Friday, September 21, 2018

Sugar Princess skated into my heart (yeah, I know) (Manga Review)

Sorry about the headline. I love Hisaya Nakajo's manga Hana-kimi. It's a shoujo classic, and although some of it comes across as dated, the basic love story still holds up. So upon finishing re-reading it recently, I tracked down a copy of her lesser known series Sugar Princess. A two volume series about a young girl and figure skating.

Maya is in her second year of middle-school (8th grade). She and her brother are skating at a local rink and she tries a jump. Even though she can barely skate, a local trainer sees something in her. Naturally, because shoujo, she's eventually paired up with a high-school rising amateur skater and they must place in the top three of a local competition or their small rink will be closed down.

Before reviewing it, here's my ideal checklist for things I look for in a shoujo manga series:
     1) A strong female heroine who isn't defined by the love story or by her eventual partner. She must posses her own sense of self (or develop it) and her arc must be about more than falling in love (she must change, grow, overcome, etc... something in addition to finding a boy, girl or other person to be with)
     2) Classic shoujo-style art. Long lanky limbs, long necks, eyes half the size of their heads. I'm just not a fan of the rounder, cutesier contemporary art that is proliferating (it's fine, just not my shtick).
     3) A story whose plot is also about something more than just two people falling in love. I want there to be things going on and things to do and people changing and growing, and you and stuff.
     BONUS: I love it when side-characters also have depth to their lives and experience their own emotional changes and growth over the series.

How does Sugar Princess do on the check list?

Strong heroine not defined by the love story - check! Maya is flawed but spunky, pretty but not gorgeous, just an average middle schooler who has some unknown talent, is kind and a bit goofy. She's not given much to do in the series (in a scant 2 volumes) but she's engaging and likable and never once mentions love.

Classic shoujo-art - check! I've always loved Hana-kimi for the INCREDIBLY long, lanky bodies. Nakajo-sensei does not disappoint in Sugar Princess, and in fact, it's more reminiscent of the art towards the end of Hana-kimi and thus feels a bit tighter and more mature than that series overall.

A plot about something in addition to the eventual love story? Check-ish. It's just two volumes, so what plot there is is pretty scant. Learn to skate, place in the competition, rink gets save. The end. But there isn't any discernible love story (yet at least, we'll get to that in a bit).

We sadly don't get much time with her friends at school or with her many sisters, with the couch, with another female skater that seems to like Shun, etc...but all appear to be side characters that could have been well developed, so no bonus points.

Basically, this is a 2000s era shoujo manga in every sense of the word. If that's what you want, then that's exactly what you'll get. And it was what I wanted, and it was a delightful escapist series. BUT...

It could have been so much more! If she had had 5-10 (or more) additional volumes so much could have been done. Maybe Shun (the high-school skater) could have started dating one of Maya's sisters only to realize he really loved Maya. Maybe we could have dug into the death of Shun's sister more and the emotional devastation he felt. What would future tournaments look like? We could have explored Maya's friends and family more. Maya could have been tormented by her emerging feelings for Shun. Maybe Shun gets paired up with another skater and we could explore jealousy. Maya could have grown from middle-school to high-school and maybe young adult-hood...

The possibilities were endless and the first two volumes feel like an incredible setup to what would have been a legendary series...except...that's all we get, two tightly scripted and drawn, sweet, volumes. A tantalizing hint at what could have been, enjoyable in their own right, but oh, the possibilities...

Knowing that, if you're a fan of this era of Shoujo, then Sugar Princess is a hidden gem. A strong 7/10 ("recommended").


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