PRINCESS PRINCESS (Purinsesu Purinsesu), by Mikiyo Tsuda. First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2006.
Kuono is the new kid at a private, all-male high school. Right away, he can't help but feel that something is off about the place. It starts when he gets an overly friendly welcome from his teachers. It continues when he enters his classroom and everyone is all atwitter over him. Things only get more confusing when he's seated next to the exceedingly feminine-looking Shihoudani, and it turns out he and a select few boys are practically worshipped by the student body. Once at the student dorms, Shihoudani tells him the truth: to give the student body a sort of substitute for girls, a select few boys are chosen to become 'princesses.' These boys are dressed in drag for school events to boost morale, and even out of costume are expected to support and cheer on their fellow students. Those that accept the role get financial and academic benefits; those that reject it lose class units by school mandate. Tempted by the prospect of free board and spending cash, Kuono agrees to become a princess.
Now Kuono joins Shihoudani, and the extremely reluctant and insecure Yuu in the world of the 'princesses.' Bit by bit, Kuono learns to accept his strange new school life and try to bond with his fellow 'princesses.'
Why was I not surprised to learn that this manga started life as a boy's love story? It's pretty blatant, given all the bishie-laded cast, the crossdressing angle, and the fact that the story is about a select few pretty boys who are worshipped and adored by other boys. Apparently the only reason that it wasn't a BL story was that it was published in a major shoujo magazine, and they did not want a BL story in their magazine.
Nonetheless, while this is clearly meant to pander to the fujoshi crowd, this story is neither drama nor romance, but instead a comedy based on getting the boys in drag in socially awkward situations and the differing reactions from the boys, with Shihoudani being the complacent one, Yuu being the angry one, and Kuono falling somewhere in the middle and often snarking on the situation through the fourth wall. Those bits of meta humor were an unexpected touch, and sometimes were even enough to help save an otherwise weak concept.
It's not that the boys' situation doesn't have the potential to be humorous, it's just that said humor never really worked for me. There's not much to it other than "They're boys in drag! But they don't want to be in drag! And they have to appear in public like this! Isn't that HILARIOUS?!" Maybe the premise works better in Japan, but to this American 'guys in drag' isn't a terribly funny thing onto itself.
So, if the main comedic concept doesn't work, what (if anything) does? I guess there's the burgeoning friendship between the boys, but of the three only Kuono has something approaching a personality. The other two are much less complex, as Shihoudani is always calm and princely while Yuu just keeps rehashing the same "But I don't wanna be a giiiiirl!" joke. The rest of the cast is not that notable, save for Natashou, the exceedingly fey president of the costume club. He's the one who creates the costumes for the 'princesses,' and he clearly loves his job.
So, neither the comedy nor the male bonding elements work in Princess Princess because they're half-hearteded presented. The only thing that does seem to work is the yaoi-flavored pandering, and ultimately if you want that, why not just read some actual yaoi?
The artstyle is very typical for shoujo, in that it's nothing but well-drawn bishonen as far as the eye can see. The real detail for the artwork is save for the boys' costumes, particularly the gothloli dresses they debut in. She clearly enjoyed drawing all the fancy, frilly, and fetish things the boys wear. Backgrounds are rare, as Tsuda prefers to use lots of screen tones and effects. In particular she seems fond of one that looks like lace doilies are exploding behind the boys. Even the cover art isn't all that great. Sure, those Art Nouveau style frames are meant to evoke the works of Alphonse Mucha, but there's no effort to make Kuono fit that style or pose him like one of Mucha's models. Beyond that, there's not much to say for the art. There's very little flair or personality to it beyond those costumes.
This is published in the thin, oversize volumes typical for older DMP works. There are a couple of omakes after the story, one about the creation of the series and the other being a set of 4-koma strips where we learn that the mangaka is friends with notorious yaoi mangaka Eiki Eiki.
What few touches of cleverness or effort are present are sadly not enough to save this fujoshi fangirl fantasy from falling down flat on its face.
This series was published by Digital Manga Press. All 5 volumes were released, and all are currently in print.
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