Duet of Beautiful Goddesses, volumes 1 & 2
Manga Sunday Web for Jitsugyo no Nihon Sha., translated by Unknown (read right to left)
Duet of Beautiful Goddesses is an interesting comic. It’s a manga, cartooned by Yumi Hanakoji, about the lifestyle malaise of two young but adult women, and a natural assumption could be that it’s going to be an easy pick for a Josei fan. But, as one begins reading, the immediate impression is that of a slightly older Seinen manga. There’s an emotional dullness, a muted sense of feeling despite seismic changes in characters feelings and lives, that squares perfectly with work coming from Ryoichi Ikegami, Takao Saito, Buronson, or their like. As an English-language reader it feels very unusual to encounter a story by a woman and about women, engaging honestly with feminine fears and worries and taking this flatter tone. It’s certainly no bad thing; the atmosphere allows for a form of catharsis minus the threat of emotional exhaustion translated Josei (or more traditionally focused Seinen) commonly carries. Duet of Beautiful Goddesses is about grappling with desire whilst being an object of desire—at least, its two protagonists wander in confusion at their own responses to men. One physically represses, one physically expresses, neither philosophise overmuch but rather look on in wonder at their own ingrained behaviours, whilst those men about them—every single man about them—treats them as a sexual goal.
The premise is your classic rich/poor doppelgänger swap. Dark haired, poor Akane is about to jump in front of a train when light haired, married-rich Reika happens to pass across the same bridge. Reika hears that Akane is sad because she’s poor and immediately decides they should swap lives. She wants the “freedom” of the poor, and Akane wants money—Reika’s lifestyle is extremely expensive; therefore Reika surmises Akane will be happy in it. In short order Akane has agreed to the plan. Then Reika mentions her husband—but he “can’t have sex,” so Akane won’t be troubled by him. Akane dubiously continues with their bargain; of course, her alternative was a life so miserable she’d embraced suicide. The girls skip off to their new double lives.
What Reika hasn’t explained is that her husband has a chest full of huge and knobbly dildos that he expects (but does not demand) to use on her every night; she’s in the habit of sleeping with his younger brother by the outdoor pool at midnight; their other brother has a sexual fixation on her that he fulfils by spying on her regular masturbation; both of those brothers live in their same house—which she isn’t allowed to leave alone—or that Reika (and now Akane) is identical to these three men’s long-dead mother. So now Akane is trapped in a house full of perverts where every member of the help is dedicated to spying on her and keeping her “home.” Questions: What good is money if someone else has to take you out and spend it for you? Is it beneath you to dress up like someone’s mother to try to get him to give you pocket money? And is it wrong to have feelings for your fake husband’s middle brother, even if you don’t know he has a peep hole that looks into your bedroom?
Reika’s idea of freedom is, for the most part, also sexual. She wants to be able to stroll down the street, meet a gravure photographer, take a picnic titty feature shoot there and then, and suck him off when she gets over-excited. She wants to be able to become the happy-go-lucky hostess at a run-down cafe-bar and cheer up the depressed, dumped clients by going home with them and having sex with them. She doesn’t want to be told to pretend it never happened when they get back with their girlfriends, and she doesn’t want to be snowballed into hotel sex work by a lunch-break husband who expected her to just understand what he meant when he offered her money to go to his room.
Reika is an unusual character, who the reader probably hasn’t been trained to immediately understand. Her backstory is unstated for at least the first two volumes, but her behaviour implies it’s excessively coddled—for example, she thinks a bath is “broken” when she encounters one empty of water. Beyond this though, Reika lacks the expected perspective of both “a normal woman” and the “sexy baby” type of female character recognisable from straight men’s erotica she technically embodies. The list of norms Reika doesn’t comprehend is vast, she eats only (only!) cakes, and her lack of intellectual projection regarding how pleased Akane will or won’t be to swap into her life of stultifying, controlled “wealth” would be infuriating on any other character I can recall ever having read. She can understand things when they are asserted or confidently explained, but her lack of curiosity about how, to reuse those examples, a bath gets filled or the water heated, or what sort of job an office worker could give her in a hotel room at lunchtime is, I believe, a purposeful choice by Hanakoji—it’s critical creativity. Reika is “an airhead” and absolutely unthreatening; she needs help and asks men for it; she is sexually accessible; she is cute. But her agency and her extant desire are both decidedly present in the text—Hanakoji challenges the reader to believe that the Sexy Baby is a real person, not a sexual performance, and disallows the idea that this person would have no ability or inclination to say no, or have reduced expectations of dignity in any way at all. Through Reika, Hanakoji disallows the dehumanisation of a dehumanising trope.
Reika doesn’t understand exchanging money for sex, which might be the book’s one stumbling block on the sex positivity graph. “You’ll have sex … for free?” the philandering businessman asks, amazed. She says she will, of course, but only if she wants to. And this time, she doesn’t want to. Their misunderstanding is “cleared up” when Reika’s photographer friend calls her and the would-be client thinks she’s part of a seduction/violence/thievery ring, and on his way out she gives this howling wolf some advice about how, if he helped her with the baby sometimes, his wife wouldn’t be too tired to “prepare [her] mind and body for sex,” by, for example, moisturising. And then, if she felt comfortable in her body and erotically prepared, it would be much more likely that this wife of his would want to have sex with him. It strikes the businessman that Reika’s right, and he smiles the smallest, epiphanic smile.
Nothing in this comic ever really turns out badly—no harm is presented as additionally offensive, and the destructive trauma of being “owned” by one’s husband, for example, is set aside in favour of narrative focus on the necessity of escape and self-fulfilment. When Reika sleeps with an older, run-down, sad, drunken barfly because she wants to, he’s not drawn as a disgusting man, or to any great degree a negative sexual prospect. The judgement of generalised society—that she’s out of his league—isn’t taken out of the context of the scene, but it’s not forcefully impressed upon it either. His face is outlined with fondness, his body isn’t mocked or discounted. Nothing about the scene degrades Reika, or undermines her choice to have sex with this person. It’s made clear that she enjoys the sex, and orgasms. Even when the barfly’s friend believes he could also score with Reika if he got her drunk, and proceeds to try, the inebriated dream sequence in which he imagines he’s getting to fuck her is untrained by illustrative disgust. He’s not a validated character; his rotten plan isn’t OK’d by the text; but the drawn scenes where he licks her nipples and has sex with her while she’s naked and he’s fully clothed have the same dedication to not forcing Reika to be seen having sex with someone horrible. To put it another way, the reader is never encouraged to picture this woman being debased by the act of partnered sex. Hanakoji’s artistic sensibilities are quite admirable.
On Akane’s part, the mother-lust of her three potential partners provides a sort of protective shell for the girl who wants to be pretty without feeling like it’s a public agreement to being bothered for physical attention. As she enjoys the luxurious baths, Chanel-like suits, nightgowns, spreads of cakes, hat-buying sprees, etc of Rich Woman Life, as she retains her fairly prim look of natural-style make-up, stud earrings, and gently curled, bump-at-the-back hair, she finds herself desired, but for a totally outlandish reason.
If Akane is pretty and feminine and has round breasts but everyone is attracted to her only because her more specific traits are directly comparable to their mother’s, they shouldn’t be attracted to her—it’s expressly a transgression for any of these brothers to sexually bother Akane. By pathologising men’s attraction and predatory, boundary-free behaviour, women’s attractiveness becomes unburdened by responsibility to those men. It’s not Akane’s fault that she looks like the mother of her “husband” and his brothers—and they shouldn’t be into it that she does! Because they are the ones behaving or feeling other than they comfortably should, and have been for some time, textual balance makes it not her fault, and not a fault of her normative prettiness, or her body, or her quiet nature, or the volume of her breasts, or her careful grooming. Their attraction to her is their weird problem that Akane, trapped in their orbit, unreasonably finds herself suffering from. Because the focus is on men’s problematic sexual natures, the narrative becomes a safe haven for Akane to have these expected, normative, sometimes-sexualised, sometimes-not feminine aspects—things that we are encouraged to want and may want anyway, but which it is common to find blamed in our real lives for inciting sexual harassment from “normal” men. Better still it’s safe, or narratively unblamed, for Akane to have those traits and be wanted both sexually and romantically. One need not wish to be undesirable in order to wish to be unblamed for one’s desirability.
In both Reika and Akane’s scenes, this comic understands you can quite reasonably want to be cute and fuckable without wanting or needing to explain to every man why you will not cutely fuck him. It creates space to reflect upon this.
Because of the tonal inoffensiveness, the fact that Akane’s fake-adulterous love/lust interest, Brother 2, Genjiro, is sexually fixated on women who look just like his mother is not really a part of the story’s angst quotient the way that one might expect—this is no Angel Sanctuary. Volume two sees him discover Reika’s picnic titty magazine feature and bring a wig that matches the style in that picture to “Reika” (actually Akane), declaring that, unlike his stupid big brother, to him it’s actually MORE arousing when she looks LESS like their mother. This is arranged to imply it’s quite a romantic declaration; looking ahead to blurbs for the next eight volumes, he seems to be Akane’s “true match.”
That you want to rail your mother in a wig instead of out of one isn’t what the regular mind might call “a good sign,” but allowing for the necessary tripping points of this soft pornography’s altered reality is the agreement you make to benefit from its therapeutic function. Though this series is indeed marketed as Seinen, and therefore primarily targeted at a readership of adult men, its priorities work very well and very originally for other markets. Where Ikegami, Saito, and Buronson often leave gaps in their work that betray a lack of understanding of or compassion for the girls and women in their casts and audiences, Hanakoji builds a structure full of spaces correctly shaped to support the needs of those characters, and those shared readers.