Otomen, Vol. 13

By Aya Kanno. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Bessatsu Hana to Yume (“Betsuhana”). Released in North America by Viz.

Note that I say ‘serialization ongoing’ up there. One might be forgiven, after reading the final two chapters here, in thinking that Otomen ends with this volume, wrapping up on a high note where we finally see a bit more into Ryo’s psyche and see Asuka struggle with what he wants to do with his future. But fitting as it might be, it’s not the end – these chapters ran in early 2011 in Japan, and the manga is still going in Betsuhana, so we have at least three more volumes to go, including one Viz has scheduled for January.

This is not, however, to take away from what might be one of Kanno’s best volumes in this series. It was deliberately written to focus on Ryo, who also gets the cover, albeit disguised as a boy. 3/4 of the book has her meeting up with a judo club that’s being taught poorly by its physically skilled captain whose frustrations make him completely incapable of leading. After seeing him attack one of his students, Ryo throws him into a wall, where he “breaks his arm”. Now Ryo has to dress up as a boy and lead the judo team to victory against their opponents… who happen to by her own school. This means she will have to fight Asuka.

If this sounds incredibly cliched, clearly you haven’t read Otomen before, which specializes in taking the most hideously cliched plots imaginable and doing something with them. In this particular case there are two plots interweaving, both involving Ryo. The main one has her making the judo team into a force of awesome. They have skills, as Sakata (the captain Ryo took over for) has drilled things into them, albeit poorly. Seeing what she can make of them sends Sakata spiraling into despair and self-loathing (not helped by the fact that he doesn’t realize the boy teaching them is Ryo at first, so we get a standard ‘why do I have feelings for this guy?’ reaction) and declaring he’s quitting. Ryo, who can see the good guy underneath, asks if he’ll stay if Odo is victorious. Eventually we *don’t* get our expected Asuka vs. Ryo match, as Sakata breaks his cast (showing he was faking, as we suspected) and demands to fight Asuka himself.

Asuka has a smaller role here, but it’s important – Juta plants a seed of uncertainty in his head about Ryo, and Asuka can’t stop thinking about it. Even after he learns what Ryo is doing, he still puts on a false front in front of her. Because let’s face it, Ryo is not the most demonstrative of people. He’s said he loves her three times now, as well as dated her, and her reactions seems to be more of a cheery “Okee doke!” than anything else. Here, helped out by her father and Sakata, Ryo is starting to realize that her lack of direct expression is bothering Asuka, and she does something about it. THIS. This is what I wanted from this series all along – a direct, honest statement from Ryo that she is also in love with Asuka, as well as some insight into her inner thought process. Very well done.

Then there’s the last chapter. It’s Valentine’s Day, but this is Otomen, so naturally the guys are the ones giving out the chocolate. In between this, we see them all discussing plans for their future, as he’s expected to inherit the family business… but isn’t sure he really wants to do that. Making matters worse, everyone else seems to have a firm goal in mind – including Ryo, who is following in her father’s footsteps in becoming a police officer. This is another chapter that’s more about the heart than the laughs, though I did laugh at Asuka’s realization of what it is he truly wants – or more accurately, what he’s focused on when it happens (truly an otomen to the end). His response, however, is fantastic, and leads to that ending which I told you feels like the end of the series, but isn’t. I hope (and pray!) that finally we can move away from “are we truly a couple?” stories and show Asuka and Ryo growing and getting closer.

Of course, Asuka’s mother probably has a few things to say about this. We’re not done, and I will look forward to Otomen 14 in January. But this particular volume put its foot on the ‘heartwarming’ pedal and never let up, and finally gave focus to one of my favorite characters in the series. Very well done.

Also, anyone notice that the guys in Otomen blush constantly, and Ryo never does? There’s only one time in the volume we see her blush, and it’s not at either of the two places I expected.

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