I struggled with a way to approach this review for Otome no Teikoku vol. 5, (オトメの帝国 5) which stands at the halfway mark of the currently published volumes. In many ways the merits and flaws closely align with the things I already said about volume 4, which suggests the series has found a groove (or a rut, depending on your perspective). There’s quite a lot of service this time – a fetishistic amount of panties and bras. But on the plus side, Kishi-sensei’s growing comfort with and grasp of his characters is also evident here. The chapters are longer and more focused, and they incorporate and transition between more characters. Really the hallmark of this volume is the way it kicks some of the serialized elements up, especially the Shizuka and Kaoru storyline. I can’t say many of the chapters grabbed me exactly the way the best ones did in vol. 3, but I’d like to somewhat return to that review’s gimmick anyway and give you the highlights:
Chie’s Birthday – Ai and Chie’s storyline this time is a very sweet three-parter about Chie’s upcoming birthday. Ai asks Chie what she wants, and after a bit of joking she says she wants a pinky ring. Ai is worried about picking one that Chie will like, feeling she has no taste for such things, but Chie assures her that whatever Ai chooses will be perfect because it’s from her. Next, we see Ai struggling while shopping for the gift, and reminiscing through her photos for inspiration. She finally decides on one, but has second thoughts when she passes another jewelry store.
The big day is Ai x Chie overload, filled with wonderful character touches. At school, a joyful Chie gets her present from Ayano and Miyoshi, a funny card, and sets up her celebratory karaoke date with Ai for later. When they get there, Chie wants singing and the whole nine yards, but a nervous Ai just wants to give her the gift. As it turns out, she bought a whole bunch of rings because she couldn’t decide on one. She feels bad about it and says Chie should just pick one and get rid of the rest, but Chie is moved and overjoyed at how much thought Ai put into it. The highlight of the chapter is when she makes Ai put one on her finger, and blurts out “I do!” when it happens.
The Pocky Game – Ayano and Miyoshi by far get the most presence this volume, mostly playing silly service games or talking about weird factoids and trivia. To this point the series has been coy about their relationship, not being entirely clear on whether they are just friends or whether one or both of them is interested in something more. Kishi-sensei is also the master of slow-burn relationship progression, doling out each bit of physical advancement for the pairs with cunning patience – a holding of hands here, a kiss on the cheek there… Ayano and Miyoshi get a bigger moment this time, and it’s funny and sweet, but what does it mean if anything? We’ll see.
Ayano is eating some Pocky in class, and Miyoshi wants some and suggests they play “the game where you eat from both ends.” Miyoshi misunderstands the game, thinking the point was to break the stick and get the longer piece. Ayano explains that you are supposed to eat slowly and the first one who gets nervous about kissing and breaks away loses. They try again, getting closer and closer… then Miyoshi gets impatient and finishes the stick by glomping onto Ayano’s face. They discuss whether or not that counted as their first kiss. Miyoshi is, as usual, oblivious, but Ayano is much more affected by their “kiss” and a little ticked that Miyoshi doesn’t care more about it.
Honoka & Alicia’s Christmas, pt. 2 – Honoka and Alicia both pop up a bit in the other stories, but their only major chapter together is the conclusion of the Christmas story started last volume. I think it’s notable for one main reason – the presence of Ed and Ian, the gay couple that are Alicia’s host family. As I was reading this again, I thought back to the earlier review here of Otouto no Otto. One of the important ways that we make progress in increasing understanding and tolerance of LGBT people is by increasing representation and exposure for people who otherwise might have little or no contact with out gay people. Otome no Teikoku ran/runs in Business Jump and then Grand Jump. I have little understanding of the nuances between the various comic anthologies, but it would appear these are targeted at average adult male consumers. And while these average adult males may enjoy a bit of schoolgirl lesbianism, they probably don’t consume a lot of media featuring gay male couples.
While Ed and Ian will probably never be forefront characters, they are the first male characters to be given any kind of “screen time.” And while their main purpose now is to bond Honoka and Alicia, they are given space to express their interests (they really like Honoka’s manga, for different reasons) and feelings for each other and avoid any easy caricature of gay men. The meat of the chapter is series standard – Alicia showing off her Santa underwear, a funny gift exchange – but I like Ed and Ian.
The Extras – In fact, weirdly enough, when you really think about it this series depicts way more gay male physicality (in the form of our ongoing glimpses at Honoka’s manga) than female. Chapters 65 on in this volume each conclude with a single page of a Honoka and Alicia original work featuring Hideyoshi and Rikyuu, uh, “meeting” the Earl of Sandwich. They’re pretty spectacular. ><;
Kaoru & Shizuka – Things really start to heat up in this plotline. Shizuka catches Kaoru reeling in another kohai and chastises her a bit for it. We find out they used to go out and broke up because of Kaoru’s playgirl ways. Kaoru deflects now, but we see that this breakup was her previously referenced emo trauma from age 16. Kaoru is definitely working in some misguided ways to try to get Shizuka back, but Shizuka reaffirms to herself that she won’t go back to Kaoru because she loves Mio now. Later, Kaoru flirts with Shizuka at swim class. She’s frail though and passes out from the heat. During class she’s holding on to Shizuka in the water for support. She takes the opportunity to aggressively go after Shizuka. She believes Shizuka’s strong emotions for her ultimately amount to love, and that Mio is only a substitute for her. What does Shizuka really feel for Kaoru and Mio?
The Reunion – Role reversal can often be an enjoyable tack for a story. We get a glimpse at less-obvious sides of characters, a chance to see them working outside of their comfort zone. That’s the case with the short but sweet Yuu and Mari chapter this time. Mari has an upcoming reunion she tells Yuu about. Sensing Yuu’s jealousy, it’s Mari’s turn to power play and coyly force Yuu into admitting she doesn’t want Mari to go and wants to be with her instead. Even though Yuu is being immature, it’s a nice reminder that she really does care for Mari. You sense Mari doesn’t care whether she goes to a middle school reunion or not. It means more to her to fluster Yuu into admitting how much she wants to be with her.
What Else is Going On?
The debate club has a chapter that I found a little uncomfortable. The three kohai discover that Nononon is ticklish and gang up on her. Now, there’s no sense that they are being malicious or that Nononon is upset about it or angry with them for doing it. But it’s very servicey, drawn with an unusually excessive amount of panty shots, bra glimpses, and skin. And the angles chosen really emphasize the “non-consent light” nature of the scenario as the girls hold her down and tickle her. Certainly adults can have those kinds of fantasies, but this wasn’t about what Nononon wanted, it was for the reader-voyeurs. Maybe I just felt this way because I am ticklish too and would hate that to happen to me?
Other than that we get our usual assortment of Mahi-Mahi weirdness, Michiru and Airi taking funny photos, Nao indulging herself, and Onoda being lonely and uptight. Finally, a new character is introduced. Midori is the most junior member of the manga research club. A tiny, nerdy firecracker, she also draws BL but (as we see) is not nearly as talented as Honoka.
Art – 9
Story – 7
Characters – 7
Yuri – 7
Service – 8
Overall – 7