Strangely enough, shojo manga adaptations can in fact be among the most problematic exercises in contemporary Japanese cinema. Targeted very specifically at adolescent girls, the romantic world that they present is often consumed by its own sense of blind innocence as the shy heroine eventually finds love with a “handsome prince” who, though sometimes an inappropriate figure, is either improbably gentlemanly or a “difficult” Mr. Darcy type who more or less bullies her into submission. Yuki Yamato’s adaptation of Miki Aihara’s Hot Gimmick, given the subtitle “girl meets boy” (ホットギミック ガールミーツボーイ), however, seems to be well aware of the genre’s uncomfortable tendency to reinforce conservative social norms and normalise unhealthy relationship dynamics, even if it perhaps fails to entirely reject it in its broadly positive yet ambivalent conclusion.
Innocent and naive high schooler Hatsumi (Miona Hori) has been charged with secretly picking up a pregnancy test for her younger yet much more worldly sister Akane (Hiyori Sakurada) who ends up losing it on their way home from school. Unfortunately, it’s found by a schoolmate, Ryoki (Hiroya Shimizu), who uses it to blackmail her, forcing her to become his “slave” or he’ll send the test straight to her mother. For reasons not entirely clear besides her natural diffidence, Hatsumi goes along with it but is still carrying a torch for a childhood friend, Azusa (Mizuki Itagaki), who has since gone on to become a top idol. Unbeknownst to her, Azusa has in fact returned, apparently missing them all at the estate where he used to live. Increasingly terrorised by Ryoki, Hatsumi is more worried that Azusa will get the wrong idea and assume she is romantically involved with him. Meanwhile, her brother Shinogu (Shotaro Mamiya) is worried about both guys, overprotective in a disappointingly patriarchal way.
This is indeed a very patriarchal world. Unlike her sister, Hatsumi is romantically naive and terrified of the consequences of someone finding out about the pregnancy test even if Akane is fairly unfazed, simply brushing off questions from her mother by implying that someone is probably playing tricks on them. Hatsumi is preoccupied with the nature of “cuteness” and intensely insecure, which is perhaps why she allows herself to go on being manipulated by Ryoki even while knowing that is exactly what he’s doing. “I’m just stupid and unattractive” she’s fond of saying, fully believing that she has no right to her own agency because she is unable to see her own worth.
That essential insecurity seems to make her a magnet for all the creepy guys in a 10 mile radius. Talking to another somewhat imperfect boy, Akane tells him that guys like girls like Hatsumi who seem “vulnerable”, lamenting for a moment that that’s something she definitely is not (ostensibly, at least), but stopping short of reflecting on how dark a comment that might actually be or how the whole concept of “kawaii” is built on the idea of disempowered femininity. Azusa, who is originally posited as the “innocent” love interest, later turns out to be anything but, while Ryoki is later redeemed (to a point) in leading Hatsumi towards an awareness of an agency over her own body, while she, again problematically, turns to her protective brother rather than engage with the various ways in which all three guys have continually misused and manipulated her.
A intense subplot concerning the legacy of illicit romantic relations in the previous generation binds all of the troubled teens inside a net of moral resentment in which they embrace a kind of conservatism they reject their parents for rejecting. They are all, in a sense, attempting to break free of familial legacies, but find themselves paying for their parents’ mistakes while the parents themselves remain more or less absent, occasionally resurfacing to enforce obedience through shame. What Hatsumi comes to realise, however, is that the lesson they were teaching her was not quite wrong but misguided. Where they told her that she should guard her body because not to do so was shameful, she discovers that there is power in owning herself, that she is free to decide what she does and does not do with her body and has the right to grant or refuse access to it.
Nevertheless, her final sense of empowerment is undercut by her continued relationship with Ryoki who, while perhaps growing to accommodate a less misogynistic world view, is still a boy who tried to make her his slave and repeatedly calls her stupid even if eventually agreeing that the whole world turns in her. Yamato’s stylish visuals add to the sense of absurdity which defines the closing moments as Hatsumi at once affirms an awareness of herself as a being with worth and agency, yet also embraces her “stupidity” as she takes her first few diffident steps towards an assurance of adulthood.
Currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)
Original trailer (no subtitles)