The Spring 2017 Manga Guide
Domestic Girlfriend Vol. 1
What's It About?
Domestic Girlfriend is a romantic comedy manga created by Kei Sasuga, who previously wrote and illustrated GE – Good Ending. The series centers on Natsuo Fujii, a high school student who attends a mixer to try and get over his crush on a young teacher at his school, Hina. At the mixer, Natsuo meets an antisocial girl named Rui, who convinces him that they should lose their virginities together. Unexpectedly, Natsuo soon learns that his widower father is preparing to remarry, and his new fiancée's daughters are Hina and Rui. The families quickly move in together, leaving Natsuo to adjust to life with his new stepsisters while trying to hide his feelings for Hina and his past encounter with Rui.
Domestic Girlfriend volume 1 (4/11/2017) is available for $10.99 from Kodansha USA.
Is It Worth Reading?
It's unfortunate that Domestic Girlfriend is based around a step-sibling love triangle, because it's a well put-together series that seems a little wasted on such a premise. Sasuga is an amazingly talented manga artist, adept at writing stories that deal with adolescent themes, particularly one-sided attraction. The manga is at its best dramatically when Natsuo has to think deeply about what's going on in his life, such as when he comes to the realization that losing his virginity hasn't actually brought him any closer to becoming an adult. Unfortunately, that's really about as mature as the series gets when it comes to the topic of sex. Domestic Girlfriend is a very sexually charged series that features a lot of partial nudity, almost always for the sake of cheesecake. I don't have a problem with fan service in and of itself, but there's nothing clever about the way it's presented in the series, so it feels very flagrant. In much the same way, the main characters becoming related feels like the story's greatest contrivance, only included in order to make any potential relationship taboo and thus, more erotic.
Even with these issues, Domestic Girlfriend is an engrossing read, with both really effective dramatic and comedic moments all the way through the volume. Natsuo is expectedly bland as the protagonist of such a series, but he comes off as vulnerable and naïve due to his lack of experience in romance. The way he's completely unable to grasp what's going on in Hina's life when all the clues are staring him in the face makes it a lot more effective when he finally puts everything together. Then, just when it seems like he's going to sink into a pit of angst and self-reflection, instead he goes to his best friend Fumiya to vent, and the two have some of the most hilariously dorky back-and-forths you can imagine. Ruri works well early on as a figure of intrigue, but her cold, blunt persona also makes a great comic foil when Natsuo has to teach her how to make friends at school. Best of all is Natsuo's father, a wonderfully lame man who overreacts to literally everything in the few appearances he makes in the volume.
The strength of its secondary traits really drives home how Domestic Girlfriend would probably be better without the incest angle. It's capable of being both really emotional and really fun, so the gimmick ultimately feels unnecessary and distracting. It's still a good manga, and for the genre being represented it's a great manga, but it feels like an even better series that's been weighed down by excess elements.
Remember, kids – before you sleep with a stranger, always check and make sure that they're not about to become your stepsibling. Or that the teacher you have a crush on isn't her sister. That will prevent lots of awkwardness in the days to come. Not that Natsuo would have known to ask – his dad has kept the fact that he's about to remarry a secret until pretty much the minute before his fiancée brings her two daughters over to meet him. In a stunningly fast reversal of fortune, Natsuo learns that the girl he met at a mixer (who asked him to have sex with her) is the younger daughter and his teacher is the older one – and his life is about to turn into a more mature version of Marmalade Boy.
That's not entirely fair, of course. Domestic Girlfriend’s first volume is a lot less melodramatic than either Marmalade Boy or the other be-careful-who-you-sleep-with manga I can think of, Tsumi ni Nureta Futari by Miyuki Kitagawa, and that's largely due to the fact that Natsuo is a grounded character. His emotional ups and downs feel mostly real, and he avoids a lot of the stumbling blocks of other harem leads in that he doesn't get ludicrously flustered by proximity with his new sisters; he's genuinely uncomfortable with his new living situation, especially the fact that he's had sex with Rui, but he's trying to brazen it out because he wants his dad to be happy…and he's a high school students with no other options. He can't quite figure out how to “forget” what he and Rui did (even though she keeps telling him to), although she seems to have largely gotten over it. Rui said right from the start that she just wanted people to stop telling her that she couldn't possibly understand because she hadn't done it, and then afterwards basically told Natsuo that she didn't get what the big deal was, so for her it was clearly an experience like any other.
Between this and the fact that his teacher/sister is having trouble with her boyfriend, Natsuo's in a supremely uncomfortable place emotionally, one he's really not equipped to deal with. That seems to be at the heart of this volume – Natsuo trying to make sense of a more adult world that he's simultaneously raring to enter and afraid of. That the story doesn't handle this concept with all the finesse of a steamroller makes the volume work – there's a sensitivity to Natsuo's character that helps to keep things feeling centered. That the artwork isn't over-exaggerated for the most part (there are a couple of anatomically off underwear shots) helps; neither Rui nor Hina are ridiculously proportioned and the opening sex scene isn't tarted up for our consumption. The plot may rely on contrivances to get things going, but if you're in the mood for a romance that is dramatic without being over the top and sappy, Domestic Girlfriend has potential.
Domestic Girlfriend takes what could be a harem and/or comedic series premise and adds a layer of reality and an extra, thinner layer of melodrama for good measure. Not that it's not humorous at times or the scenario contained within is extremely likely to happen, but it does approach the material with less tongue-in-cheek than step-sibling romances have in the past. As Sasuga herself says in her afterword, she's apparently fond of “forbidden” tropes, as the addition of Hina, one of Natsuo's step-sisters, being his teacher and his long-time crush makes for all sorts of troublesome boundaries for him to potentially cross. (The fact that culturally, an unmarried adult is almost expected to still live with her parents in Japan—not always, of course, but it's far more socially accepted than it typically is in North America—helps to shed some light on how a teen boy might suddenly be living alongside his adult teacher if their parents got hitched.) The fact that she's in an emotionally bad place and gets drunk fairly often in the evenings makes the proceedings especially awkward and ripe for drama.
However, it's actually Hina's little sister, Rui, who's responsible for the most memorable interactions with Natsuo this volume. The fact that they lost their virginities to one another and meant to never see each other again of course leads to plenty of unease between them, but Rui isn't as abrasive as some characters of her kind in pure comedic series might be. She does come across as cold and unkind—to everyone, not just Natsuo—but Natsuo helps coax her out of her shell at school and there's a slowly-developing bond there, even if Hina still comes first in Natsuo's affections. Natsuo himself is somewhat lackluster, but he still reacts realistically and feels like a three-dimensional character instead of the generic or even overly perverted harem hero typically put into this situation. Both Natsuo's dad and Hina and Rui's mom are rather one-dimensional but pleasant enough, even if they're oblivious about the delicate situations they're creating between their teenage and older children. Natsuo's overly earnest father in particular is largely responsible for much of the volume's humor, as is Natsuo's interactions with his childhood friend, Fumiya, though the “comedy” gets more cringe-worthy when Fumiya's stereotypically flamboyant boss gets involved.
Sasuga's character designs are overly round-faced, although that at least gives the art a somewhat distinct feel. For the most part, she uses backgrounds in a way that's both consistent and never overwhelming, which helps breathe more reality into the story. Domestic Girlfriend recycles a somewhat familiar setup but adds a layer of honesty and realism to it not often found in manga of this ilk—without crossing too many inappropriate lines just yet. It may not prove to be to everyone's tastes, but the first volume is off to a potentially promising start.
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