Monday, March 9, 2020

Missed it Monday - Love at Fourteen volume 7 (Manga Review)

Two middle school students in school uniforms hold hands in front of a wall of flower bushes
"Missed it Monday" is the ongoing column where I review manga/anime that I didn't get to read/watch when they first came out.

Love at Fourteen vol. 7 - 6.5/10 (*see full scoring rubric below)

After the mixed bag that was volume 6 (great Kanata/Kazuki relationship stuff, problematic Nagai/Hinohara-sensei relationship stuff), Love at Fourteen volume 7 (Yen Press) takes a mostly calmer, lower-key stance. At least, until it doesn't. But that big emotional kick comes as Hinohara-sensei appears to finally be wrestling with just how wrong it is that she feels romantically attracted to a fourteen-year-old.

The first major story portion covers the school newspaper researching ghost stories around the school. It's light-hearted, but we get to see an interesting side of Kanata. She's actually pretty scared but won't let on for a while, instead acting quite intensely angry towards Kazuki. This level of intensity is new, but also makes sense for a teen and it's nice to see another facet of her personality (and how they resolve it together).

The next major piece of the story concerns the second-years beginning to think about which high-school they want to enroll in. Long-story-short, at first Kanata and Kazuki are thinking about different schools, but in the end, they decide to try and get into the same one. What's adorable about this is how they feel that that decision is almost akin to a proposal. They comment that it's the first time they've really made a commitment to each other. It's well written, you really feel how 14-year-olds would feel in that moment (even if I somewhat shudder to think that fourteen-year-olds are deciding their long-term future based on a youthful romance).

The third major story piece revolves around Nagai and Hinohara-sensei. All of a sudden, Hinohara isn't looking well, and she starts canceling Nagai's voice lessons. Then a strange man shows up who seems to know Hinohara. Nagai suggests stopping the voice lessons entirely and Hinohara says that it might be for the best. But Nagai is shocked that she backs down so easily after all the crazy ways she has pushed him, nagged him, and egged him on to this point. Now he's obsessed, and tracks her down in conversation with the man, only to confront her passionately about not deciding things for him.

Working backwards, I want to focus on this third story point, because it is their "relationship" (that of a child and a teacher) that has been so concerning to me in an otherwise beautifully written series. At the end of volume 6, Hinohara seems to begin realizing the magnitude of just how far down the rabbit hole she's let herself get with her feelings towards Nagai, and her actions relative to those feelings.

SPOILERS: In volume 7, Hinohara seems to really be ready to walk away from Nagai. However, she's not necessarily honest with herself or the man (who is a colleague and college associate, not a boyfriend, who is now teaching at the school) about why. Just prior to the final confrontation, Nagai overhears her talking about how she's forced this voice stuff on him, and it's a tough career path, and so it's not right for her to keep pushing him when it isn't a good career.

Honestly, both we as the reader, and Hinohara internally, know that this isn't the real reason she's backing away at all. Her actions in volume 6 got pretty serious, and she knows it isn't right (thank goodness). And Nagai, hearing her say this isn't buying it either (but probably for different reasons), and rushes in demanding that they start lessons again. She reluctantly agrees, but doesn't look happy about it.


I've long hoped that there would either be a fall-out between them, a comeuppance for her, or a change of heart for him. Something, anything, so that they wouldn't actually get together. I really want some critical commentary on the power-imbalance due to both his age and her role as his teacher. I'm sure it's the educator in me (that's what I do for a living) that really recoils at the teacher/student relationship. But any child/adult relationship is problematic to say the least, and I wanted this otherwise beautiful series to tackle that problem honestly, not wistfully. While an imperfect start to finally dealing with the implications of a child/adult relationship, I do feel like the tail end of volume 6 and their story in volume 7 seems to suggest that we'll get some sort of appropriate conclusion rather than an actual romance between the two.

The other two stories are wonderfully told, as always. The interactions between the two main characters (Kanata and Kazuki) are warm, kind, and genuine. They are well written and really capture the complex emotions of young teens. However, there was one scene that got me a little pissed.

Kanata is very bright, best in her class academically. But when she thinks about what she wants to do after graduation, in light of a study-abroad high-school option, her career choice is as retrogressive as it gets. Even though she has the intellectual ability to do anything she wants in life, her goal for a career is that of...wait for it...flight attendant. And if that's not bad enough, when she thinks of Kazuki going to the same school and studying abroad, she thinks of him as becoming a pilot. Yup, the girl is the flight attendant and the boy is the pilot. At least she doesn't want to be secretary to his CEO.

Now, maybe Kanata is a product of her society and her aspiration that dramatically undersells her capability (not that there is anything wrong with being or wanting to be a flight attendant - in a vacuum at least) is merely evidence of how systematic misogyny and sexism work to create internalized sexism. BUT, shouldn't a manga like this be more aspirational?  Shouldn't such an otherwise kind story depict our heroine as breaking down walls, striving for the heights of what she can accomplish?

But then I got to thinking, maybe it's moments of conservative world-views like this in this series that make sense in a story that has a large focus on a child/adult relationship. Maybe it was my desire to read the best into Kanata and Kazuki that blinded me to the actuality of the author's real worldviews?  Maybe she's actually promoting (or at least blind to) patriarchal systems and internalized bias and sexism? Or maybe I'm making too much of it. Maybe it was just a meaningless moment. But when all our girls see and hear in the media are these sort of sexist tropes, even if it's just internalized, unconscious bias at play in the writing, we still need better.

So I really don't know what to make of this series. So much of it is kind, balanced, warm, and caring. But then there is the child/adult relationship, and hints of another couple of child/adult relationships blooming in the side stories. And then in this volume, there's just a random retrogressive view of Kanata's potential with no commentary or critique of how low she is selling her potential (and I say this only because of the stereotype of woman = flight attendance and man = pilot. Again, not because there is anything wrong with someone wanting to be a flight attendant in the abstract. It's just that is more media pushing to uphold and reify ingrained patriarchal systems.)

Anyway, that's my diatribe on this volume. Two thirds was really great, one third was a hint that maybe the problems of Hinohara and Nagai will be rectified in a way that shows just how wrong and abusive it has been. But there are also hints that maybe this author just isn't ready or able to truly confront the social and personal biases that are creeping into, and evident in, her work. So much like volume 6, Love at Fourteen vol. 7 is a mixed bag and gets a 6.5/10.

  • Story interesting (0-10): 7 - the newspaper story is fine, the high-school choice story is really warm and fuzzy (the job issue not withstanding), and Hinohara's inner turmoil is well written.
  • Characters interesting (0-10): 8 - Hinohara's turmoil steals the show this volume. Kanata and Kazuki are so cute together. 
  • Quality prose/writing (0-10): 7 - there's some real feels in this one, good and bad
  • Emotionally plausible (0-10): 8 - boy is this one both warm and fuzzy as well as intense, and the characters feel real.
BASIC SCORE (avg.): 7.5/10

  • Emotional insight/depth (0-5): 2 - we're getting a real peak at the inside of Hinohara-sensei's head
  • True LGBTQ+ representation (0-5): 0 - while Shiki and the nurse both seem to have feelings for women, it really isn't situated in any LGBTQ+ reality
  • Female agency (0-5): 0 - not in the least here. Kanata wants to be a flight attendant even though she's way brighter and picks Kazuki to be the pilot. 
  • Character growth/change (0-5): 2 - we're seeing some real complexities with Hinohara as she reconciles with what she's done
  • Quality art (0-5): 0 - fine but nothing special
BONUS POINTS (sum/8): +.5

  • Homophobic/transphobic (0-5): 0
  • Misogynistic (0-5): 2 - I'm really bothered that Kanata wants to be a flight attendant and thinks Kazuki can be a pilot. She can not only be a pilot, but an aerospace engineer if she wants!
  • Fan service (0-5): 0
  • Child/adult relationship (0-5): 1 - the Hinohara/Nagai relationship seems to be coming to terms with its "wrongness" but there's the whole side-story of the emerging time between the (adult) school nurse and Shiki (although nothing has happened)
  • Exploitative (0-5): 0 
PENALTY POINTS (-sum/2): -1.5



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