This is a fairly unknown manga in the subculture of otaku and anime. First, it’s shojo. This means it’s written for girls in mind. If I’m correct, otaku in Japan are primarily young men who respond to the -kun honorific. Also, manga and anime are things you’re supposed to grow out of. They’re something “meant for kids” but it seems a lot of people secretly enjoy the two as they grow older. I would assume that’s why seinen (the adultier version of shonen) and josei (the adultier version of shojo) exist. By the way, all of what I know about Japanese culture has been learned primarily through inference. I’ve never been to the country. However, I would like to say I have a basic understanding from watching videos, reading historical novels over their culture, learning their cultural interactions and the significance of them, and how certain characters in their syllabaries (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) affect their overall communication.
So the reason why you’ve never heard of this series is: shojo is generally unpopular and Hot Gimmick‘s counterparts (Hana Yori Dango, etc.) that came out around the same time received far better reviews and appreciation both in Japan and around the world.
Why am I writing about this series today? For a long time, I considered it to be one of my favourites. I loved the idea of being swept off my feet and having other people make important decisions for me because it was easier to give up control. A few years back, I read it all again and was disgusted that I ever liked it in the first place. Since then, I would’ve felt bad giving it away since manga tankobons (volumes) in America are expensive compared to authentic Japanese manga. Japanese manga are priced at like 300 yen which is like 3 US dollars. English-translated tankobon are about 1,000 yen each or 10 USD. I attribute this to the translation and international licensing fees but I don’t know for certain. So I kept this questionable series all this time. (The reason I bought it in the first place is because manga-reading sites weren’t around just yet though I do buy the tankobon when they come to the US.) The reason I’m writing is that I took a fresh examination at the characters whom drive the plot.
The characters are the precise reason why people turned up their noses to this. The heroine is considered to be extremely passive and just lets all this terrible crap happen to her. All of her love interests are tainted with “ew, why would you date this guy?”. One is a tyrant, the other is a revenge-seeker, and the third is her adopted brother. People didn’t like that she was “stupid” either. They say at least the love triangle in Hana Yori Dango was compelling. I never read the manga but I did watch the K-Drama which didn’t have much of a triangle.
I’m here to say while I understand why they didn’t like those parts, it’s equivalent to saying, “Aohaoraido shouldn’t get a second season because the latter half of the series is boring”. I presume not many people will get that so I’ll explain. I was blown away by Youth Ride (Aohaoraido in English; also translated to Blue Spring Ride but mangaka says it’s Youth Ride). If you take Youth Ride/Aohaoraido with the context of what that phrase means to the mangaka, that youth has ups and downs and it’s all about learning, then of course not everything is going to be cheery and exciting. Of course, there will be hard times. People took the latter half of Youth Ride‘s low points as boring. That perception irked me. I applaud Sakisaka-san for not giving into fan service and staying true to her story.
One of the things about shojo, as a genre, is its target market is for girls from like 9 to 15. They’re discovering ~feelings~ for the first time and seeing their first glances at what the adult world might look like. For kids that age, it’s a very simple world still, no disrespect btw. So of course, they’re going to relate to characters that also have a simplistic view of things too. If you’re demanding more from shojo, go check out shonen. Honestly. Shojo has things down to a fine line. They know what’ll sell and what won’t. And they have to have it to such detail because the market is so tiny. Fans of shonen have consistently expected more than a love story (after all, it’s for young males) and are more willing to highlight darker and harder themes than shojo. Shojo does discuss the dark side of life too but in a more subdued way. It’s easy to miss.
With that said, my opinion of Hot Gimmick is an empathetic one. Instead of thinking of the main character, Hatsumi, as passive, I view her as someone who spends all of her time worrying about other people. To me, that’s the hallmark of sympathy and caring. In fact, it’s the very thing I like so much about her. Even as all this terrible crap happens to her, all she can do is think about how other people must be feeling, even her enemies. I don’t see that as passivity but rather as strength and maturity. It takes a lot of guts to sympathise with your enemies. Ryoki, the tyrannical love interest, I can empathise with too. This is hard to do if you’re not familiar with Japanese culture. The thing about communication in Japan, and Asia as a whole, is that it’s high-context or very implicitly done. People speak indirectly because (I think) it’s considered polite. However, in Western culture, low-context or direct speaking is what’s considered polite because you’re not wasting someone’s time. Still, I’ve noticed that there are many ways we communicate indirectly in Western culture, particularly with selling something.
So, if you know this information, and you watch how Ryoki grows up, it all makes sense as to why he’s so tyrannical. To get literary on you, he symbolises Aihara-san’s (mangaka) distaste for power struggles in Japan yet she also sympathises with the sheer power that is thrust upon boys. To clarify what I just said, everyone in this story lives in a housing complex where all the parents work for the same company. Ryoki’s father is the vice president and everyone bows down to Ryoki and his mother. As a child, Ryoki doesn’t get it but as he grows up, no one ever tells him ‘no’. Additionally, considering how intelligent he is, he’s able to inherently understand each and every power dynamic between people. He uses this to his advantage a lot because that’s what’s normal to him. Nobody’s ever told him not to. Except Hatsumi! She’s not direct about it but time and time again, she tells him how she doesn’t want to do certain things. He has a hard time grappling with this since he’s so used to ordering everyone around (and it can provide both drama and comedy) but her reasons aren’t for control or power. Hatsumi is more in tune with emotions and isn’t interested in doing things because she doesn’t want to. It’s hard for her to speak up since he always teased her as a kid and she does fear him (and his mother potentially ostracising her family) but she does every time. By the end of the series, Ryoki understands that he has to listen to Hatsumi about what she wants, her feelings, and her problems, if he wants to be with her. He doesn’t always handle it well but I can understand him because of how little emotional guidance and the lack of a normal/healthy family life he got growing up.
His unforgivable action is hitting Hatsumi for not answering his calls while he was abroad for a time. He later apologises and vows never to hit her again which he doesn’t do for the rest of the series (spoiler: even when she breaks up w him). Empathetic Hatsumi actually blames herself for being hit (a victimising thing to do). This is the one thing I really hate about the series since Aihara-san agrees with the greater part of Japan that things like fushizen (translated as unnatural rape but means the victim knew the rapist) are the victim’s fault. There is no way I can put a nice spin on his actions and I’m not going to. While I offer him plenty of empathy, I cannot condone this. I can only hope that he learned from this mistake. I think he does. Ryoki sometimes acts too quickly and for all his intelligence doesn’t always see things through or the effects of his actions. Consider it his flaw. Don’t we, as writers, say characters need flaws? Don’t we say that the “good” characters need to overcome their flaws and that’s a sign of growth? Again, you have to read in between the lines to see Ryoki’s growth. While Aihara-san might agree that what happens to women is their fault, she does see that Ryoki’s actions are wrong and gives him growth for it. Indeed, by the end of the series, despite calling Hatsumi dumb, he, in his own way, respects her. While it is implied, it’s also shown. I can’t describe it myself. So if you don’t believe me, read it for yourself.
It’s strange but every time I read Hot Gimmick, I always root for Ryoki. It can feel like he’s the best of the worst but only if you don’t read between the lines.
I can never forgive Azusa, the revenge-seeker, for plotting to gang-rape Hatsumi on multiple occasions, even after learning why. It’s immature and cruel. I do wish we saw Hatsumi reacting more to this. Yes, she does initially but she puts it behind her too quickly, in my opinion. A traumatic experience like that would take months, in the least, to get over. I suppose after that pivotal point, she does rely on Ryoki more. One of the things people criticise most is that when Hatsumi is about to be raped by Azusa, she apologises to him! People say “she needs more self-respect” but I get it. For two reasons: the first is that she’s just told what actually happened to Azusa and why he’s seeking revenge and she feels bad for not thinking of how he must’ve been feeling all this time and the second is the victim-blaming that goes on in situations like that. Victims can even blame themselves for what happened to them, even though none of it is their fault.
As far as her adopted brother, Shinogu, she continues to consider him her brother even after learning he’s not blood. Spoiler: There’s a moment where Hatsumi considers him but it’s more of a rebound to Ryoki than actual consideration. While rebounds are generally frowned upon, I don’t blame her for it.
I root for Ryoki despite how kind and gentle Shinogu is towards Hatsumi. I can appreciate how protective Ryoki is over Hatsumi. Given his upbringing, I do understand his possessive ways but I think it fits well for Hatsumi since she does take so long making decisions. It’s not that she can’t make them, it’s just that she considers how her decisions will affect each person she cares about (which is a lot of people..). It might confound people to see such an intelligent, bright-futured, wealthy, and good-looking male “stoop” to someone under his league. But for all of what Ryoki sees when it comes to power, I think with Hatsumi, when it really comes down to it, she’s a reprieve for him from all the power games he faces. Additionally, she’s the only person aside from his big-sis-type of a maid that Ryoki can be himself with (He’s not really himself with Subaru. In fact, they don’t seem that close at all). And the onee-san acts as an onee-san rather than a romantic interest for him. Yes, Ryoki can order her around and play “master-servant” but it doesn’t always work with Hatsumi. That’s why I consider her to be a reprieve. For all her passivity, she’s firm in her own beliefs.
In this way, I liken Hatsumi to Yuna, from Final Fantasy X, who gave us a chance to see what “quiet feminism” looks like. Hatsumi is also a quiet feminist. She doesn’t like to or have to dominate the room, she’s not direct about what she wants, and she wants to bring everyone up with her. That’s what I think the true goal of feminism is anyways: bringing everyone up together. Little by little, Hatsumi gets what she wants. While we’re discussing feminism, some may object that Hatsumi never once expressed career goals except for a part-time job she only briefly had to get a cell phone, she’s also at an age where she might not know what she wants to be just yet. To expect a sixteen-year-old to know is a tall order and I do not condemn her for never thinking about it. To judge Hatsumi and neglect that Ryoki also never considered a career is hypocritical. Moreover, if she ends up deciding all she wants to be is Ryoki’s wife, who are we to judge?
On the surface, Hot Gimmick is a simple story. Look a little deeper and you find the human struggle. What you might see depends on the lens you use. One of the reasons why I’m drawn to shojo is because of the emotional discussions the characters have within themselves and with the people they interact with. With Youth Ride, one of the themes was, “it’s okay to have negative emotions”. With Hot Gimmick, “be sensitive to what people are going through. They might have trouble telling you what’s going on with them. It might be hard for you to know what’s going on and you may feel helpless but endure it for them”.
For a long time, I didn’t understand why Ryoki kept such a huge secret from Hatsumi. She had been desperately trying to solve a puzzle which he solved in a matter of minutes by speaking to someone in particular. I understand now and all I can do is sympathise. Ryoki puts on a tough act when it comes to his true emotions, something a lot of men do. In Japan, shame is spread throughout the entire family. Ryoki cares a lot of what his partners think of him. That’s why he’s eager to help Hatsumi with her problems and do what she says. It’s never highlighted but Ryoki does a lot for Hatsumi when she’s supposed to be the servile one. He did the same for his ex, Yuka, too. So, with this particular secret and knowing that his family was connected by this shameful act, he didn’t want Hatsumi to think badly of him. He didn’t want it to matter so he tried to make it not matter by not saying it. A childish way, yes, but remember the target audience.Though, those who think that way soon learn that it’s better they fessed up than’ve kept it a secret. This is Aihara-san’s true theme with Hot Gimmick. It’s never directly said so Westerners that don’t read between the lines miss it. I missed it too until this recent read-through.
Most people see just a love story but that’s not how Asian dramas are.
There you have it ^^ I suspect hardly anyone will agree with me but I’m happy to keep the “questionable series” on my shelf \O/
Someday, I’d like to discuss the power struggles I see in the anime subculture. I wish I had an example to leave you with but I can’t find anything Also please write me if there was anything you didn’t understand when it came to the Japanese words I borrowed.
Thank you for reading :*
Next review: Dune by Frank Herbert