Of course, we can't ignore the world of yuri manga, even if we didn't get a lot of new ones this year. That will NOT be the case next year. Indeed, if all the licenses announced this year are any indication, next year's countdown will be blessed with a bounty of yuri titles to explore. This title was easily the most distinctive yuri title we got, even if it's not entirely for good reasons.
NTR - NETSUZOU TRAP (NTR Netsuzou Torappu or Fake Trap), by Kodama Naoko. First published in 2014 and first published in North America in 2016.
Yuma and Hotaru have been friends forever, but ever since Yuma got a boyfriend Hotaru has been....kind of weird. Yuma's not used to romance and is uncomfortable with the possibility of something more physical. Naturally, she turns to her best friend for advice. Hotaru's response is to then force Yuma to 'practice' by making out with her and then some. It seems that Hotaru's feelings run stronger than mere friendship, but they also run far darker than Yuma could ever conceive.
I wonder if this license (along with Citrus, which will have its day at some point) isn't some sort of monkey's paw-style punishment for a wish I've had for some time. My biggest frustration with licensed yuri to date was that it all tended to be the same. It was all about shy schoolgirls in love. Some of it was more tragic, others more positive, but after a while it all tends to blend together. I just wanted to see some variety in yuri licenses! I wanted to see works that acknowledged actual sexual desire along with the warm and tender feelings and a wider variety of scenarios! Well, I got that wish to some degree with Netsuzou Trap, and the result leaves me deeply uncomfortable.
On one hand, there is some really interesting character writing going on here, mostly with Hotaru. I can't recall the last time I saw a manga with a leading character who is meant to be this negative without being an outright antagonist. She's a toxic mix of teenage vindictiveness, passive-aggression, obsessive possessiveness, and outright sadism, all of which is hidden under a veneer of generic friendliness. She seems determined to ruin both her friend's relationship as well as Yuma herself in order to quench her obvious desire for her, consequences be damned. What's really remarkable is that it's done entirely in subtext. Hotaru never states her reasons or her intent outright, but her actions, her choice of words, and her tone tell the reader everything they need to know about her.
In comparison, Yuma is a veritable Pollyanna. While she gets mad with Hotaru from time to time, you have to wonder how Yuma could be so completely blind to her friend's intentions. Still, Naoko does a good job capturing her anxiety over dating and sex, as well as her confusion over her reactions to Hotaru's assaults. What's really sad is that unlike Hotaru, Yuma's boyfriend actually respects her boundaries. Like a lot of teenage boys, he wants to lose his virginity, but he's no more experience than Yuma is. His hesitation in making a move comes from a similar place as Yuma's, and Hotaru keeps trying to frame as Yuma's fault for not being open to his moves. It's not for nothing that the NTR in the title is a common abbreviation for netorare, a popular hentai fetish where a woman with a significant other is forced into infidelity. Make no mistake, this is not a positive relationship, but it's also a shockingly emotionally nuanced one.
That being said, we can't ignore the parts that likely turn a lot of people off from this book. Consider this your trigger warning if talk of rape and similar sorts of assault set you off because I cannot ignore what goes on here. What Hotaru and Yuma have isn't a forbidden romance, it's sexual abuse. Hotaru does her best to isolate Yuma and to gaslight Yuma into believing that Hotaru's actions are entirely for Yuma's benefit. She completely ignores Yuma's protests and discomfort about sex, urging her to keep her cries down so no one else can hear. She not only forces kisses onto Yuma, but also unwanted groping and attempts at fingering. At one point, she outright states that Yuma could have overpowered her at any point and blames her for getting turned on by Hotaru's actions. Afterwards, Yuma feels anger, shame, and confusion about her own reactions. There is no other way to read what happens between these two as anything other than assault and every instance is intensely uncomfortable. If this is Naoko trying to make the reader feel what Yuma feels, then mission fucking accomplished. Otherwise, it just feels reprehensible, even irresponsible to try to frame Hotaru's actions in any other way. Netsuzou Trap is truly unlike any other yuri title on the market, but not necessarily in the best ways.
It's weird to have this dark, intense story drawn in what is otherwise a fairly cutesy art style. The characters are all generically cute, but Naoko draws them in a way that makes them look dead-eyed, regardless of what they might actually be feeling. She also seems to have a hard time drawing boobs, which seems like a weird flaw for a woman mangaka to have. Boobs here tend to attach weirdly and squish unnaturally, all while their nipples play hide-and-seek. She's better when it comes to legs, but it's kind of distracting once you notice.
The bigger problem is in the way she visually frames Hotaru's assaults. The text might be saying no, but the images are saying that this is meant to be hot. Every kiss and touch is framed in loving close-up, lest we miss a single grope. This goes even for the scenes where they're together in a nonsexual situation. The focus is entirely on bringing their bodies and faces closer together within the frame, making the reader privy to every moment of conversation. In comparison, the scenes with the two of them separately or with their respective boyfriends retreat to the middle distance. I can't help but feel that Naoko is trying to have her cheesecake and eat it too when it comes to the art here, and that disconnect between the art and the story only heightens my discomfort with it.
It's actually been a while since I've had cause to complain about a Seven Seas translation, but this is a personal pet peeve of mine. Hotaru indulges in the occasional low, creepy chuckle, and the translator falls back on 'fu fu fu' instead of a noise that actually sounds like laughter in English. Stop doing this! I don't care how much of a memetic things it's been in anime fandom, it's distracting and unnatural.
Also, in the omake Naoko notes how she originally conceived of this being a story about two newlywed brides. I can't say if that would have made the story any better or worse, but the novelty of actually seeing a yuri series about adults would have at least made me curious.
Good character writing isn't enough to overcome my distaste for Netsuzou Trap, its subject matter or how it tries to frame it all like a fetish instead of a crime. Hopefully Seven Seas' new batch of yuri titles can expand the genre boundaries without having to go so very dark.
This series is published by Seven Seas. This series is ongoing in Japan with 3 volumes available. 1 volume is available and is currently in print.
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