HOT GIMMICK (Hotto Gimikku), by Miki Aihara. First published in 2000 and first published in North America in 2003.
Hatsumi's family lives in a giant company apartment complex lorded over by the CEO's wife. Under her watchful eye, the slightest social infraction could be cause for transfers or firings. That's why Hatsumi panics when the CEO's son Ryoki catches her buying a pregnancy test for her younger sister. He threatens to snitch unless Hatsumi becomes his slave, but the more Hatsumi learns about him, the more she's not sure what to think! Things only get more complicated when her dreamy childhood friend Azusa returns with an agenda of his own...
If you talk to anyone who was reading shoujo manga during the boom years (or like me, had access years later to a well-stocked library), odds are good they remember reading this series. If they do, they will tell you two things:
It was one of the worst, most traumatizing series they have ever read, yet it was also one of most compulsively must-read series they have ever read.
How could something be this terrible and this compelling at once? Upon rereading, a few things struck me.
It's easy to dismiss Hatsumi as a mere doormat, but what struck me when reading this for review was just how strong her actual feelings on the matter were. Hatsumi is angry, embarassed, fearful and confused over her situation, but she's also keenly aware of what the truth could do to both her reputation and potentially her family's welfare. The only place she can express herself freely is through her inner monologue, turning the reader into her main confidante. Thus, the reader is held captive not only by the drama unfolding before them, but the very strong, relatable feelings Hatsumi is feeling.
It's little wonder that Hatsumi should feel so negatively when faced with someone like Ryoki. There have been a lot of bad boyfriends in the history of shoujo, but few could compete with the depths of Ryoki's cold, sadistic sociopathy. He's a bully of the worst order, the sort who uses insults, threats, and the occasional bout of attempted sexual assault to compensate for what he sees as failings in his own masculinity. He's a despicable human being and it's little wonder that Hatsumi would find herself drawn to Azusa's kind words and familiar, handsome face in spite of her
At least...until the third chapter. That's when she crosses a line with the both of them that turns both the direction of the story and my stomach. When Hatsumi finds herself being brow-beaten by Ryoki's tutor and learns embarassing information about him, she takes this advantage to not gain some power from her blackmailer, but instead to defend him from this young woman's dismissal of him as just another desperate virgin. Ryoki, in turn, briefly relents on her, even as he dismisses her as stupid for not taking the chance to get out of their agreement. That's when it sinks in for the reader: this is meant to be romantic.
We're meant to swoon as Hatsumi starts to submit to her own personal case of Stockholm Syndrome! We're meant to sigh as Ryoki is portrayed less like a heartless bastard and more like a really extreme tsundere, as if his abuse is just an extension of a boy pulling the pigtails of the girl he likes! We're meant to marvel at the developing love triangle between them and Azusa, who will inevitably be turned into a bastard to somehow make Ryoki look good in comparison! It was one thing when Aihara was drawing us into the melodrama of Hatsumi's life, but it's quite enough when she tries to turn what is clearly an abusive relationship into a true romance.
The worst part is that she did such a good job drawing the reader into the story and into Hatsumi's headspace so quickly with those first two chapters that the reader finds themselves in a situation similar to Hatsumi's. We find ourselves repulsed by the change in narrative direction, but we still care enough about Hatsumi to root for her and to hope that she will somehow find a way to save herself. We are compelled to continue reading, even if we hate ourselves for doing so, and that is why Hot Gimmick is still remembered.
Aihara's art is really hit or miss, depending on what you focus on. You can tell that she enjoys drawing all of the girls' varied fashions as well as the backgrounds. She makes really good use of the setting, showing off both the subtle differences in space between Hatsumi's and Ryoki's apartments and how that relates to their financial situations, as well finding new and creative spaces away from private eyes in which to enact her drama. She's also great at composition. While a lot of her pages are just montages of faces, she frames them in smart and creative ways that captures the mood artfully without sacrificing the clarity of the story or being visually boring.
Yet she really struggles with faces. Hatsumi in particular is incredibly expressive, but their actual features are flat, flappy, and kind of crude, and when they turn in profile the results are decidedly mixed. They don't quite seem to match the rest of their bodies, which she also struggles with. While she can draw great clothes, the people she puts them on can seem weirdly gangly and hollow-chested. Ryoki suffers the most this, along with what is probably the worst case of Dorito chin of all the major male characters. They're not series-killing flaws, but they're distractions that throw the reader out of the moment that happen far too frequently.
Hot Gimmick lures you in and breaks your heart. It has an absolutely hateful love interest and some awkward art, yet Aihara is skilled enough as a writer to keep you invested regardless of the terrible turns and twists of the plot. I can't recommend it, but I won't judge you if you end up reading the whole thing anyway.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 12 volumes available. All 12 have been published; the single volumes are out of print, but the 3-in-1 omnibuses are currently in print. This series is also available digitally via Viz.