June 2, 2021

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Sweat and Soap [Ase to Sekken] by Kintetsu Yamada

Sweat and Soap [Ase to Sekken] by Kintetsu Yamada
Translation: Matt Treyvaud
Published by: Kodansha USA

Ah, Sweat and Soap! The weirdly titled manga with the problematic cover, that turned out to be a sleeper hit. What attracted me to the series wasn’t the title, and it certainly wasn’t the first volume cover. The attraction lay in the promise of an adult romance. In that respect this series definitely delivers. The story centres around Asako and Natori. Asako is a shy accountant working in the finance department of Liliadrop, a toiletry company. She has complex about her body odour and her abnormal levels of perspiration. Natori is a product developer and the creator of Liliadrop’s signature line of soaps. He is driven and outgoing and he also has an ultra sensitive nose. His sense of smell could rival that of a bloodhound’s. If you can battle your way past the creepy cover, and beyond the first chapter, I can promise you a sweet and mature office romance. 

So, let’s talk about that first chapter. It reads very differently from the rest of the series. It originated as a stand alone story created by Yamada for Morning D magazine, a manga magazine aimed at adult men. As often happens with one-shots, fans loved it and it was picked up for serialization. The story opens with Asako minding her own business. She is innocently admiring the upcoming line up of Liliadrop soaps on display in the company building, when Natori catches a whiff of her. The next panel finds him leaning over her sniffing her neck and hair. Of course she’s it totally freaked out, I mean who wouldn’t be? She tries to get away, but Natori grabs her and drags her off to a secluded room, where he then proceeds (against her will) to sniff her to his hearts content.

 

It is meant to be humorous, and the dialogue is funny, however, if you look at the panels without reading the dialogue, it looks like Natori is assaulting Asako. Throw in the tired trope of the kabedon into the mix and the vibes are totally disturbing. For those who don’t know what kabedon is, it’s a narrative device so overused in manga that it’s become a sort of joke. It has its origins in shojo [girls’] manga, and it is used to indicate the moment when male character declares his romantic interest in a female character. Basically the male character overwhelmed with desire and emotion will coral his target against a wall and cage her in using one or both hands. The word kabedon comes from the combination of the word for wall and the onomatopoeia of a hand hitting a wall.

Some find it romantic, personally I’d be pulling out the pepper spray, especially, if like Asako, it happened with someone I didn’t know. Luckily for Natori, Asako seems to think nothing of being forcibly smelt by a complete stranger. He manages to convince her that her scent is inspirational, and that his smelling her is necessary to his work, and integral to “the good of the company”. He then makes an arrangement with Asako, Natori will meet her everyday to take in her scent. 



 

The story continues from there with a number of cringe-worthy and tired narrative devices. Natori after a week of smelling Asako, takes it further and tries to slip his hand under Asako’s skirt. That earns him a shove and the view of Asako fleeing to the sanctuary of the ladies room. He then texts her an apology and tries to ask her out on a date. Asako is in the middle of sorting out her feelings, when on the way home she is assaulted by a groper on the train. Of course, it’s Natori to the rescue, although the only reason he was there, was because he had followed her home. He has the intellectual capacity to see just how creepy he is acting, and admits as much. Asako though, is like, it’s cool you’re not creepy at all, actually what I really want is... and, they proceed to have sex. End of chapter.

I actually had to put Sweat and Soap down for a few days after reading the first chapter. It was in a pile of books to be donated when I picked it up again, basically because I had nothing else to read at the time. I’m really glad that I gave the manga another try. Yamada managed to take a rather immature one shot and flesh it out into an interesting and nuanced story.    


Asako and Natori start dating after chapter two and from then on the manga becomes an exploration of what it means to be in a relationship in your late 20s and early 30s. It’s refreshing to read a romance manga about people who aren’t school aged. Natori and Asako have bills to pay, they have to navigate office politics, they have careers to build, and they have family to consider.

Yamada does a really good job of keeping the series interesting and fresh without falling into the usual traps that many romance manga do. Yes, there is Asako’s younger brother who is overly obsessed with his sister. We find out, however, that his concern for her has a history. Asako also has to contend with Natori’s cute coworker who may or may not be a rival for his affection. Both of these narrative devices, are over used in romance manga, but Yamada manages to employ them in a mature and realistic way.

There is a great scene in volume 4 where Natori asks Asako to move in with him, her response isn’t what he expects, and this leads to some enlightening and adult conversations with his co-workers. He comes to realize that he was only thinking about himself and the advantages that living with Asako would confer upon him, he hadn’t taken into consideration how she might feel about such a big change.

Natori who at first seems like a work-driven, egocentric creep, is in fact a sensitive and nuanced character. Asako is also a complex character. Despite coming off as submissive in the first few chapters, she is anything but. Although she lacks self confidence, she knows what she wants, the issue is whether she thinks she deserves it. She has a lot of difficulty expressing her desires, but as the series progresses she learns to become more forceful and worry less. In volumes 4 and 5 we really begin to see Natori and Asako’s relationship take shape . The previous volumes focused on Asako and her anxieties, volume 5 sees Natori open up about his fears and desires. Getting to know these two characters and watching them grow together is one of the charms of this manga.

 

The rating for Sweat and Soap fluctuates between Older Teen and Mature. I always find the fluctuating rating comical, but it’s pretty common. The 18+ rating is slapped on the cover of volume 3, if I were to guess, because of a sensually drawn bathing scene, but then volume 4 has a 16+ rating and it has a rather spicy bonus chapter that feels way more “pornographic” than anything in volume 3. It’s a mystery. In any case there are sexy times smattered through out the story, but honestly it’s pretty tame by most standards. 

Considering that the two main characters hook up in the first chapter and are dating by the second, the mangaka has a bit of a challenge creating sexual tension between the two. Yamada, however, rises to the occasion, he manages to create sex scenes that are both sweet and spicy. The ‘fan-service” is definitely one sided, though. There’s lots of sensual Asako and very little naked Natori; not unexpected considering Sweat and Soap was published in a men’s magazine.

It’s kind of interesting that Sweat and Soap was written to cater to a predominately male readership in Japan, but it has a predominately female fan base in North America. One reason may be that, although Asako is in many ways a reflection of the male ideal, she is still a very relatable character. She feels real, like I’ve seen her on the subway or in line at Starbucks. Her design is more realistic than the majority of female manga characters. She’s not stick thin, rather she is curvy, with glasses and short hair. Even as the story progresses her design stays pretty much the same. Yamada chooses not to make over his protagonist. Too often the shy demure protagonist will suddenly transform after she gains some confidence. I applauded Yamada, that so far he has resisted this temptation.

His characters both male and female have very attractive designs and the characters look distinct from the each other. This is not always the case in manga, and it’s nice to see. Yamada has also set the bar high for himself by setting the story in an office environment. Unlike high school or superhero manga the characters do not have uniforms. This means a lot of work for the mangaka as he cannot just mindlessly draw the same outfit in every panel. He even changes Asako’s hair styles depending on her mood and occasion.


Sweat and Soap is Yamada’s first weekly manga. He started out working with a circle of mangaka creating doujinshi. Doujinshi is, for lack of a better word, indie manga. Both pro and amateur artists create doujinshi and the market for it is huge in Japan. Some doujinshi is original and some is fan-made manga of existing franchises. A lot of amateur artists cut their teeth on doujinshi and some mangaka are discovered at doujinshi conventions. Yamada was recruited by Kodansha from one such convention. He still continues to work with his circle on doujinshi, though.

Sweat and Soap’s run is finished in Japan, the last volume, volume 11 was released in May. The story, or at least the smutty part, doesn’t end there though. Yamada will release an 18+ doujinshi of Sweat and Soap in late May. It’s a bonus story that appears continue where the original story leaves off. Unfortunately, because it is a doujinshi and not affiliated with his publisher, we probably won’t see a North America release. Which is too bad, because I cannot get enough of this couple. Kodansha has released volumes 1-6 and the remaining five volumes will be released later this year. I’m really glad that I gave Sweat and Soap a second chance. I actually recommended this manga to a friend but she just couldn’t get past the first volume cover. She said it looked “creepy”. It’s a pity really that some people may get turned off by the manga before they even begin to read it, because of an unfortunate cover design. The subsequent covers are really cute, and more indicative of the story. I encourage anyone who is looking to read a sweet and thoughtful romance to take a chance (like I did) on Sweat and Soap.