

The worst offenders are Sho and Reino, which is depicted clearly when Reino makes his first appearance in the series. In this section of the story, Reino is the lead member of a new band trying to steal Sho’s fame by knocking off his work and style. Reino takes this so far that he decides to make Kyoko “his” simply because he believes that she’s Sho’s girl right now. In other words, he has no interest in Kyoko herself but is viewing her more as a thing to be stolen from his rival. This leads to a series of stalking incidents in which he eventually chases Kyoko into a forest and corners her. He tells her, “I’m looking forward to Fuwa (Sho’s) reaction when he sees you completely torn and tattered,” once again making it clear that he’s bothering Kyoko because he’s trying to hurt his rival, Sho. However, after coming face-to-face with Kyoko’s fierceness, Reino takes a personal interest in her (lucky Kyoko) and the dominance comes into play; he wants Kyoko to hate him so much that her mind and heart are filled only with thoughts of him. Creepy? Extremely. This section was disturbing on several levels, including the language used. Kyoko is constantly referred to as if she were an object to be possessed rather than a person with freewill and the word “dominate” gets thrown around as well.untitled folder14

Sho uses similar tacts, i.e. he tries to dominate Kyoko by getting her to hate him so that she only thinks of him. Later in the series, afraid that Kyoko might be interested in either Ren or Reino, Sho insults her repeatedly and then forcefully kisses her. Before this, while Kyoko hated Sho for having used her as a maid while caring nothing for her at the beginning of the series, her focus on her hatred for him had seemed to be dwindling. Therefore, for the sole purpose of stirring her up again and regaining his hold on her, Sho acted in this way.

bskip_beat_144_12Both of these guys are portrayed as jerks, although Sho gets moments where a better side is hinted at. However, even the “nice” guy in this story, Ren, has a bit of a possessive streak. For example, when Sho forcefully kissed Kyoko, she is distraught because that had been her first kiss. At first, it seems like Ren is trying to explain away the idea that her real first kiss could be stolen by essentially saying a real kiss is a mutual thing based on love, which was a nice thing to do. But he ends the explanation by basically threatening her that there’s no second chance and if Sho kisses her again, he’ll be angry with her. In a later incident, Ren gets angry at Kyoko because she allowed a guy to buy her a makeover. He makes a good point that a girl shouldn’t accept such gifts if she’s not interested in the guy because he’ll get the wrong idea, but it’s hinted that at least part of his anger is due to the fact that he didn’t want any other guys to know how pretty Kyoko could look. While some of his anger may be understandable as a guy who loves Kyoko, it strikes me as a bit possessive, especially when some things (like the kiss) were out of Kyoko’s power yet somehow the anger still falls at least partially on her.

What do you think? Is Kyoko surrounded by possessive guys or is Ren’s position justified?

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!!Spoilers for Tokyo Boys & Girls!!

Despite all my complaining about romance, I seem to read a lot of it. As a result, I’ve run into dozens of trends, seen one scenario done over and over, and observed how people portray romance, both the good parts and the difficult parts. Years ago, before I was typing away on Gagging on Sexism, I came across Tokyo Boys & Girls, a manga created by Miki Aihara, better known for her hit, Hot Gimmick, at my local library. Now, Aihara doesn’t have the best track record for making manga with particularly forward-thinking and healthy relationships, but I didn’t know that when I read Tokyo Boys & Girls. What did I think of it? I was thoroughly irritated by it. So, years later, I had thought to do a scathing review, but I had to stop my eager fingers. Upon refreshing myself with the story, I found it not quite as bad as I remember, but I still have some things to say about some issues surrounding the heroine and her romance.

The story opens with Mimori Kosaka, your average peppy and cheerful heroine who wants only a couple of things out of her high school years; to wear a cute uniform, become cute, and to snag a boyfriend. Education? Pssh! When have girls ever been interested in knowledge? Anyway, Mimori’s third wish just might come true because not one but two studs have stepped up as potential love interests. Yeah, I know. One of them is a playboy and the other one is a long-lost childhood friend turned guy-out-for-revenge against Mimori for unknown reasons (Haruta), but obviously, these boys truly like our lucky heroine. I mean, with guys like that after her, can anyone say, “jackpot?” So, there is our lovely love triangle.

All sarcasm aside, obviously this story gets off to a troubled start. This was one of those romances where I just wasn’t impressed with the potential love interests. Both are jerky toward Mimori at some point and Tokyo Boys & Girls plays right into the old cliché that the heroine ends up with the one that comes off as mean toward her initially. I also had a problem with why Haruta is not-so-nice to Mimori at first; back in elementary school the two had been friends and Haruta had a crush on Mimori. Mimori, however, only saw Haruta as a friend and was completely oblivious to his feelings for her and to add insult to injury, years later in high school, Mimori doesn’t even recognize him. This understandably hurt his feelings, but the way the story plays it, this makes Haruta justified for being a jerk. When Mimori realizes all this later, she feels she had been a selfish person to have not realized Haruta’s feelings all those years ago. I felt this was over the top. The situation Haruta and Mimori faced in elementary school happens all the time and while it’s not fun and feelings may be hurt, that doesn’t make the oblivious party an awful person and certainly doesn’t give the hurt party reason to be a jerk.

The other big thing that bothered me with this manga was a certain incident that occurs in the later half, when Mimori and Haruta have started dating. Haruta is still insecure about his relationship with Mimori and afraid that his former rival in love is actually still very much a threat. Propelled by these fears, Haruta confronts her about her feelings and her relationship with his rival. Unable to simply take Mimori at her word (or her actions) that she wants to be with him, he demands that she prove she’s really Haruta’s by having sex with him. Frankly, Haruta’s inability to believe in the relationship and his jealous nature made for an unstable relationship in my opinion, but this particular bit had red flags flying. Mimori is understandably scared by his behavior and rejects him. Haruta jumps to the conclusion that because she wouldn’t have sex with him then and there, Mimori really didn’t love him and would rather be with his rival-in-love. This paranoia and aggressive behavior just screamed abusive relationship to me. Mimori asks why he always has to be so malicious before running out. Readers are left with Haruta by himself, saying, “Why? Why do you think? Because I love you!” Riiight, because malicious behavior toward someone always equals love. He goes so far as to break up with her because she becomes a little scared of him after that incident, believing she simply has something against him in particular touching her.

I also felt like Mimori’s later reactions to all this is plain terrible. She connects her obliviousness to Haruta’s feelings back in elementary school to her more recent rejection of his pressure to have sex. She feels terrible because in her mind she’s been thoughtless of Haruta twice and hurt him twice. Mimori doesn’t do everything right over the course of the story, but that episode was not one where she should take blame. And after all, Haruta wasn’t thinking of Mimori’s feelings when he demanded that she prove herself by having sex with him. What does this say to readers? It reminds me of situations where someone is in an abusive relationship and they twist things in their own mind until they believe they did something wrong, and that’s the last thing I want to see in stories promoted toward teenagers.

The conclusion of this argument saves it from being completely rotten. The two make up, both realizing they were causing problems in the relationship; Mimori tries to be more honest with her feelings with Haruta and Haruta vows not to rush her with sex and never to do anything that would make her afraid of him again. Having them both realize their mistakes and having Haruta finally make it clear that he understands he did something wrong by pressuring her made me feel better about the story as a whole. I still feel it presented confusion and unhealthy messages regarding relationships, but it wasn’t a total flop.

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Let’s face it (if you haven’t already); guys can be pretty immature and for a long time (sorry guys!). Girls usually mature faster so, it’s not surprising that some girls can be left feeling the need for more mature guys than those of their age group. However, there’s a big difference between a mature guy and an older man. To a 16-year-old girl, even a four year difference in age may be too much of a gap, especially in respect to dating. There’s a dangerous line.

In today’s society, there’s a bit of a problem concerning the matter. Some young girls seem flattered when approached by older men who certainly know better about what they are doing. When presented in fiction, it gets even harder since it’s often depicted with a certain innocence.  That’s why this trend I’m about to discuss is so tricky; in the following manga, young school girls are in love with men around 10 years older than themselves and these men are truly in love with those younger girls. If one could detach from reality and think only of innocence, the following couples wouldn’t bother me so much. However, because these young-girl-with-a-grown-man couples are so innocent, I worry about the message it sends to young girls.

Take Fruits Basket‘s Kyoko Honda for example. First, let me just say that I love Fruits Basket; it’s cute, but it’s also quite deep

Kyoko and Katsuya (Artwork by Natsuki Takaya)

with well-developed characters and I’d highly recommend it. However, there is something that nags at me slightly whenever I read Fruits Basket. I don’t want to be a stick in the mud, but I felt it was pushing that line of appropriate age difference with Kyoko’s relationship. Kyoko was in middle school when she met her future husband, Katsuya, a 21-year-old teacher at her school. This is tricky because nothing happens between them, but there is a mutual interest that turns into love. The age difference between the girl and man in this couple isn’t seen as “normal” exactly (the age gap is taken seriously), but that gap remains and is a little curious. If you don’t think about it too much, the oddness of these scenarios can easily be ignored (the relationship feels real and full of genuine love), but when you do stop to think, it’s a bit iffy; the fact that Katsuya is a teacher at Kyoko’s school makes it even iffier, especially in times when the boundaries between students and teachers slipping has become a real problem. While Kyoko’s relationship with a teacher turned out beautifully, in reality that is not really what happens.

Kare Kano‘s Maho is a beautiful, mature first-year in high school (which I believe is equivalent to a sophomore in American high schools). At one point, the main heroine of the story, Yukino asks Maho if she’s got a boyfriend. Without batting an eye, Maho replies that yes, she does in fact have a boyfriend, a boyfriend who happens to be a 28-year-old dentist. Just as casually as Maho told her this, Yukino thinks this is amazing. Unlike in Fruits Basket, the characters act if this is perfectly normal if not condone. Granted, I’m only part way through the anime series so maybe this issue will be addressed down the line, but I have my doubts.

The teacher and the 10-year-old (Artwork by Clamp)

Cardcaptor Sakura presents the most disturbing scenario. Cardcaptor Sakura is a children’s manga revolving around 4th grader Sakura and her friends and family. Among those friends is Rika, the mature (10-year-old) girl of the group who has a secret crush. And that crush is (drumroll please)…her teacher, Tereda!  It’s a manga all about love in the purest form (between family, friends, and also boyfriends and girlfriends) so, it’s been said that perhaps one shouldn’t take this scenario too seriously, but it’s just hard not to be creeped out by it. While there are some different relationships in Cardcaptor Sakura (including another student-(assistant) teacher relationship), this one definitely crosses the boundary. Although I don’t know exactly how old Tereda is supposed to be, any adult interested in a pre-pubescent kid is just plain creepy (even though, again, it’s presented with child-like innocence). The “couple” is even engaged to be married once little Rika-chan is older. This relationship is a secret between just the two of them that not even Rika’s friends know about. I’m sorry. I just couldn’t manage to brush it under the rug in the back of my brain where all the other things that shouldn’t exist go (see my last post on Mulan II). Believe me, I tried.

As I said, I think the thing that bothers me about all of these scenarios is that they are all presented as innocent and/or as normal. Not to say that I want to see a realistic portrayal of that scenario, but these relationships are so nice people could perhaps get the wrong message from them. They could even be seen as desirable or normal…unless you really think about it in terms of reality. Cardcaptor Sakura particularly bothers me for that reason since it is a manga younger kids can read and may not think about it as much.

On a last note, this isn’t meant to turn people off any of these manga; in fact, I like all three of them generally. Also, if any of you who are reading this aren’t very familiar with manga, it should be noted that while these scenarios do happen sometimes in manga, this isn’t what manga is all about (and I don’t think this trend is limited to manga either). It’s just something that I feel needs to be addressed and given some thought to.

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Romance can be a lovely thing, but the way fiction portrays it sometimes you would think that men ride around on white horses and women spend their time tripping on anything and everything, waiting for prince charming. Because of this, I decided to make a quick list of some of my top pet peeves about the romance genre.

DON’T…

  •  Make either of the couple sparkle with god-like perfection.“Nobody is perfect.” How many times is that phrase said each day? Yet how many times is the love interest in a story almost completely immaculate?  Love interests seem to have descended from the heavens and, like the mythical gods of ancient Greece and Rome, they glow with unearthly beauty that could cause a mortal to combust upon viewing. Even monsters are literally sparkling like disco balls nowadays (I’m looking at you, Twilight)! There are first impressions and there is new love which may add a little shine to the individual viewed through its lens, but there must be a real person with realistic flaws underneath. (F.Y.I. “I’m a sexy vampire and I might kill you” is not a realistic flaw.)
  • Make the love interest a jerk with a “good heart.” If you don’t think about it too much, the jerk with a good heart theme seems like a nice one (although certainly overused). Here’s a person-usually a guy-who is misunderstood, but by getting to know him, the girl realizes that he’s actually a good guy. Getting around first impressions can be a great and rewarding obstacle for readers/viewers to see a characters get through, but this one can be problematic. If it is truly a misunderstanding or the behavior is not brushed off as normal, that is one thing, but often the jerk with a good heart acts like just a plain old jerk to the heroine and the mean behavior is excused. Although it was one of the more extreme examples I saw of this scenario, I discussed some of the issues with jerk-love interests more thoroughly in my last post, Black Bird: Sexy Teen Romance or Creepily Sadistic.
  • Make either of the characters completely reliant on the other.  Aha! The old “You complete me” syndrome that often results in “I can’t live without you!” delusions and damsel-in-distress disease. Loving someone immensely is one thing-in fact, it’s a wonderful thing-but being so dependent on that person to the point where one feels he/she isn’t a whole person without the other is not healthy. (That’s some life advice.) So, the fact that fiction shows this situation as normal or romantic is feeding this unhealthy idea as good. The Twilight series is a perfect example of this. I know! I’ve already used Twilight as an example for something in this post, but it shows this scenario in such an extreme I just can’t pass using it again. In the second book of the series, Edward decides that he’s no good for Bella so, he dumps her and runs off. Bella literally curls up into a fetal position and cries, going into zombie mode for months because her own life doesn’t matter now that Edward is gone. While I trudged through the book (yes, I did read the series), I wanted to say, “Um, excuse me for interrupting you, Bella during this very important time, but didn’t you have a life pre-Edward?” Bella’s response to my question was to become dependent on another guy (Jacob) and do reckless, potentially suicidal stuff. Hmm. Not what I had in mind.  This isn’t to say that people aren’t allowed to grieve for lost relationships, but that letting life totally spiral out of control or giving up on life is not the way to do it so, fiction shouldn’t present it like it is.
My final thought to this little rant of mine is if you think none of this bad romantic advice given by fiction matters, I say this: if girls can look at the fictional world of TV/movies with its airbrushed, rail-thin models and develop insecurities, why couldn’t girls look at fiction and develop unrealistic/unhealthy ideas?

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