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The Fine Print
All text is © copyright VIZ, LLC. No reproduction without written permission. All images are © copyright their respective copyright holders as noted. No reproduction without written permission.

All images for Peach Girl © 2002 Miwa Ueda/Kodansha

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Will good triumph over evil!? This question may seem best suited to action and adventure series, but it's just as applicable to the romantic plot of Miwa Ueda's manga Peach Girl.

Sometimes the villain makes the series. As Peach Girl's heroine, Momo Adachi may be an interesting character--with her insecurities about her easily tanned skin and her inability to confess her feelings to the guy she's liked since junior high--but it is her "friend" Sae who makes the series so highly addictive.

"All that glitters is not gold."
"Wolf in sheep's clothing."
"With friends like these, who needs enemies?"

All of these apply to Sae. On the surface, she seems sweet as a lamb, but Sae will and does do anything to grab attention. Knowing this, Momo tries to outsmart her. One such attempt is how the whole tangled romantic mess gets started.

EVER-ESCALATING ANGST

Shopping after school, Momo spots a cute bag. Sae convinces her not to get it, then goes back for it herself so people will fawn over her stylish new bag. Such an annoying and small incident...but this is how Ueda sets up the pattern for things to come. Momo sees something she wants, and Sae scrambles to get it first.

Momo has had a crush on Toji since junior high school. But knowing Sae's habits as she does, when Sae attempts to figure out who Momo likes, what choice does Momo have but to throw her off the scent? So instead of confessing her interest in Toji, Momo points to the most popular guy in school, Kiley Okayasu, instead. Much to her surprise, Kiley winks at her! But that's soon forgotten, for within minutes, Sae has approached Kiley with a gift of cookies. Kiley, however, is not so easy to catch. Unbeknownst to Momo, Kiley observed the whole "bag incident" and rejects Sae.

Although Momo is herself misunderstood (thanks to her easily tanned skin), she blindly accepts Kiley's reputation as a shallow playboy. So when she hears of his rejection of Sae, her low opinion of him somewhat improves. That would have been the end of Kiley's involvement, except someone writes "Kiley + Momo" on a blackboard. Sae indignantly denies she did it, but no matter who did do it, Momo's in a bad situation: What if Toji saw?

This predicament pales in comparison to the next blow. Someone's been spreading the rumor that Kiley and Momo have kissed! Then she finds out it's Kiley himself who's saying it! In desperation, she tracks Kiley down, hoping to convince him to squelch the rumor. It turns out the reason Kiley's been saying such things is because Momo once rescued him from drowning, and he believed she gave him CPR. Ever since, he's had a thing for Momo. In reality, it was a lifeguard who gave him CPR. To resolve the situation, Kiley kisses her, turning the rumor into truth.

Her first kiss stolen--the kiss she'd been saving for Toji--Momo is mortified. Worse, no matter how she tries to ditch him, Kiley won't leave her alone. The crowning glory of her grief is that it's obvious that Toji has heard the rumors. But this is the point in the story where Toji becomes a person instead of a plot device.

Toji has known Momo since junior high and knows she's a good girl, and not the shallow beach bunny her dark skin suggests she is. Toji confronts Kiley, threatening him and telling him not to toy with Momo. Intrigued, wily Kiley taunts Toji, implying he might go steady with Momo to ease Toji's concerns. Toji's response is explosive, leaving no room to doubt his disapproval.

Wanting to know more, Toji asks Sae about it, just as Momo, followed by Kiley, walks by. In true weasel fashion, Sae drags Toji behind some shrubbery so they might eavesdrop. What they hear comes as a shock to both. In an attempt to get Kiley to leave her alone, Momo tells him there's a guy she likes. Kiley instantly figures out it's Toji and wonders why Momo's never told Toji how she feels. Momo explains that a friend told her that Toji said he doesn't like dark girls, so she's waiting until she's pale enough before confessing her feelings. This is why she quit swimming and is addicted to sunscreen.

Isn't that pitiful? And that's not even halfway through the first book! It's from here on out Sae starts doing her worst....

UNIVERSAL, YET UNIQUE

First serialized in Kodansha's Monthly Best Friend (Bessatsu Friend) magazine in 1998, Peach Girl has been hitting the top of sales charts in Japan for years now, and since its publication in English by TOKYOPOP (first in the manga anthology Smile, then in a continuing graphic novel series), it's definitely become a fan favorite in the U.S. The furor is understandable--Peach Girl is the kind of story you just can't put down.

Aside from the intense, soap-opera quality of the story itself, American readers will probably find fascination in Peach Girl's insider peek into the reality of high school life in Japan. That's not to say that Japanese high schools abound with girls like Sae (although Ueda's notes in Peach Girl comment on how many of her readers confirm the existence of girls like her), but while peer pressure and romantic entanglements are universally familiar, there are more than a few uniquely cultural aspects to Momo's saga as well. The most striking of which being, of course, the significance of her dark tan, which in Japan makes her resemble what's called a "ganguro girl."

There are a lot of extreme fashion styles in Japan, and ganguro is one of them. A ganguro girl is one who wears a lot of makeup and goes to tanning salons to make her skin look very dark, then she applies very pale makeup to her lips and around her eyes. This kind of makes her look like she's wearing "blackface," which is what the word "ganguro" literally means. Bleached and even afro-style permed hair are also parts of the ganguro look. And of course, you have to be sassy to carry off such a look. This is why Momo is often mistaken for a ganguro girl.

Because the ganguro look can be so expensive (up to $400 for a perm!) and there are businessmen who don't mind paying to go out with young women, some ganguro girls will date for money (as can be seen in the first episode of Serial Experiments Lain). Ganguro girls have a reputation of enjoying partying, which reinforces the idea that they are shallow and easy. This is why lecherous old businessmen keep hitting on Momo throughout the series, much to her disgust.

In future books of the series, the romantic entanglements continue to heat up. First Sae plants notes so Momo and Kiley will meet, then she pretends to be a concerned friend, leading Toji to the illicit rendezvous she's coordinated. This backfires when Kiley, going after a mysteriously meaningful photo the wind has blown into the pool, falls in and nearly drowns. Naturally Momo saves him, making her a hero and prompting Toji to confess he likes her. The next day, after rescuing Momo from Kiley, Toji declares that Momo is his girl. Unfortunately, in a foolish attempt to keep Sae from knowing and messing with their relationship, Momo asks that she and Toji keep their relationship a secret.

Sae is not fooled for an instant. Foiled in her first attempt to keep them apart, Sae tries a new tactic. This time Sae causes Momo to cast doubt on Toji by suggesting a guy tried to have sex with her then revealing the guy is Toji. Although Momo instinctively doubts her, Sae is clever enough to plant a condom in Toji's wallet for Momo to find. Later, Sae convinces Toji to practice kissing with her in order to prepare him for kissing Momo. Naturally, Momo has the bad luck of seeing them.

Like a spider gleefully trapping insects in it's web, Sae's schemes ensnare her victims more securely the more they struggle. When appendicitis puts Toji in the hospital without Momo's knowing, Sae's innocent act and clever lies eventually get the whole class to side against Momo, and that's just the beginning of Momo's misery....

If you're into stories of teen angst, if you like a good villain, if you find complicated, misunderstanding-riddled romance addictive, then get yourself a copy of Peach Girl and enjoy!

 

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