Sunday, May 02, 2010

Kimi ni Todoke v1-3

Relatability is a double-edged sword. Comics have to dance a very. On the one hand, publishers want to keep their characters young and fresh for new readers. On the other hand, they don't want to antagonize their current audience. It's a tricky business. What one person finds endearing, another might find overbearing and idiotic.

I nearly gave up on the manga "Kimi ni Todoke" after the first volume. Not because Sadako wasn't relatable as a character, but she was almost too relatable.

I first encountered "Kimi ni Todoke" in a Shojo Beat magazine preview. SB used that charming image from the second volume as its cover, highlighting the friendship amongst the girls. I was intrigued. But the first chapter focused instead on the stereotypical shojo romance between the socially awkward Sawako "Sadako" Kuronuma and the popular guy Shota Kazehaya. The first impression left me disappointed, especially seeing how her classmates treated Sadako. The romance didn't wow me all that much either, so I was discouraged from picking up the full volume. Other manga friends have encouraged me to keep trying. So when I came across the first three volumes at my local library, I decided to dive back in.

Being the outsider on the periphery of the popular crowd at school is a painfully familiar experience. In high school, I was the quiet girl in school. I didn't always make friends easily. But the ones I had were in the theater and music crowd – all more outgoing and talented. And yes I had my own Kazehaya -- that easy going guy everyone knew and had a crush on in school – one little smile or "hello" was all I needed to feel good about my day. I was also the subject to my share of teasing, too, so seeing Sawako treated as that weird girl for no apparent reason bothered me.

The portrayal of Sawako as the "weird girl" unfortunately hinges on POV and Shiina's artwork. We see her as her classmates see her initially with the long hairstyle in her face or soaking wet after a rainstorm. The results feel like a cheap parlor trick. By choosing to emphasize her resemblance to "The Ring" character, I'm almost expecting a different story.

The second volume is all about gossip and rumors and how they get out of control. It's also all about the meaning of friendship. To Karuho Shiina's credit, she does twist the clich├ęs a bit. Yoshida and Yano could simply accept everything at face value, including Sawako's involvement. But they're both plagued by doubts. My favorite moments in the series so far are the smaller ones, like seeing Yoshida and Yano discussing Sawako together. I loved seeing these girls trying to include Sawako in things. They honestly wanted her to be included, rather than it's just for class or something. Even the simple scene of them hanging out together in the third volume was nice, because you saw the friendships away from school.

I did find the writing a bit sloppy though. The entire second volume hinges on people not talking to each other. The rumors continue to build and swirl but no one does anything about it.

Tone is an important component of "Kimi of Todoke". The series feels light and fluffy and cheerful, but that confrontation in the girls' bathroom left me very uncomfortable, especially with all the recent attention given to bullying. In any other series, that scene with Sawako backed into a corner, could have been quite chilling.

I'm still not terribly interested in the Kazehaya and Sawako relationship. He's been set up as this impossibly super-special guy and I'm just not getting what the fuss is all about. The introduction of Kurumi adds the usual complication in the mix and yet it's a very off kilter sort of rivalry. I worry how trusting Sawako is. Sawako wouldn't see the danger until it was already on her.

This whole experience brought to mind a different discussion on twitter – on how necessary it was to review multiple volumes of a series. For a series to be successful, they should hit the ground running with the first volume. If anything the tendency I've noticed is to lead off with a strong first volume and then peter out as the series progresses. So "Kimi ni Todoke" was a new experience for me. I've never had a series change so radically with the second and third volumes. I still have some major reservations about the series, especially Sawako & Kazehaya, but the friendships and interactions fascinate me. I've swung back to intrigued.

Kimi ni Todoke, volumes 1, 2, and 3 with story and art by Karuho Shiina, published by Viz Comics, rated Teen.

1 comment: said...

My reactions to this series is the opposite of yours. I had the same history you did, with being the outsider and being in music in HS, even the bullying, but I was rooting for Sawako. Yes, there's always the boy everyone has a crush on, but he never looks at the shy loner. I think that's what makes Sawako's and Kazehiya's relationship interesting. He not only notices her, but he wants to be with her. Wish fulfillment maybe, but I still want to see them together.