by Hisaya Nakajo; adaptation by Gerard Jones, later David Ury
published by Viz; $9.99 US
This modern comedy of gender roles, subtitled For You in Full Blossom, is populated with androgynously cute teenagers sporting beautiful faces framed with sprays of bangs. Mizuki has returned to Japan to pursue her dreams, even if it means pretending to be a boy. She’d been living in America, but after seeing Izumi Sano compete in the high jump, she developed a crush on him. Now she’s attending the same boys’ school he does.
Her outspoken, “foreign” ways quickly tag her as a weirdo in the other students’ eyes, while her good luck gets her rooming with the object of her crush only to discover that he’s quit competing. She’s determined to see Sano jump again, but as she works towards inspiring him, she realizes how little she knows about the boy behind her fantasy. They grow closer as friends but are kept apart by her masquerade. Her enthusiasm is inspirational, but she has to keep reminding herself not to be too “girly” in order to keep her secret. Her dreams contrast with what’s best for him, so she must also learn to be selfless.
Nakatsu, a good-hearted show-off, completes the triangle. He’s attracted to Mizuki but fighting it hard for fear that means he’s gay, in a subplot reminiscent of Victor/Victoria. The school doctor quickly figures out Mizuki’s secret and becomes her confidant, identifying with her because of a secret of his own.
This book captures the potency of touch, as the casual physical contact of Mizuki’s schoolmates causes her concern and sometimes emotional overreaction. There’s a great blend of comedy and deeper feelings that keeps a frothy, entertaining balance while still providing themes to think about. At times, it’s farcical, with Mizuki thinking “but he doesn’t know I’m a girl” while someone else thinks “she doesn’t know I know she’s a girl”. Sitcom-like setups feature someone climbing into the wrong bed while asleep or kissing while drunk or delirious from sickness.
On a deeper level, the book is about what it’s like to be a teenager in love. Mizuki is in constant close contact with the object of her adoration, but she fears that he will never know her true self. It’s an exquisite torture, where she must keep her identity secret, symbolizing the isolation of adolescence. Occasional romantic moments are punctuated with border art of lace and feathers to underscore the presence of lighter feelings that could be deflated at any moment.
The first book contains a bonus story, “The Cage of Summer”. While staying with her family, Toko’s cousin shows an angelic face to everyone but her. Her discovery of his bad boy ways opens the door for him to torment her in a way that reminded me of Hot Gimmick, but his teasing hides deeper feelings for her.
In book two, Sano’s rival Kaguraza is introduced to provide more competition. Much of the book covers the same ground as book one until Mizuki’s brother appears. He threatens to take her back to America with him once he finds out what’s going on, unless Sano steps up to his challenge.
Summer vacation starts in book three. The dorm is closing, so Mizuki, Sano, and Nakatsu wind up working at a beach resort owned by the doctor’s sister. Between the other staff and the guests, there’s plenty of romantic complications.
Book four begins with preparations for the school festival. It’s a three-day competition in both athletics and the arts where the various dorms battle to win prizes. One of the events is a “Miss Osaka” pageant where the (all-male, remember) students dress up as girls. Another has the students running a café where they dress up as (female) fairy tale characters. It’s a tad bizarre to see so many opportunities to cross what otherwise appear to be pretty firm gender role barriers, but festivals are traditionally excuses to transcend boundaries. Plus, it provides an excuse for very attractive art, full of frills and flowers. The bonus story, “The Thirsty Moon”, is a cross-cultural love story where a girl chooses between a traditional fiance and a rougher, more exciting alternative.
The festival concludes in book five, allowing for plenty of quick character bits, lovely costumes, and humorous scenes. Along the way, the competition heats up with an attempted kidnapping that leads to a significant emotional outburst. Then, before the next plot gets rolling, there’s a one-chapter flashback story about Mizuki’s first kiss. The next major story, set up in book five but continuing in book six, focuses on Nakatsu. He’s torn between his “forbidden” crush on Mizuki and the possibility of a new girlfriend.
At the same time, a reporter is doing an in-depth story on Sano. Mizuki is afraid both of the reporter’s investigation revealing her secret and of the reporter as a rival, since Mizuki learned what she knew about Sano from the journalist’s work. Mizuki takes up karate to develop strength and discipline and to fight her jealousy of the reporter’s depth of knowledge and insight into Sano’s character. Many of the characters are motivated by different forms of desire, but it’s rarely obsessive. Or if it is, it’s lightly and humorously portrayed.
Then Mizuki’s American best friend Julia appears. She’s spending a year in Japan as an exchange student, and her blonde beauty astounds the boys. This sequence contains a lot of verbal humor, with visual elements to convey the various accents and languages.
In book seven, Julia’s got a plan. She’ll proclaim herself to be Mizuki’s girlfriend, which will force Sano to reveal how he really feels about Mizuki. Nakatsu, still crushing on Mizuki, encourages the residential advisor to try and steal Julia away. To further complicate things, the students are preparing for a class trip to Sano’s hometown, but Mizuki is puzzled by why Sano doesn’t want to visit his family. The trip allows for a typical hot springs bath scene as well as lots of teenage goofing off, especially after Julia’s school shows up.
As book eight opens, the students are celebrating the end of their class trip. It’s been personally meaningful for Mizuki and Sano, but their new physical awareness of each other leads to nervousness that Nakatsu notices. Drunkenness also provides an excuse for revelations that likely wouldn’t be made otherwise.
Sano’s known for a long while that Mizuki is a girl, but Mizuki never pondered that possibility until Julia poses it as a hypothetical. It’s hard to consider Mizuki and Sano’s relationship as progressing, because it doesn’t move forward. Instead, it circles around, tracing a much more winding path.
Julia demonstrates her brash American character by coming out and asking a necessary question instead of guessing or waiting to find out more. She wants to protect her best friend; she loves Mizuki for her optimism and enthusiasm, but she also recognizes that those traits can get her into trouble. Now that she’s seen for herself that Mizuki’s got friends to take care of and support her, she can go back home without worrying.
Meanwhile, Sano’s family issues are still a factor. Sano’s younger brother may be in trouble, and Sano feels responsible. His feelings of duty to protect his younger sibling mirror the ways he sometimes treats Mizuki. She’s used to being taken care of, with both her own older brother and Julia to look out for her.
The beautiful boys take the cover in this book, but none are as pretty as Julia, with her flowing curly hair. Either way, there are plenty of close-ups of the characters’ faces in representative poses to stare at inside. A new storyline, featuring repercussions when the boys are asked to become models, reminds the reader how appealing their looks are.
Book nine pits the students against a particularly tough teacher who has it in for Nakatsu. The student is placed in the position of admitting to something he didn’t do or letting down his team, but the trumped-up cheating charges pull the teens together to support one of their own. After that, they’re roped into a photo shoot, where Mizuki risks revealing her true sex.
Mizuki can’t stop thinking about the photo-taking session in book ten. It deepens her infatuation with Sano, leading her to wind up in his bed. Since he’s an otherwise normal teen boy, this causes issues.
The photographs have unexpected power over their viewers in this storyline as they react to familiar friends presented in artistic ways. The photographer character has his own theories about picture as communication between the taker and the subject, revealing unexpected emotion. Given the number of beautiful boys that populate the title, the creator of the series obviously recognizes the impact of visual imagery. I was particularly impressed with the way she also ties in a character’s struggle with sexism. It’s all complicated by Mizuki’s masquerade and the question of exactly who knows what.
Book eleven opens with a ghost story. A young man’s spirit has mistaken Mizuki for his dead love and possessed another of the group to be close to her. That chapter is a welcome digression in tone before getting back to the typical school hijinks, with the class learning to waltz in preparation for the Christmas dance with the local girls’ school.
Because the numbers are unbalanced, several of the younger, cuter boys are talked into “swapping sides” temporarily. Thus, Mizuki winds up with an excuse to dress as a girl again for a special occasion, simultaneously pleasing and frightening her as she thinks of dancing with Sano. It’s a simple thing, but it’s also an action fraught with meaning and romance.
As the story concludes in book twelve, we see Mizuki getting along better with the boys she lives with than she does with the girls from the other school; she doesn’t like the scheming and jealousy she sees among her fellow females. After that, during the holidays, Mizuki is summoned home to the States by her family. It’s a pleasant change to see her in such a different, welcoming environment, even if things are complicated by a handsome college student friend of the family stopping by and some comical misunderstandings.
Book thirteen brings us back to the boys’ school setting, where Mizuki is struggling with two common teenage problems: she needs a part-time job for spending money, and she doesn’t know what she wants her future to be. All of her friends seem to have dreams they’re aiming for, whether realistic (teacher) or not (working in anime, playing soccer in the World Cup). She feels left out for not yet having a goal.
The advice she receives, to take her time, goes against the messages most kids (whether in Japan or America) receive and the pressures they feel, but it’s just what she needs to hear. And she hopes that she’ll learn more about herself while working her new job. She’s a photography assistant, bringing her into a world where everyone looks like something other than what they are, a particularly appropriate choice for someone whose life is a masquerade. (Plus, it allows the author to justifiably draw a lot of pretty people.)
That pretense winds up back in danger in book fourteen. Due to a broken water pipe, all of the boys have to take in additional roommates, so Mizuki’s got to be extra careful to avoid having her secret found out. Of course, she isn’t, which leads to the story reactivating some of its challenges involving Mizuki’s feelings for Sano. Only now, there’s a lot more history between the two, history that the reader has shared.
It’s a return to the original premise, but with more depth and a new perspective due to the many intervening chapters and events. That makes the flirtation and nervousness all the more welcome and enjoyable. The other half of the book is a flashback boys’ love story looking at Dr. Umeda’s days in high school.
At the beginning of book fifteen, Mizuki’s comfortable feelings towards Sano have been disrupted. She’s dreaming of kissing him, and she’s acutely aware of his physical presence. Her discomfort reminds the reader that she’s deeply in love with him, which makes his status as her roommate both wonderful and painful.
There’s a funny mix of humor and heartache near the start of the book. In gym class, the students are running laps, and Mizuki can’t figure out whether her heart is pounding so hard because she’s exercising or because Sano is nearby. It’s silly, but for a teenager, it’s also serious. She’s so nervous because she’s young, but it’s also a touching experience of first love.
Meanwhile, Sano is coming to terms with the depth of his feelings towards her as well. He’ll need to be more settled, since in the sports arena, he faces new competition: his younger brother, who’s become a rising star of the high jump. Nakatsu’s crush on Mizuki is also ramping up, with other students noticing how he’s not acting as himself. He’s torn between his romantic feelings and his respect for best friend Sano, because he knows that Sano also has feelings for Mizuki.
As book sixteen opens, Nakatsu is being over-protective of Mizuki, dragging her to the doctor’s office over a tiny cut. The encounter is a convenient way to remind the reader of the status of the key characters and their feelings towards each other.
The rest of the book features an invitation-only track-and-field competition for rising stars. Sano and his brother Shin are both included, which adds a layer of family drama to the already fraught athletic events. Mizuki wants to help bring the two closer together, but she’s unsure how much she should get involved.
Sano is pondering family habits in book seventeen. He only becomes conscious of much he’s acting like his father, regardless of his desire to be nothing like him, after he’s already lashed out. That’s typical when it comes to inheriting behavior; people act as they were raised, whether they like it or not, and it takes real willpower to overcome their conditioning.
Sano’s only trying to protect his brother, but you can’t take care of someone who rejects your help, and Shin has sufficient reason to suspect Sano’s motives. They’re literal competitors, both doing the high jump event, which doesn’t help. All Mizuki can do is guess at how best to support Sano. Her caring is comforting, even if only just through her presence.
In book eighteen, though, we see that someone’s support can be a burden if it’s not returned. Nakatsu lets Mizuki know that he cares for her (without knowing he’s a her) at the same time he recognizes her feelings for Sano. He offers her friendship and support without asking for anything in return. Although his intentions are good, his declaration makes Mizuki nervous around him. She’s got to figure out how to continue being his friend without giving him hope for more.
At the same time, Sano and his brother are making tentative approaches towards reconciliation, driven by their feelings around their father. There’s a distraction when the school engages in a dorm-wide treasure hunt over the holidays, but a medical crisis precipitates a breakthrough in family relations. Two people, like Sano and his father, so similar to each other will often cause friction between themselves, but danger reminds family members of what’s really important.
Book nineteen begins with Mizuki making breakfast for Sano and Shin in preparation for their competition. (Finally, three books later!) Her good intentions have brought them all closer together, resulting in their gratitude. After the meet finishes, it’s time to start thinking about the future, full of tough decisions. Mizuki’s got to decide when she’ll resume living as her proper sex and what that means for her choices.
Then Nakatsu’s mother arrives, fresh from the country, to toss some comedy disruption into the mix. She’s got a more serious mission, though, as explored in book twenty. She’s come to bring her son back to run the family business after he graduates, even though that’s not his dream for himself. He wants to be a world-level soccer professional, based on a promise to a childhood friend.
Along the way, as the series winds down, mention is made of various supporting characters to catch the reader up on their lives and futures. And of course, Mizuki and Sano’s relationship is brought to the foreground again, as they try to figure out how they feel about each other and whether to acknowledge what they know.
Some have decried this title as justifying misogyny, obsession, and stalking, missing the escapism and symbolism. Of course a teenage girl wouldn’t get away with pretending to be a boy for long, and many guest characters immediately see through her pretense. On another level, though, it’s about trying to protect yourself while figuring out how to fit into a male-centered world. Many teens make sacrifices in order to be with their loves; this one’s just more dramatic than most.
This is a romantic fantasy — instead of redeeming a boy through silently loving him from afar, Mizuki actively participates in his life. She’s special because she’s surviving, however tentatively, in a boy’s world, and she’s inspired by Sano’s achievements to dare to try for her dreams. Hisaya Nakajo’s official site, Wild Vanilla, is in Japanese, of course.