Is it insta-love that he just doesn’t understand or simply lust? If you think that’s a deep philosophical question, A Serenade for Pretend Lovers may be the romance manga for you. Taking the “fake couple” romance trope and combining it with manga’s favorite “really, this is for work,” the story follows documentary director Sayo and composer Chizuru as they stumble into…something. While it isn’t quite as egregious as other titles where someone feels they can’t be appropriately creative because they’ve never been in love, it’s still very firmly set on that path, which is a bit of a divisive one when it comes to viable reasons for a couple to get together.
Like many of its brethren, this story opens with both a gullible and a socially misunderstood character. Chizuru, a brilliant composer and pianist, has the emotional intelligence of a hedgehog, and he somewhat sadly takes this to mean that he doesn’t know what love is. At all. Sayo, a director who’s just found out that she’s the other woman her boyfriend’s been cheating with (she thought “allergic to metal” was a viable explanation for why he didn’t propose), was just stuck with a project about Chizuru and isn’ t quite sure what to do with it. When he reveals that he’s stuck composing a love song and needs her help as his fake lover, she feels a bit backed into a corner by the whole thing and ends up agreeing.
This is at least in part because she’s been put into an untenable situation by the more senior director who foisted the documentary off on her in the first place: apparently, he neglected to tell her that Chizuru had already turned down the project some weeks ago. Rather than furiously confronting the higher-ups at work, Sayo just goes with it. While we could take this as another marker of her credulousness, it seems equally fair to assume that she’s afraid of losing her job, or at least of being somehow punished for not getting the project done. Chizuru, it’s made clear, is very hot in pop culture, and it seems possible that the man who sent her to do a job that didn’t exist was counting on the composer doing exactly what he did: using Sayo as inspiration for the love song. Certainly it helps that her name is written with the characters for “serenade,” which is the type of music he’s tasked with writing.
Assuming that the story contortions aren’t a deal breaker for you, there is one other piece of the puzzle to be aware of, and that’s the fact that Chizuru isn’t great with consent. When he proposes his plan to Sayo, he expresses his opinion that all lovers do is have sex, so he’s definitely interested in her physically and isn’t afraid to show it…even when she’s decidedly less keen than he is. He does stop eventually when she protests, but part of his apparent bewilderment stems from his inability to understand the difference between love and friendship. Since Sayo, once she starts trying to explain, also comes up short on that front (at least as far as coherent explanations go), this merely exacerbates the problem. It’s the sort of thing that comes across as the manga trying to be more philosophical than it actually is, making it out to be more of a study on the nature of love versus friendship versus lust, and it quite frankly isn’t up to the task. It almost would have been better if the book had just gone wholeheartedly into the sillier premise than to try to dress it up as something more.
All told, the first volume of A Serenade for Pretend Lovers is not a terrible book. The art is fine, the plot is contrived in the same way that The Writer and His Housekeeper is; it just doesn’t do much to distinguish itself beyond that, especially since Kodansha released a second piano-playing man manga close on its heels, Such a Treacherous Piano Sonata, which at least leans harder into the music angle. If “serviceable” is what you want in your romance manga, give this a try, but if you want something more than that, this may not be the series for you.