You could be forgiven for thinking that the word “toxic” gets overused these days. But there’s a good reason for it – while historically it may describe plants or other substances that poison you, today it’s more (or just as) common to use it to describe a social practice or expectation that poisons people. That kind of toxicity is more insidious, because it attacks from both the outside in and the inside out, and destroys you more completely than any venom. That’s where Hinako Uno is at the start of Shio Usui‘s Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon: being torn apart by a society that teaches her that she needs to find a husband in order to be financially secure and happy, to the point where she can’t even admit that she wants something else.
That makes this book a bit darker than your typical yuri manga. Hinako is desperately trying to figure out a way through life when we meet her – she’s about to have a date with a man who is financially successful, nice, and good-looking, and she really, really doesn’t want to go. She knows that he likes her, but he leaves her cold, even though intellectually she knows that he’s exactly who and what she’s supposed to want. At this point she can’t even verbalize to herself who or what she might want instead, so she just beats herself up relentlessly even as she tries all the tricks she knows to make this date into something she can fool herself into enjoying.
Mostly those tricks involve makeup and a dress that’s comfortable and makes her look good. Uno wears her outward appearance like armor, even saying as much later on in the volume, but this is something of a double-edged sword. She’s largely putting on the armor as an act of self-preservation, but to others it looks as if she’s dressing up for them, or at least with the goal of attracting a man. None of this is Uno’s fault, but the world’s expectations are beginning to feel like poison to her soul, and because she’s so afraid of standing out, she can’t bring herself to tell her work friends (or possibly “friends;” the jury’s still out there) what she’s really thinking. Uno’s in a death spiral, and she couldn’t see a way out.
That’s where the series’ other protagonist comes in. Asahi Satou has a reputation around the office as a scary woman, but that seems to stem from the way that she flaunts, or at least doesn’t seem to care about, the sort of social conventions and expectations that are drowning Uno. The sole caregiver for her high school-aged sister, Satou’s more concerned with doing her job well and going home, and her role as her sister’s guardian makes her more aware of people who may be having a hard time than she lets on. That’s how she and Uno really meet – she finds Uno after she’s rejected a perfect-on-paper man and offers her a doughnut to cheer her up. The two women begin really talking for the first time, exchanging something beyond office pleasantries, and readers can see that they’re forming a connection that may be more than friendship.
Satou can see it, too, although she’s not sure how mutual it is. Although she’s not out at work, her sister makes it clear that Satou’s a lesbian, and that she is not only completely comfortable with it (as she should be), but also very much in favor of Satou dating Uno. The problem is that Uno is so bogged down with the messages she’s been receiving her entire life about heteronormativity that she’s not even aware that she’s attracted to Satou sexually or romantically. She’s edging closer to it over the course of the volume, but she’s not there yet – something that makes the wait for the English release of volume two difficult.
Uno’s unhappiness and unawareness of her own wants aren’t the only fish that the creator has to fry, however. There’s a very good scene where Uno, conditioned to be a “good woman” in more ways than just finding a man, has a discussion with her boss, an older man. He repeatedly chides her for her less-than-sunny mood, telling her that she needs to smile like she always does, because that’s what women are supposed to do. When Satou comes to the rescue, he immediately begins telling her to smile. She rebuffs him, he persists, and eventually she asks if she needs to report him for sexual harassment. It’s a great scene not only because it’s one of the few office-set manga I can think of that mentions having sensitivity training for employees, but also because it’s taking on such a basic and irritating part of life without turning anyone into a caricature. She’s not a shrieking harpy, he’s not a chest-beating misogynist, they’re just people having a heated disagreement without things getting overexaggerated. That makes the scene have more impact, both for readers and for Uno, who begins more actively seeking Satou out after it.
Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon really does feel like yuri for an adult audience. Not because it’s racy – there’s not even kissing in this volume – but rather because it tackles the idea of having been told that you “have” to be something and someone to the point where you can’t even find yourself anymore. Uno’s got a long climb ahead to get out of her toxic situation. Hopefully it will continue to be worth the journey.