There comes a time in every young manga reader’s life when they start wanting to read comics of a more mature vein than many of the mainstream choices presented. Well, all right. Admittedly the market for manga over the past decade has increased in quantity as well as content, so it’s completely unfair for me to say that the manga that you can pick up from Barnes and Noble are baby comics for babies. The market has matured with its audience and I’m truly glad for that fact. However, back in my day—pretend I’m waving my cane at you—the choices on the shelf were much more ‘safe’ or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, completely pornographic (i.e.: the ones in the plastic wrap). This is the story of the manga that leveled me up, so to speak. And, for better or worse, that manga was Sensual Phrase.
If you’ve never heard of the manga, don’t feel bad: even while it was for sale barely anyone touched it. For kids coming out of the Sailor Moon and Cardcaptors kick, seeing this manga touted as a ‘shoujo’ but then being rated mature—and even having some of the volumes plastic wrapped—presented a very confusing image. Even now while I do admit it’s a shoujo, it’s a very un-shoujo shoujo: it’s more Hot Gimmick than Kitchen Princess. That is to say it deals more with darker themes than the basic love stories of shoujo past. This isn’t always a good thing, but I’ll get to that later.
To Sensual Phrase’s credit, it does start out with a recognizable shoujo story. High schooler Aine Yukimura doesn’t exactly have dreams for the future, but is prodded to write lyrics for a contest by her friends. If she wins, Aine’s lyrics will be used by a top band in one of their new singles. As to be expected, on the way to submitting the lyrics she stumbles into a bit of trouble when she almost gets run over (yes, this qualifies as only a ‘bit’ of trouble).
Feeling terrible for freaking Aine out, the driver apologizes by giving her a backstage pass to a Lucifer concert: another popular band. Even though Aine’s not really into the whole music scene and she lost her previous lyrics, she might learn something from this concert and try re-writing what she wrote before. (Just better—which in this manga means smuttier.) Surprise, surprise, the dude that almost made roadkill of her is the lead singer of Lucifer, Sakuya Ookochi, and he snagged her lyrics for their new hit song. In fact, he is so taken with her lyrics that he offers to hire her as their lyricist full time. Though their manager has his reservations, Aine eventually takes the job. Everything seems perfect, but Aine soon learns that the rock star life is not all glitz and glamor.
Although conflict is necessary for a story, and someone getting used to the hard work that comes with the music business is a great source of that, I really do believe the conflict is the main weakness of Sensual Phrase. There is never any moment without conflict. The audience has no chance to relax because there’s always some disaster waiting in the wings. And let me just say, Sensual Phrase is not a short series: there’s seventeen volumes in total, not including the bonus volume. That’s a long time to run with a main conflict of “is Aine going to stay with Sakuya?” Stay being the operative term. By the second volume the couple is already dating—admittedly keeping the will they or won’t they plot going on much longer would have been boring. Yet, by doing this, for the next fifteen volumes the drama gets progressively crazier and crazier. We go from jilted ex-lovers, to hypnosis, to attempted rape, to attempted murder and back again ad nauseum. It goes from being a dark drama to making a mockery of itself, and by the time it reaches its end, the only thing you’re thinking is ‘thank fucking god’. But I still love it.
There is one thing that this series does sort of right: positive portrayals of sexuality. Sex in Sensual Phrase is never shown as a bad thing—the only time someone is called a slut is when fan girls are attempting to knock down Aine (which is a scarily relevant portrayal of modern fandoms) or when power is trying to be taken from Aine by the men in the music business (also still scarily relevant). Kinks are not shown as deviant, being flirty is not labeled as being slutty or leading someone on, and being pressured into sex is continuously shown as wrong. For all of his shitty possessive boyfriend tropiness, Sakuya does back down when Aine is clearly not ready to have sex: a trait more music stars should be willing to embody. I’m looking at you, Robin Thicke.
This aspect is the reason why I’m willing to even consider Sensual Phrase as a shoujo manga. Looking past all the smut and all the drama, at its core Sensual Phrase is a manga about Aine growing into her own as a woman. It’s about finding her own path through life and pushing back against the barriers that try to confine her where she obviously doesn’t fit. Really, that’s what any shoujo is about: girls carving out their own lives, from the more literal Sailor Moon building Crystal Tokyo to the less ostentatious Miracle Girls who just want to find normalcy in their lives. For all its misgivings, it’s important to have stories about girls discovering their preferences as a sexual being in no uncertain terms because it helps to break away many of the fears and stigmas associated with it. For this, I applaud Sensual Phrase.
For everything else, I want Sensual Phrase to burn. But that grocery list of problems is something for another post.