I’ve read manga aimed at more mature female audiences before, women (josei) instead of girls (shôjo), but none of it hit me quite this passionately. Sensual Phrase by Mayu Shinjo combines the things I like best about both shôjo (stories about love, searching for meaning in life’s choices, and figuring out what kind of person you’re going to grow into) and josei (real-world conflicts, like not being taken seriously at your work because of your appearance and balancing work demands with a home life). It asks more grownup questions than many girls’ manga, replacing “who am I going to date?” with “who am I going to sleep with and will I regret it?”
Aine’s a schoolgirl writing song lyrics for a magazine contest. Unlike her friends, she’s not doing it because she’s starstruck; instead, she’s expressing her fantasies about the boy she wants to love her, writing what she wants to hear someone tell her about love and being desired. She’s also playing with sex, making her lyrics suggestive as a way of testing boundaries.
On her way to submit her entry, she’s almost run down by a sports car driven by the lead singer of Lucifer, the hot new band known for their sensual songs. You know where this is going, right? The singer, Sakuya, invites her to their show that night as an apology and picks up her lyrics without her knowledge. He’s gorgeous, with a touch of the exotic (foreign-looking blue eyes), and she’s overwhelmed by his music and presence. He pulls her out of the audience as he sings her song for the first time.
He offers to hire her as their lyricist, all the while teasing her with the kind of double entendre that makes their songs popular. Because she’s conscious of her virgin state, she’s particularly aware of the power of insinuation and suggestion and acutely sensitive to every awakening feeling. She represents the band’s audience perfectly, girls dreaming of their first time while loving someone they can never have. Rock stars are safe, because no one’s ever actually going to meet them and have to make decisions about how far to go with them. Unless they’re Aine.
When she’s at risk, from jealous fans who resent her place as the rock star’s girlfriend, he swoops in to protect her. Although much of the events are formulaic, it’s the way they’re presented that impressed me. I feel the heat radiating from the two through the pages. There’s a depth to their actions that kept me wanting the best for them as I became involved in their struggles to understand each other and fight for their love. This is a potent soap opera with plenty of sex, and he’s the ideal fantasy lover — teasing, desiring, pushing, but never beyond where she’s willing to go, and always with her put first out of real love. As well as being gorgeous, he’s also brilliant, outsmarting and out-scheming those who would keep them apart.
Volume two opens with her realizing that he really does love her, that he’s not just playing games for his career and because he can. She’s also beginning to prove herself to the record company, with her songs and the video concept she designed becoming successes. Then Ralph Grazer, an American businessman who resembles Sakuya, comes to town to start a competing label, and he’s determined to take Aine away. Along the way, we learn why Sakuya’s blue eyes have always been a symbol of his pain as a bastard child.
The battle between the American and Sakuya escalates dramatically in volume three, with the villain going far beyond what anyone sane would do to destroy Lucifer: after kidnapping, blackmail, and attempted rape, there’s always forced drug addiction. The two lovers continue to surprise each other with what they’re willing to do to protect the other. Sakuya will give up almost anything in order to be with Aine.
Since their relationship has become more secure, Aine’s facing a new problem: writer’s block. They’re so happy and satisfied together that she’s lost the feeling of tension that drove her work. After that crisis is resolved, Sakuya’s asked to star in a miniseries with an older actress who’s also the first woman he was physical with.
As that story continues in volume four, Sakuya and the actress compete to outdo each other in manipulating the press and each other. Eventually, she tries to commit suicide (or at least, fake doing so), to which Sakuya responds, “The next time you’re feeling suicidal, you call me. (page turn) And I’ll help.” It took me a moment to realize what he was really saying, and the pacing, incorporating the forced pause of the page break, is masterful.
In between the more dramatic plotlines are smaller, more tender chapters with such things as Sakuya taking care of Aine when she’s sick (and still being really sexy doing it). Then the melodrama kicks back up, with another band’s singer thinking Aine looks just like his dead sister Yumi. He tries to treat Aine as his beloved sibling, a sister he had much too close a relationship with.
In volume five, Aine’s parents make a rare appearance, answering the question of whether her staying with Sakuya so often bothers them. Then it’s back to her struggles with Yumi’s brother, who goes so far as to try to hypnotize her into being Yumi for him. While trying to awaken her, Sakuya gets injured, leading to flashbacks of his life as a child.
That leads into their relationship becoming public in volume six. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned any of the other band members yet. That’s because they haven’t yet had much to do but stand around in the background. That changes here, with Aine and the reader meeting Yuki, the guitarist, and his wife and child. Their domesticity leads to Aine thinking about her future plans with Sakuya, complicated by a pregnancy scare.
After a discussion of whether or not it’s hot to see a man cry, another band decides that they need Aine’s lyrics to succeed. That plotline breaks to allow for focuses on two of the band members. Atsuro, the other guitarist, looks young and cute, but he’ll do anything to protect his older step-sister, in a relationship that eerily parallels the earlier story about Yumi. Then it’s back to Yuki, with a flashback that goes into more detail about the early days of his marriage.
Volume seven picks back up with the other band, D-Element, willing to do anything to get Aine to work for them. Their gimmick is a set of twin singers with a secret. There’s a ton of twists and turns, including nude blackmail photos, cross-dressing, a stalker, and Sakuya in drag (scarily attractive), but too much information would spoil the ride. All the pieces come together elegantly to make the outrageous events believable.
At the beginning of volume eight, evil Ralph has returned, and a drunk Aine has mistaken him for Sakuya. Oops! Her excuse was that she was driven to distraction by another singer’s excessive crush on Sakuya. Sakuya can’t prevent the doubts that still spring up between him and Aine, especially when she finds out more about his disturbing past, but the two find that overcoming their worries makes their relationship stronger. Plus, jealousy can create great make-up sex as trust replaces fear.
While on vacation, Aine’s picture is taken without her knowledge and used for a billboard in volume nine. The photographer is the newest fashion hotshot, and he’s not used to being turned down. He wants to do another shoot with Aine, but she only comes alive for the camera when she’s thinking of Sakuya, and the photographer is frustrated by her unwillingness to fall for him, like all his other models have.
At times like this, when she’s treated as a prize to be fought over by the guys, I wish someone would shake some sense into her and teach her to make her own decisions. When none of them will listen to her “no” as an answer, it gets a little uncomfortable to read, but it emphasizes the similarities of the two men and how carried away they can get.
Then volume ten comes along, with a conflict between Aine’s family and lover resolved in the most outrageously romantic way possible. That’s the fun of having a famous rock star as your boyfriend — large gestures, hang the expense. Almost half the book is a backup story telling how the band formed.
Lucifer’s aiming to go global in volume eleven with a new producer. He’s jealous of the influence Aine has over Sakuya, so he’s trying to get her fired, leading to a power struggle. The band is juggling competing strategies: play ever-bigger shows to increase their audience, or play smaller shows to stay closer to the smaller group of fans who can buy tickets. Aine’s trying to be the voice of the fan, keeping the band in touch with what their viewers want, without being selfish. As she well knows, disappointed fans can be vicious. It’s a thankless role, in many ways, since fans are often jealous of anyone with more access or knowledge than they have.
As volume twelve opens, Aine’s trust is further stressed. Sakuya’s taken up with one of these fans, playing some kind of game she doesn’t understand. It’s all to teach a lesson; he’s demonstrating through harsh contrast why Aine deserves to be with him, forcing her to show her strength when it comes to dealing with what makes others crumble. His willpower is immense, almost scary. When he’s convinced something is necessary, he does it, no matter the cost to him and those near him. It’s a classic romance hero approach… and it’s a good thing he’s so often right.
Volume thirteen introduces a new source of jealousy: a previous boyfriend of Aine’s. He’s also musically inclined, but otherwise, he’s the opposite of Sakuya. He’s at the top of his class academically, cultured, of good (rich) family, and restrained in emotion. He’s concerned about what others think and all the more admired by others because he fits into the system… the traditional parent-pleaser, in other words.
Because he’s always done what he’s told, he’s about to be put into an arranged marriage, and he ask Aine for her help in preventing the engagement. Aine’s soft heart is once again about to get her into trouble, but at least Sakuya is willing to play along.
He becomes something of a Henry Higgins, educating Aine in becoming a proper young lady. The storyline is punctuated by sprays of ink drops across the background of the panels. It looks almost like the artist is bleeding on the page to emphasize moments of deep emotional surprise. It’s an arresting, effective technique.
Volume fourteen deals with a significant development in the band’s decision to try to break internationally. Aine finds herself torn as the gap between her normal life and Sakuya’s celebrity widens. Their pending physical separation, with the band preparing to travel, threatens and evokes a similar mental one. Barely have they had time to process that change before the band is dealing with competition from an up-and-coming group called e.mu. They’re creating hits by analyzing top-selling songs via computer and recreating the most popular elements, but they need Aime’s lyrics to make them complete.
Daisuke (lead of e.mu) and Sakuya continue their jealousy over Aine’s attention in volume fifteen. She’s working for the former while loving the latter, but no one seems able to separate their personal and professional lives all that well. That’s their strength — we don’t know much yet about Daisuke, but Aine and Sakuya are so good at what they do because of their passion and because they put so much of themselves into their creations.
That leads into some interesting questions — if Aine is expressing her love for Sakuya in her work, should she be working for anyone else? does she need to try writing for others in order to make herself a better lyricist? what was Sakuya’s motivation towards the deal? is his competitive streak healthy? are the oddities of the working patterns of creative types self-indulgent or necessary to make art?
None of these are answered, but I’m not sure they can be in any kind of definitive fashion. I appreciated being led to think about them, and the happy endings (if only temporary) they’re punctuated with make it all more comfortable to consider. Then things turn nasty. A business official thinks nothing of physically attacking Aine to gain revenge on Sakuya and his band, and the two lovers have a hard time dealing with the fallout. They’ll be changed forever by this event, making major life decisions as a result.
In volume sixteen, Sakuya takes Aine away to a mountain cottage. There, perhaps she can recover, away from all the pressures that try to separate them. Given their personalities, though, soon they’re once again experiencing drama, letting their emotions lead them into outrageous choices on their way to finding their inner strength. They can’t run away from the outside world when Sakuya is a national sex symbol and gossip magazine fodder.
He’s got some decisions to make about what’s really important to him. Sometimes people think they can give something up for someone they love, but they may wind up afterwards losing what makes them them if they’re not honest with themselves. The series is moving quickly to its conclusion in two more volumes, so events are concluding and characters being written off stage.
The main story ends in volume seventeen. The band goes on stage for a triumphant concert during a time of loss, leading to a change in roles as some of the characters develop new maturity. Aine and Sakuya recognize the scars of their past, but they become shared history as they plan their adult lives together. The book also contains two backup stories: one focuses on Atsuro and how the lives of him and his stepsister change when a young singer gets involved; the other shows Sakuya as a child and the forces that shaped him, from his drunk mother to his gigolo past.
Volume eighteen is another set of bonus stories. Two jump forward in time, showing us more about how the characters’ lives progressed. First, Aine and Sakuya visit her parents a year after the end of the previous book. It hits all the highlights of the series — expressions of love, hot sex, superstar concert performance — in a sitcom-like setting. The next goes even further forward to the wedding of one of the band members, reassuring us that most everyone gets a happy ending.
There are also two unrelated stories. One has similar characters to the bigger series, only the bad boy’s skill is driving and the young girl’s more actively pursuing him. The other is about a summer vacation trip where a girl winds up with three guys after her friends cancel. That last one was a lovely nostalgic note to end on.
This series is better bathtub reading than any Harlequin because in addition to the likable, desirable characters, it’s got pictures. And what pictures! Sakuya is a girl’s dream, with broad shoulders, piercing blue eyes behind dark bangs, strong arms that tend to embrace or sweep up Aine, and an unabashed physicality. She’s cute, too, with open, expressive eyes and the inability to hide what she’s feeling. She’s also valued for more than her looks and innocence; she has skills and talent that existed even before the two met.
He’s risking his standing by selecting the work of an unknown, but her determination wins through. I must make special note of the well-done translation and adaptation here. In this series, where the song lyrics are a major part of the story, the meaning comes through with all the innuendo intact. There’s a judicious use of profanity as well, cutting through certain scenes to shock the reader in a way that makes the scenes more powerful. Turns of phrase impressed me with their layers of meaning and their realism as dialogue. If I didn’t know better, I’d believe that this was originally written in English, it flows so smoothly.
Although Sakuya teases Aine frequently, she owns her desire. He’s skilled at awakening her, but her reactions aren’t anything to be ashamed of. They contribute to her art and strengthen their relationship. Of course she has moments of doubt, but when she thinks he’s only using her, arousing her to give her song material, she doesn’t ask what’s wrong with herself or obsess over turning herself into someone different. She’s remarkably well-balanced with a strong sense of self, and her virginity is of value to her because she wants to make her own choices, not because of some outdated concept of purity.
The series is raw and unblushing when it comes to sex, but I wouldn’t classify it as porn. It’s more intense than that, with a more complex purpose. Although the books are hot, capable of arousing the reader, the story is more about passion in all its forms — love, artistic creation, performance, sex — although at times, it’s also about the fun of being young, beautiful, and filthy-minded.
Aine and Sakuya’s physical relationship is a reflection of their love, not something separate. She reacts so strongly to him and him to her because it’s the outer manifestation of the depth of their feelings for each other. Their attraction floods out of the pages to surround and involve the reader in their love story. This fantasy is all the more powerful for being so realistic and desirable in its emotions.
There’s more information at the author’s website (in Japanese, of course). Starting in book four, Kelly Sue DeConnick writes hilarious end-of-book essays. They cover her crush on the lead, the real-life band inspired by this series, why siblings are bad, and my favorite, a fashion rundown of Sakuya’s outfits.