Despite Kaho Miyasaka being one of the grand dames of shoujo romance from the 1990s onwards, Golden Japanesque is only her second title to get an English translation, the first being Viz's release of Kare First Love. That marks a fairly large gap between getting titles translated (although it should be noted that most of her work is available in both French and Italian), and some readers may find themselves wondering just why it has taken so long to get another Miyasaka title in English.
Obviously I don't have the definitive answer to that, but one thing that is immediately obvious is that Miyasaka has been making strides forward. Golden Japanesque is still a shoujo romance in the same melodramatic vein as Kare First Love, but the story is unfolding in a much more organic, deliberate manner, and it's using the basic tropes of its genre in a way that indicates Miyasaka's comfort and fluidity with them. The story takes place in the Meiji Era, in what looks like sometime during the 1870s or 1880s. Japan has opened to the west, and westernization is slowly beginning to take place, but there's still a lot of distrust of the outside. It's worth mentioning that no one actually says that they have a prejudice against foreign people and things; instead, we get that impression from the way people gossip and comment about what they see – a group of girls walking by in matching western dresses is considered frivolous and silly, a western hair ornament is gaudy…and Maria's looks, which she inherited from her father, mark her as Other and her mother as a whore.
We don't know much about Maria's father – and neither does she. This is a large part of her specific issue in the volume; all she received from her father is his blond hair and blue eyes, which makes her stand out in her lower-middle-class neighborhood in ways that are hurtful, and a handkerchief embroidered with the letter M. People tell her she looks like an ogre and “whisper” that her mother must be the worst kind of woman, whoring herself to western sailors with her freak of a daughter being all the proof the neighborhood gossips need. To say that this has an impact on both Maria and her mother is to understate the matter – when Maria is a little girl, her mother begins dying her pale hair black to hide it and forcing the girl to wear her bangs so that they hang in front of her eyes, covering them. To Maria, this is a statement of her mother's love, or rather, the lack thereof, because if not even her mother will defend her, then there really must be something wrong and terrible about her.
While modern readers may not love that Maria begins to find validation in a man (or boy, really; Rintarou's about fifteen), it's in line with the time period in which the book is set, both in terms of cultural attitudes and the literature of the day. And quite frankly, poor Maria needs all the validation she can get – her mother's attitude has gone full evil fairy tale parent, and we get the distinct impression that she sees Maria as a burden rather than a daughter. It is this attitude, perhaps, that puts Maria in Rintarou's path in the first place, however – when her mother brings her to the Mayuzumi house for the first time (just in case she ever needs Maria's help), the housekeeper seems to notice how cowed and emotionally battered Maria is, and sends her on an errand to bring Rintarou a schoolbook he forgot.
Kisaragi, the housekeeper, stands to be a very interesting side character. When Maria first sees her, she's struck by the fact that her face lacks only the horns to be a perfect hannya mask in Noh theater, something that Kisaragi is plainly well aware of. It's when Maria gets in trouble for saying something about it that she sends her out; later she seems to be encouraging Rintarou to pursue a friendship with the girl, especially when it becomes obvious that her mother is ashamed of how she looks. (The hair dye Maria uses washes right out with water, which is how Rintarou ends up discovering the true color of her hair.) The subtext is that Kisaragi knows a little something about how it feels to be judged or disliked because of one's appearance and that she wants to help Maria as much as she can without being obvious about it. Maria's grandmother also tries to be a buffer between Maria and her mother, but Kisaragi as an outsider may have access to different ways of helping the girl, which offsets the fact that Maria and Rintarou are so young – they will have someone helping them, albeit from the shadows.
At this point the romance plot isn't really doing much, although that's plainly going to change. Rintarou has been fascinated (in a teenage boy way) with Maria even before he saw her true hair color, and he's also starting to understand what her home life is like. While an attraction to her looks – which he likens to Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid – is part of his interest, he is also beginning to really want to get to know Maria as a person, and that already bodes better for her than the mermaid he compares her to.
This is very much an introductory volume, with the story and Maria just starting to get their feet under them, but there is potential here, and it also doesn't seem like it's setting itself up for the same pitfalls as the surface-similar Stepping on Roses. Maria is a girl who desperately needs to love herself and to come into her own. She hasn't started yet, but it looks like she's going to – and if she needs some help and finds love along the way, it's not the worst way things could turn out.