14-sai no Koi: Yuri, Iyashi and the lives of others (part 2)

14sai-nurse-and-shiki-web

14-sai no Koi (Love at Fourteen) by Mizutani Fuka
Comedy, Josei, Romance, School Life
6 Volumes (Ongoing from 2010)

Continuing from part 1, when I started to examine some of the not-so-obvious reasons for the popularity of light romance genres that feature minority sexualities among their characters, this installment will focus on a case of yuri pining in an otherwise heteronormative setting. The question for this segment is: “why stub the young girl’s heart?”

Warning: Spoilers Ensue.

“The second year of junior high, when most students are in the throes of puberty and feeling the pangs of first love. It’s no different for Kanata Tanaka and Kazuki Yoshikawa, a girl and a boy who have been friends since elementary school. But even though Kanata and Kazuki are at the same point in life as their classmates, an air of adulthood sets the two apart. Kanata is taller and more attractive than the other girls, but the boys stay away because she seems too mature for them. Kazuki too stands out from the other boys, but the girls are wary of him because he seems like a player. And so, Kanata and Kazuki are thrown together in a charming, bittersweet tale of two very adult students falling in love like the teenagers they are.”
https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=66093

14-sai is cute, almost to the point of cloying. The lead couple are so earnestly smitten that they need little in the way of analysis. The heart-bruising stories of the secondary characters that swirl around the school are what makes this sentimental romp tolerable, even exemplary.

One of the girls in Kanata’s class is shocked to her core to find herself dealing with her first crush, on Kanata. How did this happen? Whats wrong with me? Why do my dreams of her look like Takarazuka stagings with Kanata as a otokoyaku prince? Exhausted and feverish from a cold, she seeks refuge in the school infirmary and the Wise School Nurse ™ suspects, then confirms the issue. Distraught Shiki has to face her feelings and who she is.

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The writer is playing coy but also dropping hints that the Wise School Nurse ™ is also a lesbian, though this is never directly stated. Some of the banter between her and the young music teacher, Hinohara-sensei have them scolding each other over student-teacher boundaries that must not be crossed. Hinohara-san is a bit of a hypocrite (or a fool); she is showing far too much interest in a sullen young delinquent with a beautiful singing voice and has already flirted with him. Things may be more diffuse in Japan. In the United States or Canada she has already committed a firing offense. Romantic fantasies aside, she is one grope away from a felony. Even the scanlator crew was compelled to post a warning.

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And then a second one

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Hinohara-sensei is also being stalked by another student, who sits up on the roof watching her in the music room with binoculars while his childhood girl(-) friend tries to get his attention. Who knows, perhaps even Wise School Nurse ™ is intrigued by Hinohara-sensei. And there’s another young man who is suddenly fixated on a Random Office Lady who he sees every day on the bus to school (a cross-over to another of the author’s works). We get the point. The kids are all going a bit crazy as THAT TIME hits.

I can hardly wait for the Anime. They will use Bolero as a leitmotif. A few in Japan will get the ancient Trekkie joke.

Later Shiki-chan peeks in the door of an empty classroom to see Kanata kissing that Kazuki boy. Of course she knew they were sweet on each other, she had even clumsily tried to mess up the relationship, then had backed off. Still, seeing them like that hurt. Retreating to the Nurse’s office, mumbling that she is not sick or injured but not saying much else, she sits, downcast and heartbroken.

Wise School Nurse ™ first pulls out a band-aid, then remarks that this will need more. Then Nurse pulls out a bandage roll and wraps Shiki’s arm.

14sai-nurse-bandage-web

That’s all. That was enough.

It was breathtakingly good.

So what if it is sentimental mush. It worked.

Dropping Shiki-chan into the story was a calculated move on the part of the writer; it makes sense. All the other kids are running around bubbling about love and crushes and first dates, to often idiotic excess. The feels! At this point Shiki has only the vaguest idea about how this will affect her; so far it is hurting at least as much as an unrequited straight crush. Her ham-fisted attempt to unmask Kazuki-kun as a math-dunce was odd but she did not fill his school shoes with mayonnaise (which for some reason comes in squeeze bottles in Japan, making it a classic school-shoe vandalising choice). Kuzuki does not shame her for her feelings, even as he warns her not to stoop to dirty tricks again. He then steps out-of-the-way as she finishes her shopping outing with Kanata. Or is he dense as a board and reads nothing beyond Shiki’s disapproval for him into her actions?

Usotsuki Lily was at least more direct when someone got pushed into a fountain.

Is it unfair to use a young gay woman character as a plot condiment, along with an inappropriate teacher-student flirtation, a binocular-wielding stalker, the ignored childhood friend of the latter and who knows what other peripheral young romantic misadventures? It counts at least as a nominally sympathetic representation. I am somewhat happy that the mangaka did not try a male:male unrequited pining side-story. Takamyia Jin can pull off such as background in a yuri tale but I doubt if Mizutani-sensei could, at least in this setting. The writer is at best tip-toeing through Maramite territory. Trope-bleed-over is expected but manageable. A serious male-male crush in Hormone-bashi Junior High would Tweek x Craig out so fast as to induce nausea and break whatever pretense of realism the manga has managed to maintain. Japanese schools bully and are homophobic, enough times violently so. Avoid! Avoid! Avoid!

Shiki’s crush that dare not speak its name is also a convincing way for the exemplary mature-for-their-age duo to be threatened by a love triangle. The rest of their year considers our heroes to be stodgy, calm, earnest, serious, responsible and what fun is that? Blink and you will miss the author’s sleight of hand. Somehow other folks are not crushing on Kanata or Kazuki. Kanata is reserved and tall; even a smidgen taller than Kazuki-kun so we can roll our eyes and give the “boys are afraid of tall, serious girls” trope a conditional pass. But what of Kazuki? Somewhere in the manga descriptions it is mentioned that his maturity is scary because it might mark him as a “player”?

Huh? Not buying it.

Take the case of Kanata worrying about the class rep’s mystery crush. Nominally a stickler type, she gets over-enthusiastic about class activities. It also turns out that she secretly admires someone (assumed to be male) and for a moment Kanata worried it was Kazuki. It turns out that Etou looks up to one of the male teachers but does not want to cause any trouble. The chapter served to highlight the cute delusion field that our happy pair are co-generating. They actually believe that no one in their school has figured out that they are an item.

Duh!

Everyone who would care must have already guessed; they all simply assume that the two will be intensely level-headed, responsible and boring about the whole thing. What fun is that? This must be the case, otherwise Kanata or Kazuki should be besieged by all manner of struck-by-lightning admiration crushes. Somehow they are left in peace to sneak off to their daily after school rendezvous in the science room. How romantic.

The Fall Girl

Shiki’s sudden crush is not merely the first manifestation of same-sex desire. It is also a blatant case of “They are alien, they do alien things, that’s why they are called aliens.” As well, we can catch a glimpse of a light yuri restatement of BL- lore’s “Thunderbolts And Lightning, Very Very Frightening, why is this happening, I’m not gay it’s only you” onset of mad same-sex desire. All romantic infatuation is seen as disruptive, but gay infatuation, especially directed at a straight person must be far more dangerous and completely unpredictable. Gay people should only crush on other gay people, lest they disturb the order of forms. OMG! Shock and outrage, Shiki-chan’s desires could convert, corrupt, turn Kanata! This is the pinnacle of homophobic bullshit but it is also the hidden trick behind a morsel of very attractive plot-candy. Because of the unpredictable, transgressive, disruptive nature of the infatuation, an author can deploy it in places where a straight crush wouldn’t be as easy to work in.

Moreover, who among the readers could be repulsed by Shiki’s unrequited crush? As she is more interesting than a heterosexual rival she is also far less likely to disrupt the Vanilla One True Boring Pairing. A queer mature reader might find the way Shiki is used annoying, but I’m guessing that they would grumble and give it a pass for the sermon. Only a raging homophobe would object, so the plot device, like the threat that Shiki-chan offers is ultimately safe while offering some novel excitement. Shiki as a young lesbian is simply out of serious consideration – but only in this particular case. The VOTBP is out-of-bounds to everyone. The author is free at any time to introduce a tall, first-year tomboy sports girl with an attitude to tease Shiki and then meet cute. Start by making appreciative noises about Kanata within earshot and then turn the inevitable Shiki-rage-fest into an introduction. Ooops, how did the playset field get turned on? Better stop now. Shiki-chan could also go off and crush on another straight girl; perhaps she will have better luck next time. Tomboy X, however would restore the order of forms, stabilise the instability and create “profit” within the tale with the addition of one more happy (bonus diversity points!) couple.

Straight girls aren’t worth the trouble

Another random guy showing up and pestering Kanata, another girl getting suddenly all flutter-y around Kazuki would drop the tone of the story into the shoujo cliché sub-basement and easily become annoying. A recent essay on Anime Feminist hinted at this effect, even as it tried to highlight issues of personal space and consent in the hit franchise “Kiss Him Not Me” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiss_Him,_Not_Me]. [http://www.animefeminist.com/discourse-force-him-not-me/]

Face it: if not for the fujoshi spice, all of the suitors save the rich Taka girl are useless and the heroine doesn’t need to cuddle with Taka girl either. Serinuma’s fujoshi-dom seems to overlay her discomfort with real-world intimacy and even Taka girl should clue in and shape up. And Serinuma is an annoying doormat.

Some fujoshis undoubtedly do use their hobby as a substitute and a sublimation for real-world intimacy, even as most do not. If she does not want to date, if she is uncomfortable with the idea, leave her the fuck alone. All of you! Only the “sin” of her fujoshi imagination keeps her in thrall to the group and its competition for her. Stuck with new-found attractiveness, she must now choose from a gaggle of pesky suitors. The AF essay also hints that she feels somehow complicit in a larger culture of sexual assault because some of her enjoyed fantasy pairings go berserk and attack each other. Read rapey yaoi comics, you deserve to be mashed on? This misses the point of the fujoshi exercise and the implicit (still extremely problematic) critique within it – by a country mile. Even so, some western slash fen have bumbled together a temporary solution to this quandary: “Only if I am a perpetually in heat male-ish third sex super-powered alien werewolf, and only with other super-powered alien werewolves.” Ta-Dah! No real-world blow-back!

I would argue that 14-sai is a ‘better” narrative than Dōsunda precisely because of how its characters worry and care. The latter of course is a burlesque reverse-harem so expectations are dialed back. Even within Dōsunda, the surprise yuri interest had to be powered up to insane levels. Nishina is rich, attractive, confident, a fujoshi herself, a doujin-circle artist, a high-level school athlete and an admirer of Serinuma’s fujoshi-fu from before Serinuma shed her flab. At night, she fights crime. And she still won’t get the girl.

Once again, I am reminded of the solution to an “out” high school lesbian (light comedy variant) character offered by Whispered Words/ Sasameki Koto: Make her incredibly rich and powerful and pair her up with a “spouse”, so the two can be an invulnerable inspirational supporting couple.

If we are to delve even further into why Shiki-san is here to get her heart bruised, we have as well to deal with a curious haze that not only envelops her nascent sexuality, but the life-path her desire offers her. Put another way, what the heck do we know of how adult lesbian women live in Japan? Aside from imagined sexy bits and in the absence of the legalization of gay marriage and the reform of civil and family registry legislation, what comes after the Rose of Versailles Takarazuka dream sequence? Happily ever after how? Move in together, start a bookstore in Kamakura and keep cats? Use god-like probability shifting powers to do your life over and over again until you can take over the world science cult and drive your second-choice hate-fuck frienemy crazy time and time again? Do the Stretch manga but with intimacy, forever?

If the heterosexual ideal of stable employment, marriage, child rearing and a slow shuffle into grandparent-hood and the grave is becoming harder and harder to pull off for the girl:boy couple, where does that leave the girl:girl couple, let alone the girl by herself who has some notion of finding another girl?

This foggy, uncertain future, its very unreality, is quoted every time Shiki looks longingly at Kanata. It telegraphs wet kittenish harmless and cute because it appears far less possible and far less real. While it does not hint at some soul-crushing ‘well of loneliness‘ life as previous generations’ sensational fiction did, neither does it offer the vista of two happy lesbian women raising a family while running a soba noodle restaurant. The fundamental importance of the social and legal acknowledgement of the rights of gay people carries over even into shoujo manga. The lack kills dreams themselves and because it does, this crime cries out to the heavens because dreams are sacred. Without dreams, the young lesbian character floats as an ethereal, somewhat interesting secondary character who is dropped into the pot for flavouring. And like a Bay Leaf, she is ultimately left in the bottom of the pot.

Even for Kanata-chan and Kazuki-kun, the future is cloudy. Kanata has the right idea. Get English – real fluent English by doing home-stay study in Australia (somehow get the boy into one too) and then get them both into flight attendant jobs. See the world, have a late dinner date on the Left Bank in Paris and get the fuck out of Japan. Get as far away as possible, as well paid as possible and as fast as possible. Return only to work at a powerful outlander corporation, as no Japanese company will ever hire anyone “tainted” in their formative years by foreign experience and habits.

This is the gift-feast laid at the feet of the old men who run today’s Japan. May they choke on the bitter taste.

Shift the POV on this tidy analysis: what of the Japanese readership? They are paying for light fluffy romance stories and they are damn well going to get them. Random cute characters will be slammed together. If the readers want asexual friendships, especially sex-segregated “homosocial” ones, they have plenty of those in real life. Nobody in Japan seems to be dating any more. Alarming numbers of guys and girls of prime pairing age are throwing up their hands and giving up. No time, no money, too much hassle. He can’t fulfill her expectations, she can’t fulfill his. Neither understand the need to floss regularly. Omaii suck and once you pair off societal roles lock in like inexorable doom. Everybody is living in cramped apartments and/or with their parents or grandparents. Intimacy is performed in 4-hour time blocks at tacky sex hotels. Everybody is pissed off, worn down and disillusioned.

It is as if we have again re-doubled the field strength of the “why would anyone give a flying fuck” generator. That’s why the charas have to be 14, beautifully drawn and full of hormones and innocent self-doubt. Phantom limb syndrome.

We remember love.

Given such a desert of the real, it can be entertaining to vicariously sympathize with Shiki as you watch her face her disappointment, pull herself up off the floor and soldier on. You can process her situation but unless you remember being a young gay Japanese school-girl faced with the realisation of where your desires lie, as well as the realisation that for this first devastating crush you are shit out of luck, the experience of your sympathy must remain abstract. You can step back and notice how well the situation is deployed, how it unfolds and how Shiki’s wounds are bound up by someone who may, fictional as she and Shiki are, be in a better position to understand the hurt and confusion Shiki is (written as) going through. These feeling are borrowed and will be put aside when we are done tasting them. They may recall to mind one’s own slightly analogous feelings but from a safe perspective, distanced, denatured and rendered remote as a gay sexuality is added to the mists of fiction and time.

Isn’t that soothing, even healing?

Next up: What’s with all the arm bandage thing for young lesbians???

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