Years ago, I remember reading several positive reviews of the classic 15 volume shojo manga Mars, by Fuyumi Soryo. Anime Insider and Animerica each commended the series’ tackling of serious issues such as rape, suicide, and psychological trauma, setting it apart from most conventional shojo series. Although the manga is currently out of print and no longer the most relevant series around, after finishing the classic shojo manga Boys Over Flowers, I decided to read Mars to see what I was missing. From the moment I finished it, I knew I wanted to write about the series. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the manga, there are several spoilers in this review, so read with caution.
While Mars may stand apart from most shojo due to its dark tone, at first glance, it seems like your typical boy-meets-girl series. The series starts when shy artist Kira Aso meets Rei Kashino, a playboy motorcyclist. Although initially leery of Rei’s bad-boy ways, Kira soon finds herself attracted to him. And although the two get together fairly quickly, Kira and Rei are far from their happily-ever-after, as lingering secrets from their pasts soon begin to haunt their relationship. Rei slowly remembers repressed memories of his childhood – his mother’s death, and the suicide of his twin brother Sei. The fact that Rei rides motorcycles isn’t just to add to his bad boy appeal, but rather, to show his dark side – his wild riding style is more than just a sign of his recklessly violent nature, but also reveals he’s more than just unafraid of death – he’s obsessed with it. But in meeting Kira, Rei is forced to contend with his inner demons – demons that Kira can see as well.
The series takes many twists, all in a melodramatic fashion that would rival any daytime soap opera. But the highlight of this series for me comes in at volume eight, when Rei finds out that Kira had been raped by her stepfather before she had met Rei. I love the way it is revealed to the audience: Rei begins to become suspicious about Kira’s reluctance to consummate their relationship when she screams every time he tries to get close to her. He questions Tatsuya, his best friend who also went to junior high with Kira, about Kira’s fear of men, and learns that she was more cheerful in seventh grade but seemed disgusted by men when she entered the ninth grade. When Kira comes to visit him one day, Rei grabs Kira by the wrist, throws her on the bed and tells her to do as he says, triggering memories of her stepfather. This turns out to be an act, and when she breaks down into tears, Rei consoles her, and calmly asks who raped her. The scene is realized beautifully, and is probably my favorite of the entire manga.
The revelation of Kira’s past also made me compare her to other shojo protagonists. While most shojo feature intriguing male love interests, it’s rare for the female to have a tragic past as well. Many shojo heroines don’t have a defined past because they are simple and average; thus there’s nothing interesting to learn about them. And personality-wise, where most shojo heroines are cheerful and dense, Kira is introverted to a point far beyond having no close friends: the trauma of her rape causes her to ‘kill’ the people she dislikes in her head. In meeting Rei, Kira begins to deal with her traumas as she learns what it is to be truly loved for the first time. Thus, the series is just as much about Kira coming out of her shell as it is about the love between Kira and Rei.
There is another reason I feel like I should give praise to Kira’s character: her passion for art. While most shojo heroines have no real interests apart from love, Kira actually has a goal she’s striving toward in life. I find it funny that I’m praising her character so much because I don’t exactly like her – there are other shojo heroines who I like much better than her like Sana in Kodocha, or who I find to be much stronger than her like Tsukushi in Boys Over Flowers, while Kira definitely has her moments of weakness. But I think the fact that she’s so ‘dark’ easily sets her apart from the crowd, and thus I have respect for her character as a step away from the standard shojo protagonist.
Yet while I appreciate Kira’s dark side, the overall tone of the series itself began to wear on me. After finishing Mars, I finally began to realize the problem that had been nagging me: the series is excessively violent. In volume two alone, Rei beats up Kurasawa, an artist and classmate of Kira’s who steals one of her artworks as his own and wins an award for the painting. Then Kurasawa hires some guys to beat up in retaliation, who proceed to tie up Rei and beat him. Instead, Rei bites one of his attackers, and beats them up. After this quickly forgotten incident, Rei and Kira coincidentally come across not one, but two attempted suicides (one which was successful; the other involving Kurasawa). And let me repeat, this is all within one volume of the series. What kind of town are these characters living in, anyway?
I do understand that violence is a major theme explored within the series, and that this is supposed to justify the numerous occurrences of brutal incidents. For example, the scene of Rei witnessing a suicide and having a panic attack afterwards was essential because it triggered the memories of his twin brother Sei’s suicide. Mars also addresses critical questions about the role of violence in human nature. A key character who raises these questions is Masao Kirishima, a student who Rei arbitrarily saved from being beaten up before he and Kira met. Masao idolizes the violent Rei, and despises how much he has changed through meeting Kira. He believes that killing is a very human act that has only recently been looked down upon by society, and holds no remorse in killing best friend and tormentor Yuji Aoki. Masao holds a mirror to Kira and Rei, and makes them question their own morality and violent natures. Of all the side characters in Mars, Masao stands out the most, because he’s one of the least sympathetic and coldest characters I’ve ever encountered in a manga. (Although I do question Soryo’s reasoning for making Masao, the least mentally and emotionally stable character in the series, the only gay character in the main cast).
Even with these justifications, I still find the level of violence within the series to be unnecessary. What bothers me most is how many times something drastically cruel happens, and two pages later, everything is back to normal. In one scene in volume six, Kira is pushed when she is trying to stop three guys from shooting an arrow at a cat. Rei arrives, and a fight quickly escalates. When one of the antagonists pulls out a knife, instead of being afraid, Rei grabs the knife and slashes his attacker’s hands, telling him his knife “cuts like shit.” Rei then threatens to cut off the nose of one of the other attackers, but stops when Kira begs him to. After this, Rei and Kira discuss where they are going for their next date. ‘Cause that’s what you do when you’ve almost killed someone. And although Rei’s violence is never once directed towards Kira, his emotional issues run deep enough to question if Kira is really better off being with Rei. Even though Kira’s inner monologue shows that she is bothered by how brutal he can be, she never confronts him about it. Not once, despite how many times she sees the level of cruelty he’s capable of. Yet while she ultimately decides that she is able to overlook Rei’s dark side because of how kind he can be towards her, I have a much harder time in doing so. So even though the back cover of each volume of Mars describes the series as an ‘epic romance,’ it’s sometimes hard for me to feel like the series is romantic when it can be so unflinchingly vicious. I’ve never seen anyone criticize these elements in Mars, which is why I decided to write this.
And yet, despite all this, there are still genuinely sweet moments within the series. In a scene in volume three, Rei tells Kira that he never used to be afraid of anything, but that he’s now scared of falling when Kira’s riding with him. You can feel their overwhelming love for one another, and their happiness makes me smile. When Kira and Rei end up married, it’s amazing to see all they’ve overcome, both in their relationship and as individuals. I do like the ending, although I do have issues with Masao stabbing Rei because it ends up being pointless – Rei lives, is still able to become a professional motorcycle racer, and the fact that Masao isn’t even punished for it because he’s a minor is just frustrating. Yet, the conclusion is ultimately rewarding because it is clear that Kira and Rei have become better people from being with one another, and I enjoy seeing them happy with one another.
So where do I stand with Mars? It’s not my favorite series. It’s one of the most melodramatic series I’ve read, yet isn’t as personally addictive as Boys Over Flowers simply because I liked the characters in that series more. And while I respect how unique Mars was when it first came to America, when most of the shojo series available were magical girl series such as Sailor Moon or fantasies like Fushigi Yugi, I do think that better shojo dramas have come since then. But I don’t dislike this series at all – when glancing over my bookshelf, it’s not one of the series I glare at, like my (unfinished) set of the mediocre B.O.D.Y series. Even though its execution is sometimes lacking, Mars really stands out. More than for the characters or plot, Mars is worth reading for the experience.