Anno Moyoco has quickly become one of my favorite mangaka. Sugar Sugar Rune is her shoujo series, and while not anywhere near as serious as works like Sakuran and In Clothes Called Fat, it has the kind of messages I’d expect from her having read her josei works. SSR is big on critiquing femininity but manages to do so without throwing women under the bus, which is really great. It’s also something of a reverse-harem setup, which is extremely rare. The plotting and worldbuilding flounder at the end, but if you like shoujo or have a girl who you think would be into manga, this is an excellent starting point.
Sugar Sugar Rune is the story of two witches, the firey Chocolat and shy Vanilla, who are competing to become queen of the magic realm, but are also best friends. In order to become queen, they must travel to the human world to collect hearts, as human affection powers magic. Basically, whoever makes the most boys fall in love with them wins.
This manga brought up something interesting when I was originally looking into it, which is that no one could figure out the genre. All the summaries were like “well, it’s not actually a magical girl story, but it’s about girls and there’s also fantasy elements so that’s what it is I guess?” If this story were about two boys competing to become king of magic it would just be called fantasy and coming-of-age, but because the main characters were girls everyone was confused and baffled, trying to slot it into the only genre that everyone agrees is allowed to be about girls and their struggles. This is, unequivocally, a fantasy coming-of-age story, and it’s definitely not a magical girl story (no transformation sequences, no normal girls given power, no saving the planet, no frilly costumes, etc.). But everyone was so baffled by the idea of a story about girls that didn’t fit into our pre-defined woman genre they just put it there anyway. Which is kindly blackly ironic, considering the work’s major themes.
Let’s talk themes!
Everyone expects Chocolat to win, since she’s the most popular girl with the boys in the magic world, but she finds that the loud, assertive personality that’s so great in her home isn’t so popular with human boys. She’s seen as mean and overbearing when school starts, while Vanilla, whose quietness and fear of people is a huge fault in the magical world, is loved for her delicacy and femininity. Chocolat struggles with what to do — does she try to change who she is, or stay strong and risk losing the queenship? The ultimate answer is that it’s okay not to be feminine. Chocolat and Vanilla both have their personal strengths, and as their names imply, they aren’t just opposite, but complements. As the story goes on, Chocolat’s classmates — boys included — come to love her for who she is, while also loving Vanilla for who she is.
The book has some really great scenes. My favorite was when Chocolat is trying to capture the heart of a transfer student from Australia who explicitly dislikes her because she’s not feminine, and they go to the beach where it’s revealed he loves surfing. Before they go, Chocolat uses a magical item that will help her say what he wants to hear, and her game plan is to flail around and ask him for surfing lessons. But she’s sporty, so she’s actually a great surfer, and she can’t bring herself to pretend to be bad at it, so she ends up tearing up waves while the magic stuff is making her shout that she needs help and she’s terrible and won’t the boy come help her as her classmates look on in complete confusion. And as it turns out, the boy actually thinks it’s awesome she’s good at surfing — the spell breaks, and she captures his heart.
There’s also a nice chapter where the bad guys come to their school cafeteria and make everyone insecure about how they look by telling the girls they need to lose weight and offering them a magic powder that can help. Chocolat refuses to use it because she thinks everyone should be okay with how they look, and then discovers that the powder actually turns everyone against each other and makes them nasty to their friends so that the bad guys can feed off the negative emotion. It’s a perfect commentary on the forces that, for their own gain, act on young girls to foster insecurity and competition.
Spoilers from here on out.
I do think the Pierre romance was an iffy choice, for the reasons discussed at the end of the Maho Tsukai no Yome post. Yes, when he wasn’t being controlled by dark energy, he was a lovely person, but… most dudes who are shitty are just shitty etc etc. I think it would have been better overall if Chocolat ended up single and travelling the world at the end, or — Luke-and-Leia-creepy as it would have been — if Pierre was actually her brother and the way they were drawn to each other was some kind of sibling magic. That said, I did like that she had to save him with her unique powers, as opposed to the more common reverse, and that the book was willing to acknowledge they couldn’t reasonably be together while they were trying to kill each other.
The biggest problem with the manga, though, is that the backstory and overarching plot is a bit wonky. So there are ogres who are the enemy of witches, and early on it’s implied that ogres aren’t actually evil, just outcasts who have been forced to subsist on negative energy when they were cast out of society — and, further, that Vanilla’s mother, the current queen, is trying to bring their people back together, and Chocolat’s mother (missing and presumed dead) was in on it as well. The end-game revelation about Chocolat’s mom solidifies this idea that the ogres aren’t evil, just Other.
So it seemed to be going for a “don’t hate the people different from you” thing, but the ending didn’t really make sense. Like, I guess it turns out that the ogres are mindlessly evil and all need to be destroyed? But this doesn’t fit in with anything that was established. Where I thought it was going to go was that the king ogre’s imprisonment was what made him evil and when he was free he would be good again and then Chocolat would overflow the current regime and start over, but the post-battle details are just missing, so it looks like killing King Ogre was the end goal? It just didn’t make any sense, and I almost wonder if Anno got cut off at some point and had to wrap things up really quickly.
What I did actually like was the ending to Chocolat and Vanilla’s stories. I liked the idea that a patient, quiet queen was what the world needed in the aftermath of all the chaos, and I think what Chocolat discovered was actually that the role didn’t suit her. Chocolat loved the human world, loved exploring new places, and I could understand her not wanting to give that up. It was kind of a weird mix though, between the weirdness of having the protagonist not fulfill the their and having them discover there’s more to life than that goal. In retrospect I think it was a suitable turn of events, but when I finished it felt like kind of an emotional letdown.
All of that said, the main focus was on Chocolat as a person and her growth (coming of age!), and that part was done really well. I thought it was solid-to-good overall and it’s nice choice for the target demo. I also really love Anno’s art.
The English version of SSR went out of print a while ago, and the terminal volumes are prohibitively expensive. A company called Udon supposedly picked up the anniversary re-release for English localization, but they announced it last year and have been completely silent about it since, so who knows if/when that’s going to happen, unfortunately.