Sunday, 26 February 2017

Good is Enough: A Review of 'Secret of the Princess' (2012-5 manga)

Sometimes, a well-done love story is enough. In Milk Morinaga yuri oeuvre, there’s manga with more depth and scope. While such qualities can elevate a work to greatness, a merely decent story is nothing to scoff at. Secret of the Princess somewhat explores the shackles of heteronormativity, but this seems thematic gravy to what is a well-done yuri love story.

Miu’s mother raised her to snag a prince. Miu lives by her mother’s advice, making herself cute and girly so she can marry a handsome guy. Trouble is, she goes to an all-girls’ school. For all her girliness, Miu’s had no practise dating. What if she finds the one only to mess up their first date? When Fujiwara, Miu’s tomboyish upperclassman, smashes a vase, she begs Miu to keep quiet. She’ll do anything in return. Anything. Miu demands she and Fujiwara start dating – just so Miu can practise for her future prince, of course. But is Miu’s prince closer than she thinks.
 So, yeah, this is a high school, lesbian awakening story. Not exactly a drought of that in the yuri genre. When Miu utters the inevitable ‘But we’re both girls’, you hear cacophonous echoes from the entire genre. In Morinaga’s own body of work, we find further variations on this theme. But Morinaga recites this theme well. Although she developed it with more emotional depth in her five volume Girlfriends, and with more variety in her short-story collection Kisses, Sighs and Cherry Blossom Pink, this new work does not feel clichéd in comparison. Even if Secret uses familiar pieces, you can’t deny they fit together.

Secret focuses on Miu’s awakening and struggle. She has internalised her mother’s well-meant, but wrong-headed, advice to be a cute girl waiting to ‘snag a great guy’. (That is, after all, ‘what every girl dreams of’.) From time to time, Miu will put her mother’s sage wisdom into action. Thus we get the irony of Miu applying such heteronormative gems as ‘Men sometimes put others on the spot … A good woman … can subtly guide the conversation in the direction she wants’ to a homosexual relationship.

Thankfully, Miu is not too snared by heteronormativity. She does not hem-and-haw for the entire book over whether she is a lesbian. Not that uncertainty over one’s sexuality is an unworthy topic for a story. Morinaga explored it to great effect in Girlfriends. I merely feel that in this work, any hemming-and-hawing beyond what is present would have merely served to create conflict, rather than explore character. By the midpoint, her conflict switches from ‘How can I prepare myself for my future husband’ to ‘How can I avoid scaring away my crush.’  

And, yes, this does descend into the cliché of both characters loving each other, but refusing to admit it, for fear their love is unrequited and would scare off the other. The dramatic irony is so thick you almost gag on it. Almost. As this is a short work, this old chestnut can’t grow too old.

Our other lover, Fujiwara, has less of an arc than Miu. This is for the best, as she works better as a love interest than a focal character. She is athletic, pretty, rich, and what failings she has are endearing. She exists to show Miu that a girl can be her Prince. To Morinaga’s credit, Fujiwara’s Princeliness never slips into unbelievability. Fujiwara is not a check-list of desirable traits in a romantic partner. She’s that kid at school who’s more skilled and popular than you.

Although Fujiwara doesn’t have a deep character arc, the one she has improves the story. Your friends and lovers change you. Morinaga could have written this as a one-way track, where only Miu is changed by Fujiwara. Morinaga fleshes out the relationship by having Miu further Fujiwara’s arc. Fujiwara wants friends, but has none, because her seeming perfection intimidates her peers. Miu facilitates a meeting between Fujiwara and girls with similar interests. Just as Fujiwara improves Miu’s life, Miu improves Fujiwara’s.

 Secret of the Princess is just a well done yuri story. Our heroines are believable, their love develops at a decent pace, and they don’t get too bogged-down in the melodramatic ‘but what if she doesn’t feel the way I feel’. If you’re a fan of Morinaga, pick up this book. If you’re new to her, however, her previous works, Girlfriends and Kisses, Sighs and Cherry Blossom Pink, better exhibit her artistry. 

[Quotations taken from Seven Seas' 2017 translation]

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