BY JOAN LI
Cutting the red string with Honey and Clover
“An ancient red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but will never break.”
According to this ancient Chinese proverb, the gods above link soul mates together with a red cord that affirms that they are destined for one another. Japanese popular culture likes to call this the “Red String of Fate”, and boy, does this string get tangled a lot in anime and manga romances! Popular titles of the sh?jo genre, a genre targeted for a female audience, really like to create knots in the form of love polygons, whether it be the typical love triangle or some messy cluster of relationships that can’t even be considered a shape anymore. But regardless of how complicated of a romantic life the sh?jo heroine finds herself in, there is one thing you can always count on: the first guy she falls for will be the one she ends up with. Hurray for the Red String of Fate!
Like other forms of narrative media, genres of anime and manga have their respective clichés. The majority of sh?jo series don’t have heroes with wacky hair and wildly named attack moves that they feel compelled to announce in every battle, but the fact that the genre is often situated in the real world does not make it immune to ridiculous tropes. Sh?jo series are ridden with main characters who run to school late with a pieces of toast in their mouths and go on field trips to beaches, during which drama ensues between the female lead, the male love interest she is inevitably going to choose, and the other players in the polygon — because let’s face it, without their mucking around there wouldn’t really be a story. I suppose I should give credit to the series that at least resolve their polygons. As I discovered upon reading the last chapter of Vampire Knight, essentially the Twilight of anime and manga, it could be worse: the author could just choose not to have the heroine choose between the two men at all, resulting instead in an awkward three-way relationship.
If Vampire Knight ranks at the very bottom of my personal rating scale of sh?jo series, then Honey and Clover snags first place. Originally created by Chica Umino as a manga before being adapted into an anime, the series follows a group of five students at an art college as they cope with their changing lives and relationships. Given my earlier rant about polygons, you would think that Honey and Clover, with its three love triangles, does not stand among my favorites. Indeed, at first glance, the series actually contains a lot of common tropes. You have “nice guy” Y?ta and his eccentric roommate Shinobu passive aggressively vying for the sweet, innocent newcomer, Hagumi. There is also the persistent Ayumi who holds an unrequited love for her friend Takumi, despite the fact that the latter has fallen for an older woman. His involvement with this woman weaves in yet another love triangle that occurred in the past but continues to haunt the present.
There is absolutely nothing unique about the premises of these relationships, but how Umino chronicles these triangles and how her characters evolve through them, is a truly resonating experience. Most notably, Umino understands the problem with depictions of the Red String of Fate in anime and manga. The idea that you are bound to one person and one future is just downright unhealthy, because it pushes a mindset that portrays change as something toxic, when in fact change is an inherent part of life. Each day, from the moment we wake up, we are forced to make decisions of all sizes that alter us, and that shut some doors while opening others. You could go to that Friday Ec10 lecture and learn something from Mankiw, despite the sea of distracting laptop screens filled with Facebook and Youtube (whoever was watching South Park that one time, yeah, I noticed you), or you could catch up on some much needed sleep and have an intriguing conversation with someone you’ve never had lunch with before. You could continue your plan to be an Economics concentrator, or you could take a course on Middle Eastern politics that the aforementioned person at lunch recommended, and discover that the topic really speaks to you. Neither decision is “right” nor “wrong.” At the end of the day, it is not the choices you make that determine your happiness, but what you make of those choices.
Like us, the characters of Honey and Clover have to deal with this reality. Ayumi is a frustrating character because of her constant quest to have her longtime feelings reciprocated, but her refusal to move on reminds us of our own fears of self-change. Hagumi’s indecisiveness over the two very different young men who she treasures reflects the balancing acts we perform as dreamers and pragmatists. Combined with the internal narration of thoughts that read like poetry, the five friends’ interconnected stories draw us in and we can’t help but hope the best for them. But Umino knows better than to leave us with the happily ever after that we are used to and that the characters themselves initially desire. Her characters defy the Red String of Fate. Unlike most sh?jo protagonists, they don’t cling to their pasts. Befitting to the motif of a turning bicycle wheel and a travelling train that are respectively the opening and closing scenes of the series, the characters move forward in their lives. It is as if Umino is trying to tell us that there was never really a beginning and ending to the story at all. As the audience, we have merely caught a glimpse of the all too familiar journey of continuous change. Outside of love, the five friends’ lives are full of other relatable struggles as well. On the comedic level, Y?ta’s all-nighters on art assignments are all too reminiscent of the Expos essay assigned weeks ago, but for which “inspiration” only struck mere hours before the deadline. We are also all baffled by that one person who, like Shinobu, seems to have more than 24-hours in a day… because how else does he manage to excel in so many subjects, yet have time to waste hours on the Internet?
Overarching these everyday details are more serious issues, such as the hardships of depression and the ever-plaguing question of self-identity. Although Honey and Clover is categorized as a sh?jo series, it is ultimately a story that transcends the genre. It pieces together laughter, disappointment, friendship, and fear — a tessellation of moments that consists of more than the melodrama of traditional romance and challenges the Red String of Fate that has most of the sh?jo world bound up in its own thread of clichés.
Joan Li ’17 (email@example.com) would never fit into a sh?jo manga, because although she grew up in a coastal town, she actually hates the beach.