Normally I don't bring too much of the real world into this blog but anyone who followed the news today knows that today was a bad day...a terrible, no-good, infuriating sort of day. So I'm going to take this opportunity to vent some frustration by getting around to a series I've been meaning to rant about for a while.
STEPPING ON ROSES (Hadashi de Bara o Fume), by Rinko Ueda. First published in 2007 and first published in North America in 2010.
Sumi Kitamura is a poor yet noble young girl growing up in the midst of the Meiji era. Her parents are dead, her brother is a hopeless gambler who keeps leaving foster kids with her, but despite her crushing poverty and large number of dependents she remains hopeful. She eventually gets so desperate that she decides to prostitute herself. Sumi is eventually 'bought' by Soichiro Ashida, who wants to marry her in the hopes of appeasing his dying grandfather to inherit a fortune. Now Sumi is bound to this cruel, demanding, arrogant young man all while she struggles to find a place in a social world far above her own. Will Sumi ever adapt to her surroundings? Will Soichiro ever come to love her? And will she ever find the mystery man who helped her in her time of need?
You know, if I wanted to read an illustrated Harlequin novel, I can find plenty of them online. I don't need to waste money on soapy sexist trash like this, then at least I should get something that might actually have some smut and costs less.
Even by shoujo heroine standards, Sumi is ridiculously saintly. She's poor, uneducated, orphaned, hounded by debt collectors, used by her brother, constantly surrounded by a gaggle of small children demanding food, and yet somehow she never stops being hopeful, loyal and caring towards others like she's a goddamn Disney princess. She can't even muster up the slightest negative thought towards her brother, someone whom anyone with sense would have told to go fuck himself years ago. Lest you think this saintliness is a sign of her having determination, don't be fooled. The moment she attaches herself to Soichiro, all she does is become a frail, weeping plaything who endlessly forgives her douchebag of a love interest. She doesn't even make a token effort at resisting or talking back at him. No, she must always be in the wrong because she is just a dumb commoner and must sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of others, like the doormat she is.
There are not enough words in English to encompass my hatred for Soichiro. Again, even by genre standards he's an incredibly awful person. He's arrogant, always lording his superior looks/wealth/education/etc. over Sumi. He's greedy and deceitful, tricking an old man with a sham marriage just so he can continue with the lifestyle he's used to. He's physically and emotionally abusive, as he forbids Sumi from falling in love with him even as he himself display flagrant jealousy if she receives the slightest kindness from others and forbids her from doing household tasks on her own even if done as a gesture of appreciation. Sadly, I know how these sorts of narratives tend to play out, as it's been done a million times. This irredeemable jackass will be won over by Sumi's innate beauty and goodness, all of his negative qualities will be forgotten or handwaved away, and they will live Happily Ever After. I think I would sooner read an entire volume about Soichiro getting punched in the nuts repeatedly than watch the plot work itself in circles to turn him into a good man.
Worse still, he's been given a foil in the form of a (as yet unnamed) do-gooder, a handsome and mysterious stranger who crosses paths with Sumi early on. She clings to his kindness (and the hankerchief he left with her) throughout Soichiro's abuse and all the while I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. He's painted as a perfect, kind Adonis, and as part of Soichiro's inevitable and unwanted redemption he will somehow be made out to be a monster. Ueda couldn't be telegraphing this twist harder and I spent the entire volume waiting for the other narrative shoe to drop. She must be saving it for a future volume, but frankly I couldn't care less. This goes beyond 'not good.' Stepping On Roses is an awful, abusive, clichéd, soapy, and shallow story, the very worst of shoujo romance distilled into a single manga and dressed up in a Victorian veneer.
As much as I despised the story, I can't completely hate the art. It's not spectacular by any means, but it's competent and cute. The characters are generic-looking and I swear if Sumi spent any more time blushing, I would presume that she was permanently feverish along with all her other troubles. Ueda's clear focus here is on the frilly, fussy, feminine details. Sumi's hair swishes about on the page in perfect porcelain-doll curls and her newfound wardrobe is less an accurate representation of Victorian finery as it is an explosion of ribbons, bows, frills, and full skirts. Because she's so focused on the wardrobes, she tends to neglect the backgrounds and let them fill up the panels and pages.
Stepping On Roses is simply too melodramatic and abusive for anyone with reasonable taste in shoujo to enjoy. It's not even fun in a trashy way. It's just a parade of frilly misery that should be left forgotten.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 7 volumes available. All 7 have been published and are currently in print.