Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Heiress and the Chauffeur
In the late Taisho Era, Sayaka Yoshimura is the heiress to a new-money fortune her father earned in shipping. With her father always being away for work and her mother having died in the same accident that left Sayaka with a weak leg, she has come to rely on her chauffeur, Shinobu Narutaki. The two have been together since they were young, and Sayaka sees them as having a sibling relationship. She's the only one who does, however, as rumors fly around her elite finishing school that she is conducting a love affair with Narutaki. But there's no way that he could love her as anything other than a sister…right?
Despite a title that sounds like a Barbara Cartland novel, The Heiress and the Chauffeur's first volume is a cute Taisho-set tale of fairly basic shoujo proportions. The story follows seventeen-year-old Sayaka Yoshimura and her slightly older chauffeur, Shinobu Narutaki, as they negotiate the social strata of 1920s Japan. Gossips have cast them as illicit lovers, which miffs Sayaka, who thinks she sees Narutaki as nothing more than a brother figure – after all, they did grow up together and he's always been there to help her. Narutaki, on the other hand, has a different view of their relationship, and he'd very much like Sayaka to share it, despite the social barriers that would stand in their way. He's not as pushy as many shoujo heroes in similar situations, which is very nice, and she's not quite as oblivious as she thinks she is, creating a dynamic that manages to be both sweet and slightly frustrating without veering into creepy territory.
The majority of the romantic conflict actually stems from the social hierarchy of Taisho Era Japan. Lasting from 1912 – 1926, the era was still steeped in a traditional social structure that placed importance on family history and money, with a class system still firmly in place. While Keiko Ishihara does play with some of the trappings of the period – the car is a bit too modern for the 1920s and the Western clothes a little too old-fashioned – her focus on the society Sayaka finds herself struggling to be a part of is nicely portrayed. Romance aside, the biggest issue for Sayaka is that her father is “new money,” meaning that he worked for his obscene fortune instead of inheriting it, which makes her family vastly less acceptable than if they were, for example, an impoverished but established name. For Sayaka this translates to being snubbed at school and labeled a teacher's pet when she succeeds at something, as well as being harassed by the upper class when she accepts a school friend's invitation to a party. That is probably the most interesting of the four chapters in the book, as it most clearly addresses the hurdles Sayaka faces on a day-to-day basis as well as the difficulties she and Narutaki will have should they further their relationship. Sayaka, raised essentially by the family servants, doesn't see why there should be any difference between her and the others who live in the house with her; needless to say this world view is seen as naïve and uncouth by her social peers. Although she is fighting her attraction to Narutaki with possibly willful innocence, she also is irritated by people telling her that he's “just” a chauffeur and the fact that he won't touch her without his gloves on.
Things get conflicted for Sayaka when it comes to Narutaki, although he seems to have no problems with his feelings for her. He actually flat-out admits his love for her at one point, although she takes it as an attempt to save them both from a difficult situation, and you get the impression that he's being careful not necessarily because it isn't socially acceptable, but rather because he doesn't want to risk frightening or disgusting her. She, on the other hand, is upset when he comes to her rescue because she may be forced to punish him in order to prevent someone else from doing so. Narutaki doesn't appear to mind, but the incidents prey on Sayaka's mind. Although she attributes her emotions for her chauffeur to anxiety, there's still the feeling that she knows how she really feels but is afraid to voice it. Given that her father is rarely, if ever home – one scene has Narutaki comforting her after her father has come and gone without bothering to speak to her – and that her mother is dead (and her father burned all of his wife's belongings except one piece Narutaki saved for Sayaka), it feels reasonable that she would be hesitant to express her emotions, since other people she loved have not done a grand job of being there for her, whether it is their own faults or not.
In her comments, Ishihara mentions that The Heiress and the Chauffeur is her first serialized work, and that does show. The chapters don't flow particularly well and she has some issues with page set up, with panels crowding together and the reading order occasionally becoming confusing. The actual art is attractive, albeit fairly standard for the genre, and distinct improvement overall is seen between the first and final chapters in the volume. There is also an earlier short story included, which is very sweet in its own right and also shows us how Ishihara's art has progressed during her career.
There is only one more volume of this series, and that feels just about right. That means that the story can't be drawn out too long and peppered with excessive angst; it need only come to a natural conclusion as Sayaka decides if and how to defy social convention. This volume stands on its own well enough that you don't need to feel compelled to wait for its counterpart before reading it, and if you're in the mood for something romantic and largely harmless, The Heiress and the Chauffeur is here for you to enjoy.
Overall : B-
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Cute romance devoid of creepy shoujo tropes. Nice use of the historical social setting, attractive art.
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