Something’s Wrong With Us
私たちはどうかしている (Watashi-tachi wa Douka Shiteiru)
Josei – Drama, mystery, psychological, romance
6 Volumes (ongoing) of 13 Volumes (ongoing)
Thanks to her mom, a live-in confectioner, and Tsubaki, the heir to the shop, Nao develops an interest in making Japanese sweets. But the happy days end when Tsubaki fingers Nao’s mom as his dad’s murderer! Years pass, and Nao’s work leads to crossing paths with a certain someone…
Something’s Wrong With Us is set in a sweets shop, but no one there is living the sweet life.
I have been a little hesitant about Something’s Wrong With Us for a couple of reasons. One, I’ve read (well, to clarify, “read”) some chapters in Japanese, and every time I’m like, “These two liked each other? Ever? Because they really don’t seem like they ever did.” Two, I am not a fan of how ARISA, the author’s previous mystery manga, turned out. Zodiac P.I., Ando’s earlier mystery manga, also had some ridiculousness on that would put Professor Layton and Ace Attorney to shame, but at least it was a fantasy and was episodic. Plus it had cute chibi characters which made it fun.
Anyway, Something’s Wrong With Us is Ando’s first josei series published in English and only her second overall. As we see from the opening color page, the series is essentially an extended flashback. First, Nao narrates about her sickly, lonely childhood, but she finally opened up thanks to a cheerful boy named Tsubaki. His family runs a wagashi (Japanese sweets) store called Kogetsuan, and Nao’s mother works there. The two of them live in the staff quarters, and Tsubaki is often scolded for hanging around with the help. But he likes spending time with Nao, whom he nicknamed Sakura. In turn, Nao is inspired by Tsubaki and her mom to also make wagashi.
But one morning, the house is in a clamor: Tsubaki’s father is dead! Tsubaki says he saw Nao’s mom leaving his father’s room, and she’s arrested for his murder. Nao’s mom dies during the court proceedings, and Nao is left an orphan. But she can’t stop loving wagashi despite being traumatized by the color red, the color of blood and the camellias at Kogetsuan. Which is a big problem for a baker. Nao continues to try to find a place in the world, which is still very difficult even 15 years later since rumors follow her. Then she is given an opportunity to make sweets for a wedding, but she has to face off against someone from Kogetsuan: Tsubaki! He doesn’t recognize Nao, but she wouldn’t forget his cold expression — an expression that hasn’t changed after all these years when he asks her to marry him!
Outside of the cover and the name of the chapter, I don’t think anybody would have expected that. Long story short, Nao accepts in order to clear her deceased mother’s name, disrupting Tsubaki’s arranged marriage in the process. Now they must turn Kogetsuan’s fortunes around without outside financial assistance, which is not going to be easy since Tsubaki and Nao don’t trust each other. Not to mention Tsubaki’s mother is angry that he walked out on an ideal marriage for some girl from nowhere, and she’s going to find out more about this Nao.
The wagashi aspect is interesting. While the story is set in modern times, part of the conflict at Kogetsuan is that some people are stuck in the past, in the old ways of doing things. So while we have cell phones and social media in the manga, there’s also a 1920s aspect to it as well. Personally, while I have little interest in cooking or in tasting the treats they make, I do like to see the innovative designs Nao and others come up with. They’re like creative cakes in a size about that of a cookie, and that must be a lot of work. Most food manga (at least the ones in English) either focus on main courses (Japanese or Western) or Western sweets, so this helps add some uniqueness to Something’s Wrong With Us. Plus, using traditional Japanese pastries adds to the conflict between modern culture and old ways.
Which is why it’s a bit of a surprise that the manga goes with a sudden “marry me because it’s convenient” path. Tsubaki, who looks like the guy in the audience who would be a comedian’s nightmare, dismisses his sudden proposal as a joke, but Nao of course doesn’t turn down such an opportunity. Turns out he was testing her to see if she would have the guts to interrupt his ceremony — as well as see what kind of gift (food) she would bring. It’s not the only challenge he makes Nao face, and he’s not the only one who puts her on the spot.
Something’s Wrong With Us has been made into a drama, and I suspect very little had to be changed for such an adaptation. Quite frankly, that’s how I would describe it — that, or soap opera. This is a series where everyone is playing with fire, and in some way or another, is unlikable. For instance, Tsubaki’s coldness partially comes from the fact his grandfather doesn’t believe Tsubaki is his biological grandson. Regardless of paternity, why take your anger out on a child? Nao, naturally, is lying to Tsubaki about her identity even as they grow closer, and Tsubaki’s mom is just a hateful individual. There’s no way everything can stay hidden, and the real draw of the series is to see the truth and, perhaps more importantly, the eventual fallout.
At this point in the series, a lot of major pieces have been revealed, although I’m sure there will be criticism of how it happens. (Or even just the usual “something happens just as someone is speaking” situations.) But I will say the idea that Nao = Sakura does come to others’ minds, and at least it makes some sense why she isn’t immediately outed since a long 15 years have gone by.
Despite the wedding and childhood friends reuniting storyline, this isn’t a series catering to the romance crowd. A lot of their reasons for falling for each other seems to be rooted in the fact they have both have had a rough time and don’t have a lot (if any) people they can count on. So it’s more like filling in the loneliness rather than the leads finding a missing piece of themselves, as how many romance manga portray love. Plus, as for Nao, it’s strongly indicated that inside of her that little girl who loved Tsubaki is still alive. In addition, the jump toward a physical relationship seemed sudden, and it wasn’t like the manga built up a lot of sexual tension between the two of them.
That, of course, adds to the drama, and also adds another reason to disagree with characters’ actions and behaviors. After all, Nao could be considered to be honeytrapping Tsubaki. Of course, as her feelings grow stronger, she’s more torn about her deceit, especially as her wedding to Tsubaki approaches. While the series is just shy of the halfway mark, readers will have little doubt this house of cards will fall long before the very end of the manga.
The manga doesn’t include a lot of important characters outside of the Kogetsuan store circle, from Tsubaki’s family to a few workers and some clients. The story incorporates the confectioners having to come up with sweets that fit the occasion and any requirements, but even these important events are just stations for Tsubaki and Nao to grow closer to each other or for Nao to find a new clue. So while the main cast may be small, one highlight for me is the existence of a person Nao sees as a possible ally. I’m intentionally walking around the subject, but I just like him for being unique. Since Tsubaki is obviously the male lead, this is not a case where it’s about Nao falling in love with the only person who believes in her. That person is only around occasionally, but he does provide cover and helps prod the story along a couple of times.
As I alluded to earlier, one of the sources of tension in Something’s Wrong With Us is in the old traditions. It’s more like dealing with upper class society with their hidden messages and veiled insults, and that’s something Nao can’t simply adapt to. In addition, very few people are eager to help her cover up when she makes a mistake. Nao is often forced to stand on her own two feet. She is fairly strong, but I like how the author didn’t make her some kind of kick-butt heroine. I just don’t think the story would have worked if she was portrayed as too unflappable, as she’s forced to overcome the walls in her way — even when the story takes some typical (arguably eyerolling) soap opera turns.
If you’ve read some of Ando’s other works (especially her later ones), not much has changed. The style may seem a little big and bright for a josei murder mystery with its large panels and sparkling eyes. But there’s definitely less difference than, for example, when Tanemura decided to jump to a josei magazine. Ando’s experience with drama helps as well, as she tends to use the usual dark and night scenes to great effect. The image of a young Tsubaki coldly glaring at readers while surrounded by camellias (aka tsubaki) is a striking one. Like other whodunnits, we see a lot of mysterious characters in the shadows, but at least not everyone is someone new entering the stage. Do expect a lot of glaring on behalf, and even the two leads tend to have neutral expressions a lot. After all, they both like and dislike each other. But the desserts they make are very artistic, and it’s obvious a lot of work went into learning about these confectioneries and how they are made. Still, for me, it’s the angry faces and dark reveals that steal the show.
Honorifics are used. Terms like “wagashi” are kept and use italics. Translation notes are included at the end of the volume and some footnotes (like explaining how Nao’s name is read) are added. Rather nice to have these to explain some of the cultural aspects or explain in more detail what some of these desserts are. It strikes a good balance between not dumbing down or overexplaining the text and keeping it accessible.
I’d agree with the premise that something’s wrong with the leads, but I admit it leads to a mostly-interesting story! You know the train wreck is coming, and even with Something’s Wrong With Us‘ drawbacks, you can’t avert your eyes.
Kodansha Comics has released Ando’s manga ARISA and Let’s Dance a Waltz. Del Rey published Wild @ Heart and Tokyopop published Zodiac P.I.
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