Monday, September 12, 2016

High School Angst: Why Only the Ringer Finger Knows Doesn't Bug Me So Much

High school high-jinks plus angst are common topics in manga. My favorite--possibly because it is so comparatively free of angst--is Hana-Kimi. There are the usual misunderstandings, arguments, and cross-dressings. Alongside it all, Hisaya Nakago captures everyday teenage conversation/arguments to a T.

Only the Ring Finger Knows is another favorite. It is a yaoi series comprised of a single manga volume plus four follow-up novels. The main characters, Yuichi Kuzuki and Wataru Fujii, begin their relationship as a senior and junior in high school. The novels end with the end of Wataru's senior year (in a later post, I'll discuss what I think would happen next).

If the manga and novels teach the reader anything, it is that Japanese seniors endure an enormous level of stress as they prepare for exams. This stress is accepted by the culture at large, even anticipated. Seniors are told not to take on outside work, not to risk getting ill, not to fuss about family obligations. They are less like American students preparing for SATs, more like graduate students preparing dissertations or prepping "to ace the GMAT, MCAT, GRE and LSAT"--at least, that is the level of importance. A great deal of the plot in Only the Ring Finger Knows centers around Wataru getting through his exams.

Like with many high school manga, there is a love triangle (*sigh*). I usually find love triangles dull and exasperating. What makes the angst-y triangle of Only the Ring Finger Knows so fascinating is that it doesn't pose the temptation of love but rather the temptation of confession.

As is customary for the manga triangle trope, the interfering outsider does not pursue the tall, handsome, and sarcastic honor student, Kuzuki, but rather the adorable optimist or "black-eyed brat," Wataru. Wataru is pursued by a college student, Masanobu; the psychology involved is impressive for a teen novel.

Masanobu takes on the role of confidant to Wataru, who initially doesn't understand why confessing his relationship difficulties to this slightly older young man is a problem. Because he doesn't perceive Masanobu as a potential lover, he guilelessly doesn't perceive that confiding personal information to an outsider could create a rift between him and his boyfriend.

This is a surprisingly relevant temptation in a world where an online friendship with its well-crafted exchange of confessions can appear more understanding and intimate than the everyday ups and downs of a physical, face-to-face relationship. Wataru undergoes an Austen-like revelation when he realizes that making such easy confessions to someone else bothers Kazuki because it keeps Wataru from working through problems with Kazuki.

The problem is complicated by Masanobu misreading Wataru's character. In his eyes, the sweet-tempered,
guileless, kind Wataru should be coddled, gently advised, and helped along. He should never suffer or worry or get told bad news. But Wataru--who is portrayed with great perceptiveness as a strong-willed, quiet gamer--doesn't want to be coddled just as high-handed Kuzuki doesn't want to date someone who won't tell him to cut it out when he's being a jerk.

More than anything, Masanobu represents the potentially destructive power not of a domineering so-called alpha but of a "kind" person; niceness proves inherently problematic (possibly only an issue that a nation of introverts fully appreciates). He is the ultimate romantic: every day is about recreating the "honeymoon" period, not handling the tough stuff as when Wataru tells Kuzuki to go see a sick friend in New York during Wataru's exams because, after all, "You can't take the exams with me, and you'll regret it if you don't go."

The novel series ends (*spoilers*) on a surprisingly mature note. Rather than decide to live together because they love each other so much, Wataru and Kuzuki decide to continue their relationship but remain in their current living situations and focus on their studies; frankly, they aren't ready to take such a big step.

Romance that overlooks all flaws and pretends that nothing can go wrong and insists on maintaining everything in its perfect state is rejected in favor of romance that deals with life as it comes--enjoy the moment, take a breather, hardships will follow. But hey, so will another moment.