by Miki Aihara; adaptation by Pookie Rolf
published by Viz; $9.99 US
Hot Gimmick is the manga that made me a devoted proponent of the format. At the time, it was exactly what I was looking for — a girl-centered story that emphasizes emotion and character development, with fascinating plot twists and clear, expressive art. Unfortunately, the end of the series is so disappointing as to erase the enjoyment of the beginning, and now I recommend people avoid it.
The protagonist, Hatsumi, is a 16-year-old living in a company apartment building. Her father is on a remote assignment for work, and her older brother is a college student who’s gone a lot, leaving her with no easily available male role model. (There’s a page at the back of the first book that sums up the family members that is very helpful for the reader’s reference. Future books have information on other groups of characters.)
The family’s living situation keeps them under the thumb of Mrs. Tachibana, the wife of a high-ranking company official. When she appears, she’s followed by a flock of other company wives who serve as visible symbols of her power, a chorus of yes-women who giggle on cue to enforce her pronouncements. This situation is a twisted take on 1950s American morals, with the family’s standing revolving around the father’s job, the housewives worried about status, and hypocrisy not mattering so long as the proper image is maintained.
Tachibana’s son Ryoki has taken his family’s power to heart all his life. When they were younger, he even injured Hatsumi by pushing her down a flight of stairs just because she was in his way. He’s the villain of the piece, and he’s even scarier because he’s not sadistic — he just thinks of no one but himself and getting what he wants. That’s the way he’s seen things work all his life, where it doesn’t matter who he insults or degrades. As the series progresses, it becomes clear that he’s only ever been valued for his intelligence. He reminds himself of his rank by calling Hatsumi “moron”, reassuring himself that he’s still superior to her in that way. His motives become a little more understandable, if still not acceptable, and his emotional naiveté is realistic for his age and background. It’s refreshing that he’s not a two-dimensional villain but a more complex character.
Meanwhile, Hatsumi’s 14-year-old sister Akane is something of a wild child, with several lovers. Her period is late, so she guilts her big sister into buying her a pregnancy test. At the same time, she’s rubbing it in that Hatsumi’s never had a boyfriend. Ryoki finds out about the situation and uses it to blackmail Hatsumi into acting as his slave. She agrees in order to protect her family’s reputation. Although he claims to despise everyone for allowing his mother to rule their lives, he’s carrying on in the same fashion. Instead of pointing this out to him, her opinion of him is yet another thing Hatsumi holds inside.
Hatsumi is almost the perfect young girl, pliable and agreeable, unable to say no to other people’s requests, even when she should. She has few opinions of her own, being shaped by outside forces instead. When she completes a task difficult for her, she has such joy in her accomplishment that the reader wonders just how much in her everyday life she’s ever been allowed to take pride in. She’s never been encouraged in long-term thinking, even to the point of losing sight of the horrendous reasons behind her mission. She gets so wrapped up in the temporary exhilaration of successfully buying the test that she forgets how terrible it might be if her younger sister was actually pregnant. She frequently practices what she’ll say in a difficult situation, only to find her resolve deserting her when the time comes, a realistic portrayal of the distractions of teenage emotion.
Being unable to express one’s true feelings for fear of losing one’s social status is something a lot of teenagers can relate to. Hatsumi often thinks of the right thing to say after the situation has passed, and she feels powerless to change the factors aligned against her. She’s torn between standing up for what she wants and being controlled by what everyone else expects of her. Even when she screws up her courage and vows to tell someone something important, she can’t follow through because she gets distracted by her surroundings or her misguided sense of what other people can handle. She can’t stop herself from being nice, even at her own expense, or from apologizing, even when she’s the one wronged. She’s also rather naive, since she doesn’t recognize when she’s being asked out.
The sexual possibilities are surprisingly prominent, especially when taken in contrast to Hatsumi’s character. Ryoki uses the “slave” situation to fondle, kiss, and strip her. He even blames her for his behavior, saying “there’s something about her that makes me want to pick on her,” which shows how he’s incapable of interacting honestly with himself as well as anyone else. It’s a more adult version of teasing the person you have a crush on because you can’t express your emotions any other way.
It’s bizarre to see date rape used as the premise of a teenage comic, but why not? There’s a tradition in the comic medium of expressing emotions adolescents can relate to in exaggerated fashion. (For example, consider the symbolism of strange mutant powers appearing at puberty in the X-Men comics.) Also, the explicit deal Ryoki makes is different only in degree from the pressure many girls face, when they’re encouraged to put out for fear of being labeled a prude and feel trapped by peer pressure and social conventions. Sex is a real part of many teenage lives, a situation reflected here.
Azusa, a former childhood playmate and protector of Hatsumi’s, returns to the building just in time to protect her once again. Now the book begins to resemble a fairy tale, with this handsome teen model swooping in to rescue the princess-in-hiding. Of course, fairy tales aren’t possible in real life. As the series progresses, different motivations are revealed that cause the reader to question everything that’s gone before. Who’s really a bad guy, and who really cares for whom? Are characters being honest about their motives, or do they have more disturbing secret intentions? Azusa claims a disturbing connection with Hatsumi’s family; is he telling the truth?
The delicate linework hides an underlying strength, in the same way the characters’ facades do. Emotions take center stage with facial expressions and body language clearly delineated, often through closeups. The art doesn’t draw attention to itself; instead, it keeps the reader moving through the story. The question of “what happens next?” is gripping, and the answer is rarely expected.
Hatsumi has a beauty she doesn’t realize due to the goodness in her heart, which is why every boy in the book falls in love with her. Her innocence, though, prevents her from suspecting anything but the best in people, a trait that gets her into dangerous situations when things turn out to be other than what they seem. By book four, she is moving slowly towards standing up for herself. Even after Azusa does something unforgivable, she barely summons the courage to slap him, and promptly apologizes afterwards. His taunting of her late at night gives the gossips more ammunition, since they immediately jump to the conclusion that she was coming on to him. Even with the trouble he’s caused, both intentionally and not, she’s of such good character that she can’t hate him. She can’t hate anyone.
Due to the spreading rumors, Mrs. Tachibana decides that the entire family should be ostracized for not teaching the children better behavior. The family assumes that this is because Hatsumi turned down Ryoki, so she’s pushed into reconciling with her “master”. It seems that the only emotions Ryoki allows himself are anger and jealousy, but he’s struggling to learn more, even though he doesn’t realize it yet. Meanwhile, little sister Akane and neighborhood geek Subaru are finding they might have more in common than they thought.
With her feelings for Ryoki continually changing, things are complicated in book five when her older brother Shinogu becomes jealous due to unfathomable motives. It seems everyone knows more about her family than she does, and the acts of the parents continue complicating the lives of the younger generation.
Book six starts with a flashback to how Azusa grew up, showing that his actions have deep-seated emotional roots. This series rarely settles for two-dimensional characterization, and shocking acts have complicated histories that make them understandable, if not agreeable. Living in the past isn’t very satisfactory, but trying to completely ignore it doesn’t work either. Hatsumi finds herself burdened with guilt over long-ago secrets that aren’t hers, while Ryoki struggles to think about anyone but himself.
New Year’s Eve brings complications in book seven. Little sister Akane has a new boyfriend, although she’s also flirting with Shinogu’s housemate. Hatsumi comes to a new realization about her feelings, while Ryoki is as self-centered as ever, scheming to get Hatsumi to sleep with him. For her, their relationship is hampered by emotional distance and lack of communication; for him, it’s all about the sex. When he tells his mother they’re dating, it’s soon all over the complex. Most of the drama results from characters acting on mistaken impressions of half-overheard conversations or partially glimpsed action. In that way, it captures realistic human emotion and gender differences. If only the characters would talk to each other honestly! But that would require putting aside their pride and risking rejection.
Hatsumi tries to act as peacemaker, but her generosity of spirit often is misinterpreted, causing jealousy among the many boys with crushes on her. Much of the confusion stems from the flexible line separating boy/girl friendships from dating. When Hatsumi spends time alone with a guy, she may intend one thing, but others may read more into it.
The aftermath of Ryoki slapping Hatsumi in public is on view in book eight. He takes out his fear that he’s the only one who cares on her violently and then blames her for his outburst. Hopefully, he’ll learn more mature behavior before he becomes a full-fledged abuser, and she’ll learn that it’s not right for her to apologize for his mistakes. She doesn’t respect herself enough to stand up in the face of his dictatorial demands, even when he tries to control her thoughts as well as her behavior.
His mother complicates things by introducing Ruri, an intelligent, high-ranking girl who she thinks is a much better match for her brilliant son, at the same time that Shinogu’s secrets become more of a problem. The book concludes with the story of Hatsumi’s family moving into the complex and her first meetings with Ryoki and Azusa. Seeing adorable little kids act in the same disturbingly mean ways they do as teens is a realistic portrayal of what they’re learning from their parents.
Book nine begins with a chapter focusing on Akane and Subaru and Valentine’s Day. She’s used to guys moving much faster than he does, so she’s hoping the holiday gives her some clarity on where they stand with each other. Like any couple, they have to find their own unique way that works for them… and they’re so cute while getting there, with their uncertainties, since the reader knows they’re great together.
Back with Ryoki and Hatsumi, another family secret takes a new twist, opening up a new avenue for Hatsumi, Shinogu, and Azusa to investigate. Ryoki, however, tells himself that the past has nothing to do with him now, an attitude that’s been obviously disproven by much of the rest of the series (and also not in keeping with the typical Japanese belief). Meanwhile, Shinogu announces his intention to leave the family after another adorable flashback to he and Hatsumi as little children, and Hatsumi inadvertently learns more about his feelings for her. By book ten, pretenses begin collapsing as secrets are revealed.
Book eleven begins with a stunned Hatsumi just looking for a safe place to be. She needs comfort; all the changes have been too much for her. The reader may sympathize. Hatsumi’s status as a recipient of knowledge instead of a protagonist makes her more of a stand-in for the reader, seeing what’s going on but powerless to affect it in any way. Her uncertainty makes her an even more typical teen, with too many options in front of her. She doesn’t yet possess the tools or self-knowledge to sort through them and determine what she wants.
Many have justifiably objected to her love for a controlling near-rapist, but it’s plausible that a girl would find someone who tells her what to do and how to act comforting. She’s afraid (even more so than most) of being on her own and responsible for her own decisions, and a dictatorial lover nicely fits into the role her parents used to fill for her. The reader can view this book as a modern-day Cinderella story where the challenge is more threatening than cleaning a fireplace, or as a dramatization of the dangers of date rape when dealing with an immature teenage golden boy drunk on his own power, or a soap opera with a twisted triangle of attraction.
Book twelve (spoilers in the link) finally answers the question of “which boy does Hatsumi pick?” but I found her lack of character development over the series as a whole very disappointing. The hints of growth are ignored so that everyone winds up roughly where they were when we started. Aihara previously created the five-volume Tokyo Boys & Girls manga, which is also not recommended.