Happy (belated) Valentine’s Day!
Work had absolutely been slaying me for the first two weeks of this month, but reprieve has finally arrived (for now). As I have a lot of sentimental fondness for the middle part of February for reasons beyond just the chocolate-related one, it feels like a great time to discuss two of the sweetest, mushiest, romantic series I’ve ever had the pleasure to discover.
Shoujo romance has always been the safest, coziest, animango genre. You know what to expect, you know its limitations, and you know it’s going to make you squeal (or cringe). At times, it feels you just have to follow a foolproof formula: draw cute characters, have cute moments, and string the audience carefully toward arbitrary milestones as They Finally Kiss™. However, it does take skill to craft something really compelling out of a base premise that everyone must’ve seen countless times from anime/manga, fictional media in general, and real life. Every shoujo romance could easily reel in its audience through the inherent charm of puppy love alone, but special ones are those that make us willing to stay through all the predictable motions, to make us give a damn about these fictional kids and their love life. No matter how many twists and gimmicks you can put on your ‘high school kids falling for each other’ story, it really comes down to the characters in the end.
It’s a great thing then, that you can’t get much more endearing and genuine than the cast of Kimi ni Todoke and Ore Monogatari!
(just to clarify, this post discusses the manga version of the former and the anime version of the latter, since those are what I’m familiar with respectively. However, most of what I’m writing should apply to each series as a whole regardless of the medium)
Fresh off her first series, Crazy for You, Shiina Karuho continues with another shoujo romance that will eventually prove to be a big hit by winning Kodansha Manga Award, as well as earning adaptations into a live film and two seasons of anime. The defining element of Kimi ni Todoke is its main character, Sawako Kuronuma, one of the most lovable shoujo protagonists ever created. Her central conceit is that she’s often perceived as a creepy psychic due to a combination of her gloomy aura and easily misunderstood mannerism, whereas in reality she’s a kind and completely guileless girl—basically the female version of Seichirou Kitano from Angel Densetsu.
The whole thing about Sawako’s unfortunate reputation might be exaggerated, but her loneliness is all genuine. There’s something heartbreaking in seeing her getting excited as hell just because someone replied to her morning greeting, or when she stresses on what lines to say in order to endear herself to her classmates. Someone as pure and innocent as Sawako may only exist in shoujo romance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sympathize, empathize, and root your heart out for her. In fact, Kimi ni Todoke gets an exceptional amount of mileage early by capitalizing on Sawako’s social struggles as she reaches out to people, develops relationship, and wins a big admirer in Shota Kazehaya, an outgoing classmate .
Karuho’s art is also a big part in what makes Kimi ni Todoke such an appealing read. She draws a lot of lovely and distinctive characters, and her style works equally well for both dramatic and comedic purposes. When I could easily recall each major character’s facial features and their broad range of facial expressions entirely from memory, it speaks well on their strong base design. Karuho could do ‘damn cute’ (with the chibi version of Sawako being particularly adorable) just as well as she does ‘quetly devastating’.
After a barrage of early dramatic peaks, there’s a certain point where Kimi ni Todoke settles. From a story of a girl struggling to forge a relationship, it becomes the story of a group of friends maintaining their relationship and going through the motions of their daily lives. The pacing is so deliberate that I could understand if one eventually grow bored of it, and due to its steadfast refusal to pull off major game-changer, the manga does feel stagnant and repetitive at times. My friend also commented once that this manga could be aptly re-titled as Misunderstanding: The Manga, and that’s not entirely unfair, all things considered.
However, time flies in Kimi ni Todoke. It may not be obvious at first, but these kids mature together through their silly misunderstandings, scattered conversations, and all the birthdays, Christmases, and Valentines. They wonder, on their future plans, on who they really are, and on what they want from people they consider hugely important. It’s all very relatable stuff, and if you’ve become invested in these characters (and Karuho certainly does an admirable job in that regard), there’s a fair chance you’d continue to stick for a long while just to see how they all fare in the end.
OreMono, Madhouse’s adaptation of Kazune Kawahara’s manga, bears striking resemblance to Kimi ni Todoke . Both Takeo Gouda and Sawako have the bad luck of having intimidating/scary appearances, and frequently deal with low self-esteem issue as a result. Both of them find someone who recognize them for who they really are, and embark on their first romantic relationship ever. Heck, they almost have the same (separated by a single day) birthday! Finally, both stories are structured similarly, in which it gradually expands from the main character to cover the supporting cast and their own romantic (or, in certain case, aromantic) plights.
However, the most important similarity to me is how it becomes something more than just a puppy love story, something that encompasses a lot of supremely grounded and intangible things beyond the lovestruck main couple. Much like its Kimi ni Todoke, OreMono isn’t some cliche-busting masterpiece in romance in spite of its initially novel premise. In fact, it could get tedious in its constant underlining of Takeo’s masculinity; main female character Rinko Yamato could seem too angelic for her own good; and there are definite points during the 24-episode anime season where it feels like the sugar rush from the extremely adorable love story has worn off.
Look deeper though, and there are subtle values in OreMono, many parts where it becomes a sympathetic and refreshingly positive message to the over-analyzing, over-agonizing, and over-dramatizing youths everywhere. For all its candy cotton surface, there are authenticity and nuances in OreMono that you can’t easily find in a typical romantic story.
There’s the constant gentle reminder that proper communication is always more preferable than succumbing to insecurity, second-guessing, and self-loathing. There’s the acknowledgment that when somebody agrees to start a relationship with you, that’s when the real work of attempting to understand the other person begins. There’s the unmistakable sympathy for those with unreciprocated feelings, of which the show took the pains to highlight the many different and valid ways to deal with them. There’s the reassurance that, just like it’s okay to love someone for no particular reason, it’s also okay to not love someone for no particular reason. There’s Takeo, subtly maturing in front of our very eyes as he grapples with an increasing number of roles as a boyfriend, a best friend, a son, and a big brother. There’s Makoto Sunakawa, perhaps the most compelling third wheel in the history of the genre, with his own brand of razor sharp insight and platonic love.
I’d be amiss if I don’t also mention a key area of OreMono: its sense of humor. Oftentimes, the ‘com’ part in a rom-com is eventually overlooked or even become an active hindrance, but here it’s simply one of its biggest assets. OreMono is consistently funny, buoyed by creative visual gags and top-notch voice acting, and it manages to do so by firmly staying away from the bottom of anime comedy barrel that typically reeks of tired stereotypes, mean-spirited slapstick, and/or sexist jokes. In contrast, the comedy in OreMono comes from a place of love toward its characters, and it shows.
For its near universal accessibility, romance stories tend to provoke the most varied reactions from its audience. I suppose that’s because practically everyone has their own ideals, experience, and belief on romance and relationshippy, and when it doesn’t neatly overlap with what’s being displayed, it’s very easy for one to sour on the media in question. It gets even trickier with Kimi ni Todoke and Ore Moogatari!, which basically lacks an instantly compelling hook other than“here are some nice and adorable kids, please care about them!”
But, I ended up caring.
It’s not about being cutesy escapism, either. I like a lot of media that depicts romance that don’t work (a subject that deserves its own post, I think). There’s significant value from media that has the boldness to delve on how self-serving and destructive a romantic relationship can be, the kind of stories that force me to reflect and acknowledge some hard truths. However, even with the juvenile outlook, sparkles, chibi art, and other assorted shoujo trappings, there’s also a certain sense of maturity from both Kimi ni Todoke and Ore Monogatari! By eventually moving on from such questions as “when wil they confess/hold hands/kiss” into “how would we maintain all of these, and where do we go from now?”, both have proven that a story about happy and positive romance don’t necessarily have to be fairy tales full of unrealistic shortcuts and instant gratification.
The exhilarating highs of high school romance are far behind me, but as it turns out, I’ll always have it in me to root for fundamentally great kids who always try their best to work it out and look for each other.