Sweat and Soap is one of those things that when you describe it to someone sounds either sickly sweet or more than a little creepy. I mean, it’s basically a story about two people falling in love as they find they complement each other (that’s the sickly sweet part) because she has a strong body odor and he likes to smell her (that’s the creepy part).
I was going to look at the two of them as a pair, but that didn’t quite work. The guy, Kotaro Natori, is basically designed as a character to be the perfect man for Asako, so the outcome is more or less inevitable.
How do you put some conflict or suspense or tension into that? I mean, they’re perfect for each other by design. It’s, like obvious.
It works because of the way Asako is constructed.
So we don’t need to talk about Kotaro. So there. Pttttt.
Asako is actually constructed pretty simply but also pretty well. First of all, she’s obviously as cute as a bug’s ear and has a smokin’ hot bod. That’s not just manga/anime convention; several of her (female) co-workers talk about how physically attractive she is. She’s also a really nice person: when she catches people screwing up their paperwork, she helps them instead of busting them. Everyone likes her. Plus the writers also make the point that she’s highly competent at her job: smart, knowledgeable, and skilled.
In short, she’s the whole package BUT…
That’s one way to build a great character, right? “The protagonist is a __________ but _________” where the first blank is a general descriptor and the second is a potential source of strength or weakness at odds with the general descriptor.
Asako Yaeshima is the whole package but she sweats a lot.
Let me start with this: Sweating a lot (and having a distinct body odor) is a much bigger thing in Japan than it is in the States (or a lot of places). Here are some sample quotes from a booklet on Japanese etiquette:
“If you find your shirt is getting drenched with sweat…wear an undershirt beneath your regular shirt to soak up the moisture.”
“Don’t offend people with your BO…Your goal is to be as unfragrant as possible.”*
This is the society Asako was raised in, and she’s CONSTANTLY drenched with sweat and CONSTANTLY offending people with her BO. Or so she thinks.
And she has reason to believe it bothers people. She was teased mercilessly about it as a child. Her nickname was the Japanese equivalent of “Stinky” (which is also a pun on Asako). She is so afraid of offending people that she is constantly in the Women’s room cleaning herself with towelettes. This is something that REALLY bothers her.
And BOOM: That sets up the tension in the story. She KNOWS that she sweats. She KNOWS her sweating offends people around her. How can Kotaro NOT be offended?
So you can see the basic conflict is “Man vs. Self,” right? It’s between Asako’s desire to be loved by Kotaro (and she does love him and want to be loved by him) and her belief that she smells bad. No matter how often Kotaro says that he loves her natural fragrance, she knows – because this is what she’s been taught all her life – that she stinks.
Even as she starts to accept that Kotaro might really like the way she smells, there’s still the question of what other people will think. She thinks Kotaro is the bee’s knees (and he really is, a tremendous asset to the soap business they both work for, devilishly handsome, appealingly open and vulnerable with her, and a demon in the sack), but as they do things as a couple, and especially as they plan things as a couple, she is worried about how she will reflect on him. How can this paragon be seen with the woman the kids called “Stinky”?
There it is. That’s not going to go away because her concerns about her aroma are hardwired into her system by her upbringing. The magic word for that is “socialization.” Asako is socialized to believe that she is a bad person because she smells, and even if Kotaro is willing to put up with that, she’s still, in her mind, a bad person.
I enjoyed Sweat and Soap as a manga. I understand there’s a live action version which, given the way Kotaro sometimes manhandles Asako, might be even more on the creepy side, but I’d give it a try. There’s also an anime out there somewhere. But the whole story keeps going solely on one source of conflict.
And that works, because the conflict is built into Asako’s character. It’s not something that’s stuck on there; it’s part of what makes her tick. And THAT means it can’t be simply resolved.
I like Asako and so does the writer in me. She’s built simply but at the same time consistently, and so she works as the lead character in a romance.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.
*Chavez, A. (2018). Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, p. 23.