Monday, September 24, 2018

The Young Master's Revenge volume 1 by Meca Tanaka is comfortable/uncomfortable (Manga Review)

Meca Tanaka
I just got the first two volumes of The Young Master's Revenge by Meca Tanaka (published by Shojo Beat/Viz Media). Let me start this review by admitting that I LOVE Tanaka-sensei's work. I'm a huge fan of her early series Pearl Pink (which I've reread far too many times) and liked her cute series Meteor Prince. I'm also desperately waiting for the day when her longer series Faster than a Kiss gets translated into English so I can read it. I love her art and character designs. I love her spunky lead heroines. I love her sense of humor mixed with cute romance.

So I have tried very hard to be as objective as possible when reviewing volume 1 of The Young Master's Revenge. As a result, I feel pretty torn as to what I think about it and how to present it.

In one sense, it is typical Tanaka-sensei with great art with her distinctive character designs, a fun and lighthearted sense, and a clear path towards comic romance. In another sense, there were some disturbing things in the setup that undermine her normally strong female character agency.

In volume 1 we meet Leo Tachibana, the heir to a newly hot clothing line started by his father. His childhood friend was the heiress to a centuries old family. As a child he was told to befriend Tenma Tsuwabuki to better position his family with her family's famous department store. They were close and he would always protect the clumsy Tenma during her romping, tom-boyish adventures.

However, during one adventure, he falls into the water to emerge with turtles biting his buttocks. In her zest to help him, she pulls down his pants exposing his bottom to the other kids. He is mortified, but this also happens to be his last day in Japan before going overseas with his parents for 10 years.

During those 10 years, we come to understand that he has worked to make himself irresistible so that he can enact revenge on her for his embarrassment. His plan includes returning to Japan for high-school, making Tenma fall in love with her, and then breaking her heart.

Let's pause. That's awful. A man attempting to manipulate a woman's feelings to harm her is beyond unacceptable. This being a work by Meca Tanaka and all done tongue in cheek, the hope is that we forgive how this would be perceived if it were happening in the real world, and perhaps a few years ago, that would be easier to do. But women have historically been at the sexual and controlling whims of strong, powerful men, and hopefully our society is at a turning point in ending that power dynamic. This setup does no justice to that growing social change.

Moving on, when Leo arrives back in Japan he realizes her family has gone bankrupt, she's being tossed between relatives and so he decides to "save" her by taking her in and making her a servant in his house while paying for her school tuition. His personal assistant has her wear a maid outfit to surprise him (another demeaning situation on top of her newfound dependency on Leo). She expresses nothing but gratitude (so much for agency).

The plot gets even more sour when the school's rich, elite, student council president forcibly captures and incarcerates (yes, denies her ability to leave) Tenma in his mansion. These are old shoujo tropes (the girl being physically carried off, locked up, etc..., but ones that play very poorly now (if ever they played well at all - although see Special A for a unique take on this and an empowered female lead). Tenma is physically captured, barred from leaving, all due to the money and power of a young man who knows no harm will befall him for these criminal acts. Yuck again. Where is the strong, feisty, do it herself, empowered female lead with agency?

All that being said, we get the sense that Leo is not feeling fulfilled by his attempts to hurt Tenma by making her fall in love with him. He ultimately reveals his motives to her as he rescues her from the student council president. I'm glad to know that volume 2 will start with them on more equal footing, but Tenma is depicted as still feeling indebted to Leo and driven to truly befriend him even knowing his horrid plan.

Here perhaps is where this work is most concerning. It's a shoujo manga, from the man's perspective, with a female lead who is manipulated by multiple men, isn't strong enough to rescue herself (although she does try), and even after being told what a horrible thing Leo was planning, still wants desperately to befriend him. Um, she should be running from him as fast as she can IMHO.

Yet, all this is wrapped up in Meca Tanaka's wonderfully silly style and lighthearted approach. It is all presented as a comedy. We know that Leo is really kind at heart and we know the thick-headed Tenma will fall for him. We also know that Leo will eventually, truly, fall for her. But the message this could be sending to young girls and women is pretty horrific: it's okay for someone to manipulate your heart, hurt you, for others to physically restrain you with no police involvement afterwards - particularly because they are super rich and powerful - and when you find out about everything it's a good idea to try and stay close to these people. Ouch.

So this is why I'm torn. On the surface level, it's got everything I love in Tanaka-sensei's work, particularly the art and comedy with the slow-burning/developing romance that will overwhelm their hearts by the end. Yet, when we examine the actual events, characterizations, and setup, it's a pretty old-fashioned male dominant story that isn't actually funny. Given the vibrant female heroine of Pearl Pink, I was hoping for something a bit more progressive here.

Should you read it? That probably depends on whether you are already a fan of her work. If you are, then you'll enjoy this for her characteristic style. If you aren't familiar with Meca Tanaka, and you're looking for progressive shoujo with a strong, empowered female lead, then this is going to prove problematic. I wanted to give this a "recommended" but I think in truth, I have to give the first volume a 5/10 unless you are a fan of hers. I'm definitely going to read the whole series, so i'll keep you posted on how it (and hopefully the characters) evolves. Still love you Tanaka-sensei!


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