Beauty Pop Volumes 1-7
The concept of the makeover is an important part of shojo manga. It’s important for the shy girl to be revealed, with a better haircut, as surprisingly beautiful or the geeky girl to become popular when she pays more attention to working on her looks.
This series by Kiyoko Arai takes that concept and knocks it on its ear. Kiri is a very talented hairstylist who knows the transforming power of the right cut. She doesn’t much care about her own looks, though, or being popular or any of the usual superficialities.
Her school fusses over three boys called the Scissors Project. They perform makeovers on specially selected girls who beg for the privilege, because any of them made beautiful will get the boy of their dreams. The boys use their skills for power and fame, while Kiri wants to help others find love and acceptance, even when it inconveniences her. She calls her work “magic”, and so it is for those she transforms.
The lead boy, Narumi, conducts the makeovers because he wants to be the top beautician in Japan. I can’t help seeing this as a parody of the typical competition manga, where a young (usually) boy works hard and overcomes every challenge in order to be the best in his chosen field. This is very similar, only in such an unexpected area.
Kiri, on the other hand, is a reserved loner, happy with herself and not concerned with fitting in. Her “whatever, dude” attitude is a nice contrast to the obsessive competitiveness of Narumi. She doesn’t care if she’s accepted, a switch from the usual eager-to-please manga heroine. She goes so far as to be somewhat lazy and slobbish, since she’s not motivated by anything yet.
The art’s clear and easy to read, especially when it comes to looks and hairstyles. There’s an early scene where Kiri offers to help an old friend who’s just been rejected by the boy she crushed on. She’s standing inside a door, looking down at the crying girl, and her eyes are arresting. They’re deep and mysterious, as though she knows she can make a difference but it may be a mixed blessing. She’s not pushy or self-promoting. She knows what she can do and quietly offers it as needed.
The friend Kiri makes over is stunning, at first, but soon she realizes that being so pretty doesn’t feel like her. It’s a facade that she can put on, especially if it helps her achieve her goals, but it’s not natural to her (or any woman, really). She’s more comfortable as who she was before.
The first book concludes with a hair battle, a public cutting competition between Kiri and Narumi. Narumi has picked a normal girl he can easily make more attractive, while Kiri, who had to be badgered into the content to start, is working on someone considered the ugliest fat girl in school.
The results of the competition aren’t revealed until volume two. After that, Iori, an old family friend of Kiri’s, returns. He’s been in New York and wants to join the Scissors Project, even though they’re not comfortable with his flamboyance. (I sympathize. I don’t care much for his odd speaking pattern of referring to himself as “Me”.) We also learn more about Kiri’s home situation. We’ve seen that her dad owns a salon where she works after school, but where’s her mom been? She’s back to provide comic relief.
Kiri and the Scissors Project wind up working together again to help two teachers prepare for their wedding. The bride is older than her intended, so she’s got issues about her appearance that a new look may be able to help with.
There’s a bonus story included that flashes back to how the three boys met when they started school together. One, preparing to be the head of his family’s cosmetic company, is quite straight-laced and needs his own makeover before he becomes part of the group.
In volume three, Narumi continues winning prizes, this time in contests at the beauty college run by his famous and successful father. The student who always comes in second challenges him to a private competition, requiring Narumi to work with Kiri and Iori to fill out his team. Most of the book focuses on the interpersonal dynamics that have to be navigated to get the group to agree to work together.
As in volume one, the competition’s still in progress when the main story ends, so we won’t find out what happens until the next volume. As consolation, there are three bonus stories included. The first focuses on a friend of Kiri’s, a waitress who’s considered too much of a skinny nerd to be cute until Narumi happens into her restaurant. Inspired by a crush on him, she takes his advice to take better care of her hair and skin and winds up discovered.
The other two are much shorter. The first is the funny story of one of the Scissors Project’s makeover victims, and the second, more heartwarming, shows how Kiri found her cat Shampoo.
As I mentioned, volume four continues the team competition. Narumi has the chance to win easily — one of the opposing team members owes him due to an earlier encounter — but he wants an honest battle, with everyone doing their best. That’s a great message, undercut just a bit by the way Kiri overhears something important about their model because she coincidentally visits the restroom at the same time the model’s friends happen to be discussing her.
It’s all quickly superseded by the revelation of a traumatic incident from Kiri’s past, the discovery of an old friend, and some superstitions about magic hands. For all that this is sometimes a “battle book”, where the competition is everything, we learn a lot about the characters by the way they fight, and the battles they choose. Plus, there’s an additional layer of family history revealed in this volume, as we meet both Narumi’s powerful dad and his doll-like little sister.
In more typical shojo style, Kiri’s life becomes more complicated when one of the Scissors Project seems to be developing a crush on her, although it’s more driven by mystery than affection. The group’s added more members to become an official club (and allow more interaction without the author having to create premises to force the characters together).
In volume five, Narumi discovers that his competition with Kiri is generational, and that their fathers often faced off against each other (with surprising results). The two once again demonstrate that they have very different outlooks on life, since Narumi is surprised to discover that Kiri respects her father to the extent of working part-time at his salon. Narumi, in contrast, competes with his.
The Scissors Project has an outside job, making over a model who’s afraid of men. That’s definitely a career-stopper, so Kiri’s in a unique position to help. (The others try cross-dressing, required in any shojo, but it doesn’t work.)
Mostly, though, this book is about the interpersonal jealousies that occur among a group of dedicated young people. Kiri’s friend has a crush on the SP leader, who’s meeting secretly with Kiri to try and convince her to continue participating, which makes the friend jealous. Another hanger-on cares for Kiri but doesn’t want to say anything, while old friend Iori is so obvious about his affections it’s laughable.
With kids thrown together, working on what they’re passionate about, it’s not surprising that they get emotionally involved with each other. Toss in crazy fans deciding kidnapping is a sensible strategy (fear! anger!) and the fragile egos of those who base their self-worth on the number of awards they have, and it’s a potent blend.
It’s back to competition in volume six, although this time it’s against the overpraised top stylist in the country. Two sisters have come to see him, with the older begging him to help tame younger’s frizzy hair. The older is studying to become a beautician herself, with the dream of helping her sister, but she doesn’t yet have the skills or talent.
The sisters’ story inspires Kiri to help, which raises the ire of Osawa, the famous stylist. He even breaks her scissors to demonstrate his contempt for her. The portrayal of Osawa as a self-absorbed monster, casually insulting everyone around him, sets him up from the beginning for the reader to root for his eventual downfall. Talent doesn’t mean anything if it’s used to harm others. Kiri, by contrast, may seem self-contained, but she helps people who need her skill to be happy, even at her own expense.
Kiri’s equanimity is rarely disturbed. When Osawa challenges her to a public showdown, she lets others do her worrying for her, even through his cheating and her lack of supplies. She has ultimate faith in what she can do… and the help of the rest of the Scissors Project, without needing to ask. After that showdown is completed, it’s back to school, where Narumi finds that a duplicate is ruining his reputation.
The “twin” is caught and his story explored at the beginning of volume seven. It’s a bit outrageous and unbelievable, since it involves jealousy, revenge, insecurity, a model girlfriend, outstanding makeup skills, and an unexpected connection to Osawa.
The rest of the book is also strange. There are 60 pages of story — in which Kiri struggles to admit she wants to be a beautician, a conflict I found less than compelling, since she’s so obviously already pursuing that profession — then 100 pages of bonus stories, then the main narrative continues under the label “Stage 2”. The bonus stories featuring Kiri visiting her mom in Los Angeles (in which, unbelievably, many of the rest of the Scissors Project appear), a focus on the dementedly childlike Chisami, and a dog ghost story, while the end of the book is just setup for the next volume. I’d call this entry a less-than-necessary part of the series.
But overall, I like this series because it walks the line so many young women have to balance. Looks are important, and they will influence how people treat you and what you’re able to achieve. At the same time, there are other things much more important, like individuality and a strong, confident personality. Looks can be bought with enough time and money. It’s also true that a new, good haircut can be a transforming event, providing more confidence and revealing more about the person inside.
Plus, Kiri’s refreshingly reserved. Instead of feeling every emotion painfully and sharing it all with us, she moves through life more directly, not feeling the need to prove her skills and abilities when they’re so self-evident. It’s an interesting change from other books of this type I’ve read.