And now here's a modern manga with an old-fashioned setting.
GOLDEN JAPANESQUE: A SPLENDID YOKOHAMA ROMANCE (Kin'iro Japanesque: Yokohama Kako tan), by Kaho Miyasaka. First published in 2018 and first published in North America in 2021.
All Maria wanted to do was to go unnoticed. She was tired of being a burden to her mother, tired of the mockery and shame that others heap upon her, tired of not even being able to read kanji. She never expected to catch the eye of the young master Rintarou. She certainly didn't expect him to discover the golden hair and big blue eyes she's desperately been trying to hide from the world. The two find themselves unwittingly drawn to one another, even as the society of Meiji-era Tokyo strives to keep them apart.
Reading this gave me flashbacks to The Heiress And the Chauffeur. While it takes place roughly 50 years previous to that series, both of them draw upon the time and setting not just for the sake of set dressing but also to inform the sort of story they tell. While both are romances, Golden Japanesque draws more upon the children’s fiction of its time, drawing heavily from the earliest form of shojo literature and fairy tales alike to craft its story.
This is set during the early decades of the Meiji period, a time where Japan was rapidly modernizing all while its social structures were undergoing major shifts. That being said, there was still a massive gap between the haves and have-nots of society and much of the newfound Western influences were limited to the nobility and middle classes. Those without money would have rarely encountered anything (or anyone) European and would have continued to regard them with the same suspicion as their ancestors had.
Our heroine, Maria, is very much a metaphor for this age and this cultural conflict. As the child of a Japanese mother and a (thus far unknown) European father, she bridges these two worlds. Yet it is that very nature that makes her an outcast. To her neighbors she's an oddity to be feared and mocked. To the wealthy she is a curiosity. Either way, it makes her everyday life a miserable, lonely, and dehumanizing experience. It's not helped by her mother, whose own paranoia about Maria's looks and how others will judge both of them. Combine that with the fact that Maria is barely literate and knows more English than Japanese and it's little wonder that she's so anxious (and why even the smallest kindness has so much effect on her).
While Maria's conflict is rooted in historical prejudice, her budding romance with Rintarou is rooted in pure shojo sentiment and fairy tales. Obviously there's a bit of a Cinderella quality to their story, as Rintarou's childishly cruel teasing gives way to princely rescues and makeovers. There's also the fact that Rintarou keeps explicitly comparing Maria to Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, which doesn't bode well for her if the story follows through with that thought. Still, considering all the sadness around Maria (and the inevitable class conflict that's sure to come from a master-servant romance), it's not hard to root for these kids to find their own little happy ever after.
Unlike the likes of Stepping on Roses, Miyasaka takes great care with the historical details. The costumes, the buildings, even some of the writing systems used. That's not to say that she slacks off when it comes to the characters themselves. They are simple but straightforward with large expressive eyes, prominent (but not distracting) noses, and small pouty mouths. Unlike a lot of shojo artist, she's just as good at drawing older characters as she is at her young leads. They actually look like proper adults instead of twenty-somethings with awkward wrinkles on their faces. It's all combined with smart, minimalist paneling that balances them well.
This series is published by Yen Press. This manga is ongoing in Japan with 5 volumes available. All 5 have been released and are currently in print.
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