Spoilers through volume 5 of Sweat and Soap
As someone in their 30s and in a long-term committed relationship, there is something special about romance manga. It’s refreshing to read about early stages of a relationship and watch the main characters fall in love. My heart races and my cheeks flush along with our protagonist. That said, all too often do the relationships romanticized in manga feel a bit too toxic for my taste and, as a result, fall short of satisfying my taste for a wholesome love story.
This is why when people started recommending Sweat and Soap by Kintetsu Yamada to me, I had some hesitations. Could a manga about a very sweaty office worker and a man with a body odor fetish really fit the bill for a sweet romance? Well, it turns out I was a fool because even with a hefty dose of olfactophilia, Sweat and Soap is as heart-warming and nourishing as it gets. In a genre rife with toxic relationships and uncomfortable relationship dynamics, Sweat and Soap takes what seems like a fetishistic premise and turns it into a story about the growth of a healthy relationship. Throughout the story, we see Natori and Asako set boundaries, communicate clearly, and, most of all, grow as individual people.
Natori and Asako’s relationship is refreshing in a way often overlooked in romance manga, where interpersonal drama is often the driving force of the plot. Asako works in the financial department of a major soap company that she has long been a dedicated fan of, owning many of their seasonal products. In many ways, she’s a run-of-the-mill office worker, except that she has a condition that makes her extremely sweaty. As she was often teased for it as a child, Asako is very self conscious of this and often goes to the bathroom to freshen up. One day, however, her path crosses that of Natori, one of the product designers. Being that he works in fragrance, he has a very acute sense of smell and is immediately attracted to Asako’s scent. After a handful of miscommunications, they start dating by the end of the first manga.
Just on a surface level, this relationship is a breath of fresh air compared to much of the romance seen in other shounen and seinen media. The first thing that comes to mind is Rumiko Takahashi’s works, specifically Ranma ½ and Inuyasha. Both of these plots are built on the idea that the main characters ending up together marks the end of the story. Therefore, the romance in both of these works are constantly subject to miscommunication, disagreements, and conflicts. It is a nice shift in pace to see a story where the main characters start a relationship at the start of the story and we get to see how they navigate the challenges of an early-stage romance together. Sweat and Soap rejects the idea that “getting together” is the end of an exciting story.
A romance manga wouldn’t really be a romance manga without some sort of rival love interest. This isn’t always handled very well, especially in the seinen and shounen space. Sometimes this means romanticized possessiveness. From the extreme of the yandere archetype, like Yuno from The Future Diary or Shion from That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, to more mundane forms of abuse such as a girl beating up her love interest when he (even accidentally) touches another girl, violent jealousy is often played for jokes. Even some recent series, like Girlfriend, Girlfriend, have violence between partners stand in for actual communication, as if a thrown punch will fix insecurity, infidelity, or other issues at play. At their worst, these kinds of stories in shounen and seinen treat men and women almost as completely different species, outright incapable of talking out their differences in a relationship.
Fortunately, Sweat and Soap avoids this completely, allowing the characters to handle a similar situation with grace and communication. When Asako finds out that Natori’s protégé, Ichise, is in love with him, Asako does not forbid him from seeing her. Rather, she actively encourages them to remain friends and asks him to avoid ruffling Ichise’s hair in the future, setting reasonable physical boundaries. Natori listens to Asako and respects her boundaries, which makes it possible for the two women to develop a foundation for a strong friendship. This is done with zero violence or toxicity, rather, they address jealousy directly and are able to restructure their boundaries around their mutual needs.
Miscommunication is a hallmark of romance manga across all genres. And, while that can make for some fun and interesting plot points, it is refreshing to follow two characters who are actually quite good at talking to one another. Natori and Asako’s relationship starts as a secret, as Asako isn’t ready for their whole office to know they are dating. This is a request that Natori is happy to oblige; and after many months of dating, when he’s interested in going public, he approaches Asako in a straight-forward manner (to which she responds positively). Their chemistry and communication is even reflected in how they shop for an apartment. They actually sit down and make a “vision board” for their new home. This is such an everyday and mundane thing, but the love that exudes from Asako and Natori make it a charming read.
The communication they use in their day-to-day relationship translates beautifully into their romantic and sexual lives. Though the first volume of the manga suffers a bit from “much-too-aggressive-male-protagonist” syndrome, with Natori literally sniffing Asako without a second thought upon meeting her, the aggressiveness is dialed back ten notches by the end the volume, going so far in the other direction to showcase good verbal and non-verbal check-ins and consent throughout the series.
When Asako and Natori initially hook up, Asako seems to withdraw. Natori stops and asks if she is nervous, and she explains that it is her first time before they continue. It seems like such a small thing, but seeing a male romance lead illustrate a check-in after reading non-verbal cues of discomfort is great. Similarly, later on in their relationship, Natori and Asako visit a hot spring with a private bath. Natori is eager to take a bath with his partner, but is anxious to ask her. When he finally does, he holds out his hand and waits for her to move forward by grabbing his hand before they proceed. Sweat and Soap doesn’t only show the male partner practicing good sexual communication. At one point, whilst hooking up, Natori spaces out. Asako notices that something seems off and does a verbal check-in to confirm he’s engaged before continuing.
These seemingly small moments of affection punctuated by clear communication make my heart flutter. So often in shounen manga, we see overly flirtatious male characters that are coded as humorous, despite some uncomfy behavior. One cannot help but think of Sanji’s flirtatious behavior in One Piece or Brock flirting with literally every woman he meets in Pokemon. So many mangas suffer from overly aggressive male protagonists and, though there was a small glimmer of that at the beginning, it quickly faded away to illustrate a healthy relationship where check-ins and consent is a cornerstone of their growth.
Despite both Asako and Natori handling relationship roadbumps with a surprising amount of insight for the genre, neither of them feel like static or “perfect” characters. Rather, their relationship is used as a vehicle for both of them to grow as people and become healthier, happier people. At the beginning of Sweat and Soap, Asako is rather insecure. She feels guilty when asking Natori to make space for her and demanding her needs. As the story progresses, and as Natori continues to be receptive to her needs, Asako is able to find her voice. At one point, she makes a bento for Natori but, when she arrives at work, she finds out Natori is extremely busy and won’t be able to have lunch with her. After fretting about what to do, she resolves to text Natori. Though Natori isn’t able to have lunch with her, he is appreciative and Asako reflects to herself that it is okay to make space for herself.
Natori is also given opportunities to grow throughout the manga. Though he is a popular product designer at his company, his romantic history is littered with failed relationships due to mismatched expectations and personalities. This comes up a few times in his romance with Asako. He is anxious to let Asako know that his mother is blind, due to a former partner reacting poorly to it, as she felt she may have to care for Natori’s mother in her old age. Naturally, when Natori shares this information with Asako, she expresses excitement at meeting his mother and her blindness has no impact on her opinion of Natori or his mother. Natori is relieved at this response and is able to feel more secure in their relationship.
It is moments like that where I forget this is a smell-fetish manga and am delighted at how much warmth and love is packed into Sweat and Soap. The wholesomeness of Natori and Asako’s relationship make this story a stand-out in the romance genre. Toxic relationships and uncomfortable dynamics are a dime a dozen and to find a story that so actively turns these tropes upon their head to show two people falling in love and navigating that space healthily is exactly what I needed. Even beyond my personal preferences, this work does an excellent job of showing how a healthy relationship can still drive an interesting story that keeps you reading. So, if you don’t mind the olfactophilia, I recommend picking it up and giving it a read.