Part 2: “Dancing in the Dark”
To read Part 1, click here.
To read Part 3, click here.
The second major incident of a character losing control for love is the scene in which Andre confesses to Oscar. However, this scene is not a simply a case of a character defying class and cultural conventions to tell someone of a drastically different social position that he loves her. This scene is dark and complicated and may be upsetting or triggering. The initial loss of control experienced in the verbal confession and the kiss most definitely fits within the model Ikeda has established, but what happens next is about as subtle as the metaphor of Ikeda taking a sledgehammer to the established characterization. While I’ll mainly be discussing what this scene means within the narrative context of the manga, I’d also like to look at what this trope means in contemporary culture.
In this scene, Oscar has just met with Hans Axel von Fersen, Marie Antoinette’s lover, whom she has had a crush on for years. Oscar confessed that she loved Fersen, but Fersen has told her that he cannot love anyone but Antoinette, and, if Oscar is in love with him, it would be better to not see each other again. She goes home and starts reminiscing with Andre about the first time they met as kids, but, realizing that she’s “wasted her youth” on Fersen, she begins to cry. Andre doesn’t take long to put the pieces together (3: 97-106).
Andre: Oscar…. When did it start? Whenever your smoky blonde hair skims the tip of your nose… Whenever I see your eyes like Orion in the winter sky, framed beneath your silken, night-colored lashes… Whenever a sweet sigh escapes those lips sealed like ice…
I feel like there’s a fire rising up from deep inside me. I can’t control these feelings anymore!
Oscar, don’t move! Don’t move—just listen to me.
I know I shouldn’t think about if you could be mine or if I could marry you.
But–! But if it comes down to giving you up to another man, I’d rather your father shoot me dead right here where I stand!
Please, Oscar… I’d do anything for you. If you said the word, I’d give my life for you.
Andre: I’m sorry, Oscar. I swear to God this won’t happen again.
Oscar: Andre?! Andre, what’s wrong?
Andre: Ah…it’s nothing. Just my eye–No, my hair was just in my eye.
Andre: (thinking) My eye… For a second, everything was dark. Must just have been my imagination. There’s not supposed to be anything wrong with my right eye, but…
The Narrative: Andre
As stated before, love’s making someone lose control of all reservation and social graces, such as in the scene I previously discussed, is one of the main themes of love in the manga. In that scene, Andre was able to convince Oscar to control herself before anything got out of hand. Yet, in this scene, their roles are reversed to disastrous effect. Normally cool-headed Andre loses control of himself and, throwing caution to the wind, confesses verbally to Oscar. While this act is well within the established trope, the frustration and anger that manifests as violence toward Oscar (temporarily) destroys the trope and destroys Andre’s characterization.
While it’s true that Ikeda probably wanted to keep the plot interesting by having Andre confess “too soon,” before Oscar has fully realized her budding feelings for him, thus creating conflict that drives the plot ahead and complicates their relationship, the physical violence and the potential sexual violence seem, at first, to come out of nowhere. Andre is not an aggressive person. Of course, he can hold his own in a fight (even with failing vision), and he is physically strong, but the kind of sword fights he prefers are friendly practice with Oscar. While Oscar starts a bar fight because she’s angry that Fersen went to fight in the American Revolution, Andre never takes out his frustration and anger about his one-sided love for Oscar until he grabs her.
Indeed, Andre is in a very dark place, physically and mentally. Likewise, his vision is, literally and figuratively, clouded. Initially, Andre was glad to give an eye to save Oscar, seeing his blindness as a sacrifice for love. However, his condition has been steadily worsening to the point that he will eventually lose his sight completely, and he knows that. The implications of going blind have the potential to affect every aspect of his life. If he loses his sight, he won’t be able to physically protect Oscar and fight alongside her. Also, a blind manservant would be more of a hindrance than a help in the Jarjeyes home–Andre’s falling while going up or down the stairs becomes a regular occurrence, which he tries to hide from everyone. Livelihood aside, he also will not be physically able to see Oscar. He feels useless and pathetic; he fears being separated from her (3: 370-4).
Andre has admired Oscar from afar for years because he knew there was no chance of their having relationship accepted by society, and because there was no reason to act. For instance, when he and Rosalie commiserate about loving Oscar, Andre comments that, more than her loving Fersen, the class difference will always keep him from Oscar (2: 129-30). In this scene he seems sad and resigned, but not panicked, and Rosalie reminds him that he and Oscar will probably always be together, at least. However, the situation changes with his blindness. Unable to deal with both the implications of going blind and the thought of losing Oscar forever, Andre sinks deeper and deeper into the darkness until, in this scene, it very nearly consumes him—and the reader.
Just as Joseph Conrad’s prose wove a jungle-like path of words to mimic the setting of Heart of Darkness, Ikeda wants to drag us down the rabbit hole with Andre by forcing us inside his mental breakdown. Andre’s confession signals the dangerous breaking of a class barrier he dared not touch because he was able to restrain his feelings. At the same time, we, too, go from waiting with Andre in more or less passive contentment to watching literally everything he and we care about seem to slip away with him powerless to stop it. The out-of-character violence signifies a complete upheaval of everything she has carefully set up in the first half of the manga—characterization, the way love is depicted—and is overturned so violently that the reader feels like a victim. Like Andre and Oscar, the readers are similarly powerless to stop the turn that Ikeda has taken with her story.
This powerlessness reminds me very much of friends who would stop Titanic or Moulin Rouge at the half-way point—after the main characters became romantically involved but before things took a tragic turn—in an attempt to “change” the narrative to one they preferred. This is actually the origin, in some ways, of fan fiction and doujinshi (同人誌): the desire to manipulate the characters in a way to the reader’s liking, whether that is by “shipping” two characters who aren’t romantically involved or altering or adding to established relationships; by giving plot arcs a different ending to benefit a favorite character; and by the author’s writing him- or herself (a Mary Sue or Gary Stu) into the plot as a form of participatory reading. Certainly there is fanfiction and doujinshi out there that subverts this plot point in a variety of different ways, but in the main text, the outcome of Andre’s confession is the complete opposite of what the readers’ expectations likely were. That is, because Andre has never shown a cruel or violent streak, his reaction to Oscar’s rejection is confusing and shocking because it is so completely out of character. This allows the reader to identify with both Oscar and Andre simultaneously: like Oscar, we are stunned to the point of having absolutely no idea how to respond or what to do; we are in shock. This person before us cannot possibly be the Andre we know and love. As for identifying with Andre, we witness a complete mental break; his actions drag us down into his world of despair.
While this scene is jarring and upsetting, it signals the deteriorating state of Andre’s mental health. After this incident, he stays true to his promise that “this will never happen again” to Oscar. However, his behavior becomes increasingly erratic as he has to cope with another issue: Girodel, one of Oscar’s fellow officers, proposes to her. Girodel confronts Andre and tells him that he can stay by Oscar’s side because, as a commoner, he is not a (sexual) threat to her; Andre responds by throwing a drink in Girodel’s face, which, considering Andre’s relatively powerless position, could have resulted in serious punishment (3: 284). (This narrative of power and class really deserves its own post, and I hope to write one soon.) After the confession and before the proposal Andre behaves normally toward Oscar, letting her help him learn to shoot with his compromised vision (3: 236), but when she tries to talk to him about what happened, he runs from her (3:237). After the proposal, in utter anguish, Andre vacillates between fight and flight; his thoughts seem jumbled; even his word-bubbles seem confused, particularly how the spiky bubbles Ikeda tends to use for screaming and anger are filled with words like “I love you.”
In the depth of his despair, Andre takes Girodel’s advice and reads Rousseau’s novel Nouveau Heloise, which features an impossible love between a common man and a noblewoman and ends in their deaths (3: 284; 306-7). Girodel probably had intended Andre to read it and give up on Oscar because of the point about class relations that the novel illustrates. Girodel, of course, has no idea that Andre has snapped; the lesson Andre takes from the novel, similarly to what he told her during their encounter, is that he would rather die than be apart from her, and so he decides to poison her and himself. At the time, Andre thinks his idea is rather romantic, but when he actually goes to do the deed, he realizes that this selfish, controlling love in which he has been wallowing in is wrong. The Oscar he loves is full of life, and to take that away would be a crime. (He also considers that he would likely go to hell for murdering her, and thus never see heaven-bound Oscar again.) And so, once more, in a (positive) moment of the loss of control due to his overwhelming feelings of love, he leaps across the table and knocks the poisoned wine out of her hand (3:326).
Ikeda, in this way, both uses the trope of extreme feelings of love leading to aggression when she completely changes Andre’s personality for this arc. There is the loss of restraint leading to a very real potential for violence, and in both cases, Andre comes to his senses because of his love for Oscar—partially the first time, as he does continue to sink into deeper into the mire—and completely the second time, as he realizes that loving her can never mean completely possessing her (3: 328). Girodel, despite his best intentions, does not understand this; even though he is willing to concede keeping Andre around for her, he wants Oscar to be a woman and a wife, to give up her work as a commander and to live a quiet life “with no worries” as the lady of his house (3: 302). Although Oscar considers running away from her problems by marrying Girodel, she eventually decides that she can’t live that kind of life and that she can’t run away from her growing feelings for Andre, though she really isn’t sure what to do with said feelings. Andre’s mental state recovers greatly after he realizes that what he’s been doing is despicable; after Oscar officially (and spectacularly) rejects Girodel’s proposal, Andre more or less returns to his old self. Yet, like his sight, he doesn’t recover fully. He can no longer pretend he doesn’t love her, but he still has no idea what to do about the class division. He can’t take back what he did any more than Oscar can bring back his eye; and, on top of this, the plot has been set in motion for the eve of the Revolution. This is the turning point in the plot at which everything around them begins falling apart.
As I’ve written, a media trope cannot exist in a vacuum, and while this scene mainly functions as an insight to Andre’s mental state spinning out of control, it does have a basis in the way we think about love, gender, sex (male/female), and sex (intercourse).
Andre’s actions are part of a larger trope. TV Tropes calls this “rape is love,” which is a fitting phrase when it appears in (obviously) pornography and also in some more adult-oriented stories. The trope is certainly not limited to Japanese media, either. I’d like to rephrase the trope for situations like BeruBara to “desperate (and sometimes disturbing) acts are love,” because this trope varies from “rape is love.” In Japanese culture, I think that this trope comes up because the Japanese value reservation, control, and structure. Before anyone accuses me of Ruth-Benedicting on my argument, I would like to point out that just because Japanese society values reservation and control doesn’t mean that everyone abides by these values or fits in; but the cultural value is still there and more so than in the US. (The US values independence and equality, but our citizens are, obviously, dependent on the government, and our society has never been equal thanks to the systematic oppression of various groups.)
Reservation and control play out in Japanese culture through the culturally valued separation between tatemae 建前 (outside, societal façade, face) and honne 本音 (inside, true feelings). One example I’ve encountered in living here is food culture. Although the times are most certainly changing, Japanese men are not supposed to like sweets. Whether the man in question actually has 10 cups of Haagen-Daz in his freezer doesn’t matter; a manly man isn’t supposed to choose a restaurant based on its cakes. (Young men are completely another matter—the stereotype remains, but more of them , herbivore men aside, seem more comfortable voicing their culinary likes and dislikes). I think the problem is less that sweets are considered to be “girly” and more that a REAL MAN has control over his desires and emotions; a stoic samurai would never give in to the sweet, sweet taste of chocolate ice cream in a moment of weakness.
To control one’s emotions—to avoid being upset or angry in public, to not show a lover public displays of affection, to downplay your abilities, to keep all the inside in—is perhaps the highest form of politeness here. This is changing—young couples hold hands on the streets of the cities, for example—but, in general, acting really excited or upset is considered childish. There is a reason why Ban from Bambino! runs into the bathroom to be alone before vocally celebrating a victory in the kitchen.
But what if there were someone that you loved so much that you couldn’t control your emotions? That is, if your emotions were so strong that you couldn’t keep them inside? This loss of control on the part of the “aggressor” has the potential to be romantic as well as disturbing. Losing control of the façade and showing one’s true feelings is how the trope fits into Japanese culture–Andre loves Oscar so much that he doesn’t care if confessing to her and breaking down the class barrier results in his death. Yet, the idea of sexual aggression met with passive resistance goes much deeper into cultural norms across cultures. (For an excellent article on this in doujinshi, see “Doujinshi: Part 2” at Contemporary Japanese Literature, and also James Welker’s “Beautiful, Borrowed, and Bent: Boys’ Love as Girls’ Love in Shojo Manga,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 31(3) (Spring 2006): 841-870.)
As an American woman who came of age in the early 2000s, the phrase “No means no” was a mantra. All advice given to my peers and me regarding romantic or sexual interactions in the years between the budding of romantic interest and the actual participation in adult romantic relationships included “no means no.” The fact that this phrase even exists shows us something important about the culture of refusal.
In Japan, it’s polite to refuse something before taking it. “Do you want something to eat?” “Oh, no, I couldn’t. Don’t go to the trouble” means, “Sure, but expressing my emotions is childish, so I’ll refuse first.” Compliments should be met with polite refusal. The correct response to “Your Japanese is very good” (when it is actually legitimately good and not just a conversation filler) is not “Thank you, I’ve studied for seven years and have an MA in it” but “Oh, no, it’s full of mistakes! I’m not there yet!” (Which is also true, of course, but is the opposite of good self-promotion in American society.)
In the US, we are linguistically allowed to be direct about our wants and needs, but on a cultural level, being reserved is still being polite. As children, we are taught to say please and thank you, to wait for the host or hostess to offer us food or drink, to not appear as if we are physically enjoying our food too much (slurping, smacking the lips, etc.). This extends to how we feel about love, too: to attempt to increase the other party’s interest by acting disinterested, to wait a few days before calling (or emailing, now), to make oneself seem not desperate.
I think this is why the “rape is love” and “desperate acts are love” tropes exist. On one level, we are “supposed to” refuse desire or pleasure to an appropriate cultural level, but the onus tends to fall on women (and, by extension of the cultural gendering, any person perceived as a “bottom”). Women—at least good girls—are not supposed to say, “Yes, let’s have sex!” (or some variant). This is changing, but the Virgin-Whore complex still persists today: the girl who refuses or makes you wait is a woman of class and value; a woman who is honest about her sexual desire is vulgar and slutty. To use a tamer example, while the playing field of initially asking someone on a date has been more or less leveled since the era of “dating” began, why do you suppose that a woman proposing to her male partner is still considered strange and taboo?
In perceiving the refuser to be refusing out of politeness and shame (because “nice girls” don’t “want” sex, and if they do, they will never admit to it, hence the refusal), this scenario has become a powerful cultural force. In the US, we do talk about this as a problem in sex education and safety—the mantra of “no means no.” But in our cultural subconscious, this trope has become desirable and sexy. In the media, when someone tries to force himself or herself (anything from a kiss to sex) on someone else in romantic story, the result is typically (sometimes violent) refusal out of propriety WHILE enjoying the act. The aggressor gets slapped, but the other party can’t stop thinking about it and realizes the feeling is mutual. The “passive” party must act passive in order to maintain the reservation and control the actor has abandoned. Enjoyment is allowed, to a degree, because the “victim” or actual victim didn’t “want” it. The fantasy of surrendering is quite powerful, and a good summary about the Journal of Sex Research‘s research on this is here.
The Narrative: Oscar
Which brings us to Oscar’s part in the scene. The scene ultimately does not give into the pleasure in refusal trope*, but there is still a sense of it. In BeruBara, Oscar says no and means it—but then she completely shuts down when Andre rips her shirt. Just as Andre’s characterization has been overturned to show his mental state, Oscar’s has been, too. Oscar, who is more often than not the first one to throw a punch and has no qualms about embracing her cultural gender privilege of hitting on other women, just lays there in shock. While her imploring looks, tears, and words do make Andre realize what he has done and what he is doing, her line “What are you going to do to me?” is shocking both to Andre and to the reader.
While Oscar is most likely in shock at the forceful confession of her oldest, dearest friend, someone she had never considered might love her, her reaction does not seem to be detached shock alone. Like Andre, Oscar is in a dark place, too. After being rejected by Fersen (and even more so after being proposed to by Girodel), she begins to seriously question her life and the gender she plays. Being raised as a boy was not her choice, but until this point, she had embraced it, or at least accepted and enjoyed it. When Fersen continues to fail to notice she likes him, she dresses as a woman for a ball just once to see if he will react (2: 228-32).** When Fersen rejects her, she seems more upset at wasting her youth on loving him than the actual rejection (3: 80-2). At the same time, her father is pressuring her to take the position of general just as she’s growing more and more aware of the class divisions in French society and the corruption of the French court. She begins to grow tired of fighting (which is more evident in the Girodel plotline, where marriage seems like a possible escape), and so when Andre suddenly confesses, the combination of shock, fear, anxiety, and exhaustion seem to knock all the fight out of her in a complete reversal of her characterization. She just gives up.
It’s important to remember that we never know what actions we will take until a situation occurs. Certainly shock and despair to the point of not fighting back were not what Oscar or the readers expected of her. Regarding the narrative, the reaction shows her complete exhaustion, but also how the pair’s relationship is still unequal. By having Andre play the role of aggressor and Oscar the role of passive party or victim, Ikeda violently overturns her characterization to force us into the mental state of the characters. The trope of “rape is love” does loom over this interaction, as Oscar eventually does realize that she loves Andre. Yet, the love grows out of the characters’ continued development together toward equality and acceptance as they suffer through the beginning of the Revolution, of class conflict, and of illness; this mutual growth is what allows them to successfully confess and begin a romantic relationship.
Interestingly, though, Oscar later remembers Andre’s kiss—the first one, before the confession went downhill—fondly because it was so passionate compared to Girodel’s (3: 304-5). Although this realization alone doesn’t lead to her falling in love with Andre, it highlights the importance of how his character has changed from her passive shadow to someone with more agency—a fully developed and complicated person instead of someone who is perfect and perfectly content to stand on the sidelines. (This is in contrast to Girodel, who appears to be the perfect gentlemen, but who is actually someone with a subtle cruel streak, as evidenced in his interactions with Andre). In BeruBara, losing control of one’s emotions in the form of passionately confessing love to and kissing someone far above your social station is meant to be terribly romantic, but the message that Ikeda drives home in overall narrative and in scene I will cover in Part 3 is that, in the end, it is the importance of mutual feelings, equality and consent that make love work.
Next time: Andre loses control in a way that befits Ikeda’s trope and the two finally have an equal, mutual confession.
*Not because Andre stops, but because Oscar’s growing to love Andre takes a different path.
** Interestingly, he does react by later telling her that he can only love Antoinette and thinks of her as his best friend in France–but not a romantic interest.