Happily ever after for everyone! – beta couples in shojo manga

Happily ever after for everyone! – beta couples in shojo manga

One of the most common elements of shojo romantic-comedies is the presence of beta couples. Beta couples are secondary romantic relationships, which often serve as a contrast to the series’ main couple. Whether they’re the main character’s best friends or rival love interests who hook up after being rejected, the beta couple’s relationship is rarely developed or highlighted over the course of the series. I’ve found that the beta couple often is well established at the beginning of the series – they’re typically childhood sweethearts or they might get together right at the start of the manga – but either way, the fact that they’ve been together for so long make them great go-tos for relationship advice. They typically have little drama, and their presence in the series is typically used to contrast the main couple who struggles to get (or stay) together. And while beta couples may feel cliché (since the characters are often flat their relationships end up feeling just as boring, which was how I felt about the inclusion of Harumi and Tatsuya’s relationship in Mars), there are certainly interesting ones to be found. So I thought I’d take a look at a few examples.

When I think of beta couples, the first series that comes to mind is Marmalade Boy. Alongside Miki and Yuu, the series highlights the progressing romance between Miki’s best friend Meiko and her teacher/secret boyfriend Namura, as well as losing love interests Ginta and Arimi. Unlike many series, however, when Marmalade Boy begins focusing on Ginta’s new feelings for Arimi or Meiko’s heartache over her and Namura’s breakup, it doesn’t feel forced. This is because while most series will only start focusing on the protagonist’s best friends after the main couple has gotten together officially (such as Love*Com), Marmalade Boy does a great job of balancing all of it’s romantic storylines at the same time. I think another reason I like Marmalade Boy‘s beta couples better than most series is because I wasn’t particularly moved by Miki and Yuu’s romance. I didn’t care much for main character Miki, which would normally prevent me from getting extremely attached to a series. But because there were so many other characters and romantic pairings for me to choose from, the series stands out, and Ginta and Arimi became my favorite romance in the series.

Special A Akira and TadashiOther series have tried to balance the main couple’s romance while developing their friends’ romantic entanglements. One example is Special A, which not long after establishing Kei’s romantic feelings for protagonist Hikari also begins to develop Akira’s relationship with her longtime friend Tadashi, by showing that behind her constant punching of the goofy SA member lies romantic affection. Later, when Akira and Tadashi get together, fellow SA member Megumi asks out Yahiro, who is also in love with Akira, in order to prevent him from interfering with the new couple. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Megumi’s feelings to turn into real affection. But after finishing Special A, I was bothered a bit by the series falling into the trap of pairing almost all of it’s main cast with someone else. It’s extremely cliché, suggests that the only way a person can be happy is if they are in a romantic relationship, and is highly unrealistic. After all, how often does it happen that your entire group of friends happens to have a significant other?

Paradise Kiss Arashi and MiwakoThen there are the series that present their beta couples so uniquely it’s difficult to label them as such. The josei manga Paradise Kiss immediately presents childhood sweethearts Miwako and Arashi. At first, the two seem mismatched – he looks like a tough rocker and she’s a sweet lolita – but Yukari sees that the two go well together. However, over the course of the series the couple is shown facing their own problems when their former friend Hiroyuki Tokumori, who once had a crush on Miwako, comes back into the picture. But rather than being played for empty drama, the series shows that the couple’s problem isn’t rival love interests but rather Arashi’s jealousy, which was strong enough that it caused him to ask Miwako to cut off her friendship with Hiro. And unlike many other beta couples, whose relationships are stable enough that other characters constantly ask them for romantic advice, Miwako is often the one who turns to Yukari for advice or comfort when things get shaky between her and Arashi. Unlike so many beta couples, there are genuine emotions behind Arashi and Miwako’s relationship, which makes the inclusion of their story feel worthwhile.

Hana Yori Dango has two examples: Rui and his childhood crush Shizuka, and Tsukushi’s best friend Yuki’s crush on F4 member Sojiro. When Rui chose to follow Shizuka to France after she decided to become a lawyer, I thought she’d fall for him and their relationship would work out. But when Rui returns to Japan it’s clear that things weren’t working between the two of them, and I was somewhat surprised that the two of them never got back together. Even more surprising was that Yuki’s feelings for Sojiro also remain unrequited. Usually in manga when a girl has unrequited feelings for a guy but decides to pursue him anyway he will end up falling for her, even if he can’t stand her in the beginning of the series (like Naoki in Itazura na Kiss. Note also that there is a double standard: if a girl in shojo manga has a creepy suitor she will never give him the time of day). But Sojiro doesn’t change his mind about good-girl Yuki nor will he change his philandering ways – yet rather than feeling discouraged Yuki decides to appreciate her feelings for him, and the two become better friends. I liked that not all of the romantic pairings in Hana Yori Dango had happy endings, and that most of the cast remained single up to the series’ finale. And because there are so many manga that will take the same combination of characters (like pairing a cheerful girl with a grumpy guy) and develop several couples with those exact same archetypes, I really love when each of the couples presented in a series feel distinctly different from one another. It makes sense that beta couples work best when they’re presence isn’t forced into the storyline and include interesting characters – because rather than detracting from a story they add to it.

All I want for Christmas is you

All I want for Christmas is you

In the world of shojo manga, Christmas can only mean one thing: romance! Whether a couple goes on a special Christmas Eve date, or the heroine gets a glimpse of her crush at a Christmas party, high emotions are a given during the holiday season. Let’s see how Christmas is celebrated…

Kimi ni Todoke - ChristmasKimi ni Todoke style!

Our introverted heroine Sawako is invited to a Christmas party with her friends Yano and Chizu, as well as her crush Kazehaya. Yet just as Sawako tries to tell her parents about the party, they become emotional because Sawako was supposed to be born on Christmas, and she decides not to go. On Christmas Eve, Sawako’s dad mistakes a hat she knitted for Kazehaya as his Christmas gift. Yet not all hope is lost: when Kazehaya calls her from the party, Sawako’s parents realize she wants to be with her friends and give her their Christmas present: a cellphone. Sawako makes it to the party just as it’s ending, where she and Kazehaya exchange gifts.

Gifts exchanged: Kazehaya gives Sawako a pretty cellphone strap, a perfect present for her new phone. Sawako ends up giving Kazehaya her dad’s gift – a belly warmer! Even though Sawako is embarassed, Kazehaya is elated. After all, it’s the thought that counts.

  • Lovely Complex style!

Otani, in a mad rush to cram for his college entrance exams, begins seeing his girlfriend Risa less and less. When Risa’s coworker starts developing feelings for her, a jealous Otani breaks things off with Risa, who is left heartbroken. At a Christmas party with her coworkers, Risa realizes she can’t enjoy herself without Otani, and she decides to go to his house. But before she can get there she bumps into Otani, who also ran to see her because he can’t concentrate on his studies. The two make up, and celebrate with a Christmas kiss.

Gifts exchanged: Neither had time to shop for gifts, but Risa receives the best present she could have ever asked for – Otani tells her he loves her more than he could have ever realized. All together now: awwww.

  • Itazura na Kiss style!

Even though the Irie family is going to a fancy Christmas party at a hotel, Kotoko decides to spend Christmas with her two best friends, whose boyfriends are both busy on the day. But at the last minute both her friends cancel, and Kotoko is all alone on Christmas Eve. However, Kotoko’s crush Naoki happens to see Kotoko’s friend and realizes she must be home alone, and he returns to spend the holiday alone with her (with fried chicken and a cake).

Gifts exchanged: Kotoko gives Naoki a watch, but he doesn’t get her anything. That’s alright with her though – she got to spend Christmas with her beloved Naoki!

  • High School Debut style!

In her typical gung-ho attitude, Haruna decides to plan the perfect Christmas date with her new boyfriend Yoh. They go to Santa-land (which is full of kids) then to a Christmas fair (which is full of old people), but they still have fun all the same. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when they go to dinner: the staff, who are pissed about having to work on Christmas Eve, play a game with the customers to show whether they have kissed anyone or not. Haruna’s answer shows she hasn’t but Yoh’s shows that he has, and Haruna runs away, embarassed. But when Yoh catches up to her they kiss, and he promises never to kiss another girl again.

Gifts exchanged: Haruna gives Yoh a wallet she spotted him eyeing, while Yoh gives Haruna a scarf because she’s always running around in the cold with clothes that are too thin. Both gifts are extremely considerate, but I have to say Haruna was probably happier with the kiss, considering the fact that she could barely look at or speak to Yoh without freaking out and blushing afterwards.

Gakuen Alice - Christmas partyGakuen Alice style!

As in many other shojo manga, Alice Academy hosts a Christmas party where the girls where cute Santa costumes. Mikan tries to make Yoichi, a little boy close to class-troublemaker Natsume, happy by having Bear (who can walk and gets quite grumpy) play with him. Luka, Natsume’s best friend, thanks Mikan for making Yoichi happy by kissing her on the cheek. At first Mikan is shocked but that doesn’t last for long: when she and Natsume dance they end up falling and accidentally kissing each other in front of the whole school! Mikan freaks out and leaves the party, only to end up arguing with Natsume that it wasn’t a ‘real kiss’ by saying their lips barely touched. Natsume puts an end to the argument by kissing her for real, and the Christmas party comes to an end.

Gifts exchanged: Three kisses. I’m starting to sense a theme here…

Christmas in Japan may be more about romance than the typically family-oriented holiday is here in the west, but the true spirit of Christmas is still retained. As these shojo Christmas stories show, it’s not what you get for Christmas that matters most – it’s who you spend it with.

What makes a good couple?

What makes a good couple?

I love a good love story. I find watching the struggles of two people come together to be more exciting than any action-adventure story or fantasy setting could ever be. But just what is it that makes a good love story, and even more importantly, a good couple? There are literally hundreds of romance manga, yet only a handful of couples have carved a place in my heart as my favorites. After thinking about it, I came up with several elements all that are present in all of the love stories I’ve enjoyed most, so I thought I’d share them with you guys.

Interesting characters: No matter how great a love story may be, if either of the characters in a relationship with each other are boring or unmemorable, I won’t feel the need to care about them. Take Hana-Kimi, for example: I never found myself particularly attached to either Mizuki, who is a cherrful-yet-typical shojo heroine, or Sano, who is pretty-yet-dull, and thus they never stood out to me in comparison to other manga couples. Even if one character is unique, if the other character is flat or outright annoying it makes it impossible for me to have strong feelings towards a couple, such as in The Devil Does Exist, which features a pretty intriguing male lead in Takeru but a disappointingly dense heroine in Kayano. This is probably why my favorite couples also consist of my favorite characters, particularly Kodocha‘s Sana and Akito.

I like fun, teasing couples like Dengeki Daisy’s Teru and Kurosaki.

The power balance is equal: There are too many series that glorify romantic pairings in which the woman is in a subservient position. While I probably don’t even need to mention magical-girlfriend/harem series such as He is My Master, a (sadly high) number of shojo series feature relationships in which passive girls are dating guys who hold power over them – which they use to the fullest extent. In Black Bird, Kyo’s often cruel treatment of girl-next-door Misao is treated as ‘romantic’ because he is her protector, while in Hot Gimmick Hatsumi is blackmailed by her jerky neighbor Ryoki, which eventually turns into ‘true love,’ warts and all. Dengeki Daisy offers an interesting case: although Kurosaki is Teru’s protector and a few years older than her, the worst he ever does is tease her, while Teru’s brighter and spunkier than either Misao and Hatsumi could ever hope to be. Thus, they feel more like equals than many other manga couples, and this has helped me latch onto the couple as one of my most recent favorites. But it’s not just the power balance that’s important: both characters also need to feel equally in love with each other. In Itazura na Kiss, Kotoko spent six years pining after Naoki Irie before he confessed his love. The two married shortly after, but Naoki still rarely showed his affection for Kotoko, often putting his work ahead of her and being just generally indifferent to celebrating anniversaries and going on dates. Even though it’s obvious that he does love her, it’s hard for me to love Naoki and Kotoko as a couple as much as I love their love story because their relationship feels so imbalanced.

They’re comfortable around each other: Over at Beneath the Tangles, TWWK wrote a great post on the myth of chemistry. As TWWK writes, if Kimi ni Todoke‘s Sawako and Kazehaya were a couple in real life, many people would say that they ‘don’t have chemistry’ because they are always blushing and awkward around each other. The post goes on to say that chemistry is unimportant because finding out more about the other person is more important than focusing on your own feelings. However, I have to wonder: isn’t being nervous around someone the opposite of getting to know them better? Getting to know more about the other person should allow both individuals involved to be more comfortable not only in their relationship, but in showing their true selves.  All of the couples I love in anime and manga bicker with each other, and while on the surface that may seem dysfunctional, it actually shows how close they are that they’re confident that an argument won’t tear them apart – and confident that they know the other person well enough to call them out on their crap. I appreciate how unique Sawako and Kazehaya are as a shojo couple – he’s not the stereotypical bad boy and both of them are adorable together – but they’re missing that ‘spark’ that I need to completely fall for a couple, and thus I think I admire how different they are more than I actually like them.

We actually see them fall in love: I cannot stress enough how important this is.  The most important factor in determining my feelings towards a couple is that I understand their reasons for falling for one another. Thus, I tend not to care much for shojo series where the girl has feelings for her boyfriend-to-be prior to the series start. This is not only because I enjoy watching the process of characters falling for one another, but also because the backstory of why the girl fell for the guy tends to be pretty shallow (e.g, he lent her a handkerchief while flashing a dazzling smile)., and don’t convince me that the couple was meant to be together. But it’s not just important for me to know why a couple loves each other: it needs to actually be shown. One of the problems I had with Marmalade Boy‘s Miki and Yuu was that Yuu’s reasons for liking Miki were told instead of shown. He tells her that he loves her because she’s honest, which to me seems like a very vague reason to fall for someone because it could easily be applied to another girl in the series who had a crush on him. Thus, we need to see the ‘chase’ as the relationship unfolds: how the characters met; the struggles they went through to realize they’re in love with each other, in order to fully share the couple’s joy once they finally get together.

Kodocha’s Akito and Sana

And then they build a relationship: Several anime bloggers have pointed out that a flaw of romance anime is that they often focus solely on the drama before two characters get together. Many fans believe that very few series highlight the main couple maintaining their relationship, but actually I’d argue that there are many shojo series that do (His and Her Circumstances, Sand Chronicles, Mars, and Love*Com are several examples among many others). It can be kind of unsatisfying to see a couple you like confess and kiss at the very end of the series, without ever getting to see them be happy together. This type of ending often leaves me wondering: what kind of couple will these characters be like together? What separates couple A in series A from couple B in series B is their dynamic with one another, and I feel this is best shown once the characters are dating. Of course, there is some truth to the opinion that the ‘before’ is more interesting because the characters’ are faced with odds that prevent them from being together, and because once the couple has gotten together there aren’t many storylines left. But I think seeing a couple build on their relationship to become closer to each other and watching them resolve problems that young couples naturally face (going to different colleges, etc.) can be interesting if it’s done well. Thus, most of my favorite couples are from series that highlight both the before and after: we get to see them meet and slowly fall in love, then they eventually together and we are allowed to truly get to know and feel for them by seeing how they’ll make their relationship work. Both Akito and Sana from Kodocha and Tsukushi and Tsukasa from Boys Over Flowers go through each of these stages, and that is why they are my favorite couples in anime and manga.

There are many reasons why the audience might love one couple over another. What is romantic is subjective, and in terms of manga at least, readers may all be looking for different things. While some people prefer romances that are written as though they could happen in real-life, others prefer fantasies that some would label ‘dangerous.’ For those of you who have couples you love: what is it about those couples that makes them stand out above the rest? And what do you feel is the most important factor in being engrossed by a romance? Share your thoughts, guys!