You never forget your first. Manga, that is. My introduction to the art form was Sailor Moon in all its shoujo glory, and as a teen and young adult, I consumed the story and artwork with glee. Many manga readers do get their start with shoujo and shounen manga, which are aimed towards younger audiences, and eventually work their way up to josei and seinen stories.
Josei manga is expressly marketed to young women (and seinen its male counterpart), with less focus on the idealistic “pure love” featured in shoujo manga. If there is romance, it skews towards realism and tends to be more sexually explicit than shoujo. Twenty-something women and men are the stars of josei manga, and more often than not, their romantic foibles drive the story, as it does in Setona Mizushiro’s ongoing manga Shitsuren Chocolatier (Heartbroken Chocolatier).
Titular chocolatier Souta Koyurugi has loved Saeko Takahashi since he was a fifteen-year-old first year in high school. She dates everyone but Souta, however, and still he sticks around, waiting for his chance through high school and college. Eventually, Saeko agrees to go out with him on Christmas Eve, but the relationship, such as it is, ends on February 15, as she’s made up with her ex-boyfriend. The rejection drives Souta to Paris and L’atelier de Bonheur (Saeko’s favourite chocolate shop) where he throws himself into the art of chocolate-making.
If I were to be reborn, I would like to be one of her red blood cells, bobbing up and down and pulsating underneath that milk-white skin, traveling to every nook and cranny.
Shitsuren Chocolatier, Volume 1
The live-action adaptation premiered in January 2014, with Jun Matsumoto as heartbroken Souta and Satomi Ishihara as Saeko. Neither actor is a stranger to josei adaptations: both acted in the 2003 drama Kimi wa Petto. As someone who’s seen both dramas, I found that the eleven years between Petto and Chocolatier afforded Matsumoto and Ishihara with experience enough to portray these polarizing characters without reducing them to stereotypes.
(Warning: spoilers for the drama series below!)
It is laughably easy to side with specific characters at first. Souta is a talented, rational man in everything but his love for Saeko, and model Erena Kato (Kiko Mizuhara) is a charming, sweet-natured woman. Fellow chef Kaoruko Inoue (Asami Mizukawa) seems to speak for the audience, as her unrequited love for Souta is as understandable as her distaste for Saeko’s mercurial attitude. Hating Saeko comes naturally, even though the audience sees her through Souta’s love-drunk eyes. The drama frames his desire for her as the sympathetic narrative, encouraging the audience to pity Souta and detest Saeko for playing with his feelings.
Like Summer, she of the 500 Days, and Clementine of Spotless Mind, Saeko is a manic pixie dream girl construction in Souta’s mind, girlish and flirty and sweet. Souta likens her to a fairy, enchanting him to distraction before abruptly pulling away. He spends six years training to be a chocolatier to win her over, only to find that she’s engaged when he returns to Japan. When asked, she talks about her marriage as a logical next step, like the only path she’s meant to follow. Satomi Ishihara is almost unbearably perky, her performance sharp enough to show Saeko’s fear of being disliked or abandoned, and what she will do to make sure it never happens. Souta’s vision of her is almost always tied to her role as a housewife and to the inspiration she provides him, but never Saeko as a real person.
“He loves her so much, and she can’t see how good he would be for her,” the drama seems to insist through most of the episodes. With the exception of Erena and Kaoruko, every character supports Souta. The drama reminds the audience that Saeko is his inspiration for creating chocolates, the driving force behind his ambitions to be a successful chocolatier. Because that’s love, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be unfair to ask Souta to give her up? But even as Souta lists down Saeko’s favourite chocolates, and spends sleepless nights concocting new ideas, he doesn’t see her fears.
Souta’s single-mindedness is particularly bittersweet for Erena Kato, whose friendship-with-benefits he welcomes and later abandons. She is breezy and light in a different way, and it’s clear from their first meeting that she and Souta share a connection. She is independent and practical, a foil for reliant Saeko if there ever was one. Souta comments on her strength several times, with clear admiration for Erena’s confidence.
Aren’t you idolizing Saeko too much? Is it okay for you to keep seeing her as a fairy? Or are you going to make your resolution and see her as a real woman?
Shitsuren Chocolatier, episode 2
Only eight volumes of the manga had been published by the time the drama began, with a ninth and final volume announced in May 2014, and there has been no confirmation from Setona Mizushiro that the ending of the drama would be true to its source. That said, the drama still felt more realistic than the eight currently circulating volumes because it brought up the consequences of Souta’s actions.
He loses Erena, because she recognizes his cowardice and inability to walk away from Saeko. He loses Saeko, because she chooses to return to her husband and the kind of life she wants for herself. Souta’s dependence on Saeko drives both women away from him. As a shipper, however, this ending was so much more upsetting than I thought it would be. I wanted so badly for Souta to have realized that Erena would not be just a muse, but a companion. It was great that she realized he was incapable of really loving her when he couldn’t let go of Saeko, and I loved that she was brave enough to make the harder choice. It wasn’t about hating Saeko — Erena knew that she deserved someone who could love her with his entire self.
At its core, Shitsuren Chocolatier isn’t about love and a happy ending. Instead it considers what the idea of love does to us, a quintessential josei theme. It asks the audience to consider the way we perceive infatuation versus love. The lightning spark of inspiration that Saeko brings to Souta’s work is only equal to the despair Souta feels as he is rejected over and over again.
“Since I lost you, I became empty,” he tells Saeko in their final meeting. He shapes his life to be someone she would want, and in doing so, failed to see himself as a real person. Japanese culture values group interaction and social acceptance, but it also prizes individuality and a strong sense of self. Souta loses that sense of self when he ends things with Saeko. So he leaves for Paris once more, to learn to be by himself and find another goal to work towards.
Again, it isn’t the ending I would have wanted, but I’m equally glad that the writers did not force the idea of Saeko and Souta. Neither of them really understood the other, and a relationship based on nothing but impossible expectations would never have worked out. Souta realizes the extent of his self-destructiveness and chooses to leave, which is the right thing for him to do. It’s not very poetic or imaginative or romantic, but life often isn’t, and after eleven episodes of thinking about heartbreak, a dose of realism might just be what a viewer needs.