Daisy Yamada’s Boyfriend and the purported superficiality of Japanese pop culture (review of vol. 1-3)

Detail of a page from Boyfriend vol. 2 by Daisy Yamada (via http://mangamoon.com/)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Daisy Yamada
Publisher: EMA (originally Kodansha)
Pages: 160-176
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/index.php/cat/C882_boyfriend.html

(This is the first reviewed item here that actually costs 650 cents, by the way.)

Japanese popular culture is often accused of being superficial, shallow or hollow (probably most entertainingly so in an episode of Andreas Michalke’s comic strip Bigbeatland). While I don’t want to discuss this hypothesis now, Daisy Yamada’s manga Boyfriend is a pop cultural work that could easily be seen as an example of this alleged superficiality. At least that’s what I took it for at first.

The German publisher’s promotional text is titled “Boyfriend – bullying concerns everyone”, and reads: “Hijiki leaves everything behind, the cruelties of her schoolmates, the dreadful helplessness. She starts anew, with new classmates. But can Hijiki make true new friends with her faked cheerful self? Maybe even a boyfriend?”

So I thought this three-volume series was about a girl being bullied at school. But let’s see what actually happens:

Vol. 1: Hijiki starts 8th grade at a new school, but we don’t know why she changed school until towards the end of the volume. She is a somewhat insecure girl, but nevertheless quickly makes new friends and even falls in love with the haughty Horai. In the last chapter, we learn that she has been bullied at her former school, and now the girls in her new class turn against her because she has become too popular with the boys. However, there’s not much bullying going on so far.

Vol. 2: In the beginning of this volume, three girls attack Hijiki verbally, break her mobile phone, and lock her up in some sort of shed or warehouse. That’s bullying alright, but the remaining 160 pages focus on the budding romance between her and Horai.

Vol. 3: This volume is shorter than the others (or rather, there’s a long backup story after the end of Boyfriend on page 116) and is primarily about Hijiki’s and Horai’s families standing in the way of their relationship. Apart from a two-page scene at Hijiki’s old school to which she briefly returns (plus two flashback scenes), there’s no bullying in here.

If we assume that this manga is meant to have bullying as its central topic, then we can call this treatment of bullying superficial indeed, in the same vein in which, e.g., Masami Tsuda’s Kare Kano might be seen as a superficial treatment of teenage pregnancy, or Setona Mizushiro’s X-Day as a superficial treatment of parental abuse. Those and other comics don’t give enough room to such problematic topics to provide the reader with several points of view and background information, thus degrading them to cheap plot devices. However, who says that Boyfriend is supposed to be a profound and comprehensive discussion of bullying? Actually no one does. It’s just what I expected after reading the promo text – paratextual evidence at best.

To expect Boyfriend to teach you something about bullying is like expecting Maid Sama to teach you about maid cafés, or Twinkle Stars about astronomy (cf. my review of Daisuki): these themes are present in the comics, and you get pieces of information about them, but they are only one subject among several. So you can’t say Yamada did anything wrong, unless you take Boyfriend for something it isn’t. It’s just a nice, compact (if somewhat generic) high school romance manga, nothing more and nothing less – and with beautiful artwork at that.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○