House of 1000 Manga
by Shaenon K. Garrity,
It occurred to me that, in honor of Halloween, I should cover a scary manga this week. But in my previous column I took on The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, the most traditionally horrific manga in my To Overanalyze inbox. So for this week I offer Midnight Secretary, a shojo manga about…oh yes…sexy vampires. Which means delving into two levels of horror: the horror of bloodsucking monsters, and the far more twisted horror of romance fiction tropes.
Don't get me wrong. I love a good mass-market romance novel, and I'm even more passionate about romance manga. After being assigned my ten thousandth Boys’ Love manga to review for Otaku USA, I got into the genre and never came out again. But that doesn't mean I don't get creeped out by some of the more problematic elements of romance fiction. Like, say, the bad-boy hero who treats the heroine reprehensibly, but she falls for him anyway because he's so sexy and magnetic and chiseled and a Real Man and Secretly Hurting Inside and… Forgive my unwillingness to suspend disbelief in the name of fantasy, but when our hero looks our heroine over like a supermarket grapefruit and sniffs, “Find me someone who's easier on the eyes,” my reaction is, “Oh, honey, there has never been a better time to raise a single finger and head off to OKCupid.” And that's why I've been happily married for ten years but have never had rough sex with a pirate.
Kyohei is the male lead of Tomu Ohmi's Midnight Secretary, and the above line is his first reaction to Kaya, his new executive secretary. Kaya responds diplomatically for three reasons. First because she's a consummate professional, essentially the greatest secretary who ever secreted, and she knows that under his playboy exterior Kyohei is equally good at his job. Second because, as we soon learn, her plain Jane glasses-and-bun getup is a disguise she deliberately assumes to be taken seriously in the workplace; in actuality, she has a “baby face” and is—surprise!—gorgeous when she lets her hair down. (According to the manga, anyway. Personally I find Kaya way more erotic in her repressed-librarian gear than in a cocktail dress, and I'm sure I'm not the only reader with that reaction.) And third because, and this is important, Kyohei is super super hot.
It's the setup to innumerable fictional romances from Pride and Prejudice onward: two people meet cute, initially dislike each other, then gradually come around and fall in love. You need the initial dislike, because otherwise they'd just start banging and there'd be no story…but then how do you bring hate around to love? How do you justify the hero's asinine behavior so the reader will root for the heroine to hook up with him later on? You could go the Jane Austen route: a combination of misunderstandings, hearsay, and flaws on both sides that cause the lovers to initially misjudge each other but later make amends.
Or...maybe he's a vampire.
One night Kaya stops in the office after hours and catches Kyohei in the middle of what looks like another tryst. But then he bares fangs and drinks the woman's blood. OMG! Yes, Kyohei is a vampire, and his many paramours are actually his meals. Kyohei isn't too shaken by Kaya's discovery of his bloodsucking nature. After all, secretarius originally meant “secret keeper.” Kaya, for her part, remains unflappable, determined to be the perfect secretary even if her duties now include making sure her boss gets his regular feedings. And what are the chances that sooner or later the two of them will find themselves in a situation where Kyohei needs blood to live, and only Kaya is around to provide it? Oh, around one billion percent.
Ohmi has written other manga set in this supernatural universe, none of them, as far as I know, available in official English translation. Her vampires aren't immortal and don't have any special powers, except for an Anne Rice-like vampire glamour that gets a mention late in the series. They're just pale humanoids who live off sex and blood. And here is where Ohmi sets up a flawless mechanism for sex-scene delivery. Follow me here: for vampires, blood becomes especially delicious when the human is in the throes of passion. The more intense the passion, the tastier the blood. So not only must they have sex with their victims, they must have way hot sex. Really, there's not much downside to being a vampire's victim, except for putting up with their “vampire pride” 'tude.
And so, within very few chapters, Midnight Secretary reaches its status quo: Kyohei feeds on Kaya, she enjoys the hell out of it, but it's strictly business. Kyohei is too full of the vampire pride to fall for a mere human, and Kaya tells herself that all the sex and bloodletting are just part of the service package she offers as the world's greatest executive secretary. It's your basic friends-with-benefits, no-strings-attached relationship, only, you know, vampire. Of course, as in all fiction (and a fair amount of reality) involving people determined to keep their emotions away from their pantsfeels, sooner or later messy emotions are going to ruin those nice tidy orgasms. Will Kaya's feelings get in the way of her professionalism? Will Kyohei admit that he just might care about Kaya after all? Are we reading a romance manga or aren't we?
Kaya's and Kyohei's relationship doesn't involve overt BDSM elements, unlike some romance manga (cough cough Black Bird cough); Kaya isn't submissive to Kyohei except to the degree that he's her boss, and the bloodsucking involves far more pleasure than pain. But a note of some kind is definitely being struck when Kaya strides primly into Kyohei's well-appointed office and rips open her blouse to offer her throat to him. I would not be surprised if Ohmi has seen Secretary, is all I'm saying.
Midnight Secretary has a solid plot for romance fiction, following the characters through office intrigue and, later, the politics of the vampire community. (Wealthy, powerful vampire clans that secretly run human society are another well-worn vampire trope for which Anne Rice will someday be made to answer in Improbable Fiction High Court.) Admittedly, plot threads tend to get dropped as Ohmi either loses interest or realizes they were a bad idea to begin with, like an early plot point about Kyohei threatening to fire Kaya's mother that makes him come off less like a sexy sadist and more like a jerk. Various hot dudes show up as possible rivals for Kaya's affection, only to fall by the wayside when they utterly fail to compete with Kyohei. (I personally like the slightly geeky ponytailed guy who's amazingly chill about having fathered a vampire woman who hates him for being not just a human but a “low-status” one. His reaction to everything is a half-smile and shrug that suggests, “Vampires, amirite?”)
For me, personally, the biggest turn-off in the series is Kyohei and his alpha-male posturing, for all that Ohmi tries to excuse it as “vampire pride.” Kyohei was raised in the human world, you see, and like a lot of people who feel displaced from their ethnicity he tries a little too hard with the vampire fronting. In the end, two things save him from being completely obnoxious. One is Kaya, whose steel spine and workaholic dedication to duty prove equal to Kyohei's chest-thumping. She's a great character, buzzing around the office and drinking vegetable juice to keep her blood healthy for her boss. “I am a delicacy!” she declares when Kyohei tries to steal a snack from her neck, and she really is.
The other is that Kyohei—and the sex scenes—are very hot, and in this type of comic hotness can excuse any number of shenanigans. Ohmi is great at drawing sexy men in sexy situations. In fact she's a great artist in general, with a chic but faintly old-fashioned style that makes the men look like underwear models and the women like bobble-headed dolls. This is a josei (women's) manga, not shojo, so the sex is frank and plentiful. Which is how I like my romance fiction, so no complaints on the T+ rating from me. After all, no love story is going to satisfy every reader, so you might as well go ahead and give it some teeth.
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