Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Cutie and the Beast
Although most people wouldn't think it to look at her, high school student Momoka is a big fan of professional wrestling – and an even bigger fan of heel Kuga. She's been exchanging tweets with him for a while before she gets up her courage to go and see him wrestle in person, and by that point Kuga himself is very curious – if not a little in love with – the mysterious female fan he's been interacting with online. It looks as if Momoka's daydreams are going to come true when they move to texting each other, but will Kuga's realization that she's eighteen and in high school spell the end of their budding relationship?
While there are plenty of age-gap manga romances out there where the older partner barely expresses any doubts beyond token ones (see: Daytime Shooting Star and Living-Room Matsunaga-san), none of them are about the love between a high school girl and a professional wrestler. But that's only part of the draw of Seven Seas' release of Yuhi Azumi's Cutie and the Beast. While it features an unusual couple with an eleven-year age difference, the way that the characters handle it is much more convincing than quite a few manga with similar themes.
The story follows (and mostly zeroes its focus in on) Momoka and Kuga. Momoka is an eighteen-year-old high school student who, despite her mature looks and classmates' assumptions about her elegance, is a huge fan of professional wrestling. Her favorite wrestler is Kuga, a twenty-nine-year-old heel (bad guy) who she interacts with on Twitter and has been nursing a crush on for some time. Kuga, as a heel, doesn't have many female fans beyond Momoka – in fact, at a fan event one woman tells him she's there for her son rather than herself – and can't quite believe that Momoka really is his fan. When they go from interacting online to her showing up at one of his matches in person, Kuga's blown away by the fact that she is real and all of his emotions from their online conversations coalesce into liking her. However, because she looks older than eighteen, he also thinks she's much closer to his age than she really is.
From this point the plot unfolds in an interesting combination of insta-love and a slow burn romance. Kuga's probably been building towards a crush on Momoka for quite some time, but the nature of their conversations – public over social media – have kept him from fully realizing his feelings for a good long time, making his reaction upon meeting her seem more instantaneous than it likely actually is, but the plot still combines the two romance fiction styles in a way that's interesting and largely works. Kuga is a very thoughtful person despite the role he plays in the ring, and he gives the impression that he rarely does anything without really thinking it over first. That makes his kiss (on Momoka's cheek; he's bold in this case but not creepy) seem much more significant than it might in another shoujo or josei romance, and the way he and Momoka sort of agonize over it for a time drives home the point that romance is relatively uncharted water for both of them.
It therefore feels like a major blow to both Kuga and Momoka when she corrects his assumption about her age. Momoka does so fully knowing that it might spell the end of not just her online friendship with Kuga, but of any romance that might be brewing; that she decides to be honest and tell him anyway catapults this book over any number of romances where the story relies on the characters not telling each other the truth or even talking things over. Kuga, for his part, knows immediately that he should break things off with Momoka, but he can't quite bring himself to do it. When his friend, the wrestler he's most often facing in the ring and who helped facilitate the relationship, finds out Momoka's real age, he tells Kuga to do what he already knows he ought to, reminding him that this could negatively impact his career.
All of this puts a dark cloud over the relationship between the two: either they aren't going to be together or they're risking Kuga's career and Momoka's reputation. Whichever decision they make (and we can all make an educated guess based on the genre), things are not going to be as sunny as when they didn't know or were ignoring the facts, and the question becomes not “should they be together,” but “can they convince people that this is okay,” which, of course, includes Kuga himself. (As the older partner, the burden does fall more on him, something he seems aware of.) When Momoka's parents, presumably having heard from her supportive sister what's going on, turn up at the end of the volume, there's a real question of if and how this really is going to work, even as Kuga takes a page out of My Boy in Blue's solution to the age gap problem.
Despite all of this angst, this volume is for the most part really cute. The interactions between Momoka and Kuga are adorably awkward and sweet while Kuga's friend and Momoka's sister both strive to be supportive, even if they don't understand or think they're making the wrong choice. There isn't quite as much wrestling as we might like – there are some scenes of it, but they're very brief – that Kuga is a wrestler does make him visually very different from the majority of romance manga heroes. The art isn't great, with Kuga built like a triangle and three-quarter profiles looking very odd, but it's good enough to get its points across, especially that Momoka appears older than she is. There's also some good detail in Momoka's casual clothes – she doesn't wear heels, preferring sneakers, but she also doesn't shy away from thick-soled sandals despite the fact that she's tall, clearly dressing to make herself comfortable more than to appeal to anyone.
Cutie and the Beast's angle – that the characters are leery about whether or not they should be together despite their feelings based solely on social acceptability – does give this series a little something different, although it's still obviously leaning in a particular direction. It's clearly just getting started, but it stands to be a cute story about how the heart wants who it wants and what has to happen to make things work out.
Overall : B
Story : B+
Art : B-
+ A bit different from other age gap romances, characters are very sweet. Wrestling is a fun angle and characters actually talk to each other.
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