Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Stepping on Roses
With Sumi's true identity revealed, not to mention Eiisuke's, Vice President Kujo calls for Soichiro's immediate resignation as President of Ashida Products. Soichiro is thus faced with a decision – his money or his wife?
If there was one thing that readers of Rinko Ueda's Meiji-era romance needed, it was a reason to actually like series romantic lead Soichiro Ashida. With this volume, we finally get it. When Eiichiro is tricked into revealing that Sumi is his younger sister, Soichiro must decide whether or not he values his wife more dearly than his position as wealthy scion of the Ashida family and president of their company. While he could have made a wishy-washy mess of the thing and tried to have his cake and eat it too, his choice gives him some much-needed charm in the eyes of the readers, and finally truly makes him worthy of Sumi's love.
Sumi Ashida, nee Kitamura, has not stood out to modern readers as a particularly strong heroine, although for her time she is fairly strong-willed, and this book will do little to make her shine in that department. When her “deception” is brought into the open, Sumi's immediate decision is to take younger brother Atari out of school and return home to the tenement. Ostensibly she does this so as to enable Soichiro to maintain his position, but her actions also smack a bit of giving up, not to mention putting the needs of her husband above those of her brothers and sisters. By removing Atari from the education Soichiro is providing, she essentially damns him back to the poverty he may have had the ability to rise above, and given that Soichiro has rarely been especially charming to her, this decision serves as a reminder of the uneven relationship dynamic that has frequently been fodder for complaints about the series. Looked at in light of the time and place it makes more sense, of course, and readers would do well in general to read the story in a historical context, as preserving the attitudes of her settings is something that Ueda has proven adept at in earlier series such as Home.
One major point in favor of Sumi's return to poverty, however, is the resumption of historical accuracy in women's clothing. “Victorian,” as some readers may recall, was exchanged for “Gothic Lolita” somewhere around volume 3, but now that Sumi is back in her tatty kimono, the feel of the Meiji era is restored. Ueda continues to cite references for her background city-scapes of historical Yokohama, so this return to period fidelity in clothing is a welcome one. There is also a definite improvement in how she draws profiles, with eyes appearing less fish-like than in previous books. While walking figures can look a bit out of proportion and the art has its moments of stiffness, overall this volume looks good.
Most of the character work in this volume is performed by the three main men – Soichiro, Nozomu, and Eiisuke. Soichiro, as has been mentioned, shows vast improvement in both his attitudes and treatment of Sumi. Nozomu, on the other hand, continues his increasingly swift slide into nefarious madness, manipulating people and situations in the single-minded pursuit of his own twisted goal. In this he serves as an ever more obvious foil to Soichiro's opposite journey into likeability. Nozomu comes off as nearly bi-polar in his madness – to Sumi he is nothing but sweet, tender concern, trying to woo her with money for the family and gifts. Meanwhile he is trying to force Miu into a divorce while thoroughly destroying his once-best friend Soichiro as he manipulates the people at Ashida Products for his own personal benefit. There is a chilling quality to the juxtaposition of these two sides of him, making him a very effective villain. Meanwhile, and once again in contrast to Nozomu, Sumi's older brother Eiisuke's gentler side is revealed as he discusses his and Sumi's past with Soichiro, and even more clearly in a brief short story about Sumi's early childhood.
While Stepping on Roses is still strictly for the romance fan, this volume does a lot to improve the character relationships by giving Soichiro a much more likeable aspect and showing Eiisuke as more than a ne'er do well. Sumi may continue to underwhelm as a strong heroine, but she remains a solid foundation for the love story to build around. With Nozomu's increasing evil and a few hints dropped about Sumi's past, the series remains a fast read that engages the emotions, even if the primary one is “Nozomu is creepy.” With an included manga essay on motherhood that older readers may find interesting, this volume does not disappoint in terms of romantic melodrama, and series fans should be pleased.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A-
+ Some artistic improvement, Soichiro becomes more likeable, a return to clothing accuracy. Nozomu makes a great bad guy.