Though the prevalence of gender-bending shojo romances can be disconcerting to many of us straight-laced Western geezers, the regular appearance of new titles on the shelves clearly shows that there's a young girl audience for this kind of stuff. A good thing to remember if you're the sort to get bummed by the reactionary status quo squad: there's a teen-aged audience today lapping up manga that tests the boundaries of traditional sex roles — and enjoying it.
From what I can tell, Mai Nishikata's debut series, Venus Capriccio (CMX), follows the tenets of gender stretching manga quite faithfully. You have your heroine Takami, a tall and model slender high school girl who has difficulty holding onto a boyfriend because of her tomboyish ways, and an impossibly beautiful male lead who exudes sexual ambiguity in every panel. When the first volume opens, we see her on a disastrous date with an arrogant jerk who ridicules our heroine's un-ladylike eating habits. "For a first date, you're sure stuffin' your face!" he states just before dumping her.
"I was holding back with three pieces of cake and two colas," she later explains to her confidante Akira, but before we can ponder the vagaries of human metabolism, we're shown her ethereally handsome friend at the piano. A "Half" (half Japanese/half Austrian), Akira has been Takima's best bud since they first met at childhood piano lessons. Though her schoolmates see Akira as a "totally hot guy," Takima views him more as a girlish friend than a potential date. It isn't until the lad gets into a fight with her short-lived ex ("Who knew she had a thing for girly-men?" the macho dickhead sneers) that Takami starts to see him as more-than-a-friend.
Once our heroine realizes her attraction for Akira, their romantic connection begins to fitfully develop. Though the piano prodigy is a couple of years younger than Takami — he's still attending junior high while our girl is a high school student — in a lot of ways he's the more mature figure. The 14-year-old is definitely her superior at the piano, even tickling the ivories at jazz club. When the two are asked to play a duet at their music teacher's wedding, it's unclear whether Takami will be able to stay in sync with Akira.
The centerpiece of the first volume is a gender blurry sequence where our couple — thanks to a series of credulity stretching plot mechanics — compete in drag to become prince and princess at a high school competition. The boyish Takima puts on a suit, while Akira dons a dress, looking, as someone in the audience notes, "super-model beautiful." The masquerade is revealed before the contest ends, but its revelation doesn't appear to have a negative effect on our duo's school status. If anything, Akira's drag appearance at Johoku High School gets a fresh crowd of eager young schoolgirls yearning after his lithe young self. Hard to imagine a similar scene playing out the same way in an American high school.
Niskikata's art is airy and easy to follow. She has a knack for suggesting the physicality of characters still caught between kid- and teenhood, and she's able to do this without belaboring the point. Though her leads are idealized beauties, they don't — as in some shojo series — come off so unrealistic that that they remain pure creatures of the comics page. Too, the artist keeps the cartoonish emotional moments to a minimum.
Though Venus Capriccio has more than a few moments where you can see the writer/artist overworking to get her situations in place, both its playfulness and eye for the awkwardness of adolescent romance make it an appealing little romance. When Akira tells our heroine, after a disastrous date at an amusement park, "all the time we spent together here will be become fond memories," we believe him and want to see the twosome take their relationship further — with or without the cross-dressing.