Pop Culture Gadabout
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
      ( 4/08/2009 01:39:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"I THOUGHT YOU HATED THAT GUY." A quirky and provocative look at teen life in a company housing project, Miki Aihara's Hot Gimmick is the latest manga series to receive the VizBig treatment (among the other big-selling series to have gotten reprinted in this larger format: Dragon Ball, Fushigi Yûgi, and Rurouni Kenshin). Collecting three books of the original twelve-volume series into one fat 5-½"-x-8-1/2" trade paperback, VizBig's collection contains enough juicy plot twists, personal betrayals and romantic complications to get you hooked on the series' seriously screwed-up lives. Though marketed as one of Viz's Shojo Beat titles, this "older teen" rated series is by no means a flowery young girl's romance -- not unless your idea of innocent romantic comedy revolves around domestic violence, date rape drugs and possible teenaged pregnancy.

The central heroine of Gimmick is a slender sixteen-year-old named Hatsumi Narita, who lives with her family in the Tobishi Trading Company housing complex in Tokyo. Because all of the building's families are tied into the company, there's a rigid social hierarchy established, with the wife of company vice-president Tachibana lording it over the families on the floors below them. The book's opening establishes this quite neatly in a scene where a friend of Hatsumi's named Subaru is seen rummaging through the garbage for a thrown-away Gundam model. When the building's queen bee observes this, she takes it as an opportunity to put down Hatsumi, who she thinks was also going through the trash. "I must insist that you refrain from doing anything that compromises the dignity of this complex," Miz T. states, establishing the rigidly judgmental milieu that spurs what's to come.

Things grow complicated for Hatsumi after her younger sister Akane asks her to pick up a pregnancy test. The buxom fourteen-year-old has missed her period and doesn't know who the possible father might be; Hatsumi, who hasn't even had her first kiss yet, is appalled by her sibling Lolita's behavior but goes out to buy the "Yes or No" test, anyway. Unfortunately, she's seen with it by Ryoki Tachibana, the bookish son of the building's matriarch and Hatsumi's onetime childhood tormentor. In exchange for his keeping quiet, Ryoki blackmails our heroine into becoming his "slave." "There's something about her that makes me want to pick on her," Ryoki later explains to Subaru.

Ryoki's new attempt at dominating our heroine is initially thwarted by another childhood acquaintance: Azusa Odagiri, a young teen model who is returning to the building complex with his widowed father. Tall and shojo handsome, Azusa at first appears to be the series' Prince Charming, but it soon turns out that he has his own sinister agenda. Blaming Hatsumi's father for the death of his mother, he wants vengeance on the Narita family and sees his former childhood friend as the ideal vehicle for his dastardly plans.

Poor hapless Hatsumi pinballs between both of these manipulative bastards, between the verbally abusive "poindexter geek" Ryoki and the obsessively vengeful Azusa. She's both attracted and repelled by these two high-rise Heathcliffs, and we readers know that whichever boy she ultimately chooses, he won't be the best choice. Still, we can't stop reading as our girl continues to careen through this harsh teen soap realm.

Like I say, Hot Gimmick is not a sweet and sugary series: in the second volume, there's a real "what-the-hell" moment where Ryoki attempts to cop a feel on the doped and dreaming Hatsumi, only to have her wake up just as he's got both hands on her "small boobs." The third book features an extended sequence wherein our heroine's threatened by a crew of lascivious teens after Azusa has led the unwitting girl into their clutches. When Ryoki shows on the scene, neither she nor the reader can be sure at first whether he's there to save her ass or take it for himself.

Nice girl, bad boys; not-so-smart women, foolish choices. It's a familiar enough romantic formula made more interesting by the unfamiliar setting, minutely delineated characterization and brightly clean artwork. VizBig's larger page size showcases Aihara's expressive line work to good advantage: she's particularly adept at inserting silent panels between major moments where you can see the characters processing what's just happened. Considering all the twists that occur in this addictive shojo series, you can't blame a girl like Hatsumi for needing an occasional moment's respite just to catch up.


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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