Of course, just because a manga deals in some taboo subjects or tropes doesn't necessarily mean that it is automatically terrible. Every once in a great while you find one that takes a sketchy premise and subverts it into something more intriguing. Today's review is a very recent example of just such a thing.
THE SECRET SAKURA SHARES (Sakura no Himegoto), by Akira Hagio. First published in 2011 and first published in North America in 2015.
Aoi Narinomiya is the only heiress to a prestigious and wealthy family, but her comfortable life comes crashing down one day when she finds her grandfather's mansion being packed up. It seems her grandfather accrued a massive debt, and now Aoi's classmate Kei Katsuragi has come to collect on behalf of his family. In desperation, Aoi begs Kei to take in her beloved pet dog Sakura. Kei agrees, but only if he can keep her as a pet as well. Now Aoi has to come to terms with her new living arrangement, her own family's past, and her changing feelings for Kei.
Is it possible to take a premise as potentially sketchy as "boy keeps girl as literal pet" with a hapless ingénue heroine and a moody love interest and turn it into something heartwarming? Early on, I would have said "hell no!" but The Secret Sakura Shares manages to do just that through some careful soul-searching and subverting the audience's expectations.
Aoi is not the sort of heroine anyone would ever mistake for a Strong Independent Woman (tm). She's spent her whole life being pampered and protected. She has been taught all sorts of refinements, but nothing of how to actually subsist on her own or even to care much about her own welfare. She should be completely irritating, but Hagio dodges that bullet by showing that her helplessness is not a cute quirk but instead a symptom of her abysmally low self-esteem which itself was a symptom of being abandoned by her mother at a young age. She's spent her whole life being passed around and treated like an object instead of a person. so it's little wonder that it would give her a complex and leave her as a rather infantilized teen with a desperate need to please others, even at her own expense. I imagine that fans of Fruits Basket will find Aoi a rather familiar sort of character, even if she's nowhere near as saintly as Tohru Honda could be. Thus, when Aoi does start to make choices for herself for the first time, it gives these seemingly simple acts far more power than they would normally hold. Hagio managed to turn the standard shoujo ingénue into something deeper and more complex and it's an impressive trick.
She manages a similar subversion of shoujo tropes with Kei. Kei affects the air of a distant and disaffected rebel, but this is naught but a mask for Kei's innate decency. When Kei offers to make Aoi his pet, he means it in the best and most sincere way possible. He doesn't want to exploit her sexually or demean her, but instead to care for her needs and treat her like a person. Other rich boys might try to woo Aoi in the hopes of boosting their family fortunes, but only Kei cares about saving her and her grandfather while simultaneously allowing them to retain their dignity. Even the seemingly rivalry Kei has with his distant businessman father is not all that it seems, and the payoff to that plot thread is one of the few moments that's genuinely amusing (if rather embarrassing for Kei himself). Much like with Aoi, Hagio turns a very trope-bound character type into something more affecting and subversive. Together, the two turn what could have been a horror show of a premise into a sweet and surprisingly sincere romance. The Secret Sakura Shares shows that with some care and some willingness to play with genre conventions, you can make a sketchy premise plausible and genuinely romantic.
I suspect that part of the reason that Hagio's character subversion work so well is that The Secret Sakura Shares looks for the most part like every other shoujo series out there. The art and characters are all drawn in a cute and competent manner, but their look is also very bland. Even the animals (especially Aoi's beloved Sakura) drawn in a competent but workman-like manner. At times they are overshadowed by the paneling, as Hagio likes to break out the screentones and to stagger and layer her panels frequently. Thankfully, she keeps things sparse enough that all those panels manage to flow from one another in an easy manner, and the ho-hum artwork actually (if likely accidentally) works to the story's advantage.
The Secret Sakura Shares looks like your average shoujo series and has a premise that would raise some eyebrows. Thankfully it works in execution because Hagio puts forth real effort into using familiar character tropes as a jumping point to explore her leading couple as actual characters. By doing so, she turns what would be a fairly mundane title into one that shoujo fans should give a look.
This series is published by Yen Press. This series is complete in Japan with 2 volumes available. Both volumes were published in a 2-in-1 omnibus and is currently in print.