The Spring 2019 Manga Guide
O Maidens In Your Savage Season
What's It About?The transition from childhood to adulthood is hard enough without adding sex into the mix, but that's almost an inevitability. It is not, however, one Kazusa thought would come up when she joins the literature club after starting high school, but that's what happens – as she moves from children's books to 20th century Japanese classics, she finds that most of the books deal with sex, sometimes in explicit ways.
This forces Kazusa to think about it, pushing her towards some realizations she'd rather not have, particularly where her childhood friend Izumi is concerned. Meanwhile the other four girls in the club are also thinking about sex in their own ways: with enthusiasm, fear, and affected boredom. Is sex really that big a deal? Does it have to be? Kazusa's not sure she'll ever find the answers. O Maidens in Your Savage Season is written by Mari Okada and illustrated by Nao Emoto. It was released in April by Kodansha both digitally and physically and sells for $12.99. An anime adaptation is forthcoming.
Is It Worth Reading?
Love may famously be a battlefield, but when you peel off the heart stickers, what does that make sex? That's sort of the approach Mari Okada's taking in this story of adolescent girls beginning to explore the topic centered around the five very different girls in a high school literature club. The primary protagonist, Kazusa, is a first year only just making the transition from reading middle grade and YA novels, and she's shocked and a little uncomfortable with the explicit sex scenes in the books the club is reading. Bearing in mind that we're not talking Moll Flanders or Fanny Hill here, there's certainly plenty to be surprised by and more than enough to make an adolescent girl worry – not the least of which is “should my crotch smell like fresh grass?”.
Rather than linger on the unrealistic expectations set forth in the media, however, Okada instead focuses on how the girls feel about sex in general. At least two may set off warning bells, although one of them – the girl who has sex on her bucket list and seems to take a very nihilistic view of life – is more a statement about teenage moody rebelliousness than anything, though naturally the girls don't see it that way. The girl who is engaging in online sex chats, on the other hand, looks like she's heading down a much more dangerous path, especially since she doesn't even seem to be personally interested in having sex; it's just a means to writing a novel that'll get her published. That's not to say that Okada's making anything up here, though, because both are certainly within the realm of possibility for girls just beginning to figure their sexuality out.
By far the more interesting of the group are Kazusa, whose sexual awareness seems to be coming upon her unannounced and unwelcome, and Rika, who is deeply uncomfortable even saying the word “sex.” I find Rika the more interesting of the two largely because she's the less-explored character in fiction about sexuality, the girl typically labeled a “prude” and assumed to just be a sour, stiff person. While Okada hasn't really begun to delve into the whys of Rika's reaction, there's certainly a lot of potential with her, especially for putting in a character on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Strictly speaking, the series doesn't need one, but it would be wonderful if it did, because that's important in a story about discovering sexuality.
That's why I'm actually kind of torn about this book. I absolutely applaud it for not only tackling budding female sexuality in a way that's more Judy Blume than anything more salacious or fantasy-laden, because as a teacher, I can speak to the need for that kind of book. On the other hand, on a personal level it wouldn't have made me feel like less of a freak of nature in high school, so when I look at it through that lens, it does come up wanting. That, however, may change as the story moves forward and two of the girls are given more pages, so for the most part, O Maidens in Your Savage Season's first volume is one I'd recommend checking out, especially if you're not looking for hearts and flowers.
I'll admit, I had some reservations when I first got ahold of this volume and saw Mari Okada's name on the cover. I'm not a huge fan of her anime screenwriting output; I find her perspective on life mean-spirited, and her view of gender essentialist. And though O Maidens in Your Savage Season does contain moments that imply that worldview, it also possesses an candor and honesty about its subject matter that's refreshingly frank and extremely compelling. O Maidens is also just really, really funny. Sometimes in a deliberately uncomfortable cringe comedy kind of way, but that's the nature of the experience the book speaks to (i.e., cloistered high school sexual awakening). In hindsight, a lot of the emotionally grief and stress the main characters experience over sex (and I've experienced to, frankly) is absurd, and rife with opportunities for comic framing. All the ridiculous names the president of the literature club forces our protagonists to come up with as euphemism for sex are at once hilarious in how much of a reach they are, and endemic of the first, flailing attempts we make to understand adult sexuality.
And that's the thing about O Maidens: For as funny and absurd as it is, in the moment, to our characters, none of this is funny or absurd. In the minds of our protagonists, grappling with the new facet of life that is sex is painful and difficult and scary; it's a whole new world of emotional intimacy, with you left completely unprepared to deal with your blossoming sexualities by a society that refuses to educate you about it. And the way each of our protagonists grapples with finding their sexuality (like with the head of the book club actively shaming others for discussing sex in class, the writer of the group struggling to depict sex authentically in her work, and our main character contending with her sexuality and the sexuality of the boy she has a crush on) is extremely realistic and resonant. And it's the kind of story we don't get a lot in manga; not a glossy romance, but about the awkward, uncomfortable and messy steps we make toward sex and adulthood (from a female perspective, no less). For that, I can't help but admire it.
There is room for potential missteps in future volumes. Of course, for a book that portends universality, it is extremely heteronormative, with sex being treated as an entirely boy-girl monolith. And how Okada plans to characterize future relationships and sexual awakenings has me a little concerned, given the somewhat uncomfortable framing of romantic relationships in her past work. But even still, O Maidens is a manga that plays to all Okada's strengths and one I'm excited to continue reading.
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