The Manga Shelf is a column where I go over whatever I’ve been reading recently in the world of manga. Ongoing or complete, good or bad. These articles contain spoilers.
I should not be writing this. I am, at the moment, ill, with something that is giving me an absolute monster of a headache, stuffing up my sinuses, and just generally making me feel like a wreck. I intended to fully take this week off, both to physically recover and to recuperate from a bout of burnout. Yet, here I am, because if there’s one thing that can bring me back to life, if only for the hour or so it’s taken me to pen this, it’s lesbians. Never accuse me of being an unbiased journalist.
I Belong to The Baddest Girl at School is a fairly straightforward romcom manga. It certainly has its edges, and we’ll come to them in a moment, but for the most part you—or at least I, as a non-connoisseur of the genre—could not distinguish this from any other manga of its type at a glance. The main character is Unoki, a meek, shy boy, who falls for Toromaru, a tiny, feisty powderkeg of a boss girl who embodies every possible distinction between that term and “girlboss.” They’re pretty great together, in a tropey but pleasant sort of way. If the manga were only about them, it’d probably still be just fine. There’s a nice core thesis about not changing yourself just because society tells you to, and about finding someone who loves you for who you truly are. The sorts of things that would ring a bit hollow if the manga were solely about a single straight couple.
But this article is not about a single straight couple, as you’ve probably guessed from its title.
Yuri is having a bit of a cultural moment again, as several titles are currently airing as anime or are about to be in the near future (to say nothing of the return of the likes of, say, Birdie Wing, or the largely self-contained fanbase that “Miyazawan Yuri” has accrued in recent years) but Baddest Girl isn’t yuri. Nothing here even really speaks the same language as yuri, which has rhythms and archetypes all its own. Instead, to my pleasant surprise, I feel like I’ve discovered an example of convergent evolution.
Baddest Girl‘s obligate backup characters, of the sort who tend to stand around and comment on the A-Couple’s relationship, are Yutaka and Matsuri, respectively a serious straight-man type (ironically enough) with a chilly disposition, and a lunkheaded ruffian with a fixation on Toromaru herself and a tendency to get the wrong idea about things. We learn pretty early on that, far from simply orbiting around Unoki and Toromaru’s relationship, they have one of their own. Matsuri thinks of herself and Yutaka as best friends while nursing her sorta-crush on her boss. Yutaka, meanwhile, is a very different story, and it’s clear that she holds romantic feelings for Matsuri. There isn’t any ambiguity here, and some of the manga’s fairly rare spots of true angst come from the fact that Yutaka simply assumes that she and Matsuri aren’t compatible; less because Matsuri is straight (she’s not) and more because of her whole deal with Toromaru.
Now again, Baddest Girl is mostly not about Yutaka and Matsuri, which means that A) their side of the story progresses fairly slowly until a certain specific point, and B) it’d be easy for the cynically minded to write off their presence (and any implied feelings between them) as, basically, bait for a male audience. Baddest Girl did, after all, serialize in Young Ace UP, a seinen web-magazine, during its 2017-2021 run, and it’s hard to argue that their designs aren’t at least slightly meant to get more eyes on the manga. But this would downplay the fact that despite not being omnipresent through the manga’s 77 chapters, Yutaka and Matsuri are some of its strongest characters.
When Baddest Girl cashes in that built-up emotional connection to make it clear that it’s taking Yutaka’s feelings very seriously, it completely works, because we’ve already been following these characters for a while at that point. We know that they’ve been close for years, we know that Yutaka changed her whole sense of style because Matsuri thinks she looks “cooler” if she dresses like an old-school delinquent. So, later in the manga, when Yutaka confesses in a sudden sputtering overflow of emotion after Matsuri brings up the possibility of leaving town after she graduates, it makes a perfect sort of emotional sense. She actually steals a kiss from Matsuri, the sort of thing that is not really ever OK in real life but has a long enough heritage in romantic fiction that I’m willing to let Baddest Girl off here.
At the end of it all, the only thing Matsuri is actually at all mad about is that Yutaka didn’t tell her sooner. Yutaka pledged to always stay by Matsuri’s side several years before trying to actually date her. One can understand Matsuri’s (ultimately fairly mild) frustration at not being trusted a little more.
Even then, she gets over it pretty quick, and the two transition from friends to girlfriends with admirably little further drama; Matsuri even returns the kiss that Yutaka stole from her. Hilariously, this also means that by the manga’s end, Yutaka and Matsuri have actually gone farther, in terms of physical intimacy, than our leads. Unoki and Toramaru are still at the handholding stage as of the manga’s final chapter.
As much as I’m hyping this up as different or daring, the truth is, of course, that Baddest Girl isn’t unique in this regard at all. Even Kaguya-sama: Love is War!, probably the genre’s current gold standard in terms of intersecting popularity and quality, tosses in a bone to this effect very late in its run despite otherwise being straight as an arrow. (It’s one of that manga’s few flaws, I’d argue.) But what is rare is for the queer subtext to have that “sub” cut out entirely, and moreover, in a way that is both structurally elegant and actually reinforces the manga’s core points. Sure, you can, again, be a cynic about it and write all this off as pandering, or as the product of the author’s own interests. But that fails to account for the emotional weight it’s given (and, in fact, that the author is a woman). Plus, the very fact that these characters exist in this story, one that is not actually, really, about them, and feel so normal within it, is its own kind of victory. It’s true that we, as queer people, do need our own stories, but there’s a lot to be said about showing up in the backgrounds of others’ stories, too. In real life, few people have exclusively friends of their own sexual orientation, and it’s nice to see a manga that’s otherwise pretty heavy on tropes and archetypes reflect that. It even folds Yutaka and Matsuri’s relationship back into their usual dynamic, which takes on a flirtatious edge for the final few chapters of the manga, given that they’re now officially a couple.
As far as I can surmise, Baddest Girl was never crazy popular or anything, but mangaka Ui Kashima has kept working (currently, she’s penning the VTuber-themed romcom Liver Diver Lover, which has a beautiful tongue twister of an English title) and I hope she takes what fandom Baddest Girl did manage to pick up as a mandate to keep being herself.
As for me, well, I am going back to bed. See you next week, and hopefully no sooner. (Seriously, I need to rest.)
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