Kimagure Orange Road, Vol. 1

By Izumi Matsumoto. Released in Japan in three separate volumes by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Digital Manga Publishing. Translated by Steven LeCroy.

It’s been an awfully long journey from “the anime is a big hit, the manga is sure to be licensed” to “why didn’t Viz license this back in the day?” to “yay, DMP is Kickstartering the entire series!” to “will this be released before DMP dies?”. But here we are at last, and all six omnibuses of the legendary Kimagure Orange Road are now in my hot little hands. They look nice – good paper stock, solid covers. You can tell the KS money went into printing them. The question is who the audience is. Chances are that anyone who ponied up the considerable cash to get six print omnibuses of the entire series is already going to be a KOR fan. You aren’t getting casual readers. If a casual reader did get the series (there are PDF copies of the omnibuses on sale at emanga), they might be startled by how ordinary it all seems. But that’s typical with manga that sets the trend and then is quickly surpassed by those who come after it.

For those unfamiliar (and given that the heyday of North American fandom was around twenty-five years ago, I think that’s most of you), the premise of Kimagure Orange Road has a family moving to a new neighborhood. The father is fairly normal. But his children, Kyosuke, Manami, and Kurumi… are psychics! Just like their late mother. (Yes, sorry, Hard-KOR fans, esper is not used here.) They move a lot because the kids, being young and impetuous, abuse their powers and are caught. Kyosuke is really trying to not do that and fit in at his new school. Then he sees two girls smoking behind the school… cool, aloof Madoka and outgoing, impetuous Hikaru. He’s met Madoka before, running up a stairway with either 99 or 100 steps, depending on who you agree with. But she seems totally different now, and doesn’t want to give him the time of day! Kyosuke promptly falls for her… and Hikaru falls for him. But what of Madoka, this whimsical girl?

“Kimagure” can be translated as “whimsical”, and it certainly applies to Madoka, who runs hot or cold depending on the situation. She clearly likes Kyosuke immediately but she also sees Hikaru likes him too, and that he’s not doing a good job of telling Hikaru he’s not interested. Plus he tends to be a jerk some of the time, saying things like “if you smoke, you won’t have healthy babies”. (Note the two reactions: Madoka blushes at the thought of doing things that make you have babies, Hikaru gets mad and says “I’ll show you! Imma have ALL the babies!”) The series plays out like a classic shonen romantic comedy – in fact, it is *the* classic shonen romantic comedy. That said, it’s also steeped in what was big in 80s manga, as Kyosuke does use his powers quite a bit – if you’re wondering what specific powers, well, it tends to vary depending on the need of the plot, but includes teleportation, telekenesis and mind reading. You can see why their dad is worried about his kids.

I mentioned that North America had a big KOR fandom back in the day, but that’s not quite true. The fandom was for Madoka. The rest of the anime and cast was secondary. Most modern manga tries to keep the love triangle at least a little balanced, but Matsumoto is not really interested in that. We *know* Kyosuke and Madoka are the couple, the question is how long it will take. The answer is there’s five more of these 600-page omnibuses to go. As for Hikaru, fans these days are more sympathetic to her than they were back in the 1990s, where she was the very first “bashed” anime character – even before Akane in Ranma 1/2! Given that, in the manga at least (the anime is another story) she is unaware of Kyosuke and Madoka’s feelings for each other, her forwardness is a lot more understandable. Still, looking back on the series now, I must admit: things would be solved a lot faster if Kyosuke mustered a backbone.

If you want to see shonen romance as your parents read it, you really can’t get a more perfect choice than KOR, which is pure 1980s Japan, even down to the discos – and the amusement park called Cougar Town. Recommended.

Why Not KOR? Thoughts on Licensing

I’ve recently been reading an excellent book called The Star Machine by Jeanine Bassinger. It’s about the Hollywood studios from the late 20s to the early 60s, and how they engineered stars. What’s proving more fascinating is the section on stars that never were – they were attractive, they were talented, they had support… but they never hit it big.

I was thinking of this recently looking at the License Requests from my colleague David Welsh of Manga Curmudgeon. They’re all deserving titles, and publishers should be giving them a chance. But invariably, a lot of those titles are never going to come out professionally in North America. And not just because of pure marketability, although that’s one of the biggest factors.

As an example, let me pick a classic, incredibly influential romantic comedy from the days of Weekly Shonen Jump circa 1984 – in other words, a title running concurrently with the manga Dragon Ball. It’s called Kimagure Orange Road, and is the story of a love triangle between three students, one of whom is protecting a secret – he’s from a family of espers. It ran from 1984 to 1987, totalling 18 volumes. It spawned a very popular anime as well, which has been released in North American by Animeigo (though it is now out of print), and a couple of movies. And it was one of the first big fandoms online in the early to mid 1990s, along with Dirty Pair, Bubblegum Crisis, and Ranma 1/2.

When Ranma fandom took off, most folks thought that KOR would be an obvious pickup for Viz. It wasn’t as hilarious and wacky a comedy, but the romance and love triangle madness were thought to have great potential, especially with titles like Tenchi Muyo and the like hitting it big in anime stores. But it never got picked up. Then, when the U.S. version of Shonen Jump was announced, people though that they’d definitely want a good old-school romantic comedy in there, to balance off all the shonen fighting mangas, and that KOR was an obvious choice. However, no shonen romantic comedies were slated for the Jump magazine, though one or two (notably Strawberry 100%) are coming out over here in volume format.

Well-written title, not a huge number of volumes, a built-in North American fandom… why not KOR? Or, for that matter, any number of titles that *seem* like obvious choices but never made it over here. Well, let’s see.

1) It’s not who comes first, it’s who comes second. KOR was highly influential on manga’s romantic comedies, in particular the waffly teen boy, his tsundere love, and the perky yet jealous other girl sort of thing seen in dozens of manga since then. However, everyone here has now read that story to death. Will they really appreciate seeing an 18-volume manga just because of its historical value? (KOR does have one advantage over many of its followers in that it has a real ending, and resolves its triangle.)

2) Trapped in the 80s. Art marches on, and while KOR’s art is actually quite good, it’s also very much of its time, and it’s been noted that ‘retro’ art can sometimes hurt a title’s sellability. Not that this hurt Dragon Ball, but what about Saint Seiya, or Here Is Greenwood?

3) HardKOR fandom? Uh oh. Everyone loves a show that has a built-in fanbase, but that can be a double-edged sword. KOR has been circulating around for years – the anime was a fansub favorite long before Animeigo put it out over here, and the manga was completely scanlated several years ago. If Viz announced ‘Whimsical Orange Road’ tomorrow, how many would say they aren’t buying it because, let’s say, they ruined the title? Yes, it’s not in the same league as censoring child nudity (Dr. Slump) or renaming the lead character (Case Closed), or even changing one letter in a name for legal reasons (One Piece), but fandom, especially these days, needs very little excuse to NOT buy something. KOR fandom especially, like the female lead they adore, can be prickly.

(As a short aside, several of my friends at Otakon years and years ago found endless amusement in trolling fans of Kimagure Orange Road, talking about how we enjoyed the show but really hated that annoying girl… oh, what was her name… oh, right. Madoka. Generally speaking, the two reactions were a) Anger and outrage, or b) Fans ‘helping’ by telling us we were confusing the names of the two lead females. KOR was one of the first anime fandoms to seriously ‘character bash’, and Madoka vs. Hikaru wars still exist, though since the days of newsgroups have faded considerably. Personally, I like both female leads, but Kyosuke’s indecisiveness, which is far worse in the manga, is really hard to read without wishing him a boot to the head.)

4) The manga creator doesn’t want it licensed. This is not as common now as it was in the old days of 32-page floppies from Viz, when many creators absolutely refused to have their work flipped and reading left to right. That’s less of an issue these days, but there are still many creators who either don’t want North America to see their work at all, or add conditions such as ‘you also have to release my 20 other non-famous titles’ that make things hard to finance. A recent example would be Urasawa’s holding back the license for 20th Century Boys until Monster had finished its run here.

5) It’s a one-hit wonder. Generally speaking, when manga hits it big in North America, the first thing publishers do is find other titles by that artist. Fruits Basket is the perfect example. Yet the creator of KOR, Izumi Matsumoto, had only one other short serialization (called Sesame Street, a title that would HAVE to change to be taken seriously over here), and has been mostly invisible for the last 20 years. (He recently revealed he’s been suffering from a cerebrospinal fluid disease, and hopes to return to manga soon.) So you’re left looking for titles with a similar FEEL to Kimagure Orange Road… a great number of which are already out over here, and have been for years. Back to #1…

I like KOR, and hope people didn’t see this as bashing the title. It just makes a good example to illustrate my point. What, if it’s not the actual quality of the work, makes a title unlicensed? What are those little factors that make a Viz or a Tokyopop or a Del Rey say “We don’t think that we can make this a success” or “various problems prevent this from being released” or even “we have no comment at this time”?

If anyone has any other good examples, please feel free to leave them in the comments. And Viz, if you decide to license KOR tomorrow just to make me look foolish, I’ll be very amused indeed. And will definitely pick up the series. Though I think a wideban might be more sellable. ^_-