Stepping on Roses
裸足でバラを踏め (Hadashi de Bara wo Fume)
Shoujo – Drama, historical, romance
9 Volumes (complete)
Japan, late 1800s. Sumi tries her best to care for orphans her brother brings home. But Eisuke keeps losing money gambling! When one of the kids gets sick, Sumi feels hopeless. A kind stranger gives her money, but she soon needs more. Then another man enters Sumi’s life and makes a demand: marry him but never love him.
I don’t really read Harlequin novels, but this plot is surely quite common: poor girl marries rich man in a marriage of convenience. Even Ueda talks about how Stepping on Roses is a pretty standard story. The plot seems cliché, but Stepping on Roses throws in a couple of surprise curve balls.
Sumi, like many protagonists, meets her prince when she’s in deep financial trouble. But her elder brother has even more debts, and she and all her “siblings” are about to find themselves sold off. Sumi intends to prostitute herself, but she finds herself in a hasty marriage of convenience to the young heir of the Ashida Company, Soichiro. Of course, her prince turns out to be Nozomu, Soichiro’s best friend. Sumi is attracted to the kind Nozomu, especially since Soichiro constantly yells at her. Eisuke means to find out what happened to Sumi, but he also tends to laze about and get the family in even more trouble.
Again, a pretty classic setup.
But halfway through the second volume, a dark shadow appears. I thought I could pretty much nail how the manga would progress from the first volume, but I was taken aback by the ingenious bait-and-switch Ueda pulls off. The author tells readers to consider everything up to that point a prologue. One of the biggest staples in shoujo romance, the love triangle, is suddenly altered dramatically. The gentle Nozomu exits and is replaced with a yandere character. As Sumi’s other love interest becomes more and more obsessed with her, Soichiro becomes more likable. He doesn’t just seem tame in comparison to Mr. Crazy; Soichiro actually grows as a person. He realizes just how difficult life is for the poor, and he actually feels lost at certain points. So many women in real life think they can change their lovers if they stay, but it’s Soichiro who has to change himself in order to keep Sumi. What a different approach this is compared to many heroines who decide they’re in love with the male lead by the third chapter just because he wasn’t a jerk for two seconds!
The love triangle takes up the entire series. This may seem quite long, but nine volumes really isn’t that long for a manga. Like most rich guys in fiction who quickly draft a wife, Soichiro wants control of the family business. However, the struggle for control of the company is less central or intriguing compared to, say, Happy Marriage?! since the board members have a problem with Soichiro’s age, not his bloodline.
Ironically, though, while the battle for Sumi’s heart lasts for so long, the fluff is rather light. The story is more focused on drama, drama, and melodrama. If you were to break down the story into its parts, the manga would seem to be a serious, mature josei. There’s the stalker, the haughty-but-attractive husband, the issue of consummating the marriage, and even intense jealousy. The final twist (which is easy to miss) brings up a whole new slew of psychological issues. Fortunately, the manga’s tone isn’t dark and depressing. It still feels — and looks — appropriate for younger teens thanks to Sumi’s smiling face and the dash of humor. (Sumi struggles with learning the Western ways, and butler Komai often comedically overreacts.) I like how Stepping on Roses won’t feel too immature for older readers despite Sumi’s age. At the same time, teenagers will get something more edgy without being borderline smut a la Missions of Love. This cross-appeal as well as Soichiro’s development are highlights of the series.
Ueda mentions she took some breaks while working on Stepping on Roses. I wonder why that’s why I felt there was some disconnect between parts. A maid, for instance, obviously arrives with a hidden agenda. While we see her motivation, we don’t really get to feel why she is still around Sumi at the end of the manga. Komai leaves Soichiro and seems to be planning something. Or was he just mad? Why did he stay at his new job if he was unhappy? I haven’t a clue. It just feels like a plotline that went nowhere. Even Sumi’s adopted siblings are woefully underused. Only one gets any attention; the others might as well be named Kid A, Kid B, Kid C, etc. Even the ending — which was set up from the start if you pay attention — still feels like it needed another chapter or two, if not another volume. I really don’t understand how all the proverbial ducks got in a row for the main conflicts to be resolved. I mean, there’s nothing major that’s left open, but I wish we could have more motion, dive more into the side characters, and expand the epilogue. That’s a huge problem in this story: we go from Point A to Point C without really stopping at Point B first.
I’ve already discussed a bit about Soichiro. He starts off as pretty much a snob with occasional childish and supportive streaks, but he really matures. Soichiro is actually is someone readers will want to root for to get the girl. As for the girl in question, Sumi is a pretty good heroine as well. She’s not going to make anyone’s most awesome heroines list, but she is far from annoying, especially considering the manga is set in the late 1800s in Japan. She still cooks even after becoming a CEO’s wife, and she is always thinking about Atari and the other children. However, I’m sure many people will wonder why Sumi isn’t more forceful about recognizing and stopping unwanted — let alone terrifying — advances, but readers have to consider the setting and her position. A 15-year-old girl with no education and no parents didn’t have a lot of options back then. I’ll leave Mr. Crazy alone, but he really makes Stepping on Roses addicting. I never knew how far he was going to go. Much like Sho from Skip Beat!, I dislike the character but love the role he plays. Protagonists tend to get all the attention, but antagonists often make the story. This is the case here.
Thanks in part to the story breaks, the art seems to go through a small shift as well. Soichiro and Sumi seem to have aged several years over the course of the story despite the actual in-world time being much shorter. Some of the characters reminded me a bit of the character designs in Uta no Prince-sama (Camus could totally pull off Komai), but by the end, Ueda’s art looks more similar to A Devil and Her Love Song. It’s nothing dramatic, but the early volumes have a classic air about them. Sumi looks like she could have starred in The Rose of Versailles or Candy Candy at times. This may seem a bit ironic considering this manga was drawn after Tail of the Moon. Ueda writes that she wanted to create something beautiful, and to that end, she succeeded. However, some of her later outfits look surprisingly modern. Maybe I need to look up historical fashion, but did women really wear short black dresses with thin straps in the late 1800s? The dresses certainly are gorgeous, but the aura doesn’t always feel like a historical piece. Anyway, despite the sometimes dark overtones, the art is on the bright side. Ueda is an experienced artist by the time she started Stepping on Roses, and it shows in her art.
Being a historical piece, I thought there would be a little more Japanese flavor to the text. I know Soichiro and the other rich people follow Western traditions, but Sumi grew up in Japan with no education. No honorifics are used. This makes sense for people like Nozomu (who calls the protagonist “Sumi-san”), but I thought replacing this with “Miss Sumi” would have been nice. Meanwhile, keep Sumi with Japanese honorifics (“Soichiro-san”). But this doesn’t happen. In fact, Viz Media’s adaptation doesn’t even replaces or drops the “Nii-chan” and “Nee-chan” Sumi’s family uses. Terms like “shogi” are kept. Some translation notes are included in each volume, but they are generally the same ones that appear in each volume. I wish there was more about the Meiji period and Japanese culture, like discussing divorce in 1800s Japan.
If you’re sick of reading about usual shoujo love triangles between a nice guy and a jerk, then add Stepping on Roses to your reading list. However, if you’re just sick of love triangles, then Stepping on Roses is definitely not for you. The manga isn’t perfect, but it’s different enough to be addicting. I can’t help but like a manga that makes me go, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that!” in a good way. Readers will have to give Stepping on Roses at least two volumes to see how the story is going to play out, but at only nine volumes, you might as well read the entire series.
Viz Media has also released Ueda’s Tail of the Moon.