Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Hot Gimmick
by Jason Thompson, Jun 16th 2011
Episode LV: Hot Gimmick
"That's the stuff from Japan; there's some really obscene and filthy stuff."
—a Canadian customs official, talking about Miki Aihara's Tokyo Boys & Girls
Lately there have been a lot of reviews complaining about the age difference between the characters in A Bride's Story, so I thought I'd remind everybody what a really inappropriate manga love story is. Miki Aihara's Hot Gimmick is the sordid tale of a teenage girl caught in a love triangle between an abusive jerk, a self-destructive model, and the only truly nice guy in the series, her own brother. It's also a pretty good manga.
I didn't say it was a pretty good manga to assign as reading in a junior high health class. More accurately, it's a well-written, well-drawn manga about twisted relationships in an apartment building in Tokyo. Hatsumi lives with her family in corporate housing; their entire apartment complex is owned by Toshiba Trading, the company her father works for. Her father is always at the office, and her mother lives in fear of the disapproval of Mrs. Tachibana, the snooty wife of the corporate president ("Such unbefitting behavior for the families of our company's employees! I must insist you refrain from doing anything that compromises the dignity of this complex!") Hatsumi hates and fears the Tachibanas for a more personal reason: long ago, when they were children, their son Ryoki pushed her down the stairs and nearly killed her. Since that incident, she's avoided him for years.
Hatsumi's family has other problems. Her handsome older brother, Shinogu, is the most responsible one of her siblings, always working odd jobs to make money but still trying to be a good big brother. Her little sister, Akane, is different. Unlike Hatsumi, who's a shy virgin, Akane is gettin' it on 24-7 even though she's just in junior high. ("Look, sometimes I do it without protection, you know?" "Do…do it? You mean, like…?") When Akane misses her period, she begs her big sister to go buy her a pregnancy test at the drugstore. ("What if someone saw me? I'm still in junior high, remember!") Hatsumi is easily guilted into doing favors for people, and so she disguises herself and buys the pregnancy test. On the way back home, she runs into her worst nightmare, Ryoki Tachibana, and he sees the pregnancy test she was carrying. Faced by Ryoki's withering contempt, Hatsumi begs him not to tell his mother, Mrs. Tachibana, about this incident. Then a cold smile spreads on Ryoki's lips. "I'll keep quiet if you become my slave. A slave I can do it to whenever I want."
Then suddenly, Hatsumi is rescued by her knight in shining armor—her childhood friend Azusa, who moved out of town a few years ago. "Stop picking on Hatsumi," he tells Ryoki, who backs off and leaves Hatsumi alone. Azusa, it turns out, has grown up super-handsome and is now a popular male model. Hatsumi is thrilled to meet Azusa again, and he takes her out to clubs where she drinks alcohol and meets all his cool, sophisticated friends. (Incidentally, I can't help but notice that Hot Gimmick includes no less than two warning messages within four pages reminding us that high school students aren't allowed to drink alcoholic beverages, but doesn't feel the need to include messages like "WARNING: it is against the law to sexually blackmail your neighbors.")
But when Azusa's not around, Ryoki continues to dominate her with the threat of making her and her family's life miserable. Soon Hatsumi realizes Ryoki's secret: despite all his arrogance, he's never actually had sex, and he wants to use her as his "'goodbye-virginity' practice toy." He pushes her down on beds and tries to have his way with her, he steals her first kiss in the street, and so on. Hatsumi always manages to stop Ryoki from actually having sex with her, but she's too pathologically timid to really stand up to him, or to even tell Azusa what's happening. But there's one other guy in her life who might save her: Shinogu, her loving big brother, who's strong and supportive and handsome. Just how loving is Shinogu? Maybe too loving. One day, Hatsumi discovers the shocking secret that Shinogu is actually her adopted brother. But why did her family adopt him and keep it a secret? Then something horrible happens, and we're forced to reevaluate our opinions of all the characters. Could Ryoki actually be the good guy after all? What are the dark secrets of the apartment complex? Who will Hatsumi fall in love with?
Hot Gimmick is basically a dark love story manga where a heroine who can't speak up for herself is caught between several inappropriate relationships. Wikipedia says that Hot Gimmick depicts "adult themes" such as "the normalization of an abusive relationship," but that gives the false impression that the manga actually thinks abusive relationships are bad. Sex-wise, it actually doesn't have a lot of nudity, but the scenes when Hatsumi gets groped by Ryoki, or felt up by some guys at a club, are extra shocking because the mood of the manga is realistic instead of over-the-top like, say, Mayu Shinjo. Hatsumi doesn't just 'melt into Ryoki's arms', like in some romances; she squirms and feels awful and tries vainly to resist him, but she just can't, or at least she can't resist him well enough. If you find this unpleasant, you're not alone; even the translator used a pseudonym. (Unless of course there's a real translator out there named "Pookie Rolf.")
To use another example: when a 20-year-old woman marries a 12-year-old boy in A Bride's Story, you can give it a pass because it's a different culture and it's 100 years ago, but when a girl gets yelled at and pushed around by her boyfriend in modern-day Tokyo, as in Hot Gimmick, it's more objectionable because it's more real. (Plus, of course, A Bride's Story is all consensual. An apples and oranges comparison, really.) Lianne Sentar and NotHayama used Hot Gimmick as Evidence #1 in a whole article on abusive relationships and internalized sexism in shojo manga, "She Was Asking For It: The Dangers of Shoujo". Ironically, I'm not aware of any parents, teachers or government officials ever complaining about Hot Gimmick, but Aihara's much tamer manga Tokyo Boys & Girls was mistaken for porn by prudish Canadian customs officials in 2006, in an incident related on Jonathan Clements' blog. Apparently the word "boys" made them think they'd get to see some action.
All the love interests in this manga are flawed in some major way, but most of the objections to this manga hinge on Hatsumi x Ryoki. Ryoki's "arrogant Mr. Perfect" personality reminds me of Naoki in Itazura Na Kiss but even grouchier. He loves picking on poor Hatsumi, although maybe 'love' is the wrong word, since he picks on her with a frown, not a smile. ("Isn't that like, you know, that thing about boys being mean to the girls they like?" "Give me a break. As if. I don't like stupid women.") As we spend more time with him, though, we realize—or at least Aihara wants us to realize—that Ryoki's meanness is just an expression of his own rough childhood and uncaring parents. Gradually he becomes less of a molester; he may not always understand that no means no, but at least he realizes that three progressively louder "no"s mean "no" ("No. No! NO!") Maybe he's a product of his culture: in one early scene, Ryoki reads a 'how to date girls' instructional manual, the kind that used to appear a lot in '80s and '90s manga like Video Girl Ai, and the advice is more horrible than we could ever have imagined ("If the girl resists and says no, she actually means yes. Once you push her down on to the bed, the rest is easy. Just let it flow naturally from there. She might even help you out with removing her clothes.") But he and Hatsumi have one thing in common: they're both awkward virgins who are isolated from everybody else, and they both have a certain (very buried in Ryoki's case) sense of honor and fairness. And by the fourth or fifth volume, even Pookie Rolf, the translator of the manga, was saying to her editor at VIZ (or so I heard) that she'd changed her mind and thought Ryoki was the COOLEST!
And thus, the foundation of a beautiful romance-slash-Stockholm Syndrome case is born. Gradually, real love blossoms between Hatsumi and Ryoki…but then everything goes wrong…and then goes…? It's hard to write about Hot Gimmick without spoilers, but the moment that Ryoki goes from bad to sorta-good is the moment when he goes from just wanting to use Hatsumi for sex, to wanting her for herself. In fact, he wants to possess her completely. In short, the definition of love is when someone can make you feel jealous. I'm not a big fan of jealousy as a motivator in romance manga, or in life, since it tends to get possessive and nasty; I'd agree with Canadian artist Chester Brown that jealousy is an immature behavior, although I probably wouldn't agree with Brown that possessive monogamy itself is a bad thing. (Chester Brown's autobiographical graphic novel Paying For It is about his experiences sleeping with prostitutes. Good times, as they said on Loveline.) In Hot Gimmick, though, a little possessiveness is a step-up from the sex-slave thing. Probably.
If you can accept a manga which depicts this kind of relationship, there are some good qualities in Hot Gimmick. Some just plain old good manga storytelling, actually. One is the supporting cast, such as Ryoki's shy otaku friend Subaru and Shinogu's (in the English edition, I don't know what his accent was originally) Southern-accented buddy Kazama, who are loving and sweet and shows that even in this dark manga, not everyone is creepy. (Well, actually, Kazama is kind of a perv, but anyway.) Another one of my favorite things about Hot Gimmick is Miki Aihara's art. Aihara doesn't even bother to pretend to draw backgrounds; she uses Photoshopped photos of buildings. She makes good use of screentone for light and shade. Her characters' bodies are realistic, at any rate, realistic enough to imagine that these are people who might have sex, even if occasionally they have giant bat hands. Her #1 strength is exhibited in her characters' faces, which are sometimes so simple they're like stick figures, but which are incredibly expressive and cute (and/or handsome as the case may be). Even in extreme closeup, Hatsumi's eyes are usually just big dots and her nose is a single line, but Aihara does SO MUCH with those dots and that line! Basically, Aihara's face artwork has the expressive quality of a great quick sketch, and it's beautifully stylistically consistent throughout the manga. Her #2 strength is her great panel layout and pacing, which keeps the pages turning faster and faster, reminding me of something that Lupin III creator Monkey Punch said: "In Western comics, the primary element is the panel. In manga, the primary element is the page."
Another unusual (and good) thing about Hot Gimmick is that the setting is actually important. The corporate housing development is an essential part of the story—the entire first page is a giant shot of the building, and Aihara spends lots of omake pages talking about the building and its layout. The apartment complex is a society in microcosm, where your gossipy neighbors watch every move you make, and where Hatsumi and her struggling family must live right underfoot from the rich, oppressive Tachibanas, separated from them only by a few flights of stairs. From an American perspective, it seems almost dystopian. The setting helps make the series more realistic, so that despite the presence of the wealthy Tachibanas, it never turns into one of those "let's bask in awe at the lives of rich, gorgeous people" things that you see in TV shows like The Fabulous Life or manga like Boys Over Flowers and Miki Aihara's own Honey Hunt. Instead of exaggerated money and mansions and yachts, there's a certain trashy-reality-TV flavor to it all—the sinister life of Tokyo apartment dwellers! Sinful affairs right next door, among people LIKE YOUR VERY OWN NEIGHBORS! Full of teen pregnancy and sex and the kind of stuff that parents hate their kids reading!! The VIZ BIG edition of volume 1 includes a brief essay by Tomo Kimura on Japanese corporate housing, including such bizarre details as curfews and single young adults not being allowed to have a phone in their room.
But actually, despite the modern setting, Hot Gimmick is a very old-fashioned story. In Manga: The Complete Guide I compared it to a "bodice-ripper" novel, like a Harlequin romance, but in retrospect, it's more like a Gothic romance. Bodice-rippers may have a nonconsensual element, but they've usually got pretty simple plots. Gothic romances, on the other hand, are full of torment and angst and dark family secrets, just like Hot Gimmick. The walled-off apartment complex is like a haunted castle. Hatsumi plays the role of the damsel in distress. Ryoki is the evil tyrant archetype and Azusa is the tormented Byronic antihero. Heck, there's even a faithful family servant, the Tachibanas' maid Mariko (though of course, no manga needs an excuse to have maids in it). But I really realized the series was Gothic at the ending, when -- SPOILER WARNING -- one of the characters renounces love and becomes a Buddhist priest. Hopefully he doesn't sell his soul to the devil later, although maybe that should have been the plot of the spinoff novel, Hot Gimmick S.
So, in short, despite however much it pretends to be realistic, it's better to read Hot Gimmick as a fantasy; if you were to take it too realistically it'd be too frustrating. Eventually Aihara's compulsive plot-twisting, which is so great at first, gets a little old, and it would have been better if the manga ended a few volumes sooner. (To be fair, it's probably not her fault: as she says in her author's notes, "Unfortunately, I won't be the one to decide how long this series goes. That decision will (probably) be made by the editorial department.") But there's no denying that Aihara is a good writer who's gifted at getting us inside her characters' messed-up heads. What's your particular poison? Deep down, do you empathize with Ryoki, the rich, snobby jerk who can do whatever he wants, but feels like a pathetic virgin deep down? Or with Shinogu, the self-sacrificing, repressed one? Or with Hatsumi, the hapless innocent heroine surrounded by creeps, a girl so continually miserable that she makes me think of Marquis De Sade's black comedy Juliette? Even the most sadistic love story needs a masochistic side, and maybe you have to be a little bit of a masochist to enjoy Hot Gimmick. Behavior that's bad news in the real world can be a guilty pleasure in the fantasy world of manga, and there's nothing wrong with that, as long as you don't end up in, or supporting, a real-life relationship where someone gets bossed around and slapped around in public. Even in 19th century Anatolia that wouldn't fly.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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