In my previous article about the manga Sensual Phrase, I discussed how the manga didn’t take advantage of its storytelling and character-building potential because it was so invested in shoving its heroine to the side. One of the side effects of this, intended or not, is that instead the love interest, Sakuya, is placed further in the spotlight. So while our attention on Aine is lessened, our focus and scrutinizing on Sakuya is increased. If creator Mayu Shinjo wanted Sakuya to remain a likable character, allowing this to happen wasn’t the best course of action. At all. This isn’t because Sakuya is a bit of an asshole—he’s a seventeen year old rock star, I’d be hard-pressed to find one of those that isn’t at least a little bit of an ass. Rather, it’s because the story lays out just abusive Sakuya and Aine’s relationship actually is.
Trigger warning for discussions of mental and sexual abuse under the cut.
Sometimes when you read something very problematic, it’s difficult to figure out which angle to approach it from first. That’s the problem I’ve been having for almost two months. Back in January I wrote my introductory post to the shoujo manga Sensual Phrase, and I briefly mentioned that the series was inundated with issues. Well, it’s time to get into one of them.
While I don’t love Aine as a protagonist/heroine, I do admit that she’s an important shoujo heroine overall and that her character arc… existed. I want to say it was “good” or “meaningful”, I really do. Writing it off completely would be doing it an injustice—she does learn how to be comfortable with herself, and that’s one of the most important things in life for anyone—but it’s not satisfying in the way you’d want it to be, especially after all the suffering she goes through. In fact, it’s almost illogical that she does come to be comfortable with herself. I say illogical because for large portions of Sensual Phrase, it doesn’t feel like the story is even about her.
In fact, it could be argued that while she is the quote-unquote lead of the story, Aine really is just a tool to be used by the men of the series. Any arc of the story that seems targeted towards exploring Aine’s growth inevitably ends up turning into motivations for the men in the story while leaving Aine with barely any character progression for herself. To go along with that, when the audience gets a look at Aine’s inner thoughts, we barely get any reactions from her about the situation; instead, we see her worry about what the men around her will do or what would benefit said men. This isn’t to say that these sorts of actions can’t give way to good character development, but when this is the only focus, it starts to lose meaning and the character becomes nothing more than a prop.
Trigger warning for mentions of sexual assault under the cut.
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.