Otomen Volume 5
This series by Aya Kanno has grown into one of the most reliable for amusing romantic comedy with a touch of gender-bending.
The first story in Otomen volume 5 features one of those shojo standards, the embarrassing school contest. Somehow, martial artist and “eccentric beauty” Ryo has been selected by her grade to compete in the “Ideal Woman Contest”. Since the areas of evaluation are cooking, flower arranging, tea ceremony, and kimono dressing, she doesn’t seem to have much of a chance … especially since her competition is the perfect girl, who’s won the contest the previous two years running. Just to complicate things further, that girl has a crush on Asuka, since she thinks he’s the ideal man. She doesn’t know about his girly habits, which ironically make him perfectly complementary to Ryo.
I know these competitions are ridiculous, but they bring into sharp relief the core struggles that define the characters. I see them as exaggerated symbols of the conflicts that the teens face: is Ryo a desirable woman even though she’s physically skilled but can’t cook? Of course she is, and the validation of her peers, even through unexpected avenues, affirms that. That her classmates have no question about her ability to win is a comforting reassurance, as is the way she’s praised for having both beauty and strength.
I also found it hilarious that, as a throwaway gag at the festival, there’s a “Bespectacled Butler Cafe”, playing on a couple of fan obsessions. It’s a very specialized eye candy. More thought-provoking is the way that, in the first chapter, Ryo’s competitor only smiles once, and that’s when she’s pretending to be a good sport. The rest of the time, she glowers or looks stern. Is that a comment on how males are attracted to women they think are too good for them? Or a fantasy that they would be the only one to see her softer side? I much prefer looking at the happier Ryo. (Especially since the other girl has the weird idea that a clumsy person who can’t cook can’t be loved by anyone.)
Enjoyable as that story was, my absolute favorite chapter of the series so far is the one where friend Juta, who’s secretly a manga artist, wins a major award for his series Love Chick. The problem, of course, is that he works under a female pseudonym. As he tells his sister when begging her to pretend to be him,
I’m the author of a heartwarming shojo manga about pure love … My fans will be shocked to find out I’m actually a frivolous, womanizing ladies’ man.
But the story is about a lot more than just that — although that part is pretty funny as Juta gets more and more desperate. Juta acknowledges his idol, the author of several romantic series that inspired him from a young age, and several of the characters talk about how meaningful manga is to them. It’s both touching and hilarious.
There’s also one other chapter, about the Beauty Samurai, one of whom is Asuka. A magazine promotes them as a recurring feature, mysterious men with amazing makeover skills. Working behind masks allows them to indulge their girly hobbies without restraint, but building up a secret makes them vulnerable to the potential reveal.