I remember being lent a few volumes of Marmalade Boy back in high school. I remember quitting it because the characters made me furious for some reason. If you ask me about Marmalade Boy now, my response, in spite of the rage it was apparently able to inspire, would just be “eh, I read a little of it way back when and didn’t like it.” Rage is a valuable commodity, and for me to harbor it against a work of fiction for years seems like a waste when I have so much political rage to nurse.
But sometimes, I make exceptions. Sometimes, a friend with good taste in books but a tendency towards horrible manga decisions hands me five volumes of pure exception. And that hatred lurks within me, waiting to be released.
Internet, let me tell you how deeply I loathe Sakurakoji Kanoko’s Black Bird. My hatred has the depth of the Japan Trench.
content warning: discussion of abuse, sexual assault, violence, and the 100% misogynistic content that women reared in a misogynistic society sometimes inflict on girls
Black Bird is, in theory, a supernatural romance. The heroine is Misao, a high-school girl who has always had a sixth sense that allows her to see (and be the target for pranks by) spirits/demons/whatever. It turns out, though, that she’s even more unusual than that. She is the Senka, a human girl whose flesh can grant immense power to demons. If they eat her, they become immortal. If they marry her (read: have sex with her), they ensure the prosperity of their entire clan. Her power as the Senka activates on her sixteenth birthday, whereupon things start trying to kill her. However, her mysterious childhood friend/first love, Kyo, happens to have moved back in next door. He’s the head of a Tengu clan, and is determined to protect Misao and marry her himself.
Let’s ease into how bad this is, like stepping slowly into a hot pool of skin-searing awful the better to acclimatize yourself.
Point 1: the art
On the one hand, this is kind of a petty point. I’m not a reader who believes that a series has to have the best art to be good, I wouldn’t have been trying to shove Attack on Titan at everybody for a year before the anime came out if I were. But manga is a visual medium, and the art does need to serve the series. Isayama Hajime’s not the best artist, but he has always managed to make the art suit the story. Sakurakoji’s art…is just too damn bland to do that.
Above, you have the first appearances of two shojo heroes. On the left is Rei from Soryo Fuyumi’s Mars, which is probably the best shojo series I’ve read. On the right is Kyo. Now, I see Rei here and immediately get the idea that he’s maybe kind of a rebel, with something of a careless attitude. That’s entirely accurate. I look at Kyo and I see…uh…mysterious bishonen? It’s just vacuous shojo prettiness. There’s no personality to it. (For the record, I personally also get some impression of an actual face from Rei, while I just get Generic Anime TM from Kyo.)
This utter blandness is a serious handicap in a supernatural series. There should be a sense of wonder or horror in the creatures that Misao sees and interacts with. There isn’t. Instead, she’s surrounded by vague ghost blobs and textbook sketches from Japanese folklore, with the occasional break for the ridiculously lame. Kyo’s true tengu form? Is just him with wings, longer hair and a scarf/mask thing covering half his face to give the impression of a beak. I’m not kidding, it is actually that dumb. Such failed artistic decisions are the only point in which the series breaks free from being so bad it’s awful into being so bad it’s hilarious. But even hilarious bad can’t excuse the complete lack of creativity on display. The brain-shaped possessing ayakashi in Kekkaishi was more original than anything in Black Bird.
And when it comes to climactic confrontations, the art can move from being generic to being genuinely confusing. There’s a point at which Misao is kidnapped and other characters are also threatened, held in…actually, there’s no clear idea of where that’s taking place. There’s a sort of dungeon grate there? That’s the only feature of the space. As a result, it’s hard to know who’s moving where and why. That already makes the fight hard to read, but Sakurakoji also fails to show action in any kind of complete way. You have to extrapolate the results you learn later back onto the the fight scene to have any hope of following it. This does not for an effective climactic scene make.
And, well, there’s also the issue of where the art shades into point 3, because everything in this damn series ends up relating to point 3. This is where those content warnings start coming into play, so please keep that in mind.
Just…have a look at this, if you aren’t triggered by the above.
Without context, that looks an awful lot like rape, doesn’t it? Heck, I read it in context, which states that Kyo is magically healing Misao from an earlier physical attack, and I still thought it read as pretty rapey. There is a lot of sexualized violence against Misao in this series, which is just one of the lovely ways it supports rape culture. Which is just what we want in a series aimed at teenage girls, right? (No. No it is not.)
Point 2: the writing
Now, scroll back up and look at that premise again. Say you exist in an anime world and have just discovered that you are the Senka.
A) call Shibuya Psychic Research?*
B) make a deal with the dimensional witch?
C) go to the priest or priestess of your local shrine to see if they can ward you or teach you wards?
D) ask your folklorist father if he’s ever heard of this Senka thing?
E) passively wait around thinking about boys until you are nearly killed, at which point a boy will conveniently save you?
If you chose E, congratulations, you’re officially the least intelligent object on the planet! You’re also Misao.
Misao doesn’t hold the idiot ball, she is the idiot ball. She has no curiosity about things surrounding her unless it’s necessary to set up this chapter’s plot. She’s completely unobservant, and doesn’t seem to have any sense of what are spirits and what are humans in spite of a whole lifetime of experience, because that way we can have constant rescue plots. She can literally trip over a potential plot element, find out what it is, and then ignore it.
And it’s not just Misao. None of these characters really display any kind of intelligent or creative thinking. Kyo’s solution to problems is “fight them. if just fighting them off doesn’t work, kill them.” Actually, say, trying to make agreements with other clans for mutual benefit or something (a plot which could have nuance and last more than a few chapters)? Naaah. It’d be alright if he tried that with some of the antagonists and it didn’t work, but the idea never seems to cross his mind. Everything is done for maximum instant drama. No logic was harmed in the creation of this series.
Of course, a lot of this idiocy stems from the fact that Sakurakoji is only just shy of being as lazy a writer as E. L. James. She’s just desperately throwing random ideas at the premise to keep the story going, and it’s completely transparent. For the entire first volume, she simply invents someone or something new to threaten Misao every chapter and has Kyo come in at the last minute to save her. That is the only plot. She breaks out of that pattern somewhat in the later volumes, but don’t take that to mean the writing improves. It doesn’t. Ever.
Have you heard of introducing a character and establishing their relationship with the leads before using them to create a new plot arc? If so, you’re apparently overqualified to write manga, because Sakurakoji sure hasn’t. “Hey I could have a friendship vs. love themed arc. First I’ll make it so Kyo has a friend who is the brother of a recurring character- no one will question how that never came up before! I’ll also just create a character to become friends with Misao, have them become friends in a day, and then have them forced into opposition because of their men ALL IN THE SAME CHAPTER because people will be instantly invested in this character and friendship that is based on one conversation.”
Oh, and then Sakurakoji will decide a plot has ended just because she came up with a climactic scene, and not because there has been any actual resolution in what was causing the conflict or any real explanation of why the characters have changed their behavior. The plot has so many holes it’s lace.
Point 3: the complete debasement of women (and even men)
It’s one thing to have totally undistinguished art and shit writing. It’s another to actively choose to use those non-skills to be as misogynistic as possible at every conceivable turn. That requires a gift at being the slime scraped from a sewage worker’s boot. Sakurakoji has that gift in abundance.
Consider the premise once more. You’ve got that whole “have sex with the Senka and be prosperous demons” thing going on. In other words, you have a woman who decided to have as a cornerstone of her plot the constant threat of her heroine being raped. Or killed. Or raped and then killed. That alone merits the fire and radiation of a thousand suns. That isn’t drama, that’s just demeaning.
But there is oh, so, so much more. From the first page that Sakurakoji dragged up from hell to the point where I stopped even skimming this vomit to see if it would actually get worse (it always does!).
It starts with Misao’s introductory “this is who I am” text-voiceover (dear shojo: stop doing this). She’s had problems all her life because of spirits but now she’s finally managing to have a fairly normal high school life. What is the main focus of that high school life? Having friends, getting to pursue her academic, artistic, or athletic interests, preparing herself for a job she wants? Why, of course not, she’s a girl! The only thing she could possibly be interested in is finding a boyfriend! And thinking about boys! And obsessing over a boy she hasn’t seen in ten years and barely remembers!
Misao is a complete non-character whose only purpose in life is to get with the guy. No, not that normal guy she dates for one chapter, the abusive supernatural one who forces her to break up with that guy (a guy who is never seen again, because bad writing). Misao has no interests of her own. She has no hobbies, no distinctive habits, no life goals or dreams that aren’t focused entirely around Kyo. She doesn’t seem to have done anything in the ten years between Kyo and Kyo except, presumably, attend school. She takes no action on her own unless the plot dictates that she must now be curious enough about Kyo to walk into an obvious trap. She never seeks protection for herself, she never questions this world she’s been thrown into, she doesn’t react to potentially traumatizing experiences in any way that comes close to actually reflecting reality. She is a void that Sakurakoji only occasionally remembers is supposed to be human.
This “being a non-entity that exists only for the benefit of the ‘romantic’ plot” extends to the characters that surround Misao as well. Her two generic normal friends exist to comment on boys and how Misao should be involved with boys and how hot that boy is. The one chapter in which they show a genuine concern for Misao and kind of pass the Bechdel test is the chapter in which Misao’s supposedly doting father is also introduced**, and both these things happen purely to set up a “but if I marry Kyo I will have to leave these people behind!” conflict. It’s all about the “romance.” It’s all abut Kyo.
Yeah, Kyo. Let’s talk about that. If you need to take a break first to scroll back up to Tokine kicking butt, go ahead. I’ll wait.
Kyo is the possessive/distant-but-he-cares-really/perverted-because-men-are-like-that lead. So, terrible. Terrible all around. He is genuinely frightening. Not because he’s ~*inhuman*~, but because of the way he makes certain that he has total power over Misao. He’s older- he doesn’t infiltrate the school as another student (like other demons do), but as a teacher. One of Misao’s teachers (in math, which is of course her weak subject because she’s a girl), in fact. So he’s in a position of direct authority over her (and yes, he does fool around with her at school. who do you think would suffer the consequences of that if they ever got caught?). He is, of course, taller than her and supernaturally strong, so he can overpower her whenever he wants. He’s smarter than her, because demons have supernatural smarts too, just to make them that special. He lives right next door, so he can spy on her. He constantly tells her that he is her only option to stay alive.
Kyo is an abuser. Period. In the first volume he comes into Misao’s room and forces sexual attention on her while she is asleep. Sure, he has the magical plot excuse of healing her by licking, but that doesn’t change the fact that he failed to ask for consent or even admit he did it. Also, you know, breaking and entering. This continues in the form of Kyo doing things like grope Misao when the attention is clearly unwanted. (But that’s okay, because it’s part of the classic anime running joke of “guy does something perverted and girl hits him for it.” Oh, wait, no, both forcing sexual attention and punching your significant other are never okay.) He’s ridiculously jealous, to an extent that even the text acknowledges is hypocritical (at one point he shows off to the girls of the school and Misao reflects that he would rage if she did anything remotely similar. yay double-standard!) He does the classic abusive pattern of being supportive and showing affection and then punishing Misao by denying affection or becoming flat-out emotionally abusive. (There’s a point where he forces Misao to watch him murder another character because “he’s doing it for her” which made me think of the way Walter White emotionally manipulated Jesse at the end of season 3 of Breaking Bad. Protip: if your “hero” can remind a reader of Walter White something is seriously goddamn wrong.) Kyo literally stalks Misao, taking pictures of her undressing and the like, and this is played for laughs. It’s just so funny when your heroine is the helpless victim of psychologically-damaging criminal activity!
This all starts immediately, by the way. He just waltzes into the series and assumes he and Misao are essentially in a relationship, because they liked each other ten years ago. The thought that maybe Misao has changed her mind in ten years never occurs to him. For all he knows, she could have decided that the best way for her to deal with all these spirits is to go live on Mars and she is subsequently studying with the goal of becoming an astronaut and has no time for or interest in romance.
But no, that would be an original plot and require things to revolve around something that isn’t a particular part of Kyo’s anatomy.
Kyo also warps the story around him into being about his terrible manpain. Misao’s just been nearly raped and under threat of death? Oh no, how much Kyo must be suffering! Misao must do everything in her power to take away the “pain in his eyes” when he sees a reminder of what happened to her. But what about how Misao must suffer because of reminders of her sexual assault, you say? Huh? What are you talking about? Things don’t matter when they happen to women.
Of course, Kyo also drags all the other men in the series down with him. Because to make Kyo look good, nearly every other male who vies for Misao’s attention must turn out to be worse. Which results in Sakurakoji turning pretty much every male antagonist into an attempted rapist. Remember girls, don’t trust that fairly friendly and polite guy, he just wants to rape you because that’s how men are! Trust the guy who’s already sexually abusing you but not flat-out raping you instead!
All the writing is heavily based around heteronormative, regressive gender stereotypes. The men are strong and assertive, the women are weak and emotional and focused on the men. The one female villain that turns up? She’s really just after Kyo for herself, eating Misao is kind of a bonus but not her true goal. Because a) women must be in competition for a man, and b) homosexual acts of any kind don’t exist. It would, of course, also be a problem if the only queer representation is evil, but this manga exists in a world where everything is 100% straight.
And then there’s things like rape culture: the manga page.
“If Kyo says he likes me, I shouldn’t have any reason to reject him.”
You are not obligated to do anything you’re uncomfortable with, regardless of how the other party might feel about you. You do not owe a man (or woman) sex because he (or she) feels emotions for you. If you’re trying to rationalize a situation to make yourself comfortable with it, it is not a situation you should be in and you have every right to get out of there like you’re sprinting for the gold.
That’s a lot of things to be wrong with a series. That’s a mountain range of things that are wrong with this series. But it gets worse.
Because this dung heap? It sells well, both in Japan and in the U.S. It’s won a major award in Japan. The New York Times manga bestseller list? Yeah, it’s on there regularly. It also regularly made the rankings in Japan (that’s the list for the final volume). It won the Shogakukan Manga Award in the shojo category in 2009. I can believe that 2009 was a dry year in shojo for Shogakukan, but there is no year that is dry enough to justify that.
A woman is rewarded for creating something that debases women. Think about what that says about our culture for a minute.
Then look at this cute mouse so you don’t kill yourself:
Please, people. Fight Black Bird wherever you find it. This thing has to be stopped.
*For a genuinely interesting take on the “emotionally distant all-knowing shojo hero,” read all of Ghost Hunt. And then join those of us desperately awaiting the next chapter of the sequel manga.
**Misao’s mother is also around, and supposedly has been around from the start, but we basically never see her and of course Misao doesn’t have any scenes alone with her because two women can’t have an important relationship, not even if they’re blood relatives.