Thursday, January 2, 2020

O Maidens in Your Savage Season volume 5 gets conventional? (Manga Review)

A school girl surrounded by lilies
O Maidens in Your Savage Season vol. 5 - 7.5/10

I read volume 5 of O Maidens in Your Savage Season (Kodansha Comics) twice before writing this review, and also started watching the anime adaptation. Both confirmed my hunch that the series is starting to get a bit more conventional from the thunderclap that was the first volume.

That's not to say this volume or series is bad (quite the opposite), but it hasn't been able to maintain the crushing realism and mind-f@ck of puberty the way the first volume expressed it. To be honest, that's the main reason the rating for this volume isn't higher. It really was a great volume in a great series. But I'm worried that I'll forever feel let down after that first volume's bravery, exuberance, and explosive realism for the topic.

In volume 5, the five girls in the literature club continue to move forward through puberty in its many varied ways. Probably the best way to discuss this volume is by taking each character's arc separately. Although they certainly interweave, they each have their own unique journey of self-realization.The entirety of the volume concerns preparations for, and the actual, school festival where the club will put on a dramatic reading of a legend about love at the festival. Light spoilers to follow, but I've tried to avoid any big reveals.

Starting with Sonezaki, the president of the club. She went from being downright prude (and that's not a criticism) in volume 1 to changing her looks and secretly dating a boy over the previous volumes. But she's still uncomfortable with people seeing her as a sexual being and so she hides their relationship. Through the previous volumes, and the early stages of this one, you can see the hurt in her boyfriend's eyes and expression as Sonezaki refuses to acknowledge him publicly. But things change and Sonezaki sees that he's popular with other girls too and she might lose him. The way this culminates at the conclusion of the festival is one of the funniest and most heartwarming scenes in the series so far. Very well done.

The other really cool thing about Sonezaki's story is the way the side character, Jujo, the gyaru-esque character, evolves in her friendship with Sonezaki from their conflict in the first volume. They actually talk about love and sex in a real way, and it opens Sonezaki's eyes a bit. Hitting that home, we meet Jujo's boyfriend, and he's not at all what we (or Sonezaki) expected and suddenly she sees Jujo (and thus herself) in a totally new light. It's a wonderful set of interactions, and Jujo is proving a very finely realized character in her own right, breaking down stereotypes along the way.

Hongo is our resident writer. Her story is somewhat minimized in this volume against what Sonezaki, Niina and Kazusa go through. We don't get any of the interactions with her book editor and only minimal interactions with the teacher adviser (her kinda love interest) of the club. However, we do see her noticing that he is quite close to another teacher.

As I've stated a thousand times to date, I really and truly hope that this teacher never reciprocates Hongo's advances. Earlier volumes have hinted that he might, but I'm really hoping that he will get with the other teacher and break Hongo's heart, forcing her to examine what a healthy relationship would look like. If they end up together, it will be a serious black mark on the series due to the complete inappropriateness of adult/child and teacher/student relations. We'll see.

Moving on to Momoko. Yet another volume where she gets almost nothing to do and no real story. I still think she has a crush on Kazusa, but we don't get anything in the way of that here (other than a random comment which I'll discuss in a moment). However, she does finally tell the boy who is interested in her that she wants nothing to do with him, and feels so empowered afterwards. But of all the main characters, she's been given the least to do and we have the least insight into her through five volumes. Hopefully this will balance out over upcoming volumes.

That being said, Momoko has one of the best lines in the series when she asks (in relation to Niina playing the boy in the reading): "Can a person really have pretty breasts and be handsome at the same time?" While this is ostensibly about the casting of the beautiful Niina as the boy in the reading, I think there is some subtext here.

I would like to think that this is part of Momoko processing that she is attracted to women's bodies but is still thinking that she is "supposed" to like boys (since that remains the prevailing narrative in most societies and certainly in relatively conservative Japan). Hopefully this is foreshadowing where she will go on her journey. There have been hints throughout the five volumes that she is attracted to women (and Kazusa specifically), and I really want a gay character. I also hope that if she does come out, that it's handled with the authenticity that the series has shown so far and does justice to the complex reality of being LGBTQ+ in society.

Now for Niina and Kazusa. We can't really talk about them separately because their stories are very linked here. As we saw in previous volumes, Kazusa suspected that Niina liked Izumi (Kazusa's childhood friend). But Kazusa has already realized she's in love with Izumi and plans on finally telling him. The volume starts with Kazusa and Niina having cleared up the misunderstanding, only for it to become clear that Niina really does have feelings for Izumi.

As part of figuring this out, Niina seeks out the pedophile stage director that helped her with her early acting career. This leads to a very uncomfortable, and not at all okay, scene where they kiss. Let me unpack my feelings on this adult predator/child kiss for a moment: I get that there are bad adults in society. And sadly there are many abused and hurt children who are taken advantage of. So on its own, I don't object to the discussion of those realities in manga. The question is always "what does the author do with that discussion?" Do they tacitly or explicitly support relationships between older men and young girls or will the manga be a critical commentary on the matter?

O Maidens in Your Savage Season seems to consistently tread the middle ground on that question. Our best glimpse into what the author might feel is how Izumi tries to help Niina process her feelings for the director. At one point in volume 5, Izumi makes clear he thinks the guy, and pedophiles in general, are disgusting. But then he pivots and says he thinks Niina really likes the guy, and offers to help her with him, and even suggests that maybe the guy lied about being a pedo so as not to hurt Niina more. WHAT????? This is a pretty confusing set of thoughts. I'm really worried about this guy's presence in the story and whether Niina will realize and escape his psychological and (possible sexual) abuse. I hope the author eventually takes a clear stand against child predators, so far I'm not sure where the author comes down on this issue.

On to Kazusa. I stated that she planned on confessing to Izumi and that Niina also has feelings for Izumi. I don't want to give away exactly what happens here, but Niina is not really a good friend to Kazusa in this volume. However, instead of hating Niina for it, Kazusa realizes Niina has feelings for Izumi. In realizing this about Niina, Kazusa displays amazing empathy and is worried that all her time talking to Niina about Izumi was actually hurting Niina. Kazusa exhibits a pretty amazing level of empathy for the person who just did something hurtful to their friendship.

But Kazusa's empathy got me thinking about my own daughter and some of her classmates. I do think there are teens out there who would feel this level of complex empathy, who could see things from another's point of view, and who can separate friendship from romantic urges and heartbreaks. Even the awful pedo-director reminds Niina that no one belongs to anyone else, freeing Niina to spark the conflict between her and Kazusa in relation to Izumi. Not only do Niina and Izumi and Nina and Kazusa have important interactions, but there's also some developments between Kazusa and Izumi, but you'll have to read it for yourself!


So wow, that was a hell of a lot packed in this volume. In many ways it was a tour-de-force of manga writing. But in other ways, as I said at the top, it was more conventional than the first volume. Where the first volume showed that these were still children despite their age: wrestling with what it means to be sexual beings in the world, afraid that sex will overtake other aspects of who they are, etc... by this volume, they have more or less reconciled themselves to being able to be in love and pursue that love without losing themselves. That makes this now a bit more typical (but still excellently done) romance manga.

I wish that it had gone further with the early exploration of puberty. I think of series like "Kaguya-sama: Love is War" and "Mysterious Girlfriend X" (both of which have problems of their own) which spend much more time on the awkwardness of puberty. O Maidens just moved past it a bit too fast. However, it's still so well written that the characters and relationships they are forming will likely be strong fodder for meaningful storytelling even if it continues in a more conventional direction.

To finish, let's talk about the art in this volume. It is extraordinary. I really liked the art from the beginning of the series, but I think it got another level of detail and attention in this volume. There is intense shading, varied line use, texture and depth. It is the real, whole deal. Characters are clearly differentiated, emotions are clear and complex. I just can't speak highly enough of the tonal and line variance used throughout. It's beautifully rendered art.

So O Maidens in Your Savage Season volume 5 is truly a great volume in a great series. The only reason I didn't rate it higher is that it is in competition with its own first, landmark, volume. That being said, the writing and art are phenomenal, even if the story is becoming slightly more typical romance. It is still fierce and complex with characters we want to explore more and watch change. That is the hallmark of a great series. I so want to rate it higher, but let's settle on 7.5/10 (closing in on an 8!).


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