Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Stepping on Roses
GN 8 & 9
Nozomu will do anything to make Sumi his and to that end he puts her in an untenable position. Forced to submit to his will on the surface, she works behind his back to make things right for Soichiro and her family. But as the clock ticks, Nozomu grows more and more agitated. Will even the revelation of the truth stop him from his single minded pursuit of Sumi?
The big reveal at the end of Rinko Ueda's historical romance Stepping on Roses may not be all that shocking – something even Ueda admits – but like all good melodramas, it isn't the truth that matters so much as the act of getting to it. The real draw of this story moved from being the romance between the characters to the development of the three main protagonists, and as the series moves towards its conclusion in volume nine, Ueda brings that into play while still making great use of the conventions of both romance and melodrama. Stepping on Roses may never really break out of the shoujo mold or do any great things, but it absolutely holds up its end of the bargain with readers – emotional angst, sexual peril, and cosmic coincidences make the series' final two books a success within its genres.
Volume eight begins with Nozomu evicting Sumi, Soichiro, and her siblings from their home. He makes Sumi's marrying him a requirement of her younger siblings' survival and even goes so far as to use his connections to prevent Soichiro from getting a job. Faced with watching her family starve, Sumi decides to go to Nozomu, but manages to convince him not to touch her until he is formally divorced from Miu. Having thus bought herself some time, Sumi begins to work behind the scenes to improve Soichiro's fortunes. It is interesting that she never thinks to work towards Nozomu's downfall; instead she seeks only to protect herself (and her chastity) while she hopes to make it possible to be with Soichiro again. This is where she fulfills her role as a melodrama heroine, being almost unbelievably kind when she could have been far more vindictive. In fact, this lack of malice may sound the most sour note in the series, as it carries through to the final scenes of volume nine, bringing, as Jane Austen one said, “every body to tolerable comfort,” even though readers may not feel that they deserve it.
Of the two books, volume nine is the stronger, having a sense of danger (will Nozomu walk in?) along with the more emotional qualities of a romance. Sumi and Soichiro's tortured romance not only comes to fruition, it does so under seemingly impossible circumstances and physical danger that help to up the stakes. It is also worth noting that by this point Soichiro has become a much more sympathetic character than he was in early volumes. Ueda has shown his slow growth as a person over the course of the series, but it never shines more brightly than in the final three volumes. Sumi, likewise, has become a more likeable heroine, growing into herself and learning in more subtle ways. While she may never take any prizes for being the strongest heroine, she still shows gumption and becomes far less passive as the story builds to its conclusion. It is worth remembering that she is trying to succeed in a time and place when options for women were limited, and her body is really the only thing she has that is considered to have any value. Her skillful manipulation of the situation, far more sophisticated than in the series' beginning, may not be up to our modern standards or in line with contemporary sensibilities, but for Sumi, the change is as significant as Soichiro's maturation or Nozomu's slide into madness.
Backgrounds of late 19th century Japan as it becomes Westernized remain an artistic highlight of Stepping on Roses, even if Sumi's clothes continue to be period inaccurate. (It is interesting to note that in the final scenes, Ueda returns to her earlier fidelity to Victorian clothing.) Ueda provides studies she used as extras, and overall the detail on the backgrounds helps to root the story in time, as do the contrasts in how women (Sumi excluded) dress – the constant melange of Japanese and European clothes help to show the cultural turbulence, setting the scene for the domestic issues that plague the characters. Ueda also does great things with Nozomu's facial expressions and body language as his madness grows, reaching heights that she had not previously achieved. Other characters still have a tendency to look a bit fish-eyed in profile and facial hair often looks attached rather than grown, but overall these books look quite nice.
If Stepping on Roses got too melodramatic for you a while back or you could never quite come to terms with Sumi's personality, the ending might not thrill you. But those readers who have been enjoying Ueda's ode to the 19th century melodrama with a shoujo sensibility will find the majority of the conclusion to be downright satisfactory, if not a little better. Villains perhaps get off better than they ought, but the growth in the characters is unmistakable, and that alone makes Stepping on Roses' finale succeed by making it feel as if the journey was worth it.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Characters' growth becomes realized as the story races to its conclusion, good detail in backgrounds. Adheres nicely to the conventions of both the romance and melodrama genres.
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