Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Ladies on Top
Mizuki and Shinomiya haven't had the best luck with past sexual and romantic relationships. While Mizuki is either creeped out or left cold by aggressive men, Shinomiya's past relationships have left him with a crippling sense of sexual inferiority and an imperfect idea of what it means to have sex. Can the two of them learn together that what makes them different doesn't make them “wrong?”
Ladies on Top is translated by Jacqueline Fung, adapted by Emlyn Dornemann, and lettered by Ray Steeves.
For a racy manga, Ladies on Top opens with the most workmanlike definition of sexual intercourse out there. Taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica, the blurb talks about “tracts,” “cells,” and “organisms,” and is completely devoid of the sort of tortured prosy metaphors the romance genre trades in. But that's an important distinction, because at its heart, this volume isn't about sexy shenanigans; it's about two people who have bought into what society has sold them about what sex is “supposed” to be and the roles that men and women are expected to play in the act…and their first order of business is to learn that it's okay not to conform to them.
Our main couple is Mizuki and Shinomiya, both twentysomething office workers. Neither have had particularly great relationships in the past, albeit for very different reasons. Mizuki finds herself unmoved by, if not fully repulsed by, traditional male displays of sexual intimacy – she dodges kabedons like a pro and is less than thrilled when a guy tries to sling an arm over her shoulders, and any attempts to push her down on the bed are right out. Through lots of thought, she's come to realize that part of that is because she wants to be the one playing the more dominant role in bed, and that's something that she's not sure that she's supposed to do, no matter how appealing it is to her.
Shinomiya, meanwhile, suffers from erectile dysfunction brought on by past trauma and anxiety. He's always been taught that he's supposed to be the one who makes love to rather than the more passive partner, and he's tried his best to live up to that role and all its expectations. But it's never actually worked for him, and when a past girlfriend told him that he was boring in bed and actually sucked at sex, his confidence was utterly shattered. He's terrified that he's going to mess things up with Mizuki, who he likes and to whom he is attracted, and that fear translates to him being far too anxious in bed to actually do anything. When Mizuki tries to help (and fulfill her own preferences) and take the lead, Shinomiya isn't sure he's allowed to like it – and that makes her think that maybe she's doing something very wrong.
The truth of the matter (which she realizes later in the volume) is that the only thing she's doing wrong is not asking him if he's okay with her taking the lead, and that's not even a question he's able to answer by the end of the book. Shinomiya's so indoctrinated in the idea of male sexual aggression that he's barely able to express that he has an interest in letting the woman take charge, even though we know that he's looked up pegging on the internet more than once. He seems to feel that that's not something he should want as a straight man. This brings us to the heart of the matter with this book – and hopefully the rest of the series – that there's no right or wrong way to be (hetero)sexual. I use the parentheses because while there's no wrong way to be sexual, full stop, the idea is much more frequently explored in queer titles. It's unarguably important there, but the conversation needs to encompass every orientation, including straight, because unhealthy and harmful ideas about sex and sexuality do no one any good.
This appears to be what Mizuki and Shinomiya are working towards. By the end of the book they're beginning to talk about what they like and don't like, and Mizuki comes to understand Shinomiya's trauma and to think about what she can do as a good partner to help him, something he seems to want. This leads to a lot of fits and starts, and the two don't actually have sex in this volume, so if you're looking for plain old raunchy action, this is not the Steamship release that you're going to find it in as of this volume. There are lots of abortive attempts, but the important piece of the puzzle is that they never actually get the deed done. Clearly this is going to lead to some very rewarding payback down the line, but you aren't going to find it in this book.
That works, though, in the greater context of the story. Creator NEJIGANAMETA says in their cover blurb (the bit that would have been on the original dust jacket in the Japanese release) that the goal here was to write a romantic comedy about an unconventional couple, and that does come across. But even better, it's about an unconventional couple that's learning that there's nothing wrong with that, and while I'd really like it if Shinomiya wasn't so freaked out and upset for most of the volume, I think this is going to pan out well for both of them. The art is a little stiff, but it's attractive, so if you're looking for a racy romance that's just as concerned with the mental wellbeing of its characters as their sexual antics, this looks like a great choice.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Story focuses on the idea that there's no right way to be sexual, seems invested in the couple on several levels.
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