AI ORE! (Ai o Utau yori Ore ni Oberero!), by Mayu Shinjo. First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2011.
Mizuki is the lead guitarist of the hottest new boy band, Blauen Rosen. Mizuki is cool, good-looking, surrounded by adoring fans. Mizuki is also a girl, as are the other members of Blauen Rosen. Their lead singer is moving overseas, though, and the future of the band is up in the air...at least, until Akira comes along. Akira is short and feminine-looking, but he's also one of Mizuki's biggest fans. He's so determined to get close to her that he'll both try out for the band and infiltrate Mizuki's all-girl school to make her face what he believes to be the truth: that he loves her, that she loves in in return, and that her band needs him to survive.
I really wanted to hope that Mayu Shinjo was changing her ways with this series. Her male leads have a reputation for being rather
While Mizuki and Akira appear to be reversals on Shinjo's usual brand of leads, their true personalities are anything but that. Mizuki might play at being cool and alluring, but in truth she's just a tomboyish innocent who constantly (and often literally) runs away from her feelings. Akira is considered the 'princess' of his own all-male school, but his delicate looks bely the fact that he's a manipulative little brat who exploits his girly looks to get out of trouble. He's also surprisingly forceful and focused to the point of obsession, and he's constantly badgering Mizuki with his feelings in the hopes that he'll eventually wear her down. The reader is meant to be amused by this comic reversal, but really it's nothing more than the usual, exploitative dynamic dressed up in drag. Akira is the one who holds all the power in the relationship, the one who constantly threatens to expose Mizuki for whom she truly is, and the one who is constantly crafting new, more extreme scenarios to get close to her, and this extreme power imbalance always makes their romance feel exploitative instead of alluring.
Still, the series makes the most of the cross-dressing angle, even if it's never explained exactly why Blauen Rosen have to perform as men. Cross-dressing here isn't done as an expression of one's sexuality, but instead for utilitarian purposes. For Mizuki, it's a defense mechanism that allows her to protect both her private life and her delicate heart. For Akira, it's an offensive tool he uses to play upon the expectations of others to whatever degree he wishes and always for his own gain. It also doesn't play up the secret of their true gender for the sake of drama. They could have dragged out their mutual discovery for chapters on end, turning it into a hurtle blocking the progress of their romance, but their secrets are revealed to one another fairly quickly and it turn it becomes a something that they can share only with one another. It might be sweet if not for the turn the story takes near the end of the volume.
(WARNING: The following paragraph contains spoilers and references to rape.)
So you're probably wondering by this point why I have such an issue with Akira or why I keep alluding to the ending. Well, remember how I said that Akira likes to manipulate others to get his way? Well, he find outs that Mizuki is going off on a class trip and decides to follow her. While there he overhears a plot by some of Mizuki's classmates to incapacitate her and rape her. He in turn saves her by convincing another group of kids to rape the conspirators in turn, with Mizuki completely oblivious to any of these actions. First of all, it's bad enough that Shinjo was already reaching for the rape card, a plot device that's not only tired as hell but incredibly insensitive to boot. Then she had to compound it by making the love interest complicit in plotting one himself, and while the act is not shown it's implied that Akira's efforts were successful. The notion of using rape to stop a rape is so monstrous and counterintuitive that it makes my head spin, and the fact that Shinjo is trying to paint that as a noble, even romantic gesture is sickening. I don't care if he spent the rest of the series acting like a perfect saint, because at that point Akira is beyond forgiveness. At that moment the book went from 'guilty pleasure' to 'OH GOD GET IT AWAY FROM ME."
It's kind of distressing for me that Mayu Shinjo remains one of the best known and best-selling shoujo mangaka of recent years because while the surface details may change, Ai Ore! isn't any different from her other series at heart. It's still based around exploitative forms of romance and it's still fueled by tired, exploitive clichés.
While Shinjo's storytelling is extremely troublesome, her art remains pleasant but unremarkable. Her character designs are androgynous enough to make Mizuki and Akira's cross-dressing plausible, but she's clearly more in love with dressing them up like they were caught in a Hot Topic explosion that she is with the idea of drawing interesting faces or hair that doesn't look like a tangled mop. Her panels are large and angular, and she fills them in only with the barest trace of screentone. Otherwise, there really isn't much to say for her art. It's not bad looking, it's not hard to follow, but it also doesn't really stick in the mind either.
As much as Shinjo tries, Ai Ore! can't escape her trashy tendencies. All she's done to change things here is to dress her leads in drag, hoping that will be enough to distract the readers from the fact that the male lead is an awful person and that her artwork remains stubbornly average.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in 8 volumes, and all are currently in print and available in e-book form through Viz.com.
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