Itazura Na Kiss Volume 3

By Kaoru Tada. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Bessatsu Margaret (“Betsuma”). Released in North America by Digital Manga Publishing.

Come on, Tada-san, throw me a bone. I realize I said in my last review of this title that it was basically like drinking raw shoujo straight from the tap, but even so, this is ridiculous.

The problem is not really Kotoko, who is pretty much the same throughout this vo0lume. The pacing of this series is realistic yet also slow, so as we head into the 2nd year of college Kotoko’s lack of maturity niggles a bit more. Still, she’s a shoujo heroine, so you pretty much take simple yet happy as a default option. She did briefly show that she can do OK if she applies herself, when she studied for her English final so she stayed in the same class as Naoki, and she was good (if panicky) in a crisis, but she’s still pretty much a huge flake.

The problem is Naoki. He is developing, and we see it. He’s starting to deal with the fact that he’s essentially still adrift in life, and tries to make a clean break by moving out and living on his own. Which is exactly what he needed to do, so no issues there. But man, what a stoneface. The only time we see him show emotion is when he’s pissed off. His moments of contemplation are entirely from Kotoko’s point of view, and reveal nothing to us of his thought processes. Even in the final pages, where he thanks Kotoko for everything she did, doesn’t seem to move him into a smile.

These chapters ran in Betsuma in late 1991, and shoujo was clearly another world then. Nowadays publishers know that you need to pay attention to other demographics while still remaining true to your core readership. Jump, for example, has a large female readership, as any cursory examination of all the Gintama yaoi at Comiket should tell you. Likewise, many guys these days are fans of shoujo and shoujo magazines (including myself). Here, though, we see Naoki only through Kotoko’s eyes. He is a deep, unfathomable mystery, and we get few to no hints or reassurance that he even cares that Kotoko exists. Hell, even when they’re forced to spend the night in the same bed, we don’t get the standard shot of him watching her sleep with a sweet look on his face.

This does help to keep the suspense going – unlike many other shoujo manga, you can easily see why Kotoko has no self-confidence in their relationship – but it does make for very frustrating reading. Of course, it’s also very well-crafted, and a page-turner as well, so everything balances out. I thought we had one too many rivals show up by the end of this book, but that’s OK. The pure shoujo title continues to mine a deep, rich vein of girly romance. If you can put up with the lead being a ditz even now that she’s headed into her twenties, and the hero being so hard to read he needs a Naoki for Dummies book, then this is still highly entertaining.

Itazura Na Kiss Volume 2

By Kaoru Tada. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Bessatsu Margaret (“Betsuma”). Released in North America by Digital Manga Publishing.

Since yesterday I discussed series where the romance was not the be all and end all of the title, today let’s go in the opposite direction. Sometimes shoujo romances are just that. They are their couple. In Itazura Na Kiss, there is not one single plot, thread, or conversation that is not in some way about our two leads and their love hijinks. It oozes romantic comedy from every pore.

This came out in the early 1990s, and it’s hard to remember at times how influential it was. You see its situations played out in a lot of manga descendants (Marmalade Boy is the one that keeps coming up in my head), and as with most trend setters, if you’re reading it after all of its followers you can come away with the feeling that it’s just another boring shoujo romance. However, I don’t really have that feeling here.

Why? Well, it’s the difference between drinking coffee with three sugars and a lot of milk, and straight black coffee. Itazura na Kiss is completely unfiltered. Most manga these days with ditzy heroines and sullen heroes will throw you a bone, usually once a chapter, showing that the two characters are not as bad as they initially seem. You see the girl being good at sports, for example, or offering sensible love advice to anyone who isn’t her. Or you see the guy teasing the heroine for 30 pages, then saving her from a group of thugs and checking to make sure she’s OK.

Not this manga. Kotoko is a complete idiot, in almost every aspect of her life. Bad at school, bad at athletics, horrible at hooking people up, she is almost the definition of a flake. And as for Naoki… I try not to use harsh language in this blog, but sometimes, you gotta bring in the big guns. Naoki is a complete asshole. Not only is he seemingly sullen and uncaring, not just teasing the heroine but being genuinely cruel and nasty to her, and showing passive-aggressive jealousy in regards to her other male friend. There is the odd moment where he shows a softer side (here it’s in the final tennis match, after she finally returns a serve), but it’s more like once every 2 volumes rather than once a chapter. This couple is just difficult to like.

A lot of that may be deliberate. I was rather surprised when this volume (Volumes 3 and 4 of the original release) saw the leads graduate from high school and move on to college. So many shoujo manga in Japan don’t even think of life after high school, mostly as that when the couple get together, and thus when the story ends. But Itazura Na Kiss has a far larger scope than this, and promises to show us even moving beyond college. I admire that.

Despite the fact that it is hard to read this without wanting to reach into the book and throttle the leads, this is a very good read. The author knows how to write her cliched situations, and even though there are few surprises, it’s still amusing to see. Her art too is well done, showing a talent for caricature that doesn’t rely on superdeformed posing, but simply lets the characters be goofy naturally. If you can take your shoujo raw and unfiltered, here it is.