Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Secret Sakura Shares
One day Aoi, scion of a formerly noble family, comes home to find her grandfather missing and her nouveau riche classmate Kei collecting all of their belongings in order to fulfill a debt she didn't even know existed. Left with only her beloved golden retriever Sakura, Aoi begs Kei to take the dog in and care for her. Kei says he'll take the dog...and Aoi along with her, as his pets. Aoi is nervous, but it's better than being abandoned again, right? And surely he doesn't have any other motives, right? Right?
Our pets lead pretty great lives – we feed them, groom them, and smother them with love and affection, consistently telling them that they're the best in the world. It must be nice, right? Yayoi Ogawa's 2000 josei manga Tramps Like Us explored that question in a mature, fairly thoughtful way as heroine Tsumire took in a homeless young man whom she named Momo, after her beloved dog. The Secret Sakura Shares, on the other hand, takes a somewhat lower road in its tale of a (formerly) wealthy girl taken in by her classmate as his “cat” after his family takes possession of her home and belongings.
The girl in question is Aoi Narinomiya, a student at a prestigious private school for the children of the elite. She's the last child in the Narinomiya family's direct line and has lived with her grandfather ever since her mother (in her perception) sold her to him following her father's death. What Aoi doesn't know is that her grandfather has racked up a large debt, and one day she comes home to find him missing and her classmate, Kei Katsuragi, going through her house and belongings. Kei explains that his family is taking everything in payment for the debt, so Aoi is going to have to figure something out. Her response is to beg him to take in her elderly golden retriever, Sakura. Correctly assuming that Aoi has no intention of making plans for herself, Kei announces that he'll take them both in...as his pets.
In some ways, The Secret Sakura Shares is a very typical shoujo romance: girl and guy find themselves living together with no parental supervision, girl is terribly naive, boy has liked girl all along, etc. What sets it apart is the way Aoi herself is treated, both by the author and the other characters. She's almost never treated as a person with her own thoughts and ideas, but rather as a prize or possession. As the marriageable daughter of a noble family, she's a valuable game piece to the other families at her school, and no fewer than three men try to marry her across the two volumes, with only one really asking her opinion. It's assumed that she will simply go with who she is told to, and her relationship with Kei, while it has its moments of sweetness, is undercut by the suspicion that he's the first person to treat her well since her mother gave her up...and his idea of treating her well really is about acting as if she's his pet or doll. He sits her on his lap to feed her, dry her hair, and insists on her sleeping in his bed with him, which are also all things he does with Sakura, the actual dog. This leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that Aoi doesn't really love him – she's more imprinted on him as the one person who hasn't ignored her in recent years.
To be fair, treating the daughters of the wealthy as objects of value rather than people is not entirely unusual, although we usually see it in a historical context while this series is set in the present day. But that doesn't make it less uncomfortable, and Aoi's near total lack of agency prevents this from being as enjoyable as it could be. The same is true of her personality – while Hagio does try to show us that she suffers from low self-esteem based on her perceived abandonment by her mother and later her grandfather, her personality is severely lacking and her “gently bred naiveté” crosses the line into “kind of stupid” on numerous occasions. She becomes an irritant rather than a heroine to root for, and in a romance, that's definitely a problem.
Not that the book is totally unenjoyable. Hagio works in some funny scenes with Kei pretending to be gay to throw schoolmates off the trail of both his relationship with Aoi and her other potential marriage prospects, and Sakura is a delightfully depicted golden retriever in her surprisingly small role. The social situations are also well presented, giving room for thought, and Hagio's art is pleasant to look at, albeit sticking very close to the typical Lala style. Pages are well set up and read very easily, without the overabundance of screen tone that can be a problem in the genre. Yen Press' decision to publish both series volumes together in an omnibus works well (and priced at $20.00 costs less than buying two $13 single volumes), and while the book is heavy, its spine is nicely flexible.
The Secret Sakura Shares is sweet but troubling. The “human as a pet” plot has been done better elsewhere and Aoi is too weak a heroine to really get behind, as it feels like no matter who she ends up with, she'll just be allowing someone else to dictate her life to her. Kei isn't as bad as some shoujo heroes, but he's still got problems in his treatment of Aoi, and while this isn't a wholly distasteful series, it is still kind of an uncomfortable one. If nothing described above bothers you, you'll be able to spot the underlying charm and appreciate that Hagio does touch on some subjects other authors don't, albeit fleetingly. But if you prefer your heroines strong of personality and with their own wills, The Secret Sakura Shares is not for you.
Overall : C-
Story : D+
Art : B-
+ Pages are well set up and easy to read, touches on some topics not often explored. Some very funny moments and a few sweet ones as well. Hagio is great at innuendo.
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