School Rumble, Vol. 1

By Jin Kobayashi. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Weekly Shonen Magazine. Released in North America originally by Del Rey, now released digitally by JManga.

Way back ages ago, I reviewed Del Rey’s omnibus release of Vols. 14 through 16, and noted it left off on a nasty cliffhanger. And there it sits, as Del Rey became Kodansha and Kodansha decided its sales were not sufficient to release more. But now JManga is picking up some of Del Rey’s old abandoned series, and have put all the prior Del Rey volumes up on their site, with more apparently to come. With that in mind, I decided to go back and review Volume 1, and see just how different things were back at the start.

Well, for one, that huge cast is not quite so huge. School Rumble starts off as being very much a two-hander, with the point of view switching back and forth. Our heroine, Tenma Tsukamoto, has a hopeless crush on stoic weirdo Karasuma, but is unfortunately hopeless at romance… and studies… and athletics… and pretty much life. Well, except for cosplaying. She is, however, a happy girl with lots of spirit. Contrasting this is our hero, Kenji Harima, a former biker who is trying to turn over a new leaf, mostly as he’s fallen head over heels for Tenma. Harima is strong and good at athletics, but otherwise is in the same boat as Tenma – he’s not all that bright, and his attempts to woo her are laughable. Add wacky situations and stir.

The comedy is all important here, as it would be through most of the early days of this series. The chapters have a lowered page count compared to most Shonen Magazine series (about 9-12, as opposed to 16-18), a sure sign that the editors consider it one of the funny manga rather than a romantic harem manga. There isn’t even a harem yet, really. Just a love triangle. Harima loves Tenma, Tenma loves Karasuma, and Karasuma… we have no idea what he thinks. This is also an unusual series in that it ran simultaneously in two magazines. The main Tenma and Harima plot ran weekly in Shonen Magazine, while the chapters at the end dealing with ‘side characters’ (the ones with a flat note as opposed to a sharp) ran in the monthly Magazine Special. In this volume they’re focused on Yakumo, Tenma’s younger yet more mature sister.

Ah yes, Yakumo. As I said earlier, there’s a large cast coming, and we see glimmers of it here. Tenma, for all that she is lovable and hyperactive, is pretty much exactly what she seems. Yakumo has a lot more to give us. She’s also a great cook, and pretty, and athletic – her perfection is noted by the boys at her school. When otaku who should know better talk about ‘waifu’ type characters, nine times out of ten they mean someone like Yakumo. Her one fault is her seeming obliviousness to guys. And I say ‘seeming’ because we know something about Yakumo that they don’t – she can read minds of anyone who likes her! (School Rumble has occasional fantasy content – Tenma is telekinetic once – but except for Yakumo, it’s always for the sake of a gag.) And given the typical minds of teenage boys, this has likely served to make her even more shy and retiring than she already is.

As for the other main characters, we do meet Eri, Mikoto, Akira, and (briefly) Hanai, but for the most part they look like they’re just going to be generic best-friend type classmates. Eri is stuck-up, Mikoto is tomboyish, Akira is deadpan. They haven’t been brought into the story, mostly as the story i still just about Tenma and Harima. But as their attempts to confess their love explode outwards, others will be drawn into the web. Especially Eri.

For a first volume, this is big, dumb goofy fun. Both leads are histrionic and over the top, and there’s lots of silly here, with an understanding that no one is going to be confessing their love anytime soon. What’s more, Tenma is still the focus of almost every chapter. As the series goes on, and as the popularity polls start to come out, this will begin to change…

School Rumble Vols. 14, 15 & 16

By Jin Kobayashi. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Weekly Shonen Magazine. Released in North America by Del Rey.

(Note: School Rumble is a series that has finished in Japan. It is very difficult for many fans, especially hardcore fans of the series, to avoid spoiling the ending. I am going to do my best to avoid revealing anything beyond the volumes I review here today, and I advise anyone making comments to do the same.)

Generally speaking, with a few exceptions pure shonen romantic comedy doesn’t do well here in North America. Be it comedy with occasional romance (such as School Rumble) or romance with occasional comedy (such as Strawberry 100%), the New York Times bestseller lists reach for shoujo series when they want romance, and the shonen tends to involve ninjas and vampires instead of wacky complications.

This is probably one reason why we’re seeing School Rumble in the 3-in-1 format, and it’s a shame, as it’s got a lot going for it. Its comedy is great, and the humor can come from anyone or anywhere. It has four ‘leads’, but anyone can carry a chapter or even an arc on their own, and does. Its cast is HUGE, leading to the aforementioned habits of anyone carrying a chapter. There’s an odd fantastical tone to it at times, meaning even MORE anything can happen (One girl is slightly telepathic, another telekinetic, but we usually only see that for comedy). And the author knows how to write a romantic kudzu plot, gradually giving one couple an edge, then another, keeping you reading avidly in an effort to find out just who everyone ends up with.

The series stars, supposedly, a cute and perky yet dim girl named Tenma Tsukamoto. Very early on, however, the spotlight is stolen by three others; hothead biker with a heart of gold Kenji Harima, rich and gorgeous yet grumpy tsundere Eri Sawachika, and Tenma’s meek and shy sister Yakumo. The kudzu romance is that Tenma loves Ouji Karasuma, a very quiet and weird young man in her class. Harima loves Tenma, to the point of obsession, and believes that anything anyone says to him in some way revolves around his getting her to know this. Eri and Yakumo both love Harima, mostly as, since his mind is utterly devoted to Tenma, he treats them as normal young girls and doesn’t hit on them.

After this, it’s almost enough to let the comedy write itself. These three volumes put the focus squarely on Harima’s relationship with Eri (Yakumo will get her turn later, the series balances them nicely). Harima doesn’t think before he does anything, for the most part, and when he does it’s mostly mistaken ideas about what Tenma would think of him, or what he can do for her. Meanwhile, Eri thinks far too much, trying to figure out Harima’s every little sullen gesture and noble defense, and getting extremely worked up about the whole thing. And then there’s the school trip to Kyoto, also being visited by a group of English high-schoolers on a foreign jaunt.

Most of these three volumes are devoted to tangling things even further for our three leads, or quiet revelations that add to our perception of them. The most intriguing was probably a flashback to Tenma and Yakumo’s childhood. Tenma is exactly the same as she is today, but Yakumo is quite different. Seeing her personality like this is very intriguing, and makes one wonder how she changed to become the shy and loving younger sister she is now. There are also occasional flashes of serious here and there. Tenma’s friend Mikoto (who appears on the cover) breaks up with her boyfriend of a few months, mostly as they simply didn’t connect. It’s refreshing to see a breakup in manga not be due to cheating or hideous backstory or some other trauma, but simply as it’s not working the way you thought it would. Likewise, we see Mikoto and Asou (the boy) afterwards, and their melancholic (yet not heartbroken) reaction to it all is very well handled.

There’s a lot going on here, and so much more I could cover. This is a fast-paced series, and in 3 volumes you get a lot going on. The regular chapters (each volume ends with several ‘side story’ omake chapters) do end on a big cliffhanger note, as it would appear that Eri has finally discovered Harima’s true love, and is very unhappy about it. Jin Kobayashi is excellent at keeping everyone on the edge of their seats, desperate to find out what happens next and how things will resolve. Of course, that will have to wait for the scheduling of Volumes 17-19 from Del Rey, which may be a bit. But I think it’s worth the wait to see more laughs and more horrible romantic misunderstandings.