CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of abuse and BDSM. SPOILERS: General discussion of the main relationship in the Horimiya manga.
“It’s just fiction!” my mother told me when I spelled out all the abusive relationship dynamics present in the Twilight series and, later, 50 Shades of Grey. “It’s just fiction!” detractors of my series on abusive relationships in shoujo manga say.
And it’s true, it is just fiction. No one was hurt in the creation and portrayal of these stories of controlling, mean-tempered men and the women who hate to love them. However, in cultures that are reluctant to discuss sex and the importance of functional relationships openly—cultures like those in the U.S. and Japan—many young people develop their ideas based on the fiction they consume.
While I do think storytellers should be able to create whatever they want, and that consumers can enjoy whatever they want, there is a lack of fiction that portrays varied healthy sexual relationships, which leads to a lack of understanding on how to engage in them safely. This is why I was overjoyed when I found the manga Horimiya depicting a kinky relationship with a healthy separation between reality and fantasy.
Horimiya, with a story by HERO and art by Daisuke Hagiwara, features Kyoko Hori and Izumi Miyamura, a pair of high school classmates. The two get to know each other after discovering each is different outside of school and, predictably, fall in love. When their relationship turns physical, they end up experimenting with roleplay, as the normally mild-mannered Miyamura verbally abuses Hori at her request.
Kinky relationships in romance manga are nothing new, particularly in stories aimed at older teens and young women. However, the nature of Hori and Miyamura’s relationship plays out significantly differently, presenting a much healthier dynamic.
While many series, such as the bestsellers Black Bird and Hot Gimmick, have the dominance baked in with a controlling male love interest and a submissive female lead, Hori and Miyamura’s overall relationship is in many ways the opposite of their sex play. Hori has the much stronger, more dominant personality, while Miyamura is meek and polite. The dynamic shifts only in specific contexts when she requests that he scream at her.
When Hori and Miyamura first start experimenting with kink, Miyamura seeks out a trusted adult to talk out his confusion: Hori’s father, Kyosuke. While consulting your girlfriend’s father about your sex life is something of an… unconventional choice, Kyosuke still offers Miyamura important guidance. He posits that his daughter is “enjoying the gap” between the real Miyamura and his verbally violent performance.
This “gap” marks the separation between reality and fantasy, which is absolutely essential to any relationship involving roleplay like Hori and Miyamura’s. That separation is what divides healthy engagement with a fetish from an abusive relationship, and that separation is rarely defined in stories that explore BDSM.
Hori doesn’t do a total 180 into a shrinking violet, nor does Miyamura start ordering her around. Explicitly including this separation in their relationship is part of what makes Horimiya special and a must-read for so many people.
While some series (like, again, Black Bird and Hot Gimmick) may present savvy readers with a safe way to explore unsafe fantasies, their teenage audiences are still figuring out that divide, and take abusive dynamics as normal or even desirable. Horimiya offers a middle ground between these series and the safe, vanilla relationships of series like Kimi ni Todoke and MY love STORY!!.
The two find Hori’s kink as a result of natural experimentation. When Hori sees how Miyamura acts much ruder and more aggressive with his best friend than everyone else, she wonders if it means he’s being more guarded around her. Later, when Miyamura impulsively puts his foot on her head while she paints his toenails, he expects her to get upset; instead, she explains how she had been feeling and asks that he try acting that way with her more.
Miyamura responds by trying to act more casual with everyone, but it fails. It’s only once they’re alone in the science room that he tries playacting by shoving her and screaming abuse so loudly that it frightens some younger students passing by. Much to Miyamura’s confusion, he finds Hori enjoys it and she asks that he do it again.
Notably, this comes after they have already started having sex—it’s not an integral part of their sex life. They’ve already gone through the normative process of developing physical intimacy, from holding hands to kissing to sex, as well as being emotionally intimate. The story operates on the concept that kink is not the be-all, end-all, and that it’s important to develop a healthy understanding of intimacy outside of that context.
In fact, it’s because their physical and emotional relationship is already so strong that they’re able to explore Hori’s desires. Hori feels safe and comfortable expressing them to Miyamura and, though he has some misgivings, indulges her because he cares about her and wants her to be happy.
Horimiya is still an imperfect model of a kinky relationship, with a couple of notable holes that are important parts of keeping everything healthy and consensual. Miyamura and Hori never establish a “safe word”—a word that either party can say at any point to stop what they’re doing. Safe words keep things consensual, even when saying “no” or “stop” are part of the act.
They also don’t engage in aftercare. Miyamura has cried after particularly intense bouts of yelling, while Hori cheerfully skips ahead. The ideal would be for her to stop and care for him until his turmoil subsides, making sure he feels safe and loved.
As the manga continues, Hori and Miyamura are still working on setting the boundaries for their sexual relationship. Clear boundaries are absolutely essential in any relationship, doubly so for ones that involve even mild dom/sub dynamics. Both parties must be clear about what they are willing or unwilling to do, and each must respect the other’s limits—otherwise, they run the risk of consensual sex turning into assault.
Hori being the sub in sex but the more dominant personality otherwise puts a unique spin on this. While the chance of Miyamura violating her boundaries is much lower, she is constantly asking that he stretch his boundaries to better suit her. She wants him to go past the yelling and name-calling and “get violent” with her. Miyamura, however, is uncomfortable with that idea and steadfastly refuses, maintaining his own boundaries and refusing to go past the limits he has set for himself.
Ideally, Hori would respect that and stop asking him to do things he clearly doesn’t want to do. However, she’s been established within the story as being quite pushy, doing things like making the easily scared Miyamura watch horror movies with her. Repeatedly asking that he hit her during sex is very much in character for her.
It’s not a perfect example of a functional kinky relationship, but since they’re both teens figuring out what they do and don’t like, rather than experienced adults, it make sense that they’re not going to follow the principles to the letter. What matters is that Hori’s persistence is never framed as romantic or “correct,” and that Miyamura doesn’t give in to the pressure.
For all its flaws, Horimiya fills a much-neglected niche: stories that portray fetishes in healthy, realistic ways. With its emphasis on exploration, communication, and maintaining a line between reality and fantasy, it incorporates kink in a way that never betrays the sweet, character-driven romantic comedy at its core and never alienates its target audience.