Kokoro Connect: Hito Random

By Sadanatsu Anda and Shiromizakana. Released in Japan by Enterbrain. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Molly Lee.

I had enjoyed the manga version of Kokoro Connect when it came out a few years back, so was delighted to hear that I’d get a chance to read the novel version that spawned it. And for the most part it does not disappoint me. Ostensibly a book about an alien being who toys with a high school club by causing them to swap bodies at random (each book, in fact, will have the title _______ Random), in reality it’s a good example of the turbulence that is life as a hormonal teenager with issues, some of which are larger than others, but all of which are the most important thing in the world for that person. It also has a very likeable cast, including a fascinatingly flawed hero (Taichi is our 3rd-person viewpoint character, so I’ll call him a hero even though the series is about the five kids as a unit) whose selflessness is called out as nothing of the sort.

The club is one of those sorts that was created mostly because everyone HAS to be in a club, and it functions more as a hangout for the main cast than anything else. Iori is happy, joking, and energetic; Inaba is serious, foul-mouthed, and seems to exist in a perpetual state of near-fury; Yui, who is a pint-sized powerhouse whose knowledge of karate can’t quite make up for a terror of men; Aoba, the big goofy guy who loves Yui but is mostly there to be “the friend everyone picks on”, and Taichi, who I’d mentioned above, another serious guy whose function so far is to be “the male lead”, something I suspect we aren’t quite done with even as the cast does call out his “martyr complex” over the course of this book.

But of course the point of the book is that each of these kids are more complex than you’d expect. I love series where the protagonist is boggled by the fact that their friend may have more than one side to them, and we get that here – in fact, Iori’s main concern is that she’s spent so long showing other sides to people that she can’t remember who she’s supposed to be. Her monologue about loss of identity is one of the highlights of the book, along with the climax of the book where the characters all have to decide, literally, who lives and who dies, and Iori shuts them right down. Meanwhile, the most interesting thing about Inaba (who is my favorite, sorry to be predictable), whose panic about her own personal issues, which are not related to a “traumatic past” like Iori and Yui, is that everyone will hate and pull away from her, is that it really IS overblown. This is quite a funny book when it tries to be, but the funniest line may be Iori’s blithe “So basically… you have anxiety?”.

I also want to give props to the translator. These kids sound like high school kids, and their dialogue does not read like it’s written by someone who grew up in a different time. It’s also not afraid to get coarse for realism – Inaba is meant to curse like a sailor to a degree, and she does. That said, the main reason to pick up Kokoro Connect is the characters, who make you root for them and want to see how they handle whatever’s coming next. I’m very happy this is being released.

Kokoro Connect, Vol. 3

By Sadanatsu Anda and CUTEG. Released in Japan by Enterbrain, serialized in the magazine Famitsu Comic Clear. Released in North America by Seven Seas.

Like many series I review here, I had assumed I’d do a main page review of Vol. 1 and the rest of the series would be consigned to the Bookshelf Briefs column. This despite the fact that the second volume improved on the first. And now the third has improved on the second, taking the cast to surprisingly dark places. It still has a tendency to have people lecture other people to advance the plot, but I’d really like to see how this Heartseed thing resolves now, if it ever does. It’s also very much a manga of two halves, or rather two-thirds and one-third, as the last part of the volume involves Yui wondering if she should date another girl… which is handled awkwardly, but looks like it’s trying.

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In the first two volumes, Heartseed was more of a plot mcguffin than any sort of villain, possessing a teacher in order to explain the bodyswapping to the cast, and then making itself scarce to watch the fallout. But the fallout isn’t good enough for them, as Taichi and Iori manage to resolve their issues a lot faster than anyone was expecting. Like Inaba, Iori’s identity crisis ends up having a solution that’s a lot less complicated than one would expect, and I hope she manages to resolve a few more things going forward. But we can’t let all the problems be resolved like that… so Heartseed literally attempts murder, by tossing Iori into the reservoir and swapping Taichi and Yui at the same time, so that he can’t save her.

What follows is a classic sadistic choice. Iori’s near death, and Heartseed says she only has a half hour to love… provided one of the others doesn’t swap out before she dies, dying in her place. Of course, it’d only be their mind dying, their body would live on with Iori in it. And mostly, this is an excuse to show off how Taichi’s ‘selflessness’ is actually a really bad case of selfishness, as seeing anyone hurt makes him feel so bad he’ll do anything to stop it. Luckily, his friends are there to punch sense into them. Also luckily, Iori gets to swap out one last time to point out that she’d never be happy with any of them sacrificing themselves for her. And also also luckily, this was all a test/game, and Iori was never really at risk after all.

After all this, it’s nice to have a lighter story (this appears to be the end of the first novel, and the rest of the volume adapts a short story from “Volume 4.5”) that focuses on nadrophobic Yui. She gets a love letter in her locker, which turns out to be from another girl. Reactions range from Aoki’s, who adamantly says that man/woman relationships are the only natural ones (I know he’s in love with Yui, but still, shut the hell up, dude) to Inaba’s (who wants to leave things up to Yui to decide, but still uses the word ‘lesbo’), to Fujishima’s (we’ve seen her lust for Iori before, so she’s the one who’s best suited to tell Yui to follow her heart. I’m not sure how this will resolve itself in the next volume (though I can guess), but so far it’s a wildly uneven handling of the issue.

Which, to be fair, fits with this series in general. It’s dealing with the emotions and feelings of teenagers in general more than most high school comedies, and kids say stupid things. Awkward emotions are the order of the day, and this volume continues to serve them up. We’ve only got two more to go, so I’m interested to see how the adaptation wraps up.

Kokoro Connect, Vol. 1

By Sadanatsu Anda and CUTEG. Released in Japan by Enterbrain, serialized in the magazine Famitsu Comic Clear. Released in North America by Seven Seas.

Generally speaking, if you’re going to be releasing a manga series based on a light novel that stars a group of high school students in a strange club, you’d better have something extra to bring to the table in order to distinguish yourself from packs of similar series. And Kokoro Connect does have a premise that shows promise, particularly if it goes the dramatic direction that it seems to be hinting at. Three girls and two boys are friends in a club, till one day they discover that the five of them have begun to randomly switch bodies, without warning and for unknown periods. After having the reason explained to them by an exposition who happened to be walking by, they have to figure out how to deal with this, particularly as they are all rather fragile teens, and many have hidden secrets.

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The leads are all likeable but flawed. In fact, in possibly the most annoying part of the volume, we have the flaws explained by Himeko, the ‘serious student’ of the club. Our hero is told how he tends to put the needs of others before himself, and in fact is directly called a “self-sacrificing bastard”. The trouble is we’ve only known him for about 90 pages before this, and the only evidence we see is that he volunteered for cleanup duty because no one else wanted to. Likewise, one somewhat insecure, thought-provoking monologue does not really measure up against the previous scenes of a girl being happy and outgoing, so hearing that Iori is “the most likely to crack” seems a bit out of nowhere. Kokoro Connect has a “tell rather than show” problem.

This is a bodyswap manga, and so it can sometimes be difficult to recall who is in which body at the time. The usual manga shorthand is to see either a ghostly presence of the real person behind the swapped one, or to show a SD-caricature of the real person in the speech balloon. This volume does both, and I think the latter works better, as the doubling can look confusing. Other than that, though, the artwork is appealing and cute. There’s also a healthy dose of humor scattered throughout. I could have done without the ‘oh my god teenage boys are perverts’ stuff, but if I wanted to avoid that I’d have to drop manga altogether. And the “solution” to Yui’s issues with men did make me laugh, I will admit. As for romance, it seems to be a ‘one guy and two girls who kind of like him’ story, with a ‘backup couple’ thrown in. The backup couple get the most development here, which tells me that the majority of what’s to come will likely focus on Iori and Himeko.

Mostly, though, I think this first volume made me hope that things improve in the next four (It’s a 5-volume series). It’s an intriguing premise, and I think it does show promise that it could take advantage of that, but right now it feels like it’s trying too hard. Let’s hope it finds its feet in the next volume.